A Season of Hard Western Truths

This may be the best post-Stegner year yet for books about the West.

Every year or so some fresh trampling of the American West sends me to the shelf to pull down my Bison Books paperback edition of The Sound of Mountain Water, Wallace Stegner's essay collection that over the years has become a sort of regional new testament. I usually dip into his famous "Wilderness Letter" and skim the half-dozen other "confrontations with the West" that began as bit pieces for Holiday, Library Journal, and the Saturday Review and ended up changing the history of the West. The essays, written between 1946 and 1969, mark the years when the old myths about the West began falling apart. Stegner remarks upon the change himself, in a 1980 introduction to the book: "I am amazed to find myself [in one older essay] speaking admiringly of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. Now I know enough not to speak admiringly of reclamation dams without looking closely at their teeth." The essays in Mountain Water showed him, he admitted, "getting my education in public." What he didn't know was that a whole generation of coming writers were getting their education from him. Every few years we'd see the publication of some Stegner-influenced take on the West, works that tossed all that cowboy-and-Indian, brave-white-pioneer, river-harnessing heroism in favor of hard-truth history: Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, Richard White's The Organic Machine. This season has seen the publication of so many post-Stegner books it's become hard to keep track. Tim Egan's Lasso the Wind (Knopf, $25) continues the solid work he's been doing for The New York Times, redefining the West as a place where land is the religion and the holy war never ends between the preservers and the possessors (those who "tame it, shave it, fence it, cut it, dam it, drain it, nuke it, subdivide it" while, in most cases, feeding at the federal trough). And Stegner's son, Page, has collected many of his father's better essays—including the "Wilderness Letter"—in a new volume, Marking the Sparrow's Fall: Wallace Stegner's American West (Holt, $25). The most compelling of this fall's post-Stegner works is turned in by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz rewrote the history of Los Angeles seven years ago. This time Davis turns the whole issue of environmental disaster on its head in his brilliant new book, Ecology of Fear (Metropolitan Books, $27.50). Where Stegner a generation ago opened our eyes to the fact that the West was defined by one thing alone—lack of water—Davis hands us a similar revelation in Ecology of Fear. "If there has been a single, fatal flaw in the design of Southern California as a civilization," Davis writes, "it has been the decision to base the safety of present and future generations almost entirely upon shortsighted extrapolations from the disaster record of the past half-century." In other words, everyone thinks of the Northridge quakes, the Malibu fires, and the 1970s-era droughts as ecological anomalies. Not only are these events not unusual, Davis writes, they're occurring at a time of unprecedented serenity in the natural history of Southern California. This century's water planners, for instance, mistook the water flow from 1899 to 1921 for the historical norm. In fact, those years marked the longest, wettest stretch in the past 450 years. "Recent research on past climate change and seismic activity," Davis writes, "has transformed the question 'Why so many recent disasters?' into the truly unnerving question, 'Why so few?'" If Davis' work is the season's most chilling, the most entertaining and hopeful work is Cecil Andrus' political memoir. Cecil Andrus: Politics Western Style (Sasquatch, $26.95) is a refreshingly breezy look back at the political and environmental battles of the last 30 years by a self-described "lunch-bucket guy" who may just be the Northwest's last great politician. Andrus served as Idaho governor from 1971 to 1977 and again from 1987 to 1995; between terms he worked as Jimmy Carter's interior secretary. A Democrat in a state that has "elected Republicans so dumb they need to be watered," Andrus has needed, as he says, "the adaptive skills of a coyote" to survive in Idaho. Think of him as Dan Evans with personality. Andrus' memoir, co-written with Seattle Post-Intelligencer national correspondent Joel Connelly, traces his rise from lowly Orofino, Idaho, lumberjack to the governor's—well, in Boise it ain't exactly a mansion. "Cece" proves to be a right colorful cuss with more brains than a sackful of owls. He brings kindergarten classes to Idaho, over the objections of right-wing nuts who think it's a commie plot. He fights to keep the Salmon River undammed, lures high-tech businesses like Hewlett- Packard to Boise, and, most satisfyingly, kicks a little ass on Northwest Airlines. Self-serving? Sure! But at least Cece admits a few mistakes (the Teton Dam collapsed on his watch) and tries to learn from them. Andrus ends on a disappointed note, recalling his crafty but civil colleagues—Scoop, Maggie, Frank Church, Tom Foley—who've been replaced by the shrill Linda Smiths and George Nethercutts of the world. But Politics Western Style may do more good than Andrus thinks, if the coming generation of politicians picks it up. (They'd be fools not to—the book contains more campaigning tips and PR tricks than they'll get from a lifetime of lunches with Bob Gogerty.) And it exhibits something too rare these days: the kind of tough but practical ideas about the environment that might actually solve problems. Andrus is a conservationist, not an environmentalist. He wants to save the wild lands for both their sake and his own; he's a guy who'll play hooky from his own campaign to hook steelhead or hunt elk, and he's not afraid to piss off the hard-core enviros by cutting a deal with the "log-it, mine-it, and drill-it boys" to protect what's left. He's the kind of guy we could use a whole lot more of right now. Bruce Barcott is the editor of Seattle Weekly's Books Quarterly.

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