William Kittredge is a man peculiarly suited to write about the West. He comes from a family that used the land as Westerners did long ago, before everything began to run out. The son of a rancher in southeastern Oregon, Kittredge grew into his father's job, tried to manage the land and the men, and at 33 gave it all up and headed off to Iowa to study creative writing. He's lived ever since in Montana, where he taught writing for many years, and, if this book is anything to go by, hung around in taverns a lot.
In these essays, which entwine his personal history with the history of Western expansion, Kittredge takes pains to understand his father. He also looks hard at what we've lost because of men like his father, who, he writes "got his hands on a paradise of waterbirds and fertility, and ... remade it into what he understood as useful, a sprawling system of irrigation and drainage canals and agribusiness fields." He writes beautifully of the resulting losses, as in this passage, where he's driving along the Salmon River, thinking about disappeared salmon and massacred grizzly bears. "In wintertime moonlight, the icy Sawtooth Range was aglow under a swirling sky. I contemplated the serious, classical, fool-making mysteries. How to proceed? Can it be true we suffer from a nostalgia for which there is no remedy on earth?"
Kittredge seems less than entirely sanguine about the future of the West. On the other hand, he's not moving away. He often describes the people in his world as "two-hearted." They look both forward and backward; they're optimistic and despairing. Kittredge's genius lies in his ability to hold the old West and the new West simultaneously in his mind.
If you're a longtime Kittredge fan and you're feeling tight on cash, you probably don't need to own this book; many of these essays have appeared in other collections. But if you've never read this two-hearted writer, you can't afford not to buy it.
The author writes about culture for the New York Times and other publications, and lives in Boulder, Colorado.
The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays
256 pages, softcover: $15.Graywolf Press, 2007.