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Monday, August 16, 2010

Myth and Reality West of Eden

As Westerners become native, the West becomes its own place

I was not born here, but I call this region home. Like so many before me, I heard its call from across the continent, and came chasing a dream. A formless dream, not of riches, but of a landscape of beauty and myth, romance and adventure. To “see the West before it’s gone,” but of course it is not going anywhere; it is just changing. The land is not a static backdrop for the human drama, but a dynamic aspect of the one great story.

The West is perhaps the most mythologized of American regions. Here in western Colorado I can almost see the tepees of a Ute encampment; and in the semidesert grasslands of southeastern Arizona, I look at the surrounding mountains and can feel the earth tremble as hordes of mounted Apaches descend on the valley.

The landscape, as well as regional art, literature, and traditions perpetuate cultural myths. Among the dominant myths in the arts of the west are those surrounding the cowboy-gunfighter, and his battles with the natives who stand in the way of his assumed manifest destiny. In my younger days I had on my wall a print of David Mann’s Ghostrider, the modern outlaw persona on his motorcycle, racing the ghost of the cowboy across a sandstone landscape. The biker’s demeanor, denim and leather, are clearly descended from that of his mythic predecessor, as is his demeanor. He is Hawkeye, the Virginian, the Lone Ranger, the Man With No Name reincarnated. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see the land apart from the myths associated with it.

Crossing the historic and mythic Pecos was such a symbolic event in my life that I turned around and crossed it again; that night, above the river, I camped in the desert for the first time, saw my first tarantula, and slept under the most brilliant canopy of stars I had ever seen. But it was in northern New Mexico that I first fell in love: the High Plains where the cattle graze and the pronghorn run; the bison pasture below the Tooth of Time on the Santa Fe Trail; the ancient irrigation ditches running through horse pastures and alfalfa fields; the sleepy hamlets of adobe houses and moradas nestled in juniper-studded foothills, the church bells ringing on the constant breeze; and the soft light of dawn and dusk separated by the harshness of midday. The real yet mythic and mystical Southwest.

The cowboy-gunfighter myth lives on, as evidenced by the popularity of frontier-West novels authored by Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’amour. When I was not yet ten, I was The Fastest Gun In The West, the fact that I had never seen the West except on television notwithstanding. I still wear boots and snug jeans. These are adaptations to life on horseback, and this is still a mounted man’s country, even though few of us do much riding in this day and age. I traded my motorcycle for a pickup and sometimes a horse, somewhere between the real and mythic Wests. The cowboy hat, which might instead be called the western hat, is another adaptation to the sun-drenched landscape, but that is not the only reason I wear one. The cowboy belongs on the Western rangelands, a pastoral landscape, but he is also a symbol of conquest, of “taming” the frontier, of the deep-seeded desire to make the desert blossom—the Garden of the World, this latter a myth that must be relinquished if the West is to be a real, abiding place of culture and economy as well as ecology.

Aridity defines, unites, and in every way characterizes the West. Once I spent a summer west of the West, so to speak, seduced if you will by the relative lushness of the fleshpots of California; but when I crossed Tioga Pass, descended into the Great Basin, and looked out across the vast expanse of sun and sagebrush and salt desert, the wind blew the hat off my head and I knew I had returned, though I was yet hundreds of miles from my familiar Arizona or Utah. It was a joyful epiphany, one which strikes me again every time I return to the dry, open hinterlands from the cities and suburbs. In the rainshadow of the great mountains, aridity is the determining force which has created the landscape I have come to know and love. It has also been a difficult reality for Americans to accept.

The West has had its share of boosters, a long line of them, beginning with Cabeza de Vaca. Many of us are still searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, or endeavoring to create the Garden of the World in the heart of the Great American Desert. Ridiculous schemes to irrigate the Southwest with water from distant watersheds still pop up; the myth of boundless possibility is not yet dead. But aridity imposes limits, limits which the boosters and suckers alike have ignored but which were long ago recognized by John Wesley Powell in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States (1878), the echo of which is heard in the work of regional historians and writers such as Bernard DeVoto, Walter Prescott Webb, Wallace Stegner, and David Lavender. DeVoto, affirming the finitude imposed by aridity, called the West “a Plundered Province” (1934), and warned against liquidation of our natural resources in the attempt to gain economic independence from the East in “The West Against Itself” (1947).

The frontier era has passed, but the West has largely remained a cultural colony of the East. But that is changing: the American West, as Bill Kittredge (1997) tells us in the introduction to his anthology of Western literature, is becoming its own place. This is in no small way due to the efforts of Western writers who have shown us a different place than the purely mythologized, imaginary West. For example, Wallace Stegner wrote brilliantly and voluminously about Western communities, the sense of place, transience and permanence, and finding a balance between rootedness and the mobility forced by aridity.

Charles Wilkinson, University of Colorado - Boulder law professor, is one of those writers trying to show Western communities how to become real, sustainable places. In Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West (1992), he explained the “lords of yesterday,” the laws and doctrines of western expansion—the holdovers of manifest destiny—that still govern natural resource policy and provide incentives for inappropriate or excessive land uses. In Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest, he blends autobiographical narrative with environmental history in a tribute to the land and people of the rugged and remote Colorado Plateau, a windswept and sun-blasted landscape of convoluted sandstone, hardy sagebrush, and twisted junipers—and of dams, power plants, and transmission lines. Remoteness was until recently anathema to Anglo American society, but now gives the Plateau much of its value; it was still very much terra incognita to most Americans when Edward Abbey published his classic aesthetic celebration of the Plateau, Desert Solitaire, in 1968. Wilkinson does for the Plateau’s native peoples what Abbey did for its landscape.

The West’s original natives were conquered first by disease, then by war, and then by assimilationist federal Indian policies (Lavender 1980). But perhaps the most significant conquest of the land and its people was, and is, what Abbey (1977) called “the Second Rape of the West,” and which Wilkinson calls “the Big Buildup.” In the decades following World War II, the expanding cities of the West outstripped their local carrying capacities and together began the mining of the region’s resources to sustain their growth. The cities made a colony of the Colorado Plateau, just as the West was a colony of the East. Yet the Plateau has survived, its people have stood in the face of so many outside pressures and persevered. This tenacity, Wilkinson believes, is born of reverence for the land, a commitment to place.

The Big Buildup has gone too far. We will try to clean up some of the pollution generated by the power plants and mitigate the damage caused by the large dams, but will we be willing to change our own individual attitudes toward growth, and our consumptive behavior? We need to rein in what Abbey (1968) called Industrial Tourism, which threatens not only the land but also its cultures, reducing local people to caricatures of themselves, as argued by historian Hal Rothman (1999) and Jim Stiles (2007).

The West’s native peoples have lived here for at least 12,000 years; both the seminomadic lifeways of, for example, the Utes or Apachean peoples, and the commitment of the puebloan peoples to the Colorado Plateau and upper Rio Grande Valley, should serve as models for living on the land and coping with aridity, the source of both the Western land’s great beauty and its fragility. Westerners, as Wilkinson concludes, are perhaps the Americans most in need of a reverence for place. His conclusion echoes Stegner (1992): a sense of place is fundamental if communities and societies are to opt for resilience rather than the boom and bust extractive fever so characteristic of the 19th and 20th century West.

If the West is to remain Stegner’s “Native Home of Hope,” Westerners must bind themselves emotionally to their places and refuse to sell off the lands and natural resources that are their heritage. We must bury the nearsighted myths of the Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Garden of the World, preferably under the rubble of the modern military-industrial complex. We must accept the limitations of an arid land, even if it means a largely pastoral landscape with mostly small agrarian communities nestled in our fertile valleys. Natural resources will still be the basis of our economy, and the new West will look at least a little bit like the old West. But we need an ethic of resilience, along with new myths native to and appropriate for the Western landscape. We must ourselves become native.

Literature Cited

Abbey, E. A. 1968. Desert Solitaire. Random House, New York.
Abbey, E. A. 1977. The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West. Dutton, New York.
DeVoto, B. 1934. The West: a plundered province. Harpers 169:355-364.
DeVoto, B. 1947. The West against itself. Harpers 194:1-13.
Kittredge, W., ed. 1997. The Portable Western Reader. Penguin Books, New York.
Lavender, D. S. 1980. The Southwest. Harper & Row, New York.
Powell, J.W. 1879. Report on the Lands of The Arid Regions of the United States.  Nabu Press (reprinted 2010).
Rothman, H. 1999. Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West.  University Press of Kansas.
Stegner, W. E. 1992. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. Random House, New York.
Stiles, J. 2007. Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Wilkinson, C. F. 1992. Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Wilkinson, C. F. 1999. Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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