Can beauty alone save a natural place?

Essays that unravel the mystique of the American West.

 

For Robert Leonard Reid, protecting wilderness is a literary act. The Carson City, Nevada-based writer has spent 40 years roving Western landscapes in an effort to preserve them, primarily through his words. Reid’s latest work, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West, displays an almost claustral curiosity: An exploratory spirit envelops and propels him across the Arctic, the Sierras, the Rockies, the sacred spaces of Native America and all the toeholds and crags in between, from the High Plains of eastern New Mexico to the Bugaboos in British Columbia.

Reid writes with the flair of daredevil naturalist Craig Childs and the philosophical quotient of nature essayist Edward Hoagland. The book functions like an atlas; each essay is a wayfinding tool, navigating the reader toward “the mystique of the American West” — something that, despite the book’s subtitle, he seeks not to unravel but preserve: “A journey into the Sierra, even today, is a journey into ambiguity and mystery ... any account of a wilderness journey that omits the ambiguity ... is bound to be false.” Mystique is his muse in these essays, which blend wilderness and adventure writing, environmental reportage, and historical and literary analysis. Drawing on three earlier books and previously unpublished material, this career-spanning collection was a finalist for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

Caribou crossing a stream on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope.
Theo Allofs/Alamy

A central question unifies the book: How do you truly know a place? Topophilia — loving a particular landscape and identifying with it deeply — might be innate in each of us, but it is not necessarily accessible to us. It is for Reid, however. A formative experience with environmental writer Barry Lopez in 1979 fired Reid’s literary intuitions. A mountain climber and would-be writer, Reid attended a wilderness preservation conference that Lopez keynoted. His speech struck Reid like a bolt from the sky. Lopez argued that wilderness activists needed to tell their legislators “that a certain river or butterfly or mountain ... must be saved, not because of its economic (or) recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.” Reid’s future as a writer flashed into focus. Aesthetic value alone can save a landscape, but not unless it has a voice.

Reid builds that voice through sentences that construct landscapes and court curiosity, as his lexicon shifts with the terrain. His diction bewitches even the sleepiest of readers: J. Robert Oppenheimer is a “Heldentenor in cowboy boots”; the scientists at Los Alamos, those “Kyries of Trinity,” are “hosannas.” Reid is a craftsman: “Writers who hope to reveal the essential matter of their subjects must have the patience, the facility, and, not least of all, the good luck to discover the proper light.”

Reid is keen on New Mexico, whose “wide skies and yawning spaces” remind him of the Judeo-Christian tradition of “seeking God in big empty country.” Such places attract people “drawn to grand vistas and soul-searching ruminations” — such as Oppenheimer. Reid understands the contradictory forces at play in sacred spaces. In Los Alamos, “physics and engineering became prayers and incantations,” as if the magnitude of scientific discovery was a manifestation of the divine itself. A pilgrimage to a back-to-the-lander’s remote cabin in Alaska’s Brooks Range — “eighty miles north of the Arctic Circle, fifty miles from the nearest neighbor, two hundred miles from the nearest road” — dovetails with a story about the elusive Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates annually to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reid tracks down the caribou right as they give birth, unraveling a mystical ecological process that had previously eluded him.

Whether one agrees that awe and beauty trump economics might be beside the point for Reid. His writings are about the larger point: the courage it takes to pursue one’s ultimate aim, or telos. “To save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker — to live one’s life — one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.” There is an evolutionary quality to the way his ideas mutate and build in the book, each successive essay refining his lens on the West. This makes sense. You can’t capture mystique; it continually enchants us and then slips away. The more Reid interfaces with it — the more peaks and passes he pursues — the more his essays (and he) unfold — and are re-framed.

Eric Siegel, a poet and writer, is a field instructor for the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Montana, and teaches Environmental Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • PROGRAM AND OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Program and Outreach Coordinator - Dolores River Boating Advocates, a conservation and recreation minded non-profit based in Dolores, CO, is hiring a 20 hour/week Program...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...