Human wildness on the range

  • Book cover of The Backbone of the World

 

Frank Clifford has no trouble holding two clashing ideas in mind. The first is his love of wild country, the second is his love of the wild people most of us see as the enemy of wild country.

A gold miner's son who is now an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Clifford comes by his split naturally. But the book will probably offend all sides.

He hangs the narrative on the Continental Divide Trail that runs by fits and starts from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Rockies. But Backbone isn't a travel story. It is about land-toughened locals butting heads with modem-moderns.

There is no doubt about the winner. The people Clifford portrays are often sickly, usually aged, always on the wrong side of the economy. My favorite is the elderly rancher with a disfigured face; he's used a caustic brew to twice burn away melanomas. (He has no health insurance, of course.)

Leaving this man's ranch, Clifford comes on a young couple, "dressed in form-fitting Day-Glo Lycra, laboring over a broken bicycle." They tell Clifford that everyone has been friendly except for a few ranchers. Clifford tells them they're in Catron County, N.M. They catch the implication - "Is that like saying we're in Dodge City?" - but the name means nothing to them.

The promotional blurb says the book is about the Old West's pioneer spirit. It's not. It's about 20 or so lunatics who make life hard for themselves. It's about people who persist in digging in mines and getting their backs broken. About ranchers who live on the Mexican-U.S. border in the way of thousands of "wets" and drug dealers. About a family that persists in raising sheep near Vail, Colo. It's about a few of our fellow Americans who don't know enough to come in out of the climatic and economic cold.

Clifford admires human wildness. His trouble - if he wants to sell books - is that he does not understand how we can protect wild land while destroying wild people. Clifford is with the early Edward Abbey - the one who wrote Fire on the Mountain, an admiring novel about a rancher who defied the Department of Defense.

Somehow, Clifford is telling us, we have to get these wild people on our side. Or rather, we have to get over to their side. Read the book to figure out what that will take.

The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide, by Frank Clifford. Broadway Books, NY, 2002. Hardcover $24.95. 272 pages

Ed Marston is executive director of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...