A service of celebration is planned for Saturday, July 25th at 2:30pm at Montview Blvd Presbyterian Church in Denver,

Dr. Jim Erdman, Sacquoy Head, northcoast of Rousay, Orkney

Dad died Wednesday, February 4, after a battle with cancer (see the obituary I've written further down below). Immediately below is a tale about my dad and a window into what he taught me: what I will always carry with me, the riches received that I get to pass on to others.  It's an excerpt from a book I started a half-dozen years ago but haven't touched since 2010 (other book projects bumped this book on spiritual practices and put it on the back burner).  The book's provisional title is Sainte Terrer: How to Make an Altar of Every Day Life.  The excerpt will explain the odd French title.

I grew up hiking and fly-fishing, backpacking and picnicking in the Colorado Rockies.  My father is a scientist who’s spent his life in a love affair with these valleys, streams, and peaks—the granite and pine, trout and Columbine that populate this magnificent part of the Earth.  When he and I stand in the same valley we experience it very differently.  He sees the subtle moraine laid down eons ago by some vast, retreating glacier.  He feels the mighty forces that belched this rock from Earth’s belly billions of years ago.  He imagines the achingly long, painful processes that twisted and tilted this ancient rock into the peaks we now traverse.  He can tell me exactly why a certain conifer grows on this side of the valley and not on the other, why schist appears here and not there, what we might expect when we cross over yonder pass between those two ten thousand foot spires. 

Dad will correct you if you call what we’re doing “hiking”.  And because of the way he loves this land, he’s got good reason to.  We’re walking, he says—or better, “sauntering” . . . not hiking.  To support his argument, he’ll paraphrase Thoreau and shout something like this over his shoulder as you follow him along the trail:

I’ve only met one or two persons in my life who understand the art of Walking—people who had a genius for sauntering.  Sauntering’s a word that comes from what folks used to call those fools who roved around the European countryside in the Middle Ages asking charity, pretending they were going a la Sainte Terre, that is, “to the Holy Land.”    

The village kids would laugh and point at these crack pots saying, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer!”  

A Saunterer.  A Holy-Lander.  

Know this, my son, there are those who never know the ground beneath their feet as holy; they’re mere idlers and vagabonds, not true saunterers.  What we’re doing now, if you’re aware of the ground beneath your feet, is what true sauntering is all about. (Adapted from Henry David Thoreau's little book, Walking)

Sauntering’s what my father aims to do.  When he does, and I’m with him, I can see it in his eyes—that misty-eyed gaze of those who, after a long journey, finally glimpse the Holy City rising before them in the distance.  He is a Sainte-Terrer.  These mountains, trees, and rivers, lazy fawns and ambling bear are his Holy Land.  And each high mountain stream, teeming with brook trout, is Jerusalem to him. 

But there are many who never go to the Holy Land in their walks.  They hike.  It’s not that they intend to miss the mystery that is this Holy Land.  They know there’s more here than meets the eye; they just don’t know how to see it.  They’ve got no real training in sauntering, in holiness.  They are “idlers and vagabonds” across these mountains, when they intuitively long to be Sainte Terrers, Holy-Landers whose love gives them eyes to see all that’s beyond first- and even second-glance. 

I think it was these walks with my father that made me hunger for holiness before I ever knew what it was.  I realize now that his love of the divine in every blessed thing upon this Earth and the way he encountered them taught me my first rudimentary practices for pursuing the Holy and finding It.  

Sauntering with my father upon this sacred Earth, I first learned that there is always more than meets the eye.  But this “sight” was not learned by happenstance.  My father had very specific guidelines for our forays into the wilderness, and he was not always kind if I ignored them.  He taught them to me to keep me safe, of course, to ensure that I could survive in this land if I became lost or hurt.  But even more, he taught me these guidelines and simple practices so that I would know how to move slowly and gently, even reverently upon the Earth, my eyes and ears no longer dull to the goodness of God that’s always all around me no matter where I find myself to be.  

Keeping safe is one thing, and I’d pay a pretty penny to keep myself alive—though there’s not any real beauty in just staying safe, keeping yourself alive.  But keeping myself alive to awe is quite another thing, and anything that can do that is priceless. 


An Overview of Jim Erdman's Life:

James Allen Erdman, was born December 20, 1935 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Robert and Esther Erdman.  He died peacefully on February 4, 2015 at his mountain “hermitage” high in the Rocky Mountains near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.  He’d fought a brief struggle against Mesothelioma, cancer of the lining around the lungs.  He was 79.

In the early 1960s, Jim was a member of the Wetherill Mesa archeological team that helped expand Mesa Verde National Park (near Cortez, Colorado) to include some of the most remarkable ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings, including the famed “Long House”.  There he completed his research in botany and earned a PhD in plant ecology from the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Later, he taught at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, until he became a geobotanist for the United States Geological Survey in Lakewood, Colorado, a position he held until he retired in the 1990s.  Jim’s scientific research contributed to non-invasive and more environmentally friendly techniques for mineral exploration, the control of noxious weeds in prairie ranch lands, and the management of wetlands and other natural resources.  A pioneer in his field, he presented his research in the Soviet Union, China, Scandinavia, and at symposiums across North America.  

 A writer, activist, and provocateur, Jim was deeply concerned about the environmental challenges before us.  He contributed generously to political causes he felt would contribute to the flourishing of the natural world.  In later years, he combined a keen understanding of natural science with insights drawn from history and anthropology in order to address the cultural and political mistakes he felt certain are leading us toward disaster.  His final paper, “A Sketch of Three Cultures—Past, Present, Future—Weld County, Colorado” (2013) focused on the interaction between the natural world and its human inhabitants and directly challenged the threat posed to both by the fracking industry.  He concluded that paper with a quote from an unknown author, typical of his outlook: “The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.”

Jim was above all a naturalist, in love with the all things wild and wonderful.  Only months before his death he was still climbing fourteen thousand foot peaks, and curating nature walks at the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in the wilderness north of Fort Collins.

Jim was preceded in death by his wife, Mardi Erdman (died 1994), whom he adored.  He is survived by his sister, Betsy Germanotta of Boston, Massachusetts (married to Dante, deceased), brother, John Erdman of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (married to Maritsa), and sons, Chris Neufeld-Erdman of Fresno, California (married to Patty) and James F. Erdman of Blackhawk, Colorado (married to Karen).  He is grandfather to seven grandchildren: Josh, Jeremy, Katy, Sarah, Hannah, and their spouses/partners (from Chris and Patty), and Jake, Kasey Rose, and their spouses/partners (from James and Karen); he also has three great-grandchildren: Mason, Carter, and Ellie. 

A service of celebration is planned for Saturday, July 25th at 2:30pm at Montview Blvd Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. All are welcome.  

AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman