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Mad, mad west

Entering the age of regional rage



Philip Connors introduces the New West Reader: Essays on an Ever-Evolving Frontier by asserting that Westerners have two statements to make to the rest of the world: We are not what you (everyone but those of us living in the intermountain region) think we are, and we’re pissed off. Connors doesn’t claim the objectivity of a scientist or the single-minded obsession of a crusader, but most of the 20 authors he has gathered here support those premises, inaugurating The Era of Rage in the Western anthology business. Three stunningly simple but illuminating statements stand out as summaries of the burdens of life in the West.

The first take-away insight comes from William Kittredge’s “Redneck Secrets”: “The history of Montana and the West, from the fur trade to tomorrow, is a history of colonialism, both material and cultural.”

In other words, colonialists have gobbled up the West’s native flora and fauna, open spaces, racial identities, faith in the many-tentacled federal government, and its inhabitants’ health. In “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,” Terry Tempest Williams traces her family history of breast cancer to 1960, nine years after nuclear testing began in the Nevada desert. Craig Childs studies endangered fish species in the Arizona deserts, diminished not only by human crowding, but because people prefer fishing for bass over Yaqui chub.

The West is viewed as empty, vast, too dry for agriculture or towns. But by fencing off space and paying attention to the acts perpetrated on it, space becomes place—where one can plunk down roots, for a dynasty or a fast-fading dusk. Rebecca Solnit’s annual mecca to the Peace Camp at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base becomes a courtship. “It is rock—geology—that dominates this landscape…here the earth is naked.” Solnit is possessive about her newfound love, unhappy at sharing terrain that has already been larded with cultural significance for centuries.

Her regret is nothing compared to that of Jack Turner, who, in 1964, encountered a set of pictographs in the Maze, part of Canyonlands National Park. The commodity he values as “Aura,” he realizes, is a function of surprise. Later visits staled in comparison: “I had become a tourist to my own experience.” So he drifts to the mountains of Asia, searching for wildness, harmony between man and nature, the holiness of witnessing unreported rarities.

Solnit and Turner thus exclude the employed, the nonathletic, the economically challenged (roundtrip from Chicago to New Delhi is $3,100), the untutored in Renaissance and Romantic poetry, and just about everyone else from the joy of epiphany brought on by exposure to the wild. Such sentiments may increase the value of obscurity, but they diminish humanity.

The second thumbnail summary of this angry new West appears in Wallace Stegner’s “Variations on a Theme by Crèvecouer”: “The outside never got over its heightened and romantic notion of the West. The West never got over its heightened and romantic notion of itself.” Nostalgia looms large, prompting Larry McMurtry’s bittersweet farewell to the cowboys from whom he’s descended and Gretel Ehrlich’s explication of the appeal of Wyoming: “People here still feel pride because they live in such a harsh place, part of the glamorous cowboy past…” The third clarion statement comes from Sharman Apt Russell’s “Illegal Aliens”: “Our neighbors divide neatly into those who live here because it is familiar and those who came here because it is not.”

Russell is an émigré, enjoying New Mexico from that vantage; Jimmy Santiago Baca, Leslie Marmon Silko and Sherman Alexie have stayed put in their origins, examining the places, legends and battles that served as their emotional midwives. Silko looks for victory in the appearance of a stone snake—regarded as the beginning of the end of Europeanism in the Americas—on her native Laguna Pueblo Reservation. “The prophecies do not say the European people themselves will disappear, only their customs.”

Silko’s snake-prophet is no more comforting than Alexie’s screed against the Anglo use of the American Indian. There are European customs that have heightened even the Indian experience of Anglos (after all, whites brought horses). European customs can save lives, can save, admittedly too few and too often at the last minute, native species. American Indian and Anglo prejudices cut both ways, and Silko’s snake is another evocation of the lost, pristine West. Rage over that loss is impotent.

Most memorable in these essays are the miracles—Ellen Meloy waking up among five desert bighorn sheep, Childs’ observation of a stream pooling across the nighttime desert, David James Duncan’s brown trout personifying both love and the earth.

The New West Reader is flawed—Mary Clearman Blew’s “All but the Waltz” makes no discernable points about the West, Baca’s lyrical “La Vida Loca” needs more context to make sense to a reader unfamiliar with his work, Patricia Nelson Limerick’s “Believing in the American West” is history and platitudes, neither of which is very interesting. But perhaps the anthology’s real failure lies in its lack of ordinary serendipity, the absence of encounters with nature and with neighbors that Westerners recount in stories shared over bars and supper tables. Rage, whether it’s environmental, racial or political, is a weak explanation for why the Intermountain West’s citizens cling so hard to what they have, and why outsiders want a share of it—the grandeur, large and small, that remains available to everyone who seeks it.

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