Wide Open Spaces

According to family lore, grandmother came west as a mail-order bride. She took a train to Nevada, presented herself to a Basque railroad worker and begot our Balzar clan. So I grew up part Basque.

She was a widow all the years I knew her, and she expressed only one prejudice, a dislike for Italians. Then at the end when we buried her in Reno, I saw the gravestones in the small family plot. Balzarini, said one. Humm. So at midlife I gave up being Basque and became part Italian, for what little it meant.

We Westerners have different connections to place and past, those components of culture. Different than, say, Yankee New Englanders who might be unsettled to learn that the family genealogy was a lie to protect a woman's embarrassment about her husband's heritage. Or different than Americans in more deeply rooted regions, who would want not to forget from where in the east Grandmother boarded that train.

For many of us, anyway, the essence of our culture is tethered here. And here has plenty enough to fathom.

Crossing the Frontier is a wondrous start. A panorama of museum photographs, images that are at once familiar and original, accompanied by four essays, this book raises the standard of regional photo histories, conveying development of the West from 1849 to today. This you buy for someone, but end up keeping it because it's as personal and surprising and revealing as opening a chest in your own attic.

Entirely different, but equally engaging, is the history told in Poetry of the American West, an anthology edited for general readership. The works of 73 poets and a sampler of Native American songs provide 500 years of evidence of the workings of the West on the imagination, beginning with this bittersweet prophesy from a sacred Aztec song of the mid-1400s:

My flowers will not come to an end / My songs will not come to an end.

The West implies space, room, vistas, horizons. The landscapes that surround us are essential to our perceptions of ourselves, and a stand-out this season is the Smithsonian's Plain Pictures. Photographers and painters render the collisions of astonishing expanses, sky versus earth, that occur only on the great prairie. These are images to meditate on, not thumb through.

Of the peoples of the West, cowboys and Indians still inspire romance, if not always understanding. Two pleasing books take entirely different approaches to the topic.

Colorado Cowboys by Christopher Marona is all schmaltz--and well done: a photo essay of modern cowboys at work against mythic vistas of the Rockies. No horseflies, saddle sores or ugly misfits here.

The Sierra Club's People of Legend is a more down-to-earth depiction of Southwestern tribes and their bicultural world, part then and part now. Particularly striking are John Annerino's portraits, such as that of a silver-haired World War II veteran in combat fatigues and turquoise jewelry.

And let's not forget Candace Savage's Cowgirls, a rompish history of the breed--from the legends of the Old West to the cattle queens of today, with Hollywood and rodeo riders too.

Lastly, from way out in left field, is a rich, rough little nugget, Chihuahua, in which writer Charles Bowden and photographer Virgil Hancock explore the Mexico-Arizona border culture from the state to the south. The photographs of buildings and city scenes explode with color, but eerily are devoid of people. And Bowden, an angry Western naturalist from the school of the late Edward Abbey, writes a rebellious, impressionistic cry for . . . well, say, for the West as it was.


CROSSING THE FRONTIER: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to Present. With essays by Sandra S. Phillips, Richard Rodriguez, Aaron Betsky and Eldridge M. Moores (Chronicle: $29.95, 196 pp.)

POETRY OF THE AMERICAN WEST: A Columbia Anthology. Edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Columbia: $24.95, 328 pp.)

COLORADO COWBOYS. By Christopher Marona (Westcliffe: $39.95, 128 pp.)

PEOPLE OF LEGEND: Native Americans of the Southwest. By John Annerino (Sierra Club: $30, 122 pp.)

COWGIRLS. By Candace Savage (Ten Speed: $22.95, paperback, 134 pp.)

CHIHUAHUA: Pictures From the Edge. Photos by Virgil Hancock, essay by Charles Bowden (University of New Mexico: $24.95, 107 pp.)

PLAIN PICTURES: Images of the American Prairie. By Joni L. Kinsey (Smithsonian: $65, cloth; $34.95, paper; 236 pp.)

And Bear in Mind:

MUSTANG. By Sharon Curtin, John Eastcott, Yva Momatiuk (Rufus: $40, 189 pp.)

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