Tuesday, June 29, 2010

what is the american west?

i ask this question in all seriousness. what is the american west? what does it mean to you? what images arise in your mind when you think of the west? because if i think that the west matters - and i do - i've got to figure out what it is.

at first, it was the area of the louisiana purchase, and everything even further west - which was all occupied by other countries anyway. it's hard to imagine arkansas, parts of minnesota, and new orleans being in the west, but those areas were all acquired in the purchase. so perhaps part of the problem in defining the west has been that it is, in some sense, a relative measure - in part, it is simply the western portion of the united states, however the united states happens to be defined at that moment. this purely geographic definition is - or was - a shifting target. now, the U.S. census bureau defines the west as the 13 state region encompassing alaska and hawaii, oregon, washington, california, idaho, montana, nevada, arizona and new mexico, utah, wyoming, and colorado.

ecologically, there is a basis for considering it as all the land west of the 98th or 100th meridian. this meridian, which runs through the middle of the united states - generally marking the eastern boundary of the dakotas, and running near the eastern edge of nebraska, kansas, oklahoma, and the middle of texas - basically separates the arid from the non-arid; as the approximate line of 20 annual inches of rainfall, it marks a line of irrigation. it is where the dry summers of the west give way to the humid, wet summers of the midwest and east, where summer moisture can be enough to grow crops. it's true that you could define much of the west as this very characteristic - aridity. as wallace stegner said, 'you have to get over the color green'. it is the land of irrigation, of reclamation, of reservoirs and dry heat. even if the aridity definition excludes the verdant pacific northwest (and alaska and hawaii), the pacific northwest can tag along under the umbrella of limited summer moisture and low summer humidity. and, certainly the struggle for water has shaped much of our recent regional history. by including western oklahoma and texas in the definition, we bring into the fold two states with significant minority populations or histories. 

certainly part of the definition of the west is cultural. the west include states with large portions of minorities and the four states with no one majority race or ethnicity (texas, new mexico, california, and hawaii), and this diversity has shaped our common experience.
frederick turner, in 1893, considered the west equivalent to that area that was 'frontier' or very sparsely settled (under 2 persons per square mile), and he bemoaned the end of it. his pessimistic view didn't hold true, though -  although the overall population of the west has grown consistently over the last hundred-plus years, it hasn't been equally dispersed. there are still many places that are 'frontier' in terms of settlement. and the west encompasses major metro areas like los angeles and phoenix and seattle. so it's not just about rural, scattered population, although that is part of it, as is our shared, frontier heritage. in fact many of the connotations of the West are those relating to the Old West, to the glory days of outlaws, cowboys, immigrants, and wilderness. we also all share an exploitative past. western economies have long been focused on utilization of raw natural resources - whether soil, trees, or rangelands - for eastern capital concerns. all western states share a correspondingly heavy proportion of land federally owned. but are these shared experiences and characteristics enough to give a cultural definition to the west as a region separate from the rest of the u.s.?

these aren't all rhetorical questions. i really feel like the west is different, is unique, but why? it's the most diverse region of the united states. shouldn't that work against a common identity? we have the lowest rainfall and the highest rainfall, the lowest point and the highest point. the most diverse climates and ecosystems, from all of our deserts to our temperate rainforests. diverse populations. very different current cultures - from the liberal left coast to the libertarian intermountain west to the increasingly nativist arizona. so why do i identify so clearly as a westerner, and why do i feel a kinship with others who are from the west, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of background, regardless of occupation?

when i think of the west, i think of several key characteristics: immense, superlative vegetation (redwoods, sequoias, saguaros, douglas-fir). magical and unique land forms (canyons and hoodoos and monument valley). native cultures both living and ancient. iconic places like the grand canyon. small, resource dependent towns and economies; loggers, miners, cowboys. mountains, volcanoes, and geology for the layman to see and understand. the hopeful destinations of millions of immigrants, both foreign and domestic, and the repository of the constant american searching for a better life, just around the corner. wide open spaces, wilderness, parks and natural places - all of which is a function of that public, government-owned land. thank god for our public lands! trust me, i have seen hell (the private-ownership mecca of maine, for example) and it's not a pretty sight.

maybe i haven't figured out exactly what the west is, but i do have my own designation of what states comprise the west. it's oregon, washington, idaho, montana, wyoming, nevada, california, arizona, new mexico, and just western texas. alaska and hawaii are too different in every way to be part of the shared west - although i'm glad they are part of the u.s. i gladly grab western texas, even though - as a state - texas is a big pain in the ass, and i'd never take eastern texas, with their SUV driving oil-drilling mavens and executives and revisionist textbooks. but western texas is as independent and idiosyncratic as the best of the rest of the west. plus, we've got to have big bend, one of the most beautiful places in the united states.
and colorado? why exclude colorado? don't even get me started on colorado. they have eastern butter, for pete's sake. you think i'm joking? i'm not. i have absolutely no basis for excluding them so summarily, but i do. because i'm a goddamn westerner, and have little use for top-down rules and designations.

i am serious, though. i'm curious what anyone reading this thinks the west is. write it in a comment, or if it's too long, send me an email.

map of federal land ownership from an article by David Kennedy. for his (much better) overview of the west, see http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2008/mayjun/features/west.html


  1. this is a very well written piece! to be honest, i've never really thought about this in depth. maybe it's because i haven't travelled outside of the so-called west. all of my journeys have been confined within the left side of the US. it may sound strange, but because of this, my image of the west is largely shaped by the media driven east. in other words, i have always accepted that i live in the 'wild west'! however, flying over the land, i really believe that it's the vastness and wide open land that sticks with me most. thanks for the thoughts.

  2. You are very eloquently asking a terrific question. My Dad once said that the west is comprised of the folks who saw that the east was just a watered down version of the Europe they had left behind. That only westerners had the "God blessed gumption" to brave the Rockies. When I leave the western US, I most miss the wide open spaces & the abundance of individuals who are unwilling to compromise their beliefs, but are (usually) happy to abide those of others.

  3. I got back today from a six-day road trip through Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. It was the first time I'd been to the latter three states. Because of that, this post comes at a great time for me.

    What strikes me about the west are three things: Open spaces (literally being able to see for dozens or hundreds of miles), relatively low population density, and, like Chris, comparisons to an imagined East. (Though my imaginings are also somewhat fueled by my New Jersey roommate.)

    Thank you for writing this.

  4. thanks to you all for your awesome comments. i love it that 'open space' resonates with everyone; it's the main feature i think of too. and lani, great description of the individual attitude in the west; i completely agree!