Native Grounds


It’s tempting to blame Bishop George Berkeley for all that ails the American West. After all, the 18th-century Irish cleric gave us the language that has since framed our national narrative. His 1726 poem, “Verses, on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Sciences in America,†extolled this new found land. “The muse disgusted at an age and clime… In distant lands now waits a better time/Producing subjects worthy fame.†There was no hope to be had in decadent Europe, Berkeley professed, though there was a time “When heavenly flame did animate her clay.†The torch, however, had been passed:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;The first four acts already past,A fifth shall close the drama with the day;Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

We, the people, loved that last refrain, predictive of what was to come, a future unlike any other. So confirmed Thomas Paine, who in Common Sense (1776) lamented that “every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe… Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.†One safe haven remained: “O!, receive the fugitive,†he urged his fellow New World revolutionaries, and “prepare in time an asylum for mankind.â€

And should that asylum get crowded? Go West, Young Men! And so they did. Slipping over the Appalachians, penetrating deep into the Ohio River valley, and then floating down the Mississippi, and up its tributaries, they later breached the Rockies, Wasatch, and Cascade. Heading toward the setting sun, they brought plow and seed, lariat and spur, pick, shovel and ax, gun and flag. Emanuel Leutze’s massive mural in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, “Westward the Course of Empire†(1861), enshrined this westering impulse: A clutch of pioneers scale an imposing, snow-capped mountain range from which they gaze on a glittering horizon, the coming years to be as sun-kissed as the bountiful land that stretched out below them. How apt that one framing panel of this vast tableau was of San Francisco’s Golden Gate, how apt that a new town, to be so sited that it faced the gilded opening to the sea, would be named for the bishop whose words had been such a motive force.

How unsettling that this manifest destiny, with all its bluster, hubris, and sense of entitlement, had such devastating consequences, most notably environmental. The costs — biotic, human, and physical — have been massive. No one is better at tallying them than Dan Flores, now the A.B. Hammond Professor of History at the University of Montana, but formerly a member of the Texas Tech faculty. His intellectual legacy has Texas roots, too. The Natural West is dedicated to Walter Prescott Webb, one link in a chain that in a sense binds Flores to Bishop Berkeley himself. But Flores’ West is not Berkeley’s fantasized land of shimmering prospects, and his approach to it is not that of Webb’s grim environmental determinism. For him, the West is beguiling, elusive, and rough; it’s a place apart and resistant to human comprehension, as revelatory of our greatest aspirations as of our most stunning failures. But those same assertions could be made about other landscapes, an insight that leads Flores to propose a more complex terminology by which to explore western history— bioregionalism. Granting that “specific human cultures and specific landscapes can and do intertwine to create distinctive places,†bioregionalism weaves together ecology and geography, topography and locale, and assumes “that in a variety of ways humans not only alter environments but also adapt to them.†There is no American West, only American wests.

So the grizzly bear reminds us. Its West no longer exists: Human predation and habitat loss have devastated its numbers. Flores deftly recovers the Anglo-American collision with this powerful mammal, and the trigger-itch that led to its slaughter. Reading accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, he watches, aghast, as its members fire round after round at the random grizzlies they encounter.

“Absorbing the mounting tension of these journal entries almost two centuries later,†Flores writes, “you’re almost prompted to shout out loud at Meriwether Lewis, ‘Christ Almighty, order them to stop shooting….’†They didn’t and neither did anyone else, and when the guns finally fell silent the carnage approached 500,000 bears. Hunters squinting down the sights of their rifles, Flores concludes, are “a powerful signifier of their ability to affect the world.â€

More affecting, perhaps, is that millions of other humans had long coexisted with the grizzly. Native American stories, he notes, “do not whitewash bearsâ€; the animals contain all the power and force that Anglo-American tales convey. “The bears are both good and evil, are valued and respected in either case on an individual basis,†but with this difference: “heir inherent right to exist is never an issue.†That may be because Indian peoples identified bears “as essentially humans in another form, thus conferred individuality to bears and thus a corpus of rights to bears.†Were contemporary Americans to embrace this meld of animal and human, the grizzly might well be revived and, in the process, force a rethinking of the “history of the natural West.â€

Reconceived, too, is the stunning decline of the buffalo. Rather than focus on the brutal, market-driven massacre that Anglo-Americans perpetuated in the post-Civil War era, in which white hunters are thought to have bagged upwards of 10 million bison, Flores wonders instead why there were persistent reports by 1850 of starving Plains Indians. The answer is a complex weave. The swift rise in numbers of horses on the plains—wild and domesticated—competed directly with the buffalo for food and water. Exotic bovine diseases, trailed in with cattle, took their toll; the 1840s drought further reduced the land’s carrying capacity. Tribal rivalries and population growth combined to cut deeply into the number of buffalo, as did the incipient robe trade. Comanches and others never had the time to develop a “dynamic, ecological equilibrium†with bison, Flores argues: “he primal poetry of humans and horses, bison and grass, sunlight and blue skies, and the sensual satisfactions of a hunting life on the sweeping grasslands†was, alas, meteoric. So much for Dances with Wolves.

Roughed up, too, is the Mormon conviction that theirs is a religion and peoplehood committed to living well and righteously on the land. Flores, who was raised in a Church of the Latter Day Saints household, carefully separates fact from fiction, illuminating the ecological consequences of seeking to make the desert bloom like a rose. He’s just as careful in his analysis of why mountains—as place and metaphor—have so little engaged our attention as he is in tracking the significance of naturalist Peter Custis’ 1806 trek along the Red River. And what of the Great Plains themselves—will their rapid depopulation lead to the restoration of what some tout as a future Bison Commons? Flores is not convinced that this “natural world of grasslands and prairie dogs, buffalo and badlands†will recover sufficiently, though clearly that’s his hope.

His ability to imagine these restorative possibilities is half the battle, an imagination that is nurtured by a kind of history that compels “us to think about ourselves as inhabitants of places, of watersheds and topographies, of an evolving piece of space (with an evolving set of fellow inhabitants) different from every other one.†By granting primacy to a bioregional ethos, he not only complicates our historical methodologies but upends our national conceit that the West is the locus of the American imperium. n

Contributing writer Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University. He is the editor of Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, a celebration of its half-century of publication, to be published by Trinity University Press.