John Denver, Singer-Songwriter and Conservationist, Born (1943)

In early summer, 1975, I was driving by myself from Syracuse, New York, to Sullivan, Illinois.  It was a long drive, and I stayed awake by switching radio channels, seeing how often I could hear John Denver’s latest hit, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”  I don’t remember the details now, but my impression is still that I could just about hear that song continuously as I crossed the country!  In those days, John Denver was everyone’s best friend—and that includes the environment.

John Denver in 1975, at the height of his popularity (photo by ABC Television)

            Although his song claims he was “born in the summer of his twenty-seen year,” he was actually born on the last day of 1943 (died 1997).  And not in Colorado, but in Roswell, New Mexico.  He moved often growing up, following the military career of his father.  He dropped out of art school at Texas Tech in 1964 to become a song-writer and folk singer.  He changed his name from John Deutschendorf, Jr. to John Denver (yes, for the capital of his adopted state). In 1967, he wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which became a number-one hit for Peter, Paul and Mary.

            Just as “sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy,” John Denver’s music made American happy.  His musical star rose with hit after hit, with heart-warming songs that made us all yearn for simple pleasures like “grandma’s feather bed.”  He was the biggest singing star of the 1970s, turning sentiments like “take me home, country road” into pure gold.

John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen, Colorado, his chosen home (photo by Wolfgang Moroder)

            But along with the music, John Denver had another message.  He loved nature, and he worked tirelessly for conservation and sustainability.  He established two non-profit organizations on behalf of the environment.  The first was the Windstar Foundation, set on a 1,000-acre property near his home in Aspen, Colorado.  The Foundation worked to enhance education about sustainability across the world (it closed in 2012).  The second was Plant-It 2020, a tree-planting organization that still operates today, re-establishing degraded forests and planting new ones.  He also co-founded The Hunger Project, dedicated then to education and awareness about world hunger and still today performing valuable active grassroots programs to build local food security.  For two decades, he represented UNICEF.

            These organizations are important, of course, but it was the larger-than-life presence of John Denver that was his biggest contribution.  A close friend said, “You just have to find something you love and live al ife that shows it.  John found music.  He turned it into a vehicle to make a huge difference.”  John Denver wrote songs about the environment; perhaps the most famous was “Calypso,” honoring the work of Jacques Cousteau.  He was a leading spokesperson for the environment, going wherever he was needed—Congress, television, radio, public events.  He supported many other organizations, most notably the National Wildlife Federation; he dropped a special album, “Earth Songs,” with proceeds going to support the Federation’s programs.  He said, “I want to inspire people to make a better world and a healthier environment.  My songs…have to do with taking responsibility for the world we want to create.”

Words to John Denver’s inspirational hit song, “Rocky Mountain HIgh” inscribed at his Sanctuary in Aspen (photo by Lorie Shaull)

            He was an avid pilot and used this skill also to support conservation.  His friend said, “John and I did an aerial educational tour of the forests of the Pacific Northwest….We did it in his Learjet.  We put the flaps down and flew very slowly with some notable dignitaries, which enlightened everyone to how rampant the clear-cutting was.  The aerial perspective puts it all together.  It lets the land speak for itself.”

            Tragically, his love of flying cut his life short.  John Denver died at age 53, when his experimental plane crashed in the sea near Monterey, California, on October 10, 1997.  His message, however, is eternal—and simple:  “Commit yourself to do whatever it is you can contribute in order to create a healthy and sustainable future—the world needs you desperately.  Find that in yourself and make a commitment—that is what will change the world.”

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Joh Denver.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Denver.  Accessed January 20, 2020.

Plantit2020.  Plant-It 2020 Overview.  Available at:  https://plantit2020.org/about.html.  Accessed January 20, 2020.

Pryweller, Joseph.  1990.  John Denver Still High on Being a Good Global Citizen.  Daily Press, July 3, 1990.  Available at:  https://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-xpm-19900703-1990-07-03-9006290344-story.html. Accessed January 20, 2020.

Stunda, Hilary.  2011.  John Denver:  An environmental legacy remembered.  The Aspen Times, October 7, 2011.  Available at:  https://www.aspentimes.com/news/john-denver-an-environmental-legacy-remembered/. Accessed January 20, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

June 1
US Announced Withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement (2017)
June 2
Edwin Way Teale, Nature Writer, Born (1899)
June 2
Rodne Galicha, Philippine Environmentalist, Born (1979)
June 3
The World’s First Wilderness Area Established (1924)
June 4
Gaylord Nelson, Politician and Conservationist, Born (1916)
June 5
World Environment Day
June 6
Novarupta Volcano Erupted in Alaska (1912)
June 7
Thomas Malthus Published His Famous Essay (1798)
June 8
Bryce Canyon National Park Created (1923)
June 9
Coral Triangle Day
June 10
E. O. Wilson, Father of Biodiversity, Born (1929)
June 11
Jacques Cousteau, Ocean Explorer, Born (1910)
June 12
Frank Chapman, Creator of the Christmas Bird Count, Born (1864)
June 13
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, Born (1944)
June 14
Bramble Cay Melomys Went Extinct (2016)
June 15
Global Wind Day
June 16
Gray Whale Delisted (1994)
June 17
World Day to Combat Desertification
June 18
Alexander Wetmore, Ornithologist and Smithsonian Leader, Born (1866)
June 19
Feast of the Forest, Palawan, Philippines
June 20
Great Barrier Reef Protected (1975)
June 21
World Hydrography Day
June 22
Cuyahoga River Burst into Flames (1969)
June 23
Antarctic Treaty Implemented (1961)
June 24
David McTaggart, Greenpeace Leader, Born (1932)
June 25
David Douglas, Pioneering Botanist, Born (1799)
June 26
United Nations Chartered (1945)
June 27
Tajik National Park Added to World Heritage List (2013)
June 28
Mark Shand, Asian Elephant Conservationist, Born (1951)
June 29
Mesa Verde National Park Created (1906)
June 30
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Created (1940)
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