In southern Idaho's irrigated landscape, the boundaries between what's natural and what's not appear to be definitive: Canals and huge water sprayers on central pivots draw stark lines between fields of green produce and sagebrush desert. But historian Mark Fiege says in Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West, that the irrigated landscape is a hybrid habitat that reveals a complicated and reciprocal relationship between people and nature.
Fiege explains that even as early white
settlers manipulated the land to realize their vision of making the
desert bloom, they could not impose their will on the landscape.
Natural topography determined the paths of canals, while soil
conditions limited the types of crops that could be grown and
shaped the development of Idaho's famous potato, the Russet
Burbank. Rodents and birds ate crops, damaged canals and spread
unwanted seeds into the farmland. Fluctuating water flows defied
conventional notions of private property and caused both farmers
and communities to cooperate and develop social organizations to
deal with a hydraulic system.
"A conquest myth,"
he concludes, "did not produce a conquered land."
Such conclusions will surprise few farmers, but
they might force some environmentalists to rethink the lines they
draw. Fiege argues, "All landscapes are hybrid landscapes, fusions
of artifice and nature, offspring of our dreams and a natural world
that we can neither fully comprehend nor totally control."
Yet even as Fiege blurs the boundaries between
nature and culture, he also defines a place in the West - the Snake
River watershed of southern Idaho - that other historical and
environmental works have too often overlooked.
Jenny Emery Davidson