In Large and Sunlit Land


Here, in large and sunlit land ...
I will lay my hand in my neighbor's hand
And together we will atone
For the set folly and the red breach
And the black waste of it all.

-Rudyard Kipling


On New Year's Eve 1987, in Niger, West Africa, I camped with friends at the foot of a crescent dune whose sloping arms of sand cradled our bivouac. We came in two Land Cruisers, aid workers all, to bring in the year drinking and dancing beneath icy moonless skies. At midnight we scrambled up the dune where wind whipped sand about our knees and stars fell on the horizon as if the desert were sucking in the sky. When we stumbled down to bed, ankle-deep with every step, I had this sense of fleeing the vastness. Yet I felt at home precisely because all that space - so much like the Southwest American desert near where I grew up - made me feel I could do what I wanted. The land was that big. 

In the morning, sheltered by the dune's shadow, I was sitting on a freezer chest, having coffee when I looked up. Atop the sand stood a man with his arms folded, silhouetted against bleached sky. We all saw him. A breeze tugged at his robe. He wore a turban and a sword hung from his waist. We couldn't see his face or the colors of his clothing. He was likely a Tuareg herder because of the sword and the diamond shape of the cloth around his head and because this was Tuareg territory. He was there. Then he was gone. 

We knew little of the Tuareg, but within three years they would rise against Niger and Mali, which aimed to contain their nomad ways inside political borders unknown before French rule over West Africa ended in 1960. In the last decades of the 19th century, while the U.S. Army and Indian tribes battled for the American West, the French fought the Tuareg across the Sahel and southern Sahara. Both conflicts unfolded on grassland, in forest, and on rocky desert hardpan, though the French didn't subdue the Tuareg until 1919, more than 20 years after Indian tribes surrendered their arms in North America. 

I have to be careful arguing that anything about the American West bears more than passing similarity to Africa, a continent whose 11 million square miles hold many hundreds of languages and ethnic groups. But I grew up in Colorado and I'm attracted to large, difficult terrain and stories of how people live on such terrain. My family arrived from Detroit in 1970 behind waves of the hopeful and ambitious who came West to reinvent themselves in a place big enough to make a new life possible. In that respect, Africa, where I've spent six years of my life, and my adopted West are not so different. They exist under endless skies. They are mostly dry - in places very wet - lovely, harsh, and patient lands that have been ravaged by impatient people doing what they wanted. 

Material for comparison fills colonial history. The novelist Frank Norris visited South Africa in 1895, where he found the terrain of the Karoo Plateau near Cape Town to be much like Utah and western Colorado. His reports lend visual context to "The Settler," Kipling's mournful poem of the Boer Wars, whose second stanza begins, "Here, in large and sunlit land ..." P.C. Wren set Beau Geste, his novel of colonial folly, in the Sahara, imagining a Foreign Legion outpost - "in the midst of a vast ocean" - like Henry Morton Stanley's 1867 description of Fort Harker in Kansas. "A simple square," he called it, "situated on a gentle eminence, whence there is a commanding view of the great naked prairie." 

Stanley's story is special. Welsh orphan, soldier, journalist and explorer, his bitter romance with big lands started here in the West and consumed him in Africa, far from the Tuareg. He spent most of 1867 observing the U.S. Army's pursuit of the Cheyenne and other tribes across the rolling, cracked table that is the Great Plains. Stanley was as awestruck by the land as any newcomer: "For centuries the painted Indian careered over the pathless plains after the American bison in the wild exuberance of freedom." He came to those words as a Civil War veteran - of both sides - who wandered west, working jobs from Kansas to California, including a stint as a miner in Colorado, until he tried journalism. Stanley the reporter traveled the Plains with the Army from Colorado to Nebraska, a period he later called his "apprenticeship to the longer and more difficult one I was to continue in Unknown Africa." 

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