Community and the Western Landscape

T he West is a region of extremes. Its landscape is composed of long stretches of dry basins and hot deserts interspersed with chains of mountains where it can snow any month of the year. One author described the West as the native home of hope that has inspired compelling myths, yet the reality imposed by an arid environment has crushed countless dreams.

This series of six books, exploring the West's diverse areas and history, examines how individuals and communities have interacted with the region's mountains, lakes, rivers, deserts, and each other. Have the peoples who settled here imposed their traditions on the land or has the environment shaped their customs? Is the West primarily a geographical location or is it defined by a unique culture based on its own experiences and stories? Six of the West's most widely respected authors investigate these and other compelling questions.

In Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992), Wallace Stegner summarizes a lifetime of living, thinking, and writing about the region. This series of essays includes a personal history about being "shaped by the bigness, sparseness, space, clarity, and hopefulness of the West." Stegner stresses that "aridity, and aridity alone, makes the various Wests one." With amusingly detailed examples, he describes how Westerners have tackled that fact with denial, desperate engineering, clever adaptation, and stories.

Beginning in 1912, Willa Cather made the first of many extended visits to the Southwest, a region of landscape and people she came to deeply appreciate. Her love for this place culminated in the 1927 publication of Death Comes for the Archbishop, a novel permeated by the colors and shapes of the southwestern landscape. In this historical narrative of two French missionaries, the weight of Old World tradition meets the New World, a country "still waiting to be made into a landscape." The result is a masterpiece of fiction, one of Cather's best.

All The Pretty Horses (1992) is a quintessential Western. The hero, deprived of his birthright, sets off to the unknown country of Mexico with his best friend in search of adventure and his manhood. His skill with horses, mastery of the Spanish language, good-natured humor, and courage make him a compelling character. The Texas and Mexican landscapes evoked by author Cormac McCarthy intensify this story of high drama. The novel has won the National Book Award and promises to become a modern classic.

In This House of Sky (1978), Ivan Doig offers an autobiographical account of growing up in the rugged mountain country of central Montana with his father, Charlie, and his grandmother, Bessie. His life has been formed among the sheepherders and characters of small-town saloons and valley ranches as he wandered beside his restless father. What Doig deciphers from his past with piercing clarity is not only a raw sense of the land and how it shapes us, but also our inextricable connection to those who formed our values in the search for intimacy, independence, love, and family.

River Song (1989) portrays the struggles of the modern Nez Perces in maintaining their customs and strong ties to the land in a White-influenced world. The central character in author Craig Lesley's novel is Danny Kachiah, who has reclaimed his 17-year old son Jack after his former wife's death. Danny introduces him to his tribe's traditional way of life along the ancestral salmon grounds of eastern Oregon. They embark on a journey of personal renewal and community survival, both of which are tied to the ever-present influences of the land.

In Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1992), Terry Tempest Williams weaves together stories of change and loss. The Great Salt Lake threatens to flood the Bear River Bird Refuge, a place of great meaning to the author. As the State of Utah ineffectively scrambles to halt the rising lake, doctors struggle with equal failure to stop the spread of cancer that affects Terry's mother. Interwoven are tales of the Tempest family, the bonding of women, and the pleasures and difficulties of living in Utah.

Readings

For further exploration of literature about community and the Western landscape, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. The Wyoming Council for the Humanities cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in this series.

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain
Ivan Doig, Dancing at the Rascal Fair
A.B. Guthrie, The Big Sky, The Way West
Linda Hasselstrom, Land Circle
Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home
Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place
William Kittredge, Hole in the Sky
Thomas McGuane, Nobody's Angel
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain
John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War
Chip Rawlins, Sky's Witness
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Marie Sandoz, Old Jules
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters On An Elk Hunt



Retired Discussion Series



Debbie Sturman, Director
425 South Main Street, P O Box 510
Lusk, WY 82225-0510
Phone: 307-334-3490
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