Powell's enduring teachings

  • Book cover of A River Running West

  • Book cover of Seeing Things Whole


What remains so astonishing about John Wesley Powell is that someone whose policy recommendations were almost totally ignored while he was alive should continue to command the attention of so many Western observers and decision makers a century after his death.

Powell's career studying the West included expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and, most notably, two descents of the Colorado River through the canyon wilderness of the Southwest. On his first run through the canyons, in 1869, he went with nine men in wooden boats, taking scientific notes and dispensing names (like Bright Angel Creek, Flaming Gorge, Desolation Canyon and Lava Falls) that still appear on Western maps. The one-armed Civil War veteran, always a doer as well as a thinker, went on to run the U.S. Geological Survey and the federal Bureau of Ethnology.

Powell challenged conventional views much the way he challenged rapids. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, published in 1878, severely indicted the Homestead Act and recommended far-reaching amendments to homesteading policy to fit the conditions of the interior West. Those recommendations were utterly ignored, and the vast tragedy of tens of thousands of homesteading families being driven off the land in the 1920s and '30s - indeed the continuing decline of population in the prairie states even today - is the ongoing legacy of the policies Powell so trenchantly condemned.

Equally ignored was Powell's insistence that jurisdictional boundaries in the West should never be drawn with a straight-edge, but should always follow the ridgelines so that people within the same watershed could engage in self-government within a place that made sense. As Westerners today become ever more aware of how fundamentally ungovernable our arbitrarily defined, box-shaped jurisdictions have become, and as we avidly form watershed councils, we follow Powell's long-ignored advice.

Fortunately, incisive writers like Bernard deVoto and Wallace Stegner began using Powell's work as a whetstone for their axes a half-century ago. Stegner was, as he put it, "angry at what heedless men have done to a noble habitat," so it was inevitable that Stegner's own political passions seeped into his landmark book on Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, published in 1954. Stegner plowed the memory of Powell deep into Western soil, preparing the region for the next crop of Powell scholarship, which has sprouted with vigor now in two major new works that offer a clearer view of Powell than we have ever had before.

If Powell was all about water in the West, and if his most enduring teaching was about the need to pay attention to the way the water flows and to shape Western policies and governing institutions accordingly, then the ideal biographer of Powell would be a meticulous scholar with an intimate understanding of Western water. In other words, Donald Worster, author of Rivers of Empire, the classic work on the geopolitical significance of Western water and watercourses.

In A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell, Worster acknowledges his indebtedness to Stegner's passionate rendering of Powell, then proceeds to present Powell with a palpably studied dispassion. He reveals Powell's "faults and weaknesses as well as his strengths and achievements."

Powell's work, for example, depended fundamentally on the work of his survey and exploration crews. Yet as Worster writes, "Few of them looked on Powell as their personal hero. They had lived too close ... and had seen his foibles and deficiencies. His science, some of them realized, could be superficial and casual; ... repeatedly, he left his employees with insufficient explanation about what they were trying to achieve and how they should be spending their time ... Often he seemed more intent on communicating with the newspapers, lecture audiences and Congress than he did with the men who were working under him; in their eyes he was a flawed leader as he was a maimed man."

Worster describes how Powell could be his own worst enemy, his scientific certainty even undermining his own arguments for a decentralized governing structure for the West: "He was now ironically identified in many people's eyes as one of the scientific and economic imperialists who were threatening Western democracy ... he had joined those who insisted that only the nation's best minds could understand (Western aridity) and deal effectively with it. His vision of an alternative West - based on decentralized irrigation and pasturage districts copied from Mormon villages - had been obscured."

Worster's scholarship is ideally complemented by William deBuys' new annotated selection of Powell's writing, Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell.

Thanks to deBuys, those interested in understanding (or arguing with) Powell now have easy recourse to the main body of his writings. At last, every Western bookshelf can readily be stocked with the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, or with the full text of Powell's remarkable address to the 1889 Montana constitutional convention.

My favorite among deBuys' selections is the series of Powell articles published in Century Magazine in 1890, setting forth a still remarkably relevant vision of Western governing institutions. As deBuys insists in his lively commentary, there is no need to make a saint or hero of Powell in order to appreciate "his insistence on understanding the relationship between the institutions of human society and the environment in which that society dwells." Or as Worster put it in a 1994 essay, "We have not yet invented all the institutions we will ever need in order to live in the (West). That is why Powell is still worth heeding."

Most of the governing institutions of the West today - from state governments to federal land-management agencies - show increasing signs of either dry rot or arteriosclerosis. One of the region's greatest weaknesses is the tendency to assume that institutions are their own warrant - that what is must remain. Powell would have none of it. A large part of his enduring appeal is his combination of boldness and intellectual honesty in assessing Western institutions. He stands ready still to join any honest Western conversation on the subject.

A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell, by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 2001. Hardcover: $35. 720 pages.

Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell, edited by William deBuys, Shearwater Books, 2001. Hardcover: $27.50. 320 pages.

Daniel Kemmis is director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West (Island Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Daniel Kemmis

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