Blurring the landscape

  • Book cover of "Irrigated Eden"

  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