Stegner on the Garden of the World, Manifest Destiny, and God

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River. Photograph by Frans Lanting. The Colorado River flows 1,470 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California's Sea of Cortez—or did when its waters were more plentiful. Reduced rainfall and the growing water demands of some 30 million thirsty Westerners have sucked some of the life from the Colorado, and these days its delta is often dry. Some scientists warn that changing climatic patterns and unchecked human use could dry up the river’s reservoirs within a couple decades. –National Geographic

Wallace Stegner:

Instead of adapting, as we began to do, we have tried to make country and climate over to fit our existing habits and desires. Instead of listening to the silence, we have shouted into the void. We have tried to make the arid West into what it was never meant to be and cannot remain, the Garden of the World and the home of multiple millions.

That does not mean either that the West should never have been settled or that water should never be managed. The West – the habitable parts of it – is a splendid habitat for a limited population living within the country’s rules of sparseness and mobility. If the unrestrained engineering of western water was original sin, as I believe, it was essentially a sin of scale. Anyone who wants to live in the West has to manage water to some degree.

* * *

Behind the pragmatic, manifest-destinarian purpose of pushing western settlement was another motive: the hard determination to dominate nature that historian Lynn White, in the essay “Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” identified as part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Nobody implemented that impulse more uncomplicatedly than the Mormons, a chosen people who believed the Lord when he told them to make the desert blossom as the rose. Nobody expressed it more bluntly than a Mormon hierarch, John Widtsoe, in the middle of the irrigation campaigns: “The destiny of man is to possess the whole earth; the destiny of the earth is to be subject to man. There can be no full conquest of the earth, and no real satisfaction to humanity, if large portions of the earth remain beyond his highest control” (Success on Irrigation Projects).

That doctrine offends me to the bottom of my not-very-Christian soul. It is related to the spirit that builds castles out of incongruous luxury in the desert. It is the same spirit that between 1930 and the present has so damned, diverted, used, and reused the Colorado River that its saline waters now never reach the Gulf of California, but die in the sand miles from the sea; that has set the Columbia, a far mightier river, to tamely turning turbines; that has reduced the Missouri, the greatest river on the continent, to a string of ponds; that has recklessly pumped down the water table of every western valley and threatens to dry up even so prolific a source as the Ogalalla Aquifer; that has made the Salt River Valley of Arizona and the Imperial, Coachella, and great Central valleys of California into gardens of fabulous but deceptive richness; that has prompted a new rush to the West fated, like the beaver and grass and gold rushes, to recede after doing great environmental damage.

The Garden of the World has been a glittering dream, and many find its fulfillment exhilarating. I do not. I have already said that I think of the main-steam damns that made it possible as original sin, but there is neither a serpent nor a guilty first couple in the story. In Adam’s fall we sinned all. Our very virtues as a pioneering people, the very genius of our industrial civilization, drove us to act as we did. God and Manifest Destiny spoke with one voice urging us to “conquer” or “win” the West; and there was no voice of comparable authority to remind us of Mary Austin’s quiet but profound truth, that “the manner of the country makes the usage of life there, and the land will not be lived in except in its own fashion.”

– “Striking the Rock,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs


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