Loving and hating the west

I recently picked up DeVoto’s West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good, a collection of essays written by Bernard DeVoto about public lands and conservation in the western United States. DeVoto was from my hometown, but he spent most of his time in the east—this distance from the arid and mountainous country about which he spent so much time writing probably gave him the perspective that he needed to be both a harsh critic and avowed defender of the west; its politics, its culture, its uneasy relationship with the rest of the nation, and most of all, its wealth of public lands resources were his beat, and he focused on these subjects in his Harper’s Magazine column The Easy Chair. According to Wallace Stegner, who wrote DeVoto’s biography The Uneasy Chair, DeVoto is a crucial and under-appreciated figure in the American conservation movement; Stegner positions DeVoto among conservationists like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot for his effect on attitudes toward land preservation.

I’m only a chapter into the collection, but when I get the chance to read it, it’s really enjoyable going. Describing the uncertain sense that most of the country has for what and where the “west” really lies, DeVoto writes a great passage:

We are undoubtedly a race, we Westerners, though mostly we fail to understand the implications of our unity. If you are a Bostonian to whom Cincinnati seems so far west that it must be a Pacific port, or to whom Omaha is a State, you can offend us by lumping us as Westerners with Chicagoans, with the electorate who keeps Senator LaFollette in office, and with the Ku Kluxers of Indiana. It is a graver offense to speak of us as Westerners along with Kansans, Nebraskans, and Iowans. But the outrage we will not permit is your bland impulse to call us Westerners and then, without a filter, to apply the same term of the people of Los Angeles. If Californians are Westerners, then, be assured, we live in the State of Maine.

I’m looking forward to reading more.