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Know the West

Student essay: The view from the East


Editor's note: This is the winning essay from our annual student essay contest. This year's theme was "How I Became a Westerner." Learn more about student subscription offers here.

It took going East for me to understand my home in the West. Like the narrator of Steinbeck's East of Eden, my thoughts were always drawn to the mountains east of my home near the San Francisco Bay, beyond what I thought was complacent and familiar and tame. So when I had the chance to attend an ivy-on-brick liberal arts college in Maine, a state so unfamiliar to me that I assumed I would wake up every day to a moose-call, I left.

In Maine, I was enchanted when the leaves turned red and orange and yellow. I walked through the first silent snowstorm in a T-shirt, excited to feel the soft, cold whiteness falling on my skin. My weekends were filled with outdoor trips, including whitewater kayaking clinics and a leadership course in backpacking and canoe tripping.

Yet as I learned to paddle Maine's rivers, waterways that churn through verdant mountain valleys, I longed for the sheer granite gorges of the Sierra. As I climbed up 4,000-foot peaks, I found myself wishing there was another 6,000 feet beneath my boots. I learned to surf on the pine-tree state's picturesque sand beaches, but what I craved was the frothing, shark-infested boil of California's North Coast.

Growing up exploring the public lands of the West cast a spell on me, something I wasn't fully aware of until I fled. To assuage my homesickness, I started packing my course schedule with environmental studies classes, hoping to feel a stronger connection to nature and my home.

"Environment and Culture in North American History" took a buzz saw to my pre-digested assumptions about the national parks, forests and wilderness areas of the West. We learned about how Native American communities were exiled during the creation of parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, and my beloved Yosemite. We dissected John Muir, whom we Californians revere like Jesus, and discussed how his ideas of natural purity were often conflated with racial purity. By the time I was through, my view of the West had transformed enormously.

We talked about the counterproductive, and often hypocritical, ideal of purity. We American conservationists, Easterners and Westerners alike, have an obsession with pure, wild nature, and often let this get in the way of effective environmental work. Strict forest regulations in California, for example, certainly preserve beautiful nature for hikers, climbers and river runners, but shift the pressure for timber extraction over our borders -- into places like Canada, China and Brazil. "Purity" is a double-edged sword -- a buzz saw tearing through a fig tree.

It took going East for me to begin to understand my West. The great distance, my education and my growing homesickness complicated my old assumptions, bringing nuance into previously concrete associations like "home," "preservation," and "wilderness." But my love for the West still drives my learning about the region's history and policy and ecology. And after college, I plan to return to play my own part in the increasingly complex human-land narrative that shapes our beloved natural spaces.

Walter Wuthmann grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He is a junior in English and Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and is fueled by what his friends perceive as a disturbing love of books and a massive environmental guilt.