'Who Owns the West?' by William Kittredge

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William Kittredge's new collection of essays ends with a description of a bedspread embroidered with "imaginary animals on a field of tropical green, a royal red elephant with black ears, a turtle with a yellow and blue and red checkered shell, a black rabbit, an orange monkey on a branch. . . ." The work of a Laotian hill woman now living in Montana, the embroidery and the will to create while so awfully far from home show us someone tough enough to dream up a new story to live by.

"Who Owns the West?" pleads that the rest of us in the West do the same, that we rethink our personal lives and our stewardship of this region to fashion sustainable relationships not just to the land, but to each other.

Before becoming a writer and professor at the University of Montana, Kittredge managed the ranch he grew up on in southeastern Oregon. This dual life has meant that, as both a native with sound redneck credentials and an academic/environmentalist, Kittredge has great compassion for struggling ranchers and miners--for boomtowns gone bust--and fierce criticism for the myths Westerners live by. He takes a hard look at the abuse of native peoples, water toxicity from defunct mines and erosion from overgrazing, and considers the conflicting interests of tourists, ranchers and environmentalists to come up with a grim prognosis of deep, unsettling change, coming soon. In the book's prologue, "White People in Paradise," Kittredge declares that "As anywhere, in the West people--out of work redneck timber-fallers and stockbrokers and lady veterinarians, laughing boys, dancing ladies, all of us--have no choice but to reimagine and embrace the future."

Part I, "Our Ideas of Paradise," tells of life on the Kittredge family ranch with lovely snapshots of childhood, of the pleasures of peaceful isolation, "an initiation into the values of distance and order" gleaned from watching his father plant the garden that will feed the family and all the ranch hands. At the same time, he learns not to give a damn about small change when his father forgives an act of pure foolishness: The older Kittredge takes pleasure in his son's nearly losing a remuda by using them to round up wild mustangs. The adult sections offer family mistakes as synecdoches for regional crises: Personally bulldozing an American Indian burial ground without a moment's hesitation, shooting a badger for the hell of it, even pointing out that men in airplanes rounded up most of the local wild mustangs to turn them into chicken feed. "The 19th century," Kittredge writes with an infectious sense of loss, "lasted in our part of the universe until the spring of 1946, when my grandfather traded off some 200 matched work teams for a fleet of John Deere tractors." Kittredge has an eye for turning points between tradition and modernity, as if Western life had once been in proper balance, before greed and ambition made ranchers squander the good lives they'd so painfully earned. "Everybody thought it was a bold step into the future," he says of the horses-for-tractors trade. "We didn't know what we were losing, our ancient proximity with animals, with running horses."

Part II, "Lost Cowboys and Other Westerners," takes its title from the "lost wax" method of bronze casting, conjuring the vanished center of Western myth and place. "What I want this to be," Kittredge declares, "is an adding up of reasons for taking care, a calculation that would be a start at naming useful dreams." He considers how stories perpetuate certain relationships to the earth, and quotes from D. H. Lawrence and Chekhov, Celine and Proust.

Kittredge recounts conversations with Tom McGuane and Edward Abbey, his long friendship with Ray Carver--their drinking binges and Carver's eventual death from lung cancer--all in a moving meditation on outdated ways of being in the world, extending Western dysfunction to the very details of private lives. Even an anecdote about a Western film conference becomes an argument that "What we need in our West is another kind of story, in which we can see ourselves for what we mostly are, decent people striving to form and continually reform a just society in which we can find some continuity, taking care in the midst of useful and significant lives." In "Doing Good Work Together: The Politics of Storytelling," Kittredge elaborates this meditation and wonders what healing stories might look like. "I want to inhabit a story in which the animals all lay down with one another," he muses with uncharacteristic sentiment, "everybody satisfied, children playing on sandy beaches by a stream, in the warm shade of the willows, the flash of salmon in the pools."

"Who Owns the West?" roams the same range as Kittredge's prior collections ("We Are Not in This Together," "Owning It All," "Hole in the Sky"). His prose is spare and clean as ever, with one quotable line after another and elegant descriptions of place; we even get plenty of Kittredge's fine fables of ranch hands and hard lives. The mood of this book, however, is what unifies its parts: Amid lovely descriptions of a good home and true love in Montana, of the pleasures of fine food and walks in wet meadows, a new tone has crept into Kittredge's work, or found the center of his attention--a tone of deep self-criticism and jeremiad.

"We have taken the West for about all it has to give," he writes. "We have lived like children, taking and taking for generations, and now that childhood is over . . . it's time we gave something back to the natural systems of order which have supported us, some care and tenderness."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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