A Book Sanctuary in the Rockies

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

A novel by Wallace Stegner. A hefty textbook titled Fundamental Principles of Soil Science. A book by naturalist Barry Lopez, next to a field guide, next to a book about raising chickens. These are just a few of the thirty-two thousand books about nature and the West that Jeff Lee and Ann Martin—both book lovers and booksellers at Denver’s renowned Tattered Cover Book Store—have amassed over the course of thirty-five years. And the couple have even greater plans for this rich collection of books: a trio of “land libraries” called the Headwaters to Plains Learning Network, a project that they say “tells the story of the land from the headwaters of the South Platte River, west of Denver, all the way to Denver itself.”

The first of these three libraries, the Rocky Mountain Land Library, is located on the headwaters of the South Platte, ten thousand feet above sea level, and will be constructed from the old buildings of Buffalo Peaks Ranch, a wild, mountainous piece of land two hours west of Denver. While currently under renovation, the library holds programs and classes focused on everything from poetry writing to field sketching to geology. Once fully renovated, Rocky Mountain will house the majority of the network’s collection, as well as a dining hall and living and work spaces for writers- and artists-in-residence.

The second library in the network, the Waterton Canyon Kids & Educators Library, is located in a historic water-treatment plant where the South Platte River comes out onto the plains, halfway between Buffalo Peaks Ranch and downtown Denver. “Waterton Canyon,” says Lee, “holds a three-thousand-volume kids nature library as well as more and more adult books—all sorts of books on grasslands and prairies and water systems.” The project’s partners, which include the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Audubon Society of Greater Denver, have been holding programs there for several years. Also under renovation, Waterton Canyon will soon house a dedicated water library.

Lee and Martin are currently seeking a home in downtown Denver for the third and final link in the chain—the Urban Homestead Learning Center. The center will feature “books and programs on nature in the city, sustainability, edible landscapes, urban farms and gardens, beekeeping, raising chickens, and much, much more,” says Martin. “It’s important to make that rural-to-urban connection.” Like the Rocky Mountain Land Library, this library will also include living space for at least one writer- or artist-in-residence.

Lee and Martin have invested an estimated $250,000 and countless hours into the Headwaters to Plains project. They were inspired by Gladstone’s Library, a residential library they visited in Wales in the early 1990s. “After spending a few days at Gladstone, one of the few residential libraries in the world,” says Martin, “we wondered what it would be like to start a residential library in the United States. Since we live here, and most of our books at the time were Western and natural history oriented, we figured that was a good place to start. We looked at all types of places in Colorado and just sort of lucked out at Buffalo Peaks Ranch and Waterton Canyon. Most of our books are in storage right now. We have to get all our buildings up to proper condition before we can make everything available, but we’re getting close.”

“It’s a work-in-progress,” adds Lee. “Sometimes, the vision—at least for us—gets pretty big.” So the couple focus on short-term goals as they develop longer-term ones. Last summer, for instance, even though they didn’t have water or power in any of the buildings at Buffalo Peaks Ranch, they hosted a book club on the front porch, held a variety of programs, and “had artists come in for a tour to get them excited about studio spaces and the ranch’s landscape.”

Cross-pollination and collaboration, Martin and Lee say, are key to the book collection itself as well as to the renovations. “We have books about everything from poetry to hydrology,” says Lee, “and our programming is eclectic.” Architecture students at the University of Colorado in Denver helped draw up plans for the libraries, and a Denver architect is currently “designing some really nice, sophisticated platform tents with actual beds and such,” Lee says. “Folks will love to spend a few nights in them; it’s nothing like camping as a Boy Scout.”

If all of this sounds romantic, it is. In a time when both books and our natural environment are under constant threat—of new technologies, urban development, and global climate change—these libraries aren’t just learning spaces, they’re sanctuaries for those interested in building a connection with literature and the land. “The network is all about learning about where we live,” says Martin. “The collection isn’t just about the West; that’s just where we got started.” Instead, the focus of the project is the relationship between people and the land they inhabit: how people sculpt the land and how the land, in turn, sculpts people. The collection “encompasses poetry, the natural history of whatever area you live in, our lasting effect on the land, and the skills of writers and artists of all sorts,” says Lee.

But the Learning Network is as practical as it is romantic. Lee and Martin haven’t dedicated their time and finances simply to satisfy their fancy. The ultimate goal of the project is to create a place that “inspires people to get excited about learning about the place where they live,” says Lee. “A place where artists and writers and scientists and policy workers from agencies and nonprofits will cross-pollinate. As we move forward with all our environmental challenges, if we don’t have people actively engaged in and in love with the places they live in…that’s going to make for an even rockier road.”

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. He is a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of a poetry collection, Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014). His website is andrewmk.com.