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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.

Certainly in 1960s Texas it was going away like a horrific backwash. Each Sunday on our way to church my family would pass the informally named Wolf Corner, where I would lean forward in my seat to see the corner fencepost where ranchers had hung that week's bounty, the little coyotes and the larger red wolves, by their heels, for all the honest world to see. It was out by Highway 6, which was once gently waving grassland--it's blanketed now with dazzling superstores, an eight-lane highway, the vertical glittering skyscrapers reflecting the hot Houston sun in myriad directions, like the light envisioned perhaps by the prophets who beheld in their own exalted dreams the streets of heaven (assuming they were not holding the wrong end of the spyglass and witnessing instead the oppositional alternative territory described by those same prophecies). But back then it was only sweet balming tall-grass prairie, yielding weekly its grisly bounty--the little wolves' legs fractured and bloodstained from where they had gnawed for hours or even days at the traps' grip, some of the wolves and coyotes stiffened and sun-dried, hanging like loose shingles after a storm, and others, newly killed, still limp and soft, like sheaves of tobacco hanging in some deathly curing house.

Always, there was something there, placed partly as warning and partly as triumphant victory-show, a marker of how the war against--what? obsolescence, frailty, insignificance, loss?--was faring. Some weeks there were more carcasses than others, and over the years the offerings gradually declined, though almost always there would be at least one, as if the ranchers were trawling the grassy sea, and as if their nets would always find something, some wildness deep within that green grass. As if that country to the west--just beyond the barbed-wire corner fencepost--would slow, but never entirely cease, in giving the wolves up.

This was the dailiness and drama of my childhood, situated peculiarly between the Deep South and the far West, in oil-hungry, oil-rich, brash and arrogant and violence-born Anglo Texas. The vertical strata of time mattered, but the story, the myth, of the westering frontier was also present, just over the horizon. There was not just the echo of it, there was still, barely, the real and physical essence of it; we saw it, every Sunday. In those first few years of the 1960s, while the rest of the country--the Southeast, the Northeast and Los Angeles in particular--stewed and broiled over civil rights issues, we were attending the premieres of movies like "How the West Was Won" and "The Alamo," in which--not to sound too much like a bleeding-heart liberal--vast territory existed for the taking and, quite naturally, force was the way to take it, particularly since it was inhabited by Mexicans or Indians. Let Mississippi stew over drinking fountains, and Boston and New York argue over segregated schools and busing; in Texas, we were busy looking longingly to the past, and to the West.

Hard country, sometimes. Or once it was, before we set about breaking it, then crushing it. It's an accepted law of biology that in a harsh or austere physical environment, species will often develop elaborate and highly specialized adaptations that allow them to inhabit the various demanding niches in that environment, and thus it is that in a stonier, more arid landscape, one shaped alternately by glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes and forest fires, a magnificent and amazing array of creatures evolved to fit that continuous scroll of disturbance, to fit that Big Story of the West. Nimble-footed snow-white goats cling with utter improbability to the sides of steep mountains, and 800-pound grizzly bears eat butterflies, ladybugs and lilies, and sleep underground for five months of the year. Golden eagles glide with seven-foot wingspans, and all-seeing condors soar with spans of nine feet.

And upon a landscape dominated by such dramatic disturbance events, which result in the release of stored vegetative energy in wild all-or-nothing amplitudes, magnificent stories of the ultimate prosperity, that of long-term survival, are also created. The myth, the holy grail, of life is sustainability, a word so oft-used and malleable as to lose all currency, and yet a word that lingers nonetheless, like a fever or a hope lodged always within us, though buried and forgotten, replaced instead with another word, tomorrow.

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