Matt Thomas On-line Journal
Many of us who knew Matt are keen to commemorate him and sustain his spirit. Toward this effort, we are compiling this on-line journal of photos and writings, and invite you to share with us your images, stories, memories, and lessons learned from your time with Matt. We will add many of these thoughts, remembrances, and photos to our website for folks to visit. Please write in to the office or submit your thoughts via email at email@example.com. Please feel free, as well, to write Matt's partner Gail Gutsche to share your thoughts or sympathies with her directly (1530 Cooper St., Missoula, MT 59802).
I am very sad to hear about Matt's death. As a student on Montana Afoot and Afloat in 1997, I spent 2 months with Matt. I sincerely can say that Matt changed my life forever. Matt influenced, challenged, and encouraged me more than anyone ever has honestly. My life has not been the same since taking Montana Afoot and Afloat. In every big decision I make, I reflect on my experience on Montana Afoot and Afloat and about MT (he quickly received the nickname MT from our group). I remember Matt's passion for the Montana land; his querencia. He taught me so much about living responsibly and passionately for the land. I remember Matt's humor (I still tell stories about Matt all the time). His encouragement. Listening to James Brown and MT's head slightly bobbing back and forth. His home-sewn fleece pants and shirt. His love of garlic and Tabasco. I remember his hug when he dropped me off at the end of the course. My words are so inadequate to describe my feelings for Matt. He was beautiful.
569 Dabney Hall
My name is Steve Dorsch. I was a student on the 2001winter ecology course. I checked the WRFI website today and discovered the news about Matt. My thought and prayers go out to Matt, his loved ones, and the entire WRFI organization. I was only able to spend a week with Matt, but he was a huge influence on me. His calm, friendly approach to education and endless knowledge of the outdoors inspired me in countless ways.
My best Matt story is one that other WRFI students of Matt's can probably relate to. We were all in the parking lot saying our goodbyes after our week in the Montana old growth and I go in to give Matt a handshake and he pulls me in for one of the biggest bear hugs I have ever received. It was a fitting end to a great week, with a great man.
Attached is a group photo from the trip... I had promised Matt that I would send these in when I got them developed, his camera ran out of batteries on the trip, hence no group pic from that year. I was actually checking the website today to get the WRFI email address to finally send them in (three years later). Since 2001, I have graduated from the University of Iowa with a B.S. in Geoscience and am currently working on my M.S. in Geoscience at Idaho State University.
You do not have to be good.
For Matt Thomas...
I experienced a landscape with Matt Thomas,
I won't forget the feeling of being so challenged by Matt's discussion and probing questions some evenings sitting around the driftwood fires on the banks of the Yellowstone River. How dare he challenge the very framework of my thinking.
We read the above poem as a group one morning before setting off in our kayaks for the day. It spoke to me that day, especially as the Canadian geese honked overhead on their southward journey-
Harsh and exciting, over and over, announcing my place in the family of things.
Matt did that for me in many ways. His challenges to me felt sometimes uncomfortably harsh and incredibly exciting.
This poem has and always will remind me of Matt. He often repeated its lines throughout our Montana journey:
...you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves...
...the world offers itself up to your imagination...
...the sun and the dear pebbles of rain are moving across the landscape...
I know he believed in this poem. He spoke its language.
I thank Matt for the incredible impact he had on my life. It won't be forgotten. I will always admire him as an environmentalist; as an educator; as a role model; and as a lover of life.
Date: Wed, 22 May 2002
I remember watching a rainstorm with Matt as it passed over the Missouri River, two Septembers ago. The class had watched its approach as we paddled, and we stopped at an island to camp just before it started to rain. There was a franitic rush to set up: tent flies billowed against the dark sky, students shouted, papers escaped from binders and tumbled through the grass. In the midst of all this, Matt stood with his hands in the pockets of his parka and his face to the sky. I walked over, and together we watched the storm over the yellow hills to the West. After the rain stopped, a rainbow appeared behind us. Matt turned to me and giggled. "Life," he said "is good." They were only words. I had heard him say them dozens of times before. But I had not known until then how much he meant them.
Matt appreciated life more than anyone I have ever met. He loved the air around him and the ground he walked on and the food he ate and the words he read. When I was nineteen, he was the first person I remember treating me like an adult. I was so grateful to him for that. I am grateful to have known his quiet, inquisitive way of teaching, and his large, reassuring presence. I am grateful to him for introducing me to my husband and the Yellowstone River and black-eyed peas. I am grateful that in this world, there are hundreds of people who know what it's like to wake up and crawl out of the tent to Matt Thomas watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee; a testament to the good life.
Hello to all at WRFI,
I'm writing to say my thoughts are with you right now, I heard the news about Matt. Although it has been fours years since I took the canyonlands course, I often think of all that I learned from Doug, Dave, Meg, Woody, and Matt. I met two of my best friends on the course, Jesslyn Shields and Casey Storey, who recently got married (they also met on a wrfi course). When Jesslyn called me recently I thought it would be regarding post wedding news, or my plans to move out with them in a month. I couldn't believe when she told me Matt had passed away.
I teach environmental education now, and I often think of Matt when I myself am teaching - the way he would contemplate what he said before speaking, the knowledge he conveyed, and how he was so true to his convictions. (How he loved his coffee so much.)!
Matt definately touched my life, and we've lost an amazing person. It saddens me that he's no longer with us, and I can only hope that he knew what an impact he had on me.
Thanks you guys-
I was very sad to hear about Matt Thomas. He was my main instructor on Tex/Mex trip in '99 and Montana Afoot and Afloat '00. He was the BEST teacher I have ever had and when I think back on my way of life and my path, I can see a shift in direction after my contact with Matt. He challenged me and forced me to grow. He shared his vast knowledge and love of birds and plants and rocks and life and my time spent with Matt continues to impact my life on a daily basis. I wrote a little story for him and I am not sure what you should do with it but I wanted to pass it along. I wish I could be there tomorrow but I live in Maine, so I will be there in spirit. If there is something more I can do for anyone- Gail, WRFI...probably not, but if there is, let me know.
Sincerely, Abbi Dunlap
A Prayer From The Yellow Birch
Walking through the forest yesterday, I discovered the largest Yellow Birch tree that ever lived. The tree was not living yesterday when I found it because someone else discovered her first.
I am deeply saddened to hear of this tragic news. This is a great loss to both myself and the many lives that I am sure Matt has touched during his stay here on this earth. We have lost a very compassionate, loving and understanding man, and there will be an empty void in my heart and soul for many years to come. I can't put into words the profound affect that he has had on my life. I looked up to him like a big brother, I respected him as if he were my own father, and I talked of him like a hero, I will now cry for him like a lost friend.
Matt Thomas, I will always think of you and visit the landscape that you loved so much.
5 Pleasant #A , Kittery Me 03904, 207-450-1195
My deepest sympathies go out to all of you. I cherish the weeks that I got to learn from Matt and know that it must be heart-wrenching for all of you to lose such an incredible friend and colleague. The world's resources may be finite, but Matt's love for the Earth and its defenders surely was not.
In Solidarity, Tom Wheatley
My name is Nicky Phear and over the last six years I have had the good fortune of spending well over 100 days in the field with Matt, teaching WRFI courses; in fact we had just returned a few weeks ago from a course in Utah. I'd like to read today a letter I've written to him:
It is hard for me to believe that you are gone when you remain so much a part of who I am, how I think, and how I want to live my life. One of our last conversations was planning for the upcoming Afoot and Afloat course, the course that has been shaped by your ethics, imagination and enduring commitment, a course that has forever changed the lives of dozens of students. You were a master teacher who taught not just about policy and ecology, but about citizenship and responsibility. You continually critiqued the status quo, and you challenged students to look beyond facades. You shared with them the writings of iconoclasts, among them Donald Worster, who wrote that "humans must liberate reason from its instrumental straightjacket and use it to work out a new cultural perception of the earth and a new behavior." You glowed when you read such truths aloud.
At a time when teaching about the environment can lead to doom-and-gloom, you sent students away with a spark in their eye, a passion to live according to new-found ethics, and a motivation to find their places in the world.
At the same time you modeled a simple life?a life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature, clearly rooted in place, your home in Missoula, a life engaged in local politics, river protection, and fostering your close friendships and enduring love for Gail.
As our students hear the news of your death they are saddened almost beyond words. Some have sent reflections, two of which I'd like to share. First, from our great southern student, Travis Belote:
"I sincerely can say that Matt changed my life forever. He influenced, challenged, and encouraged me more than anyone ever has. In every big decision I make, I reflect on my experience with WRFI and with Matt. I remember Matt's passion for the Montana land; his querencia. He taught me so much about living responsibly, and feeling passionately for the land. I remember Matt's humor. His encouragement. Listening to James Brown and Matt's head slightly bobbing back and forth. His home-sewn fleece pants and shirt. His love of garlic and Tabasco. I remember his hug when he dropped be off at the end of the course. My words are so inadequate to describe my feelings for Matt. He was beautiful."
And from another student on that same course, Jesslyn Shields:
"I remember watching a rainstorm with Matt as it passed over the Missouri River, two Septembers ago. The class had watched its approach as we paddled, and we stopped at an island to camp just before it started to rain. There was a frantic rush to set up: tent flies billowing against the dark sky, students shouted, papers escaped from binders and tumbled through the grass. In the midst of all this, Matt stood with his hands in the pockets of his parka and his face to the sky. I walked over, and together we watched the storm over the yellow hills to the west. After the rain stopped, a rainbow appeared behind us. Matt turned to me and giggled.
As Jesslyn recognized, Matt, you had a way of making quiet moments meaningful. For me, the best of these moments were in the early mornings when I'd wake to the smell of your first cup of coffee. You'd hear me rustling around, and you'd make sure to have water boiling for my tea by the time I sauntered out to the kitchen. We'd talk quietly in those early hours, watch the morning wake, and share the feel of caffeine working its way through our bodies. We'd talk about life and work and play, about our love for Missoula, about our life challenges and goals, about our hopes for our students, about how lucky we were and about how darn good life was.
Matt, you will always be a part of me. Much of what I do I will do with you in spirit. I will continue to take students down the Yellowstone River and teach them about the power and the beauty of that undammed river. I will continue to have students read from Donald Worster and examine the so-called administered life. I will continue to grow your garlic and use a whole head in each meal our students cook. I will continue to corrupt my body with fried potatoes and coffee when we stop at gas stations along route on the Afoot and Afloat courses. I will continue to move slowly and steadily in the backcountry, looking and learning with your same quiet awareness. And I will try to pass on your style of teaching: in-depth, probing, reflective, caring, applied...
Matt, I will always wish for another early morning with you, for another float on the Missouri or one last hike through the desert. I will never forget your magic with students. Your sudden departure has left so many of us reeling; a great void exists where you once walked, but we will carry you with us on the rivers and in the mountains and in the most sacred places of our hearts. I love you, Matt. Farewell.
For Matt Thomas
On a sunny day outside the Raven Caf?, Lenny told me that Matt had died. I sat shocked, staring at the hazy blue sky. With numb brains, we talked about Matt's well-spent life, what is beyond this body and this mind, caring for the living, and starting on the unfinished work. The spring day seemed suddenly unreal, all plans and distractions banished.
Lenny and I rode over to Gail's house and found the somber, smiling, crying gaggle of friends there - all of us unsure just what to do or say or feel. It is hard. We aren't told how to do this anymore. We make it up as we go, feeling our own way among the primal realities of death and loss.
Seven of us filed out to two trucks to go get Matt's body and move it to the crematorium. It saved a lot of money, and gave us something real to do. We picked up the body behind the sterile office-park morgue, placed it in an amazingly flimsy "coffin," and slid it into Dwight's pickup bed. We could not see Matt's face behind opaque white plastic.
Jim, Lenny, Doug and I went to get some industrial beer. We all drove down to Kelly Island and toasted our Rainier tall-boys to Matt, and told stories about near-death and crazy life and joked and almost cried. We considered kidnapping the body and heading for the hills to bury or burn or just leave him out for the critters. But in the end the penalties seemed too high, and so we took him to the funeral home and then drove back to the house where Gail was bearing it all with dignity and humor, and we all signed up to cook her meals and then we filed out again, one friend fewer and many friends better. I still felt the cold in my hands from lifting Matt.
So ends an American life. From what I know, Matt Thomas lived large, lived just how he wanted to be, no apologies or regrets. He spent more time out in the hills and rivers doing good work than anyone I know. He ate well, fixed stuff instead of tossing it, and played hard whenever he could. He cared about important things and did something about it. He leaves us with a thousand students who learned to live better on the Earth, and a school to continue that work. He really did leave some huge boots to fill, and we can all do some of it. He will like that.
When we cracked our beers down by the river, an amazing thing happened. An osprey flew right over us carrying a big, beautiful trout. We saw sunlight through the fins and all the speckled rainbows while the big wings beat on by. A blessing if I have ever seen one. Then on my bike ride home through a busy neighborhood, a kestrel caught a mouse right in front of me. Then down by Rattlesnake Creek I scared up a Great Blue Heron - as close as I have ever been to one of those beings. There is something going on here. It has to do with sacrament and wings and connections beyond our knowing. It is real.
I knelt by the creek and put my hands into the water?to merge the lingering coldness in my fingers with the encompassing, original coldness of the water. When my hands numbed, I pulled them out and felt the flickering, tingling warmth of life enter them. I held my palms toward the bright spring sun in thanks for all of the Great Circle.
And I asked Matt to be free.
The unexpected new of Matt's death hits hard. The experiences I shared with him in Montana helped me with many of the recent decisions I have made in life. His last words to me as he dropped me off at my hotel that final day in Missoula were "Always look for the nature, where ever you are." Those words helped me decide to transfer from my school in the Big Apple, spend 7 months working with reforestation, and switch majors to simply pure biology at the moment (turning away from my dream of molecular biologist). A great man. I send my condolences to all of those whom he touched by his life.
Matt was an amazingly intelligent and well read individual (as all of you WRFI instructors are. He surrounded himself with the best!). And I really enjoyed spending time with him in January of 2001 on the Baja trip. My sincerest condolences to all of you Missoula folks who shared your lives with Matt! He was a great guy!!
Sarah Kuhn, UT 1997, Baja 2001
As an Alumnus of last year's Utah course I am deeply saddened by the news of Matt's death. He and the entire organization, which he helped create, have been both an inspiration and sort of a goal for my own life as I grow into the person I am becoming. More than anything Matt and my WRFI course refined my life philosophy that life is a journey and those that you meet along the way have a profound impact on one's character and spirit. Each person in turn has the same impact whether it is realized or not all those they have encountered.
I would like to thank all those who knew and loved Matt for they have also changed my life. Whether he remains with us or not his words, deeds, and actions have an eternal life in all of us. I regret that I will not be able to make it to Missoula, but please share my condolences and love with all those who can.
Brendan Kober UTAH 2001
False alarm. I'd hoped to hit the road tonight but it just isn't going to happen. Got sucked into another meeting this weekend and am not going to make it. Sorry to miss you guys. Mostly I'm sorry not to get together and toast Matt with you. He was a terrific human being with a tremendous outlook and humor for the world. I've never known anyone as committed to being outdoors as he. Matt was so wide open to its example of the simple and good. And his appetite, knowledge and enthusiasm for environmental literature were a real inspiration, well, at least for me.
I'll never forget holing up in a dirt cave on a beach in southern Baja during three days of torrential rain. It was Christmas and we'd been paddling towards a surf line hot springs a full day away. I had no tent (it's a fucking desert after all) and Matt and Gail pitched their tiny two-man just a few hundred feet away on the beach. They'd run over and sit with me for soggy meals. As the deluge continued, all the creepy crawlies of the desert headed for dry ground (my tiny cave) and the ceiling was caving in and pouring water. Generally it was a pretty shitty situation, but through it all, Matt was un-fazed. On the second night Gail got stung in the face by a scorpion and screamed "biting insect" as she flicked the little bugger back onto my soggy bag. At first, she was furious at Matt because she thought he should be
Hope you're well. Sorry not to see you this weekend.
It has taken me a while to organize thoughts and feelings and to just get up the guts to speak about Matt Thomas. I was able to spend two months with him on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course three years ago, and I have never had any experience has had such an affect on my life as those two months. So much was uncovered for me, not the least of discovering a wilderness inside of everyone including myself, including Matt. His strong beliefs in how things should be and yet his revelry in how good life is was so honest and inspiring I know I am forever changed by his presence. I will never forget one early morning, paddling down the Yellowstone, watching Matt drifting ahead of us. I was overwhelmed by the excitement of everything that I had been learning and discovering and feeling, but still unsure of myself. I paddled up to Matt and asked him if he ever was lonely out here. He replied, how could anyone get lonely,when there is so much life out here. It was this and so much more that made it so clear to me that a person can really live the majority of his/her life outside, happily, and without sacrifice of a good life or constant battle with the rest of the world. I thank you Matt, and I can only hope that for all the roots you spread, your legacy will live on hundred- fold.
I was just visiting the wrfi website when I saw -in remembrance of Matt Thomas--I am truly sorry for the loss of such a wonderful man. I only knew Matt for about a week+, but in that time he left a huge impression in my thinking and the way I look at Mother Earth. I remember thinking that he was a walking library--he knew so much. I also remember the first day I ever met him and as we went through our packs he told us what we would need and what could be left behind--half of my bag was unnecessary. But what I remember most is how calm and peaceful he was and how I instantly felt at ease with his presence. Matt was a wonderful teacher--not giving you the answer right away--actually having a conversation with you and letting you come upon the answer yourself. I now have a 15 month old son and live in the pocono mtns of PA--I can only hope and strive to teach my son to live with the environment and to appreciate the beauty of nature as Matt did--and to instill within him such a love that he will always strive to learn more about his ecosystems and to question question question! I hope to be half the teacher Matt was!!
I wish my best to everyone at wrfi and I am deeply sorry for your loss.
for the last two weeks have been working like crazy with a crew of