The Great West

Crumley lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. His most recent novel is "Dancing Bear" (Random House).

In the mid-'60s when I changed my home place from Texas to Montana, I still assumed that Texas was a western state. Now I have been informed that it is something called a "sunbelt state," a phrase that always makes me check my buckle. Texas still seems to me like an odd nation-state in which I am, in spite of birth and rearing, still denied citizenship. That is all right with me. I live in Montana, in the Real West. Maybe.

One of the things I have noticed out here, though, is that about every five years or so, somebody gathers up enough grant money to sponsor a conference of writers, painters, historians, environmentalists, photographers, Native Americans, politicians and, of course lawyers to confuse the issue by once again trying to define the Great American West. Important questions are raised for those of us who live here: Who owns it? How do we water it? Can we save it? Does anybody care? And why can't we leave it alone, why must we continue to write about it, film it, paint it, litigate over it, and most of all rape it?

I certainly don't have any answers to most of that string of rambling, gambling, hard-riding rhetorical questions, except I know that we can't leave it alone because we love it beyond reason, beyond myth and reality; we love the light, the landscape, the people. It's a sacred place and we understand that if we stop worshiping it, the West, like a sullen god, will disappear. As far as I'm concerned, defining the West is one of those rough, ranch chores I will no longer participate in, like building fence or bucking bales.

I have to admit that I'm not even sure where the West is any more. Except in my heart. When I'm gone, something is missing. Coming back, running fast and free, it is as Thoreau said: "Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free." Nobody ever said it much better. And Thoreau had never seen sunrise on the Tetons or spent a summer in Choteau, Mont., or a winter in Walden, Colo. But he understood that whatever "west" meant--the frontier or the freedom or the place where civilization was tested--it didn't take place in town. And western towns can be ugly, no doubt about it. But you can stand on the edge of Casper, Wyo., in the springtime and stare until your eyes water at the snow-shot rolling hills, and turn around and face the town. The towns aren't the point; the landscape, the history, and the people are; always have been.

Alex Axelrod's Art of the Golden West (Abbeville Press: $95; 418 pp.) makes that perfectly lovely and clear. Although it is subtitled "An Illustrated History," don't mistake this volume as history in pabulum form, cream-of-white-eyes for dolts. It's for adults, and those children big enough to saddle their own ponies. It weighs about as much as a kid's saddle, but it's worth making your coffee table groan, stuffed with wonderful reproductions, complete with brief but informative profiles of dozens of western artists, starting with Albert Bierstadt and reaching all the way to Georgia O'Keefe. Along the way, the usual giants of western art are covered, but this is a generous book, and it is a pleasure to see most of the lesser lights standing there beside them. Although the text seems to have an overwhelming amount of information, the prose is always thoughtful and clear, always connected to the reproductions in a comfortably intelligent manner.

But the art. My God, the art! It is astounding. Not as exactly like an afternoon in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, but closer to the house.

Of course, western artists have this thing about light. They don't have a lock on it, but they like to paint it. Russell Chatham, who paints a lot of Montana landscapes, says he's never seen the same light here twice. Or anywhere in the West. Maybe that's half a definition: The West is a place where you go to see the light.

The first time it happened to me, my hunting partner and I were sitting in a duck blind on a slough off the Flathead River just outside Dixon, Mont. In the late afternoon, with the sun and the thermometer rapidly sinking, the sun dropped just below the cloud cover. The snow-swaddled peaks of the Mission Mountains 20 miles to the east flared with a furious light. The dried winter grass on the soft hills along the icy black river began to glow as if fired from within. And the light filled the air, palpable as fog, as sharp as the frozen air. I scrambled out of the duck blind to dance on the hard ground. Luckily, my partner was too bewildered to shoot me. After the light faded, we drifted over to the only bar in Dixon and discussed my behavior.

I've seen a few grand vistas since then, but that lovely moment is still absolutely clear in my memory. Unfortunately for the West, the sun goes down just as prettily over the Berkely Pit in Butte, Mont. The huge abandoned wound in the earth is slowly filling with water; the water looks to be full of heavy metals, and at sundown the pit glistens with an unearthly light. It's pretty, I suppose, but as toxic as some outer-space virus.

It seems the West always has been a place where the consequences of unbridled greed are particularly visible. Or, as the case may be, insidiously invisible. The West always has been the economic slave of outside interests, a colonial territory. First, they trapped almost all the beaver, then killed all the buffalo. Then they practiced a little genocide on the native population, then lied to the hordes of immigrant farmers. First, they said it wasn't really the Great American Desert; then when it was, they said there was so much of it it didn't really matter. So the farmers dropped their shiny new plows into 30,000 years of prairie sod, and made damn certain that the Great Plains would never be great again. Now we've got convicted junk-bond dealers out of jail on bond, "harvesting" our trees to provide the Japanese with cheap lumber.

The stories are endless about the rape of the West. They're all sad and somewhat crazy, but none as sadly crazed as the story told in Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West by Richard Misrach with Myriam Weisang Misrach (John Hopkins University Press: $25, paper; 133 pp.). It isn't enough that we've spent a couple of centuries out here letting scavenger birds foul our nests, now they're bombing us. What next, pray tell?

Here's the story in a nutshell, or make that bombshell: In 1952, in spite of all the other bomb ranges the Navy had at its disposal in Nevada, they began to test high-explosive bombs illegally on public lands just outside the small town of Fallon; the Navy gave it a military lable, Bravo 20, but the Northern Paiute, who used to live there and should know, called it the Source of Creation.

Richard Misrach filed a mining claim on Bravo 20, all legal and proper, and before the Pentagon bureaucratic warriors managed to set it aside 18 months later, Misrach took hundreds of photographs of Bravo 20. Needless to say, they are not pretty, these shots of thousands of bomb craters, filed with liquids that seem to still be explosively dangerous, scattered across fields of shrapnel and unexploded ordnance. These photographs have that sense of horrible fascination you find in photographs of atrocities. You can't stop looking at them, but you wish you could.

The text is just as effective, the facts just as unthinkable. Seventy percent of Nevada's air space is controlled by the military, which it makes it tough on the weekend pilot. Fallon Naval Air Station has a few problems itself, environmental ones; the clean-up is called, without irony, "Operation Ugly Baby." A few local citizens, those whose lives aren't based on economics and/or greed, are fighting the good fight out there in the desert. If you can stand a story about how your government doesn't exactly fight fair, how your government passes laws that you have to obey but they don't--if you can stand that tired, old chestnut of a story one more time, this is a great story.

Needless to say, it doesn't end on a happy note, but it does wind up with a great idea, a wonderful idea. Richard Misrach proposes that we make Bravo 20 into a National Park, our first environmental memorial, complete with a visitor center in the shape of an ammunition bunker and sightseeing routes named "Devastation Drive" and "Boardwalk of the Bombs."

If you can get through this book without agreeing with Mr. Misrach's modest proposal, give it away; you don't deserve to own it. "The Bombing of the West" indeed. It's big, it's beautiful, it belongs to us; let's bomb it.

Of course, the West always has been a place that puts a high premium on individual freedom and the almost feudal rights of the landowner. Along with a number of other western writers, I sometimes think we have paid too high a price for those myths, that those myths have done as much harm as all the ravenous corporate lions. Individual freedom is anarchy without an individual sense of responsibility, particularly where the land is concerned, and the responsibility of ownership is not just of the land but also to the land.

I must confess that when I came here from Texas, where almost all the land is privately owned, and found thousands of square miles of public land, I felt as if I had some title to this land. I didn't burn any of it down or take part in any free-lance clear-cuts or drive a D-9 Caterpillar to the top of Mount Jumbo just for the view, but like a child I had to be taught how to enjoy that freedom responsibly.

Surely some of that idea of freedom came from the horse culture of western America. The Idea of the Cowboy rather than the cowboy himself. As far as I can tell, cowboys have their own personal brand of genes.

Lots of people work cattle at one time or another in their lives--my great-great grandfather drove Longhorn cattle to Kansas in his youth; the oldest picture of my grandfather in my possession shows him working his first job at 16, working cattle horseback; even I once sat a saddle for cash money--but they're not cowboys.

Cowboys live and die cowboys. From their mounts, no matter how motley and wind-broke, they look down on the rest of the world. In a very convincing way, I might add. I've talked to old cowboys whittling in the Mexican sunlight around the square in Chihuahua City, stretching out their social security checks, or in old-folks homes at 85, or in wide-spot bars down in Wyoming. They all have several things in common: usually skin cancer, noses pitted like the craters of the moon; crippling arthritis in their hands and legs, hands that struggle with a beer bottle, legs that lend themselves to immobility; and an attitude. To a man, these afflictions were badges of honor, and to a man (not that women aren't cowboys; but the old ones I've talked to seem to have better sense than to fall for their own mythology) they pitied everybody who couldn't live the cowboy life. Worst of all, I believe them.

Nobody has ever successfully explained the cowboy to me, how that devotion to the horse culture trickled down from the Moors to the Spanish to the Mexicans and became one of the dominate myths of the American West. Some people climb on a horse and never figure out how to get off. Maybe that's all the explanation that's needed.

But Richard W. Slatta tries hard in Cowboys of the Americas (Yale University Press: $35; 306 pp.). He tells you everything you wanted to know bout the cowboy but were afraid to ask. He does his best to explain the differences between various types of cowboys that exist from the Rio Grande del Sul in southern Brazil where the cowboys were often just wild cattle hunters to the frozen plains of Alberta where he makes the cowboys sound as if they were bad imitations of English gentlemen. The information is interesting, extensive and I'm sure useful. It just didn't answer my questions. As they used to say about the Platte River, it seemed too wet to plow and too dusty to drink, a mile wide and an inch deep.

And at last we confront the Myth of the West (Rizzoli International: $45; 190 pp.), a book by Chris Bruce published in conjunction with the exhibition by the same title held at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Bruce's approach to defining the West seems to be intuitive rather than intellectual. As a consequence, the book is eclectic and smart, and it does its best to both destroy our preconceptions and redeem them at the same time. On one page, you'll find the stark drama of Georgia O'Keeffe's "Black Crosswith Red Sky." Three pages later, Frank and Jesse James stare off the page as if already dead, their pistols cocked across their chests, the barrels not quite parallel. Even the dust jacket, which juxtaposes a detail from one of Albert Bierstadt's dreamlike Yosemite landscapes with a detail from Andy Warhol's double Elvis, slaps the expectations right off your face.

My favorite image: a 1989 Polish Solidarity poster by T. Sarnecki featuring Gary Cooper from the movie poster of "High Noon." The myth of the West must be about hope, the hope that one good man can save a town that neither desires nor deserves salvation, the hopeful knowledge that the Miller Brothers must be vanquished, no matter if they ride horses or Soviet tanks.

My favorite line: a quote from Jon Szarkowski, "Things aren't what they used to be; and what's worse, they never were." All myths are about nostalgia, in one way or another, but damn few have the decency to make fun of themselves.

This is an interesting and sometimes powerful book, a new way to look at the Old West. You can ride the river with this one.

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