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The New West: Write a letter from here, create an ancient artifact

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Fanned out across the floor before me now are colored Yellowstone postcards created by Frank J. and Jack Ellis Haynes. They hold handwritten notes composed decades ago by tourist authors whom none of us know and each one is addressed to a dear acquaintance.

I bought them in an antique store on the other side the country and they provide contrast to the digital greeting cards dispatched by friends via the internet.

Those salutations from the early 20th century speak to the wonder of being alive, of passing through our part of the world and proclaiming it as an exotic faraway destination.

Most importantly, the notes, unintended perhaps, are part of a historical record of culture, even literacy, preserved through pen, ink and distinctive longhand. Need I mention that they are also fun to read?

The writers include honeymooners and travelers of all ages, but penned at a time when average life spans were a dozen years less than today; sons and daughters confirming their arrival in a place that loomed large when the world seemed bigger and more difficult to encircle.

The writers’ personalities flow in their cursive styles and grammar that comes replete without the aid of spell check.

One of my favorites was sent in 1928—the year before the start of the Great Depression—from the Canyon Hotel, built by famed architect Robert Reamer, that is no more; another scene features a jalopy motoring beneath the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner; still another portrays a cavalcade of park visitors, dressed in suit jackets, gowns and hats, riding at the edge of Sylvan Lake, which, in recent years, has shrunk back from a changing climate.

The accompanying narratives, frozen in time, are so unlike the superficiality of emails and text messages.

Yes, we live in an age of unprecedented power when our words can reach millions of readers almost instantly. The poorest person on Earth can be the creator and harnesser of his or her own media network featuring streaming video.

And yet this transition to the future will be remembered as the one when meaningful hand-written human communication seemed to stop.

I love email and yet regard it as a plague. I loathe social media, the promise of it democratizing society and making it more civil has been exposed to be a grand delusion.

Easy to send, yes, convenient, inexpensive, prolific, immediately gratifying, treeless, and as addicting as I imagine sucking on a opium pipe might be, it also is coldly impersonal, dangerously impetuous and as tangibly lasting as disappearing ink.

One crash of a computer hard drive and your entire record of sharing a thought with other human beings is wiped out, unless, of course, it’s stored in the cloud.

Someday, historians and our kinfolk are going to look back and believe all writing stopped with the new millennium.

Here are a few facts worth contemplating: Last year, billions of emails were sent every day at the rate of millions every second. According to trackers, almost three quarters took the form of spam or viruses.

In recent years the U.S. Postal Service processed and delivered a quarter trillion pieces of physical mail; about 703 million every day; 29 million per hour; 488,000 per minute; 8,000 per second.

Despite rising population, the amount of letters being written is in a downward spiral. In some schools, cursive isn’t even taught anymore. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.

The late Pinedale, Wyoming, cowboy and internet libertarian John Perry Barlow, the bard of cyberspace, touted the virtue of digital communication and the way it democratizes self expression. But what it lacks, he came to admit, is a personal human touch. It cannot replicate the putting of ink to paper, the imprint of a person’s DNA on a real page.

So what is my humble, modest message? To all you young people, pen a letter home to mom and dad or your best friend on a postcard if you still know how to use a writing implement; go to the post office and purchase something primitive and interesting called a stamp.

As for the rest of you fogies, drop a note to the kids and grandkids, describing what it is like to be alive in 2018. You’re not only offering them a personal window into your soon to be prosaic world; you are bequeathing them an artifact. You can feel the crevice of the pencil or pen being imprinted on a page, evidence you once existed.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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