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Know the West

An Easterner ponders the West's alleged wildness


This is a mea culpa. Sorta.

A few months ago I published a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly. An excerpt from a forthcoming book, it argued that the forests of the Appalachian spine had recovered much further than people realize - that even the wolf and the mountain lion had begun to return. The renewed forest is not the same one that was chopped down, of course. And my argument can be twisted and misused (as it was, for instance, by Gregg Easterbrook in his A Moment on the Earth) to prove not that we should back off from our abuse of the land in other places, but to pretend that no matter what people do to forests they will come back.

Still, the recovery of the Eastern forest is a remarkable story - one that offers hope to areas that are only now hitting bottom ecologically. In the course of writing it, however, I dabbled in what might be called Eastern chauvinism. Not the plan to save the spotted owl, I insisted, nor the salvation of Alaska's pristine ranges, represented the "real" environmental triumph of the nation. The real victory, I argued, was the slow recovery of my Eastern hills, which represented a more "mature mythos' than the romance of the West.

I didn't think much about such passages while I was writing, but I was brought up short when I visited Brooke and Terry Tempest Williams in Salt Lake City, and was told - with stern if loving dismay - precisely how invidious such comparisons were, and how demoralizing to people waging the good fight for protected wilderness in Utah or Montana or wherever else.

I didn't argue - and I was grateful there was time left to change those sentences in the book manuscript. The last thing any author wants is to rouse anger with offhand remarks, especially when his actual prescriptions are likely to be controversial enough. (In this case, an end to consumer civilization.) But I did think long and hard about why I'd written those sentences the way I did.

Partly it was just pique, a chip-on-the-shoulder stubbornness from year upon year of hearing Westerners who assumed that the left-hand side of the continent was the natural one, while the East was a paved-over megalopolis.

Every time Outside magazine describes a visit to my Adirondacks, for instance, it can't resist a dig at the "hills that pass for mountains." Never mind that New York has more protected wilderness than Utah; never mind that Adirondack Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Glacier combined.

The calendars, published by the environmental groups, that hang on refrigerator doors always show one photo of the East - it's for October, a shower of yellow leaves.

If the Manhattanites' view of the cultural universe is accurately captured by the Steinberg drawing that shows only wasteland west of the Hudson till L.A., it can be easily reversed for the Westerner's view of the environmental cosmology: the Rockies and the Sierra, the Great Basin, the Southwest Desert - and there in the distance, Central Park.

Sadly, Easterners have gradually come to agree - there has formed a national idea of where real nature can be found. Bostonians tend to be better informed, and far more concerned, about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge than about the North Woods of Maine, 10 million unpopulated acres one state to the north.

I think I hoped to help spawn a kind of Eastern consciousness of the natural world: to show my neighbors that we have great glories near us, that the woods have in many places returned, and with them the bear, the beaver. To show them that wildness gathers here: that gentle, pastoral Vermont is now 80 percent forest, and once again the lair of mountain lions. A mountain lion - catamounts, they call them in Vermont - changes the nature of the forest.

I wanted to show that our understanding of the continent is a historical accident, a view frozen in our minds at a moment when the East happened to be cut over and farmed by the first generations of European arrivals, and the West happened to be more wide open. In some ways, and in some places, that reality has since switched. (While the Adirondacks healed, the forests of the Northwest were increasingly Weyerhaeuserized.) But the picture in our minds has never really changed. Hence my clumsy attempts to exalt the East at the expense of the West.

But the more I consider it, the more I see why it's a rhetorical trap. Not because it offends, but because it continues this sense of geographical division, even adds to it, and at a time when it is damaging to more than truth. Facing the strongest attack since Teddy Roosevelt's day on the whole idea of conservation, we can afford nothing less than a united front. Wise-users have overcome all regional boundaries, and so has industry - it's Rep. Charles Taylor, whose district covers the Pisgah and Natahala national forests in western North Carolina, who pushed the legislation to double the cut in the federal groves.

In the face of such national disaster, we need to recover a national sense of landscape - the sense suggested by Woody Guthrie, who praised both redwood forests and gulf stream waters. East, West and Middle, a gorgeous and sweeping seamlessness, a vast and intricate picture. There are plenty of symbols for such an understanding - the herds of animals that once migrated east and west, or existed all across the country (why do you think they call Buffalo, Buffalo?), or have moved in recent decades into every corner of the nation. Trickster coyote showed up in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx this spring.

We're slow to see what's happening in the East, because we've been so schooled to think of wilderness as Western - to imagine, too, that there's some special breed of person, the rugged Westerner, an individualist shaped by his tough landscape to solitary terseness and super competency. It's no longer a useful myth - mostly it allows corporate cattle ranchers to sell themselves as sex objects. (It's hard for a coast cast as Woody Allen to argue with John Wayne.) And the image is not just destructive - it's wrong. In a nation where the satellite dish is the national flower, such distinctions are rubbish, as wrongheaded as the Eastern superiority I was trying on for size in my Atlantic essay.

What we need to recognize is our commonality. We may adore different places with dramatically different ecologies - the high and arid desert, or the humid lushness of the Gulf Coast, or the granite perfection of the Sierra. I will never lose my love for the hardwood forests of the Appalachians, the hemlocks over the streams, the pines on the high ridges. But we need a partnership that will let us fight for each other's places - a partnership that can activate the majority all across the land that wants to see nature recover and prosper. But like any working partnership, it must be between equals. n

Bill McKibben, who lives east of the 100th meridian, is the author of The End of Nature.