Better than anyone before or since, Frederick Jackson Turner explained the peculiarly American fascination with wilderness that continues to perplex and, occasionally, to annoy European observers. In his instantly famous paper delivered before the American Historical Association’s annual meeting 101 years ago. Professor Turner declared, “American social development has been continually beginning over and over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the great West.”
Americans whose ancestry is long established in this country have an instinct for wilderness—wilderness as opposed merely to “nature”—received naturally from their forebears and nurtured by a genuinely American cultural memory that cosmopolitan immigrants arriving immediately before and in the aftermath of World War II, as well as the homegrown multiculturalists and globalists of more recent date, have not succeeded entirely in extirpating from the United States. This is the instinct to which the popular purveyors of the myth of the Wild West appealed in print and on film, with spectacular success; and on which, since the 1970’s, the advocates of preservationism have substantially relied. The only changes, in fact, that the fabricators of the mythology of the New West have made in respect to that of the Old is the removal of the entire cultural component and the inflation of the natural one so as to create a vision of nature undefiled by the presence of a humanity yet to be born—or else rendered extinct millennia ago. By the criteria of the Sierra Club, the canyons of the American Southwest circa A.D. 1000 were not a bona fide wilderness area, being inhabited by the Anasazi who lived in cliff villages, grew corn in the creek bottoms, and enjoyed the use of artifacts provided by their most advanced technology.
A proponent of wilderness and even more wilderness, I am reminded each time I enter the Bridger-Teton Wilderness in the Wind River Mountains a hundred miles or so from home that my understanding of the term differs from that of the Social Democratic Wilderness Party (SDWP). This business of horses, for instance. Partly because I am a lifelong horse fancier, but also because to be astride a good horse in the Rocky Mountains is one of life’s great experiences, I am unapologetically reliant upon horses in wilderness country, whether de facto or officially designated. This means that my animals and I are a serious offense to the majority of the lycra-bottomed backpackers we encounter along the trail. For the few who are willing to listen, I argue that the use of horses by the Sioux and Mandan tribes did not make the Dakotas less of a wilderness than they were before the Indians acquired their mounts from the Europeans; when pressed, I have maliciously suggested that the West was not explored and won by yuppies and college kids outfitted from Patagonia and REI catalogues.
Later after such encounters, smoking a pipe and drinking whiskey beside a fire of krummholz pine while my two Arabians, white and black, graze on picket lines across an alpine meadow as the flames deepen from yellow to orange to red and the surrounding spires of pink granite fade through shades of lavender to blue and finally to a flat black against a sky made silver by the full moon, I have contemplated the meaning of “wilderness.” For me, anyplace where I can travel horseback 20 or 30 miles a day for days on end without meeting more people than I could count on my two hands; where no human constructions or fenced lands exist; where the trails are often no more than granitic troughs or a line of exposed boulders on which a panicky horse can mean severe injury hundreds of miles from a well-equipped hospital; and where, if you are seriously injured or die, you are very likely never to be found at all qualifies as wilderness. For others, however—usually people living 50 of the 52 weeks a year in Scarsdale, Denver, Philadelphia, or San Francisco—”wilderness” is a “pristine” area from which every kind of power tool is banned and horses and hunting prohibited. (If I ever have the bad luck to lose a horse in wilderness country, my job, according to the Forest Service’s regulations, will be to quarter it with a hunting knife and handsaw, bury the carcass in a trench dug with a portable latrine shovel or the lid of an empty tuna-fish can, and pack out the saddle and bags on my back.) For these people, so it seems to me, “wilderness” is essentially a fantasy allowing them to pretend for a demarcated period of time that not only the modern world but the world since the creation of man does not exist, while ignoring the obvious if unpleasant truth that in the circumstances of the present era it is the tract of land, however extensive, protected by arbitrary code that is artificial; not what lies beyond it.
(Once, having ridden past a line of backpackers beside the trail, I heard a man remark loudly that horses are a “lazy-ass way” of going into the mountains. If only it were so. People with little or no experience of horses often regard them as self-guiding, hay-burning Cadillacs of flesh and blood upon which the rider passively and effortlessly sits. In fact, they are highly nervous, often irrational, and potentially dangerous animals weighing half a ton or more and requiring the keenest concentration, much forethought, and careful anticipation based on a familiarity with equine psychology to avoid disaster. If you don’t want to ride a horse, fine. But don’t call yourself an outdoorsman if you can’t ride one.)
The University of Arizona published a book last spring called Open Spaces, City Places, a collection of essays developed from papers delivered at a literary conference in Tucson. Judy Nolte Temple, the volume’s editor, refers in her introduction to the paradox that Southwestern “writers love open spaces, caressing them with words, yet seek the intellectual and cultural stimulus of the city. Only in today’s Southwest do so many write that which they do not live.”
Well, not just in the Southwest. I was recently taken by friends in Salt Lake City to hear Terry Tempest Williams read from her latest book. If you don’t live in the Rocky Mountain region you probably haven’t heard of Terry Tempest Williams—but you will. She has acquired a New York publisher, and the night I heard her she had just returned from giving a reading in New York City. Having looked through her first book, Pieces of White Shell—a meditation on Navajo legend and ritual—five years ago when I was traveling on the reservation, I had wondered since what the fuss was about. It is perfectly clear to me now. As a writer (though not as a performer) Terry Tempest Williams is strictly amateur night, but she still sells a lot of books. Indeed, I suspect that is why she sells books—mostly to women who could write as well as Terry Tempest Williams does, and many of whom probably do. The audience was overwhelmingly female, and the females were overwhelmingly urban women who looked as if they wouldn’t know how to take a pee behind a rock or pour scorpions out of a boot. But they loved Terry Tempest Williams, who was so overcome with emotion at returning from Gotham-and-Gommorah to “her people” in Utah that she suffered a breakdown of tears at the start of her reading.
Terry Tempestuous Williams is a self-described “eco-feminist” (it is not clear how she reconciles her role with Mormonism) for whom activism on behalf of the environment is conceptually and practically linked with the war against patriarchy. A couple of martinis beforehand dulled my critical intellect but failed to block two literary impressions: one, that free verse was invented solely for the purpose of allowing non-poets to write poetry and, two, that you should never, ever trust your wife alone with a bear, bears having replaced men as objects of womanly desire and proved themselves willing to accept the challenge. (I felt sorry for the bears, but reflected that here was a subject for a novel by Kingsley Amis.) Still the piece de resistance, I thought, was a poem (free verse) about the death of “Jesus coyote” on a rancher’s barbed-wired fence post, offered as an acceptable sacrifice to redeem the anthropogenic ruin of the natural world. At the conclusion of the reading there were audible snuffles; the emcee cried, “Oh, Terry, you’re such a treasure!”; and the Treasure signed 300 copies of the New Book with a Personal Message for everybody.
Such is the audience, I’m afraid, for contemporary Western writing. But little as most of these people seem to know about literature, they know even less about the West—the real West: the small-town, rural, working West. The Southwestern literary establishment does not live in the desert for the same reason that Christians do not live in churches: leaving the perpetual adoration of their God to cloistered monks and nuns, they get on with the business of everyday life in a secular environment. The wilderness crowd—environmentalist writers and activists; green salonistes and courtesans—has succumbed to the angelist approach to nature as opposed to the bestialist one adopted by developers, industrialists, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Where their enemies can think only to slash, burn, bulldoze, excavate, and pave over, they can only idolize. For them, hands honestly blackened by the soil are bloody hands.
But we know, having had Pascal quoted to us all our lives, that man is neither an angel nor a beast, but something else. “By every conceivable measure,” Edward O. Wilson has written, “humanity is ecologically abnormal.” Does the fact not suggest that human nature is supernatural, transcending the natural world? If the eco-catastrophe predicted by the doomsayers actually arrives, it will come as a lesson to mankind that human intelligence and creativity are gifts inevitably transposed into curses when they are not informed by supernatural wisdom and charity. This lesson in humility, like most instruction of its kind, is not something imposed on us from above: rather it develops concomitantly with our pride and as a result of our works, to stand with them at the end to judge us. In the post-Christian world it is immeasurably hard to discern the third way between bestialism and angelism, and between the natural world as an object of consumerist greed and a vast, inviolate temple-museum.
While Turner’s frontier receives nothing but scorn and obloquy these days, what he called “the first period of American history” stands as a better guide than “wilderness” for the environmentalist agenda, since for all its rapacity it seems to have offered the best synthesis we have yet known between natural and human values—perhaps the best even of which we are capable. For one thing there were still, comparatively speaking, very few of us, whites and Indians alike. For another, the American frontier was the closest Americans have come to creating a civilization that combined cultivated intellect with material simplicity—a paradigm for the coming “age of limits.” “The wilderness,” Turner wrote,
masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garment of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe. . . . here is a new product that is American.
Could that be why Americans cannot forget the frontier, but continue to look back toward it with awe and longing?