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Lost in Space

Rick Bass has been pondering the West all his life, wondering if there's one thing that defines Westerness. Is it something as simple as geology or as complicated as spirit? Are we in danger of losing it forever, or is it simply slipping away, to roam beyond the horizon?

April 16, 2006|Rick Bass | Rick Bass is the author of 22 books, including "The Lives of Rocks," to be published this fall.

It keeps moving, but when I was a child growing up on the outskirts of Houston I believed that it was already all gone, that I had just missed it, the West, by only a single generation, or at the most two--as maybe every generation believes it has just missed the West. A
Perhaps not just heat-

washed clodhopper farm boys standing discontented hoe-side in gypsum-strangled Utah, or wildcatters dreaming fevered uranium dreams or visions of oil-laden anticlines like sugar-plums, but maybe residents of all centuries have stood on a mesa and wondered at a farther, deeper wildness--over the next range of mountains, if not also further back in time. And even then, might they have understood or intuited that their place in that time, believed to be enduring, would in fact prove to be far more prone to disintegration than the physical elements of mountains, forest, plains?

In Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men," the protagonist, an aging sheriff along the Texas-Mexico border watching his county turn into a drug fiefdom, says, "These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you'd of told em it was their own grandchildren?"

We can feel it moving now, sliding away; and yet even in its diminishment it is still somehow fiercely present.

(A caveat: I am still, despite my knowing better, dreaming only the Anglo dream of the West. What are the dreams in Indian country, and of Latinos? What dreams do Tibetan and Thai emigres bring, and Russian orthodoxy, and first- and second-generation Chinese Americans?)

It's a long way from San Diego to Denver, from Seattle to Albuquerque, and yet there remain some undeniable if intangible threads unifying Westerners. A hundred and forty years ago, Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who explored the Grand Canyon and much of the rest of the West, said the unifying thread was water, or the absence of it, and for sure that was, and largely is, one of the major physical threads. But there is something else too, some unseen thread of spirit.

Perhaps it's best not to pick or pluck at that thread too closely--perhaps what we perceive as spirit in the West is really only something as heartless and lifeless as geology, with the rock outcroppings of the East being some several million years older, so that the half-life decay of sun-burnished ions in the West seems still to radiate a bracing and at times intoxicating freshness, able still to be felt and noticed if not yet measured by even a species as insensate and oblivious as our own. Perhaps science will one day ultimately be found to be at the heart of religion, or faith--as almost everything, it seems, is eventually discovered or named or measured or otherwise colonized--but for now, no such explanation or discovery exists, only the inexplicable awareness that there is a difference between the West and rest of the country, and that it is no less profound for its ungraspable immeasurability.

So powerful can be this bond between Westerners and landscape that it's possible to believe that the West might have existed in our brainpans long before the first paleface ever dreamed of conquest, possession, and of that shadowed and seemingly illogical and inconsistent paradox, freedom. As human culture in the Deep South and East is stacked in vertical layers of time, like geological strata, perhaps the building blocks of the West, particularly today's West, the New West, are composed of chunks of physical space--basin and range, sunlight, boulder, forest, river, desert--possessing more of a horizontal breadth.

To say it was always in motion would be conjecture. What can be said confidently is that it is moving now--moving with such alacrity, like an animal getting up from a daybed and traveling for a while, that almost anyone can see it, and that even in those places where we cannot see it, we can sense its movement, its possible going-away or leave-taking, and we are made uneasy by it, even as we are still, at this late date, yet unable to name or measure that going-awayness, that freshness and wildness, that Westernness.

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