On the Arid West

Wallace Stegner:

Aridity, more the anything else, gives the western landscape its character. It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity that leads the grasses to evolve as bunches rather than as turf; aridity that exposes the pigmentation of the raw earth and limits, almost eliminates, the color of chlorophyll; aridity that erodes the earth in cliffs and badlands rather than in softened and vegetated slopes, that has shaped the characteristically swift and mobile animals of the dry grasslands and the characteristically nocturnal life of the deserts. The West, Walter Webb said, is “a semi-desert with a desert heart.” If I prefer to think of it as two long chains of mountain ranges with deserts or semi-deserts in their rain shadow, that is not to deny his assertion that the primary unity of the West is a shortage of water.

The consequences of aridity multiple by a kind of domino effect. In the attempt to compensate for nature’s lacks we have remade whole sections of the western landscape. The modern West is as surely Lake Mead and Lake Powell and the Fort Peck reservoir, the irrigated greenery of the Salt River Valley and the smog blanket over Phoenix, as it is the high Wind River Range or the Wasatch or the Grand Canyon. We have acted upon the western landscape with the force of a geological agent. But aridity still calls the tune, directs our tinkering, prevents the healing of our mistakes; and vast unwatered reaches still emphasize the contrast between the desert and the sown.

Aridity has made a lot of difference in us, too, since Americans first ventured up the Missouri into the unknown in the spring of 1804. Our intentions varied all the way from romantic adventurousness to schemes of settlement and empire; all the way from delight in dehumanized nature to a fear of the land empty of human settlements, monuments, and even, seemingly, history.

– “Thoughts in a Dry Land,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs


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