Ideas and Comment
This is bank week on the Herald. Instead of trying to write about the two outstanding events of the past days, Mr. Nixon's inauguration which I understand, and man's first synthesis of an enzyme which I don't, I'll write about Dean Babcock.
As I look back on the lives of Dean Babcock, who died on Christmas day in Kirkland, Washington, it seems almost unreasonable to reconcile such varied competence within the frame and mind of this one shy and always youthful gentleman — for Dean was one of the gentlest men I ever knew.
Naturalist, topographer, artist, wood carver, astronomer, musician, navigator, philosopher, punster — and so unobtrusive about it all, you had to do some prying to find out what was going on inside him; and when you did, he'd do a bit of nervous stuttering before he got wound up.
Take music. Dean spoke knowledgably about it, but I never knew whether he played any instrument until one day up at Brookside, when he was helping me rout out some pack rats, I noticed his counting the ribs of a mandolin hanging on the wall. I asked if he could play it and finally wormed it out of him that he had been considered a sort of child prodigy in Chicago, heading up the mandolin section of an ensemble sponsored by Swift & Company.
Dean Babcock was one of the first forest rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park. With Prof. William S. Cooper he made the first survey of the Wild Basin area and made the first map extant. Dean's years in the Park added to our knowledge of its flora, fauna, geology, etc. By nature he had none of the positive aggressiveness of Enos Mills but his contribution was commensurate.
When Dean got to talking about the stars and constellations, I felt as if I were in the presence of some old Chaldean shepherd yet well posted on the latest ideas of Jeans and Eddington.
It's like holding a planetarium in the palm of your hand to manipulate one of Dean's inventions which he called his "Dabis Astroplane" — a universal planisphere of pocket, size constructed on stereographic projection. (What "Dabis" meant I never knew.) Not only is this a most ingenious device for skymapping anywhere in the world, but delicately limned and striking as a work of art.
Dean Babcock was associated with the late S. A. Ionides in designing and setting various sundials in Colorado. As I recall, when George Cranmer under took to place a dial of Chinese tradition in Cranmer park, Dean helped Ionides to translate the Chinese characters into Arabic. (The dial, alas, dynamited by stupid vandals, has been re stored.)
Dean's wood engravings were creations of rare beauty, the color blocks always in perfect register. I wouldn't say Dean was influenced by Hokusai — his style and content were his own — but he did have profound admiration for Hokusai, in no small measure because of Hokusai's early career as a con tract worker.
I think Chambers of Cambridge affected Dean's attitude toward the contract worker, for I've heard Dean hold forth at length on how great art and its exegesis are nearly always out of phase, i.e., by the time we get to recognizing great art, talking about it, explaining it and theorizing on what the theories of. the artists must have been, the great period has long since gone over the hill.
Phideas would be astounded, Dean would argue, by our aesthetic notions we attribute to him for there was nothing in the contemporary record of the era of Phideas to support our ideas. Conversely, Dean would argue, when aesthetic theory becomes dominant, resulting art forms tend toward worthless ness.
I've mentioned Dean's remarkable skill with small wood blocks; his large-scale carvings were equally excellent. For example, over the great fireplace in the Cactus Club he carved beautifully in large letters one of his favorite quotations: "For san Et Haec Olim Meminisse Juvabit," the words of Aeneas to his shipwrecked companions: "Some day we shall delight to remember even this." (Spoken also in Latin, Dean recalled, by the King of Sweden when Helen Wills trounced him in tennis.)
Dean also designed, with cactus motif, the club's tableware, plates, cups and saucers. He designed and painted the cactus emblem over the proscenium arch in the club and worked with Allen True and Burnham Hoyt in painting/the herring bone ceiling and decoration of the beams. Among other accomplishments was his hand-carved bench, with Viking motif, a most imaginative thing, for the children's department of the Denver Public Library.
There must have been some Viking throw-back in Dean Babcock. How this inland mountaineer loved the sea! He could build boats and sail them. I've forgotten whether he built the boats he sailed on the Gulf of Mexico but he certainly knew how to handle them. I cherish the postcards and drawings he sent back to me, mostly drawings of seascapes with birds in them, from various ports on the Texas-Louisiana coastline. As I mentioned at the outset, Dean excelled in the art of navigation.
During some of the tough years, when money was hard to come by, I would farm out to some of Denver's most distinguished artists various sugar company chores in advertising, illustration, etc., but my good intentions were not fruitful, often leading to tempera mental tantrums and disapproval by my employers of how I was spending their money .We'd all have been better off if I'd gone to some "commercial artist" in the first place.
But this never happened with Dean Babcock. Far from being humiliated by mercantile overtures, he welcomed such assignments .with dignity. I'd suggest an idea and he'd come up with a wood engraving that could be locked right into the forms and run through the presses.
On the masthead of The Rocky Mountain Herald on page 1, just under the mountain sheep at the upper right, you'll see the little letter B. (B for Babcock.) Dean's line drawing was based on the old fine-screen copper engraving that had been used for decades, all blotched up and unsuited to newsprint.
For the Yale Press Dean designed the cover of my "Westering" and, for the title page, the illustration of the penumbra of a falcon fading off into the constellations suggested by my words:
His shadow will not strike this world tonight
There is a darker homing hollow bone
Of wings returning gives to wings unknown.
Dean once told me of an experience that deeply affected his life, watching sunrise from the summit of Long's Peak. Only the sun didn't rise. Dean and the peak were tilting into it. It was the world that was moving. Dean Babcock was the only man I ever knew ,who could feel with integrity, and no affectation, that he was a privileged passenger on a turning globe.