I've seen a few grand vistas since then, but that lovely moment is still absolutely clear in my memory. Unfortunately for the West, the sun goes down just as prettily over the Berkely Pit in Butte, Mont. The huge abandoned wound in the earth is slowly filling with water; the water looks to be full of heavy metals, and at sundown the pit glistens with an unearthly light. It's pretty, I suppose, but as toxic as some outer-space virus.
It seems the West always has been a place where the consequences of unbridled greed are particularly visible. Or, as the case may be, insidiously invisible. The West always has been the economic slave of outside interests, a colonial territory. First, they trapped almost all the beaver, then killed all the buffalo. Then they practiced a little genocide on the native population, then lied to the hordes of immigrant farmers. First, they said it wasn't really the Great American Desert; then when it was, they said there was so much of it it didn't really matter. So the farmers dropped their shiny new plows into 30,000 years of prairie sod, and made damn certain that the Great Plains would never be great again. Now we've got convicted junk-bond dealers out of jail on bond, "harvesting" our trees to provide the Japanese with cheap lumber.
The stories are endless about the rape of the West. They're all sad and somewhat crazy, but none as sadly crazed as the story told in Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West by Richard Misrach with Myriam Weisang Misrach (John Hopkins University Press: $25, paper; 133 pp.). It isn't enough that we've spent a couple of centuries out here letting scavenger birds foul our nests, now they're bombing us. What next, pray tell?
Here's the story in a nutshell, or make that bombshell: In 1952, in spite of all the other bomb ranges the Navy had at its disposal in Nevada, they began to test high-explosive bombs illegally on public lands just outside the small town of Fallon; the Navy gave it a military lable, Bravo 20, but the Northern Paiute, who used to live there and should know, called it the Source of Creation.
Richard Misrach filed a mining claim on Bravo 20, all legal and proper, and before the Pentagon bureaucratic warriors managed to set it aside 18 months later, Misrach took hundreds of photographs of Bravo 20. Needless to say, they are not pretty, these shots of thousands of bomb craters, filed with liquids that seem to still be explosively dangerous, scattered across fields of shrapnel and unexploded ordnance. These photographs have that sense of horrible fascination you find in photographs of atrocities. You can't stop looking at them, but you wish you could.
The text is just as effective, the facts just as unthinkable. Seventy percent of Nevada's air space is controlled by the military, which it makes it tough on the weekend pilot. Fallon Naval Air Station has a few problems itself, environmental ones; the clean-up is called, without irony, "Operation Ugly Baby." A few local citizens, those whose lives aren't based on economics and/or greed, are fighting the good fight out there in the desert. If you can stand a story about how your government doesn't exactly fight fair, how your government passes laws that you have to obey but they don't--if you can stand that tired, old chestnut of a story one more time, this is a great story.
Needless to say, it doesn't end on a happy note, but it does wind up with a great idea, a wonderful idea. Richard Misrach proposes that we make Bravo 20 into a National Park, our first environmental memorial, complete with a visitor center in the shape of an ammunition bunker and sightseeing routes named "Devastation Drive" and "Boardwalk of the Bombs."
If you can get through this book without agreeing with Mr. Misrach's modest proposal, give it away; you don't deserve to own it. "The Bombing of the West" indeed. It's big, it's beautiful, it belongs to us; let's bomb it.
Of course, the West always has been a place that puts a high premium on individual freedom and the almost feudal rights of the landowner. Along with a number of other western writers, I sometimes think we have paid too high a price for those myths, that those myths have done as much harm as all the ravenous corporate lions. Individual freedom is anarchy without an individual sense of responsibility, particularly where the land is concerned, and the responsibility of ownership is not just \o7 of\f7 the land but also \o7 to\f7 the land.
I must confess that when I came here from Texas, where almost all the land is privately owned, and found thousands of square miles of public land, I felt as if I had some title to this land. I didn't burn any of it down or take part in any free-lance clear-cuts or drive a D-9 Caterpillar to the top of Mount Jumbo just for the view, but like a child I had to be taught how to enjoy that freedom responsibly.