Lycra is as 'authentic' as denim

  • Diane Sylvain

It has become commonplace to attack and ridicule the socio-economic changes that are taking place in the Rocky Mountain West. With disgust and caustic humor residents lash out at the new "cappuccino cowboys," the brightly colored, lycra-clad mountain bikers, the 20-acre ranchettes, the trophy homes of newcomers, and the network surfers on the information highway.

These disgusting newcomers are contrasted with the upright and dignified ranchers, farmers, loggers and miners of the past. These latter folks are seen as the true lifeblood of the real West and the interlopers as a disease that is undermining all that was legitimate and unique about the West.

This cultural clash certainly is not new to the West. What is surprising is that those decrying the current tides of change sweeping over the West as it is resettled yet again do not recognize that they launch their critique of the emerging "next West" from a position that was subject to very similar attacks as it first emerged.

Where do we start in the pursuit of the "true" American West? If we begin with the indigenous people Europeans discovered in North America, Native Americans certainly were appalled by the values and lifestyles of the early trappers, traders, buffalo hunters, prospectors, etc. Of course, these early mountain men were appalled by the coming of missionaries, white settlements and agriculture.

Then there were the cattle ranchers who saw sheep herders and farmers as a repulsive group of people who threatened the local economy and culture. The rough-and-tumble rural residents, whether they were ranch hands or miners, found the efforts to bring law and order and a certain modicum of civility to the urban towns an attack on their freedom and way of life. And, of course, the first ethnic group to settle a mining town thought the next ethnic group to come along barbarians who threatened everything that was decent.

Now, as the economy continues to change and evolve, a new group of people with a slightly different way of life is emerging, and the sons and daughters of the miners and loggers and ranchers, most of whom are not miners, loggers or ranchers themselves, sneer at the newcomers and feel threatened. Something important is surely being lost, they mutter.

Because almost none of us, old-time residents or newcomers alike, work the land with our hands, seeking to harvest the bounty of nature, we are told that something is wrong with our economy and lifestyle. We have lost our connection with the earth and our past. We are rootless, insubstantial folks doing nothing much of importance with our lives.

But what is this self-loathing all about? How many of us really want to be underground miners or woods workers wielding chainsaws and setting chokers or farmers or ranchers wedded to land and animals in isolated locations? Many of us had the opportunity to pursue such occupations earlier in our lives and emphatically chose not to do so.

Miners rarely encourage their children to go into the mines. Forest workers and mill workers often leave this line of work any time there is an opportunity to do so. They encourage their children to look elsewhere for employment. Ranchers and farmers, since the dawn of the modern era, have found it impossible to "keep the kids down on the farm." The lure of urban life and urban livelihoods have been too great.

So the truth is that most of us do not want to do this type of work and we discourage our kids from doing it, too. Why then do we decry the economy and culture that emerge as other people make the same choices we have made? Why do we lend near-religious significance to the particular set of occupations that happened to historically precede those that we chose? There is something silly going on here.

Let it firmly be said that working the land to manipulate nature does not have a higher moral status than working with people to improve their lives. That, by the way, is what the much maligned "services' sector is all about. Teachers, healers, spiritual counselors, artists and scientists are not temporary occupations of minor significance. Those who work with their heads and hearts are not less productive nor less reliable in their contribution to the community than those who break a sweat as they work with their muscles.

The way to understand and appreciate nature is not only through the commercial exploitation of the earth. Studying nature, contemplating the complexity and beauty of the landscape, engaging that landscape with a sense of discovery, play and enjoyment have at least the same moral status as clearcutting, stripmining or agricultural monoculture.

There is no point to this self-loathing. A new West is emerging, as it always has since one wave of tribes after another moved through the region. We can appreciate that which is valuable and admirable in the culture and livelihood that preceded us without canonizing our predecessors and sneering at ourselves and our neighbors.

Only people confident in their own values have the capacity to preserve and honor that which preceded them.

Tom Power is an economist at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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