Sunday, April 22, 2007

I Wanna Be a Western Writer!

Not a writer of Westerns. But a writer of the West, from the West, about the West. Ever since I first spent the summer of my eighteenth year doing geology in Wyoming, I’ve been in love with the place.

Annie Proulx’ story People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water starts like this, with two introductory paragraphs:

You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country—indigo jags of mountains, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky—provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut.

Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’d celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.

—Annie Proulx, from Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the story collection that ends with Brokeback Mountain

It’s like that: the land itself is always a main character in the story. Proulx’s Wyoming stories always include the presence of the land, infusing everything. The humans are just players on the shape of the land. The same way that Andrew Wyeth’s paintings use the land, and settings, rooms, and farm implements, as characters. In Christina’s World, that huge sweep of grass, dwarfing the fragile girl, putting her smallness into perspective against the huge sweep of the sky. That’s a familiar feeling, out West.

I want to be able to have lived in a place where I can write sentences like that, just from observing what’s around me.

I want to write like Proulx, or Barry Lopez, or William Least heat Moon, riding his van across the small roads of the USA. I want to be in those open spaces, where my head expands, and my own smallness and pettiness, and hard luck, evaporate against the indifferent sky and empty land. You put yourself into perspective, there. My own Basin & Range works are walks towards those receding hills. Having recently been out there again, and then back, feeling cramped in relatively crowded Wisconsin, it’s an urge for escape, for me, for my dreams, and self. I am a Westerner at heart.

Of course this is all probably romantic horseshit. But no more so than the annual Cowboy Poetry gathering in Elko, NV, which is a festival of familiar tropes, romantic fantasies, and clichés, even though it’s all done with fun, spirit, and a good heart. Even in my romantic fantasy moments, I feel a lot more hard-headed about the West than some others I could name. I’ve been out in those salt pans, out of water, a hundred miles to go. I’ve slept on the lava flows, under more stars than most city dwellers can imagine or have ever seen. And the silences: they linger with you. Sometimes you need to go back there, just to listen to the wind, which is a constant presence that paradoxically deepens the silence.

The Real West is hard, bleak, dangerous, and bitter. There are a thousand ways to die from accident, stupidity, mischance, or intention. There are million isolated places where such deaths, by whatever means, will go undiscovered for some time. Maybe not a long time, but long enough till it’s too late. Search and rescue efforts often become forensic clean-ups. It’s the nature of the land: there’s a lot more space than there are people.

Gertrude Stein’s seminal comment applies to the great West, especially: In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is. There is a lot of truth in that, and when you drive out West, and stop in small towns in the middle of nowhere, you feel it directly.

I want to write like Edward T. Hall, one of the best writers of philosophical anthropology of the past century. His book West of the Thirties, about his early experiences among the Navajo and Hopi, is a classic.

And I want to write like Loren Eiseley. The geologists and paleontologists who take up literary writing are marked by the lands and peoples they have studied. The remnants of what and who used to be there echo through their contemporary awareness like revenants.

I started my own geological fieldwork early, age 18, by spending a summer doing geology in the field, based at Hoback Junction, south of Jackson Hole, in Wyoming, near where the Hoback flows into the Snake. I had started studying rocks much earlier, and was in the Geology Club in school from ninth grade on. That summer I learned to exist in the field. I learned to travel light. A Wyoming cowboy told me that summer, and I’ve always known it to be true: “When you head out in the morning, don’t take a drink of water till later in the day. if you drink early, you’ll be thirsty all day long, and never get enough water. If you wait till noon, you’ll be good. Otherwise, when you’re out riding all day, you might run out of water too early.” I was never much for big breakfasts anyway, and only do them when I need to, which is rarely. My experiences that first summer in the field set my habits in place for a lifetime. I still don’t drink water too early in the day; although I often drink a lot, later in the evening.

Geology has marked me, especially Rocky Mountain geology, and continues to be an obsession of mine. I learn a great deal about a place I am visiting, just by looking at and smelling the land. Humans do reshape the land, but the land also shapes us, directs us, nurtures us, and destroys us. We might successfully commit cultural suicide, but the land endures. We are not capable, as the apocalyptic doomsayers claim, of destroying all life on our planet; life is too resilient. We might do great damage, and we might wipe out our own civilizations; but life will find a way. It is arrogant and presumptuous to believe that “the end of the world” means anything more than just the end of our world, our lives, or our way of life. “The end of the world” doesn’t mean the end of the world: it just means the end of us.

I find myself in alliance with the proponents of ecopoetics, many of whom are Western writers. My own poetry has once or twice been compared by others to Gary Snyder’s—a claim I would never presume to make myself. But I feel a kinship of interests and preoccupations there.

But maybe I’m always going to be (just) a Midwestern writer. It’s where I’m from, and I suppose I have the attitudes. On the other hand, I did spend the first half of my childhood living in India, so my attitudes have never been classically and only Midwestern. I’ve traveled a lot, and I have the attitudes of a global nomad, not someone who was born and bred and still lives in his hometown. I don’t have a hometown. I have a home base, but that could be almost anywhere, as long as I like the place. And travel is in my bones. So, I will be spending time out West, and writing while I’m there, and writing more once I am back at home base.

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