The Thoreau of Yellowstone

Steven Fuller, photographer and winterkeeper, offers a wide-angle window on America's oldest national park

Steven Fuller's vantage on the natural world is often compared to Henry David Thoreau's.

From the stoop of his historic, pine-sided cottage overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the winterkeeper and acclaimed nature photographer has spent most of the last quarter century ruminating about the meaning of wild landscapes.

It so happens that, in Mr. Fuller's case, both his front and back yards lie in the heart of Yellowstone National Park. And in place of a pencil, his observations are recorded daily with a camera lens, lending extraordinary insight into animals, surreally tinted thermal pools, and the nuances of changing seasons.

This year, as Yellowstone celebrates its 125th birthday and looks forward to its role in the next millennium as a global conservation icon, Fuller says it is important to reflect on why the park was created.

"To me, Yellowstone represents a last fragment of Eden," he says one morning at dawn, while peering over a herd of shaggy bison and admiring the Hale-Bopp comet sparkling in the northern sky.

"Being a winterkeeper here is almost like serving as a curator in a vast museum. I've been allowed to climb over the fence and explore beyond the barriers, to walk among the exhibits while everyone else is looking at them under glass. I'm grateful to have been afforded a luxury that few people will probably ever have again."

For more than a century, the role of the winterkeeper has been a storied one in Yellowstone. Shortly after the gates to the park opened in 1872, at least a dozen civilian winterkeepers were assigned to manually shovel the mountainous snowpack off the rooftops of several hundred cabins, to keep the structures from collapsing.

Today Fuller holds down one of the last winterkeeper posts. Five months of the year, when the roads are impenetrable to auto travel, he must embark on an 80-mile round trip snowmobile ride to fetch his mail and buy groceries, though he considers the seclusion a luxury, not a burden.

"His situation has allowed him to spend an immense amount of contemplative time in a wild landscape in order to develop his way of seeing," observes Doug Peacock, an author, environmental activist, and friend of the winterkeeper.

"Fuller's great value to us is his way of being the shaman who goes out into ... the other world," Mr. Peacock says. "Each time he returns, it is with a visual story of his visitation. His talent of captivating an audience has always intrigued me. But at the same time he captivates, he secretes a distance all around him that keeps him separate. It's the price he pays for being an adventurer."

Which is not to suggest that Fuller is a hermit.

An articulate man, well traveled and read, he graduated from Antioch College in Ohio and attended universities in England and France before serving as headmaster at a Shiite Muslim school in East Africa.

Later he trekked through India and Southeast Asia, then returned to the US and held down such a wide range of jobs he could quite properly be called a "Renaissance man." Then, 24 years ago, he took the Yellowstone winterkeeper's job because no one else wanted it. Over the next two decades, he and his former wife raised and home-schooled two daughters.

Fuller says he owes his early fascination with nature to mushroom-picking trips and fossil hunts across the country with his father, C.T. Fuller, who lives in Richmond, Ind. "Steve's had an adventuresome life and explored much of the world, but his real home is in Yellowstone and it always will be," says the elder Mr. Fuller of his son. "If you want to get a sense of his passion for the park, all you need to do is look at this photography."

Fuller's impressive portfolio, which includes photographs of Yellowstone and Africa, has earned him invitations to show his images at the prestigious British Museum of Natural History and the Royal Geographical Society in London.

STYLISTICALLY, Fuller is a romantic, cut from the cloth of the 19th-century American landscape painters who filled their canvasses with primordial visions of the West before its taming and subsequent settlement.

"The greatest tragedy of our time is the death of nature, which is really a story about the death of beauty and the disappearance of the big, glamorous species because they are running out of space," he says. "I'm not sure most people who pass through Yellowstone understand this, that the works of man are cluttering the planet in every little nook and cranny. Anywhere you look, even in the remotest corner..., you find ... evidence of junk or footprints or jet tracks across the sky."

Like the disappearance of species around the globe, the eventual extinction of winterkeepers is a metaphor for how the impacts of technology are pressing hard upon all wild places, sacrificing nature in the name of progress, Fuller says.

"I used to think you could save Yellowstone by wise regulation and management," Fuller says. "My feeling now is that Yellowstone's salvation or destruction is tied utterly to the fate of the world and our culture. You can't save Yellowstone while the rest of the world goes to hell. You can't save one without saving the other."

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