On “the fabled western self-reliance”

Wallace Stegner:

I am somewhat skeptical of the fabled western self-reliance, because as I knew it, the West was a place where one depended on neighbors and had to give as well as get. In any trouble while we were on the homestead, I ran, or rode one of the horses, four or five miles to get Tom Larson or Ole Telepo or someone else to help. They came to us the same way. And yet there is something to the notion of western independence; there is something about living in big empty space, where people are few and distant, under a great sky that is alternately serene and furious, exposed to the sun from four in the morning till nine at night, and to a wind that never seems to rest there is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is. I have never understood identity problems. Any time when I lay awake at night and heard the wind in the screens and saw the moon ride up the sky, or sat reading in the shade of the shack and heard the wind moan and mourn around the corners, or slept out under the wagon and felt it searching among the spokes of the wheels, I knew well enough who, or what, I was, even if I didn’t matter. As surely as any pullet in the yard, I was a target, and I had better respect what had me in its sights.

– “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West


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