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THE BACKBONE OF THE WORLD: A Portrait of a Vanishing Way of Life Along the Continental Divide By Frank Clifford Broadway: 276 pp., $24.95

April 28, 2002|RICK BASS | Rick Bass is the author of 16 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the forthcoming story collection "The Hermit's Story."

I believe it's an unacknowledged phenomenon that landscape shapes character, landscape shapes the individual, landscape shapes culture, landscape shapes all, and I wonder often if, as we lose so many of our various unique American landscapes, we are not also somehow losing sections and segments of our spirit, our identity. I fear increasingly that by the time we as a society make this connection, it will be too late; we'll have lost those places and the collective contribution they make to our culture and, somewhere, in that vanishing, we will have become as tame and unimaginative and disconnected as any other "developed" nation.

As an editor and reporter with the Los Angeles Times for 20 years, Frank Clifford has had occasion to cross paths with a number of such places. In "The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of a Vanishing Way of Life Along the Continental Divide," Clifford--the son of a gold miner--states that it's his goal to capture and chronicle the tales of the disappearing, "the ones who shot their own meat, who made a living on horseback, who were still trying to adjust to the twentieth century on the verge of the twenty-first." His vision and historical awareness are admirable, for to rural residents of the West, it sometimes seems that such individuals are still as common as pie. So much are they a part of the West's culture and community that it's almost inconceivable that their lives are, or will one day be, the stuff of documentary, the mortar of history--much less, occasionally, the stones, the essence, of history itself.

For the individual in the West has never been very large and grows tinier still. This is not so much the result of the onslaught of big government and its regulations, many of which, truth be told, help preserve these hanging-on cultures and the resources to which their fates are wedded; think of the salmon fishermen reliant upon the Endangered Species Act to protect their resource, the independent loggers dependent upon a 30% tariff on Canadian lumber imports, the rancher grazing his or her stock on federal lands at a fraction the cost per animal unit that the so-called "free market" would bear. Rather, it is big business, not government, that these last shoot-your-own-meaters should most be fearing.

Clifford has been motivated by the ambition to preserve vanishing stories, if not the landscape that gave birth to such stories, and that shaped such individuals. Starting at the southern end of the United States, in Hachita, N.M., he sets out along the spine of the Continental Divide, which divides the watersheds of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. To document the stories Clifford was looking for, he knew it was past time. The population of Texas is now 85% urban. Less than 5% of employment in the Rocky Mountain states is still in farming, ranching and mining. "Wyoming might have a cowboy on its license plate," writes Clifford, "but [by 1995] barely 3 percent of its population made a living raising sheep and cows."

The reporting found in "The Backbone of the World" is substantial and of the most wonderful kind, with the numbers, dates and statistics woven carefully into the stories. And the breadth of the book--profiles of a variety of land-use practitioners from south to north along the Continental Divide and the proposed Continental Divide Trail--is considerable. Throughout the book, Clifford listens, rather than talks, though occasionally his own perceptions and reminiscences of landscape appear, particularly near the end of the book, as if drawn out or even resurrected by both the experience and the writing.

Each essay has much to recommend it, though I find "The Bootheel" particularly interesting in that it chronicles an area and history that are largely underreported--the "bootheel" of New Mexico that juts down into Mexico, with all of the attendant border disputes. Here Clifford spends time with a family in Hidalgo County, where the value of drugs seized will soon exceed the assessed valuation of all personal property. The Bootheel's curious white history is due in large part to U.S.-exiled Mormons who tried to settle in Chihuahua but who were driven back into the U.S. by the Mexican government and settled finally in this strange no man's land of shifting disputed borders and very little water, and it's here that the proposed Continental Divide Trail begins. There are some ranchers, Clifford discovers, who would prefer cocaine and marijuana smugglers to Lycra-clad recreationists.

In another essay, "The Badger," Clifford spends time with members of the Blackfoot tribe in northern Montana, where he attends an annual summer powwow. Here he listens to tribal linguists "reacquaint the Blackfeet with the language their grandparents spoke. It seems to be a language grounded intensely in a specific, physical world--a world of landscape," Clifford writes.

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