The desert that breaks Annie Proulx's heart

Wyoming storyteller gives an unvarnished view of the Red Desert

  • Annie Proulx at home in Wyoming

    Gus Powell/Scribner
  • Cooling ponds at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant, Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 2002.

    Martin Stupich, from Red Desert: History of a Place
  • Hind legs, equine carcass, Carbon/Sweetwater county line, Wyoming, 2002

    Martin Stupich, from Red Desert: History of a Place
  • Double cross at grave of Jose Gonsales, possible cholera victim, Mexican Flat, Carbon County, Wyoming, 2005.

    Martin Stupich, from Red Desert: History of a Place
  • Feral horses near Bitter Creek townsite, Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 2003.

    Martin Stupich, from Red Desert: History of a Place
  • Irrigation reservoir rising behind newly completed earthen dam on the High Savery, Carbon County, Wyoming, 2004.

    Martin Stupich, from Red Desert: History of a Place

Annie Proulx does not love the Red Desert in southern Wyoming. That's what she says, anyway, though she's spent the last six years writing and editing a nonfiction book about the place.

"I think it's dangerous to love the desert," says the writer, who is known for telling brutal stories about rough, out-on-the-edge places and the people who live in them. "Because it's a heartbreaker to see what's happening to it. You know -- to watch its destruction."

We are sitting at a narrow table in her living room, two coffee cups on saucers between us, Wyoming sun bending through a wall of windows that look out on the North Platte River and a limestone cliff that captures each day's shifting light. Proulx breathes, taps her fingertips, and leans back.

The Red Desert, which lies just west of her home, is a 6 million-acre swath of federal, state and private land generally left off lists of the state's scenic highlights. To most people, it's just the Big Empty that flanks Interstate 80 for a hundred miles or so between Rawlins and Rock Springs -- a sagebrush ocean where the wind blows hard enough in winter to overturn semi trucks. From the road, it appears poorly named. There is little red to be seen, especially during the long hours of Wyoming's midday, when the sun flattens everything from here to the horizon into shades of brown and gray-green.

In recent years, a fever for oil and gas drilling has gripped the region. Roughly 5,000 wells have been drilled here, according to conservationists, but in the last four years, the Bureau of Land Management has approved or begun the approval process for 15,000 more. Where once there was wide quiet space and herds of cows and sheep and antelope and elk, now there are three-story drilling rigs and squat well pads, half-dug pipeline ditches snaking off to the horizon, invasive weeds, truck traffic, dust plumes.

There may be no better place than this one -- stark, little-known and shaped by a long human history of work and habitation -- in which to reconsider what makes a particular piece of land worth saving. And there may be no more fitting writer to do that reconsidering than the fierce and unsentimental outsider, Annie Proulx.

Proulx, 73, writes about rural people and places with spare language and severe grace. She started her career late, publishing her first book of stories at 56 and almost immediately winning literature's biggest honors, including the PEN/Faulkner Award (for her first novel, Postcards) and the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize (for her second, The Shipping News).

Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 06:38 PM
Annie Proulx needs to move back to whatever rock she climbed out from under before she became the saviour of Wyoming. She should stick to writing about her gay friends and forget the environment since she apparently doesn't know what she it talking about.
Every "green" dipstick in this country thinks you just go to Safeway for your edibles. They aren't grown anywhere, they just appear overnight. Energy?? No windmills in my backyard. Solar, not in my backyard, too expensive. Geothermal, can't drill and tap. Hydroelectric, no dams, the fish might starve. Oil, natural gas, coal bed methane, noooo way.
Well folks, you can't have it your way forever, this ain't Burger King
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 09:42 PM
Apparently the first commenter, Mr. Cardinal, didn't bother to read this well-written article about Ms. Proulx and her latest book. Unlike him, I didn't get the sense that she is necessarily advocating "saving" this place from fact she seems to go out of her way to acknowledge its historical, current, and future importance to humanity.

What she does do is to offer a piece of advice I once heard from Terry Tempest Williams (who heard it from her father), which is to know your place. In this instance, knowing your place is coming into the knowledge of what the Red Desert is all about...from humanity's standpoint, and the standpoint of the life that occurs there perhaps separate and once isolated from us.

To assume that the caution of "knowing your place" is to mean that you can't use, utilize, and exploit it is absurd. What it does mean, to me, is that by gaining that intimate knowledge, you are better able to make the right decisions about what to exploit with the least impacts, and perhaps also, what to leave alone.

Mr. Cardinal, and those of his offensive ilk (he couldn't even write a cogent criticism without seeking to offend), are just as dangerous to the conversation about responsible stewardship as those who argue the counterpoint. Those who brook no accommodation, no compromise, and take a "my way or the highway" stance don't move us forward in a helpful and hopeful way towards a decent responsible life for humankind, and respect and room for the landscapes and creatures with which we share this rare earth.

Thankfully we have voices like Ms. Proulx' to remind us of the importance and value of the unseen or ignored (anyone who has driven that stretch of 80 knows what I mean), be they landscapes or the people and creatures that inhabit them.
Anonymous says:
Feb 15, 2010 01:47 PM
Lisa comments were "right on". Only her title was in error. I enjoyed the peice immensely. I just finished reading the Author's book about the Oklahoma & Texas Panhandle and was intriqued by her ability to immerse herself into the geology of "the place" and soak up the people and events over time, that have shaped a place. We have just completed 12 years of full time RV travel just to do the same thing she says. There are no best or worst places on this continent only different ones, always in flux.
Anonymous says:
Apr 07, 2009 08:01 AM
Did you actually read the article, Ralph, or were you just burning with the desire to get that off your chest?

Next time, hold off on posting until you have something to say. Empty bloviating holds no water.
Anonymous says:
Apr 09, 2009 07:55 AM
I was going to respond in an intelligent manner about Proulx's extensive research habits. I was going to tell you about how knowledgeable she requires herself to be before publishing anything. But, I decided that you, Ralph, have no idea what YOU are talking about. It is not the "'green' dipsticks" that are trying to have it their way, it is people like you. The true ignorance in America is trying to ignore the necessity of change, and you sir are ignorant.
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 01:04 PM
Annie states at the end of her article that she knows this place can't be saved. It sounds like you are the one trying to save something (your ignorance?). If you don't like development of solar, wind & geothermal, maybe you should be the one who should crawl back under whatever rock YOU came out from under, in the future read the entire article before you form an opinion, your whole criticism makes you sound foolish.
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 02:16 PM
Plato said "A wise man speaks when he has something to say; a fool, when he has to say something."

Which one are you, Ralph?
Anonymous says:
May 01, 2009 08:36 PM
I actually live in WY..about 90 miles north of the Red Desert, and have for 20 years. Um..even the Casper Star Tribune editorials have a bit more "light-under the cranium" than poster #1..Mr.Troll.

The Red Desert is a great place to roam..if you have the time, proximity, and interest. Those of us who have spent months living (and working) in the desert (as opposed to a trailer in Baggs,RockSprings,etc... know what's happening there over the last decade. Those who are trying to wring the last dime out of the landscape are part of Wyoming's heritage too..but...well.."never flame the troll"

Over-all a great blog, outstanding photography!I just finished read in Proulx's (ed) Red Desert..a hefty and worthy purchase at our small town library.

btw..leaving for the AdobeTown/Kinney Rim area in 4 days for 2 the roads dry out a bit...lalalalala :)

Anonymous says:
Apr 07, 2009 10:47 AM
This is a wonderful story, about one of the strangest places that I have ever been.

But I'd like to speak to the first comment, rather than the story, for now.

I think it is time that we ask a simple question: Why are the voices that demand unrestricted development of natural resources, especially on the public lands, so filled with anger and hatred?
It is not enough to say that this is backlash against "enviromeddlers." One look around the planet will demonstrate to anybody that the "enviromeddlers" are not exactly winning the day. Just in microcosm, a short drive north of Wamsutter will show you basically unrestricted energy development, on public lands.

So what, exactly, is the basis for the rage?
Anonymous says:
Apr 07, 2009 02:57 PM
I spent three summers on a research project in the Red Desert, capturing, marking and recapturing Prairie Falcons. The place is heaven for desert raptors. We monitored over seventy nest sites. The productivity of this ecosystem, in terms of biomass, is deceiving. In order to support so many predators there must be vast amounts of prey which harvest incredible amounts of vegetation. This is not obvious to the human eye. The place is an incubator for the sublime; wild equine studs defending harums, questioning your intrusion with the confidence of an owner, night skys like no others. elk leaping fences in a landscape without fences, the warning wheeze of a buck antelope so far away that you cannot locate him. An enormous strip mine marching toward an absolutely unique rock (Black Rock), a small desert butte, home to three pairs of falcons and one golden eagle for as long as we can imagine, smoking as it grows. The BBC asked if we knew of an eagle nest they could photograph, one with no roads in the background. Although we knew of many, all were surrounded by the marks motor vehicle traffic. This is a land of contradiction and mystery not looking to be explained and is somehow enriching to the soul of certain kind of folk.
Anonymous says:
Apr 07, 2009 07:54 PM
I tried to leave a post last night, but for some reason, it didn't save.
Since the rest of you have been so gracious in the dressing-down of our favorite commenter, I'm going to thank you, and will move on.
I'm not all that familiar with Annie Proulx, but I did enjoy this article very much. I have lived the last 53 years of my life in Colorado and Idaho. Both of these great states have all kinds of environmental issues. When I grew tired of all the masses around Denver, I packed up my family and moved to Idaho. I loved living in a town of 16,000 folks in an agricultural setting. A few short miles in the car took you far away from civilization. It's much different now. My town is over 85,000 now. I would love for the clock to turn back to 1975.
The problem we face today is the fact that, yes, we do need energy today. My problem with new dams, nuclear facilities, coal-fired plants, ad nauseum, is the simple realization that not many people will try to conserve, or be prudent, with what we have oris yet to come.
If we in the West start selling out to the interests on the seaboards, they will not stop taking whatever they can grab. Perhaps there is some hope for wind and solar generation, I hope so.
Thank you Annie. And here's one for the horse that Ralph rode in on.
Anonymous says:
Apr 23, 2009 10:20 AM
I never read Annie Proulx before, but was so taken by Emma Browns article about her and the book that I ordered it from Amazon sight unseen. My first disappointment upon opening the package was that the book is an odd size for reading. More like a cocktail table book. Never-the-less, I dove right into it, only to find that much of it reads like a text book, appropriate for science students, but certainly not laid out for a layman, in an interesting, easy flowing prose, like one of, Craig Childs wonderful books. Annie's writing contribution in the book doesn't amount to much considering that the Emma Brown piece made me think that she had spent the last six years putting the book together. I am disappointed not only in the book, but the romantization of it in Brown's work. I will donate my copy to the library and I recommend that before others order by mail, they either look at a copy in a book store or run to the local library. I learned a lesson on this one. Don't trust what you read...even in HCN.
Anonymous says:
Jun 18, 2009 09:18 PM
Read Proulx's fiction. Therein is the window to the lives of rural Wyomingites. She's Wyoming's Tom McGuane and that's damn good company in chronicling the American West and the unsung lives of the hardscrabble crowd who eke out a living in a harsh landscape.
Anonymous says:
Aug 17, 2010 09:54 PM
I've roamed the Red Desert in all seasons, doing oil exploration, and Bob Hitchcock is the only one who has written anything that truly characterizes the place. Go read the striae on one of the buttes, that represent some tens of millions of years, then relax. The place takes care of itself; it doesn't need either Annie Proulx, me, or you—we're all just passin' through.