The Western landscape has defined the American obsession with the outdoors.
When John Wesley Powell explored the Colorado river, few people east of the Mississippi knew what lay out West or how to feel about the nuanced issues that would arise from westward expansion. Authors and their books helped many shape their ideas about the West and American expansion. In order to understand the West, it helps to know the writers who helped make it what it is today, and those who still critically examine the Western landscape.
Powell’s work has been hugely influential on western American culture. In his 1875 journal, Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons, Powell drew many readers to a new idea of the arid West.
“He was one of the first people to realistically consider settling the West,” says Maria’s Bookshop bookseller Meghan Doenges. “Others findings were often over imaginative, while Powell paid attention to the existence of the native peoples and their ways of life, and water availability.”
Many believed that the rain followed the plow, and the ingrained ideal of manifest destiny demanded the West be empty for westward expansion to be American right. Powell rebelled against these manifest destiny and showed the west as it really is – an arid land filled with complex cultures.
John Muir published My First Summer in the Sierra in 1911, and showed America the beauty that can be found in the wilderness in Yosemite. He argued that wilderness was intrinsically valuable, and that it is our responsibility to maintain it wildness. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, was a huge proponent of preservation, and his books readily convince the reader to care about America’s wild places. Muir’s work was also extremely influential in the development of the National Park system.
In the Southwest, almost no writer is more influential than Edward Abbey. He was an extremely vocal preservationist. “He often said inflammatory, exciting statements that pushed boundaries,” says Mountain Waters Rafting co-owner James Wilkes.
His writing is often accusatory and forces people to take sides in the fight for our wild places. Desert Solitaire, a collection of his tales on being a park ranger in Arches National Park, shows the reader how the desert West is beautiful and unique, while The Monkey Wrench Gang explains the justifications that Abbey has for breaking the law in order to fight for the wilderness. His books inspired many to take action, from coining the term “monkeywrenching” to inspiring the creation of the Earth First! movement, Abbey work has been critical in the way that we think about the West.
Author Charles Bowden takes this idea a step further. “He doesn’t separate the environment from human drama,” Wilkes says. “His writing explores the ramifications of policy and how it affects the Southwest and the borderlands.”
His book, Blue Desert, examines ideas surrounding the emptiness of the West, and how, as people move here to escape the crowding of other places, they create the very problem they hope to escape. Bowden’s writing examines many of the conflicts that have occurred in the settling of the West, many of them our own making, and the role and impact that people and policy might have on the landscape.
As the Western landscape has changed over the years, many of the problems surrounding its settling have grown more complicated and nuanced. Writers are still critical in communicating these issues to the public and examining how policies shape the lives of those who live in the area.
These books, and others, are available at the Durango Public Library and your local bookstore.