The persistence of place in Western writing

Authors find inspiration in the land, no matter its state.


Every year, High Country News takes a break from covering current events to look at the West through the eyes of its literary denizens. Most of the writing in this year’s “Books and Authors” issue hits themes familiar to every Westerner, echoing the conflicts common to our million-square-mile region. These authors find a sense of inspiration in the land, even when that land is damaged and overused. Karen Piper’s memoir, A Girl’s Guide to Missiles, recalls her childhood on a secretive Cold War outpost — the China Lake Missile Range in California’s Mojave Desert — where her parents designed weapons for the U.S. military. Returning as an adult, she seeks to make sense of her memories, both mundane and surreal. But the desert’s unchanging beauty eclipses fear and dread: “The incongruousness of the place made me want to laugh out loud, to become delirious. ... I started a skip-run like my father’s into the canyon and felt that desert elation seep inside me, the living wilderness embracing me. The guide faded into the distance. The ordnance was forgotten.”

In Kickdown, the fictional story of two sisters fighting to hold onto their family’s Colorado ranch after their father dies, former HCN Associate Editor Rebecca Clarren depicts the natural gas industry’s impacts on a small Western town and its residents. Rebecca’s characters are recognizable individuals — an emotionally wounded Iraq War vet, a journalist who has lost her confidence, a daughter who left a promising medical career to “save” the ranch. They want to make peace with this scarred landscape, even as they recognize that no landscape, and no lifestyle, lasts forever.

Utah writer Amy Irvine also seeks to make peace with change. In Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, she revisits the ideas of Edward Abbey, that legendary wilderness advocate and literary curmudgeon. Musing at his unmarked desert grave, she writes, “You, Mr. Abbey, may have developed whole fleets — generations’ worth — of desert defenders, but now they’re out there en masse, bumping into one another on the very ground on which you taught them to go lightly and alone. They are as much the problem as they are the solution, and it’s hard to know how we don’t divvy that down the middle, into us and them, right and wrong.”

Jodi Peterson, contributing editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News
Other writers in this issue reimagine our relationships to each other, and to the land. Diné poet Tacey Atsitty looks to fill “part of that void we often feel as human beings.” Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho novelist, examines what it means to be an urban Indian. Ben Goldfarb introduces us to Susan Leopold Freeman, a granddaughter of iconic conservationist Aldo Leopold who’s resurrecting a dying creek in Washington.

Irvine puts it best: “Despite what seems like increasingly dark times for the planet, these wild places persist. Places that exfoliate our neuroses. That refuse to coddle our compulsions. That remind us, in these times of profound greed, what we really need.” We hope you’ll find something you need in this issue of HCN as well.        

High Country News Classifieds