Ah, Wilderness!

The Last Cowboy

by Jane Kramer
Harper and Row, 148 pp., $8.95

Coming into the Country

by John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 438 pp., $10.95

Americans,” wrote Tocqueville once, “are insensible to the wonders of nature,” and only bent on subduing it. Now, it seems, whatever our intentions to nature itself, we cannot get enough of reading about its wonders. The new abundance of wilderness literature in America,* which seems to exceed what can be accounted for by transitory romanticism, reflects, I take it, both the disappearance of our frontiers and our dawning sense of their primal significance to us. As I write this (in February), John McPhee’s richly detailed account of Alaska is the best-selling book of nonfiction in a number of Eastern cities, something usually reserved for works on sex or self-improvement; this suggests that the new American feeling about wilderness springs from some similar deep source of anxiety and hope. In the matter of Alaska, some of the interest may also arise from responsible citizenship, since we are on the point of having to decide what to do with this vast state. Alaska, like a late baby to elderly parents, is a matter both for surprise and obsessive solicitude, a last frontier which provides an occasion for reviewing the mistakes that have blighted other, older frontiers, like the one described by Jane Kramer in her book on the Texas Panhandle.

There are many reasons for the enduring popularity of travel literature; the dreamer is led out of the confinement of his daily life on primitive adventures out of a legendary past; he indulges his dreams of a future life of freedom. At the same time, most travel accounts reassure him that where he lives is really best. The city-dweller, reading McPhee or Kramer in his New Yorker about the sixty-below winters of Alaska, the bullet-riddled signposts of Texas, will feel grateful for the locks and bolts that may at other times seem oppressive. Out there be dragons.

We are always grateful to redoubtable travelers, from Marco Polo to Kramer and McPhee, for braving our rigors for us. It is interesting to remember that the most entertaining, accurate, and cruelly analytical books about America used to be written by and for Europeans. Themselves urban, without frontiers, they devoured Anthony Trollope on the giant “Wellingtonia” trees of Yosemite, or his mother on our atrocious domestic manners, or Dickens’s account of his visit, or the dozens of Gold Rush tales. Busy, in the middle of their adventure, Americans on America were given to boosting and boasting.

But now the best books on America are written by Americans. Far from being leveled by television, we grow more and more unlike each other, more conscious of diversity and more interested in it (a recent public television series on American families provided subtitles for the speech of rural Georgians on the assumption that their dialect was not intelligible). The traveler from New York, teetering around the Panhandle in new cowboy boots, is in a foreign land and yet in a familiar one. With access to a common heritage of American traditions and myths, she knows what questions to ask, and yet retains that slightly condescending sense of wonder on which the liveliest travel literature depends.

In fact, Europeans seem to understand us less and less. Perhaps we no longer resemble the open, uncomplicated Jamesian Americans we were once supposed to be so much as the mysterious Europeans we, like James, so admire; perhaps complexity arises not so much from character as from having a complicated place to be in, and that is what Americans are now finding out about. At present, at any rate, certain American things appear to be mysterious to Europeans, in particular American environmentalism. Most could not seem to imagine that grassroots opposition to the Concorde, for instance, was not a US government or aircraft industry plot—any more than we can imagine, say, why the English would allow opera goers to blight the exquisite rural peace of Glyndebourne by arriving in helicopters.

Jane Kramer, an adaptable and shrewd reporter of diverse cultures (Morocco, Italy, Yugoslavia, Ireland), focused her study of Texas on one representative cowboy, Henry Blanton, his wife Betsy, their family and friends. Henry is the foreman of a large ranch in the Panhandle, and, at forty, is something of a burnt-out case, facing the likelihood that he will never have a place of his own, or the independence and self-pride that his understanding of the American dream, Western-style, has led him implicitly to expect. To Kramer, but also to Henry himself, he is the last of a “disappearing breed” of American. He is still a cowboy who uses traditional methods of handling cattle (range, rope, horse, corral, brand) in the face of developments which mechanize, depersonalize, and brutalize the production of beef, and dispossess people like himself. But he and people like him are disappearing also because they are poorly adapted for survival in America. They have accepted certain myths about the West, and extrapolated certain expectations and ideals of personal conduct which, like lethal mutations, put them at a disadvantage in the great struggle for existence. “The way we live, it’s just people helping people. It’s people neighboring. Like when a cowman has a grass fire,…why you just get everybody out there helping. Whereas I heard for a fact…that when certain farmers have a fire they have to go and call the firemen.”

Myth is a word with at least two common significances, one of them referring to a cherished core of ostensibly historical stories (Kit Carson, Paul Bunyan) which serve to explain present beliefs and practices; more and more it comes to be used in the sense of delusion. Kramer sees the myths Henry Blanton lives by in this second sense:

It took…the imagination of Easterners to produce a proper cowboy—a cowboy whom children could idolize, and grown men, chafing at their own domesticated competence, hold as a model of some profoundly masculine truth…. The proper cowboy was a fiction appropriate to a frontier so wild and inhospitable that most Easterners regarded it as a landscape of Manichaean possibilities. He became for those Easterners the frontier’s custodian. They made him Rousseau’s Émile with a six-gun. They turned man-in-nature into a myth of natural man, and added natural justice to ease the menace of a place that lay beyond their hegemony and their institutions. They saw to it that he was born good, and that if he died violently, he died wise and defiant and uncorrupted. They set him against outlaws and spoilers, card sharks and Comanches. Their fears became his own sworn enemies.

Kramer’s point is that Henry Blanton and others like him, believing this myth, believed in a West that never existed, “a West as sentimental and as brutal as the people who made a virtue of that curious combination of qualities and called it the American experience.” In the real West, where cattle is big business run by people who live in London or Pasadena, literal, trustful people like Henry are destroyed by their naïveté.

As we would expect, Kramer approves of neither sentimentality nor brutality, and deplores their association with the American character. She is sorry that Henry Blanton totes guns and acts up in barrooms and is so foolish as to believe that a handshake seals a bargain. Henry has been done out of several good deals in his life because he doesn’t think you should have to get things in writing. Kramer’s lack of sympathy for Henry’s credulity is in itself somewhat unsympathetic; credulity, of all human follies, is after all the easiest to spot, in other people. And, in her affectionate impatience with him, she perhaps does not do justice to the decency and desirability of some of Henry’s beliefs, to principles of conduct which will only be acted on as long as people believe in them.

People seem always to have had the sneaking suspicion that we need exemplary myths—noble lies, as Plato called them—defending their beneficial effect on the conduct of the unenlightened, the way enlightened Victorians who had given up religion nonetheless recommended it for the average person. Like it or not, we as Americans have had a deeply formative body of exemplary myths, of which the movies of Glenn Ford and John Wayne are some recent expressions; and one would have to agree with Kramer that the values they communicate, like those of many religions, do not seem any longer to serve the interest of the individual who holds them. But if Henry’s values (cooperation; a man’s word is his bond; responsibility to family) are dismissed without regard, society loses yet more props to its teetering structure—the “breakdown” so complacently predicted by all.

Betsy Blanton’s values are a little out of fashion, too, and Kramer’s impatience with her shows. She perhaps describes Betsy’s bathroom in too great detail. Betsy, sunk in her own crisis of becoming forty and wondering what it all means, finds relief in action, as Matthew Arnold would have advised; she redecorates her little house:

Two satiny blue shower curtains went up, drawn back on either side with velvet bows to frame the bathtub. Soon plastic ivy drooped from the ceiling. Plastic chrysanthemums, in little gilt pots, sat precariously around the rim of the washbasin and the tub. The room took on a wet, heady smell, which came from steaming bathwater and too much Airwick Herbal Bouquet, and one morning, after searching in the mist for half an hour, Henry was horrified to discover his toothbrush in a bud vase and his razor and shaving soap in a Maxwell House coffee can disguised by grosgrain ribbon and paper lace.

Kramer does not patronize—she is too kind, and too good a reporter for that. But one senses her lack of sympathy for that brave plastic ivy. Much could be said of the poverty of poor Betsy’s alternatives, in the Panhandle society of unreconstructed male chauvinists of vigorous sincerity: “I hear them liberated women don’t want no separate rest rooms. Well, I say fine. Let them fight in the wars, too. Let them have the same jails as what the men have. Let them play football….” Kramer wisely forbears to comment. Hers is the touch of a novelist and a satirist; her writing, although admirably economical, can seem a bit as if she is working hard to keep powerful dramatizing and shaping impulses under control.

The Last Cowboy is in fact so like a novel in many ways that it makes you wonder, as people have often wondered before, just why a work is or isn’t one. If you wrote the story of the people next door as factually as possible, but changed their names (just what novelists are always doing), you could call your book a fiction. Henry and Betsy Blanton are not the real names of Kramer’s cowboys. Perhaps The Last Cowboy is nonfiction because it contains true facts about the cattle industry—the way Moby Dick contains facts about whaling. Anyhow, this shapely narrative has the dramatic and suitable ending of a novel: the essentially gentle Henry, frustrated by yet another defeat in his wish to have a few cattle of his own, his own place, independence, vents his disappointment by brutally murdering a neighbor’s bulls, who have got loose among his cows. The distinction between genres of fiction and nonfiction is perhaps only of interest to librarians and literary critics, but novelists are entitled to complain, I think, of the politer way writers of nonfiction are treated and allowed, as the novelist is not, to say “that’s the way it really happened.” No one yet understands, I take it, why the serious reader of today, as much as the Puritan reader of Defoe, feels more trustful of “reality” than of imagination, which is often so much truer.

In some cultures, like Japan, people, by putting the best possible face on disaster or failure, perhaps thereby develop a certain actual imperviousness, but this is not given to Americans. Kramer’s cowboys are ashamed of themselves because, by not being successful the way they had been led by Saturday afternoon Westerns to believe they would be, they have let America down. And America has let them down. Henry is resentful, but he is mostly sad and confused. He has no alternative skills or articles of faith to make another start with, but with other skills—and a more skeptical nature—he might go to Alaska.

If you live in the Western United States, you meet many Alaskans, and people who are planning to go there or have been there, some expecting to get rich, but most looking for a place where a deal can still be sealed with a handshake—where ideals of independence and voluntary cooperation are still functional. Last year I floated the Snake River in deer season; the scenery was matchless, there were no other humans in sight; but owing to the peculiar acoustics of the canyon, you could hear the voices of hunters at every turn, and finally the raftsman, a young local guide and sheriff’s deputy, burst out, almost tearfully: this country is ruined. A man like him can now no longer ever expect to own an acre in the Tetons, or a foot along the river: all is overrun, full of strangers, expensive, impossible. He was going, he said, to Alaska. College kids go up there summers for the lucrative fishing. San Francisco architects will build the new capital. The point is that for many people, especially in the West, Alaska is an actual and possible frontier. For Easterners, one guesses, its significance is mostly metaphorical, and this profound difference is reflected too in the more conservative, romantic, and individualistic politics of the West.

For some people Alaska could mean immense profits in timber, land, minerals, and oil, and the sacrifice of the private individual and the public interest. John McPhee, a writer who is able to be interesting on almost any subject, is particularly skilled at presenting the dynamics of those complicated conflicting forces. An outdoorsman, romantic but also astute and accepting, he understands the wilderness, he appreciates naïveté, and he also sees who will sell out whom.

The writer of recent nonfiction chooses his role in his narrative as carefully as a novelist does. Jane Kramer, after explaining her presence in Texas and admitting to uneasy dreams of rattlesnakes and tornadoes, fades gracefully out, leaving the reader to wonder how she managed to overhear those misogynist cowboys on subjects they would not consider proper for women to hear. McPhee is more vividly present throughout his book, asking questions, commenting, making himself the butt of an occasional joke or misfortune, admitting to scary dreams about grizzly bears. He has a fine instinct for knowing when his corporeal presence is essential, as here, in a wilderness of unimaginable vastness and coldness, where to see him squatting apprehensively over a campfire or huddling in a deserted cabin is to make the unimaginable accessible to us.

Coming into the Country is in three parts, beginning with an account of a river trip by canoe and kayak in northern Alaska with four other men. Here he tells us something of the size and climate of the state, and a few of its myths. One myth, a friend tells him, “is that in Alaska there’s a fish on every cast, a moose behind every tree. But the fish and the moose aren’t there…. To get to the headwaters of a river like this one takes a lot of money. The state needs to look to the budgets and desires of people who cannot afford to come to a place like this.”

In the second part, McPhee flies over Alaska with people who are appointed to choose the site of a new capital, which will (perhaps) be built from scratch because political factionalism prevents the small Alaskan population from agreeing on which of the already existing cities would do. The search provides McPhee an occasion for discussing the positions of each party: natives, old timers, environmentalists, developers, and feds squaring off for the biggest land grab in history. Alaska consists of 375 million acres. Forty million have been settled on native Alaskans. The fate of the rest is largely undecided, but some 80 million acres have been proposed for national parks and wilderness area.

In the third and longest section of his book, McPhee talks to people in Eagle, Alaska, in the Yukon. It is a kind of chorale for Alaskan voices, and gives the reader a strong sense of the kind of original, skeptical, resourceful people who have come here. With what patience McPhee records, and with what fascination one reads the minutiae of the Alaskan diet or dwelling: “Boone chinked his walls and insulated his floor and ceiling with moss collected by his children, planning to supplement it with cement and lime, while the Greenes used fibre glass between their logs. With their heating stove and cooking stove, the Greenes had powerful defenses against the coming cold, almost enough to drive them out into the snow, because if their cabin was handsome, it was ten times as snug. A lighted match could make it warm. The Greenes burn wood at the rate of four cords a winter. The Boones, with their larger cabin, use fifteen.” “Jack Greene has built an efficient cistern, with an adroit plumbing system that services a kitchen sink and a solar-heated shower.” There are about 250 pages of such information—Alaska as utopia, albeit a utopia with population problems and littered with old rubber tires.

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, writes of the human love of musing on primitiveness: “restored, desired, and experienced through simple images, an album of pictures of huts would constitute a textbook of simple exercises for the phenomenology of the imagination.” McPhee’s book is, in a way, such an album, for the hut-dreamer, for the city-dweller. Even the coldness of Alaska is of primal importance: “a reminder of winter strengthens the happiness of inhabiting” the warm flat. McPhee, at home in Alaska in a way that Kramer is not in Texas, is sympathetic to simplicity, and his is a communicable sympathy. “What a striking thing it is that a mere image of the old homestead in snow-drifts should be able to integrate images of the year one thousand in the mind of a child,” exclaims Bachelard. If you loved Swiss Family Robinson, you’ll love John McPhee.

The people McPhee talks to point out that Alaska is our last chance wilderness, meaning either that it is our last large unspoiled area, to be preserved from development and environmental exploitation, or that it is the last place a man like Henry Blanton can go when he is pushed out by industrial or corporate or governmental interests in the Lower Forty-Eight that have no regard for him. At the moment the wilderness preservers, with the federal government as an ally, seem to prevail. Until 1958, the settler could acquire federal land by homesteading, but now it is hard for a private person to buy land in Alaska. People are huddled together on small lots in cities, and urban crowding is a matter of genuine concern. The federal agent makes the solitary trapper leave his little hut, and the trapper and squatter have come to see the fed as the enemy, the same kind of enemy big cattle interests are to Henry Blanton. Behind the federal agent is the big-city dreamer with his sentimental yearning for the primitive wilderness. Alaska is not for private interests, say the preservers, but for all Americans, and therefore it cannot belong to Henry, or to the sheriff’s deputy from Wyoming, or to the alienated college kids who wish to recover the good American myths, who want to get away from cities, from regimentation, and from politics. (Even Western politicians want to get away from politics, like Paul Hatfield, the new senator from Montana, whose initial remarks at his swearing-in last week expressed the common Western view: “I have been increasingly concerned about the continuing infringement of federal activity on the sovereignty of the states and the lives of the people.”)

Between the ecologist and the lone trapper there need be no antagonism, for neither will do the other much harm, and it will be too bad if these factions become locked in an opposition so intense that they cannot combine forces against the much more powerful oil, mineral, and real estate interests who care for neither of them, nor for the wilderness, nor even the idea of the wilderness. And one cannot help questioning the motivation of the US government, suddenly so conservation-minded, where only four hundred thousand people are concerned, when it does so little to preserve the environment of millions of people in the Lower Forty-Eight against entrenched private interests. Alaska presents the government with a cheap way to placate environmentalists without offending big real estate or big oil or big timber by trying to protect the more accessible, rarer, and therefore more precious areas in the rest of the US. We’ve given you eighty million acres of wilderness preserve, it can say; what do you want to worry about Lake Tahoe or the Everglades for? And meanwhile the Alaskan wilderness is inaccessible even to Alaskans. “We need parks near our cities,” an Alaskan told me. “Go fishing near Anchorage, you’ll get someone else’s fishhook in your eye. To get away from other people you have to charter a plane.”

McPhee’s own prescription for Alaska seems sensible:

Only an easygoing extremist would preserve every bit of the country. And extremists alone would exploit it all. Everyone else has to think the matter through, choose a point of tolerance, however much the point might tend to one side. For myself, I am closer to the preserving side—that is, the side, that would preserve…[the lone trapper, or Henry Blanton]. To be sure, I would preserve plenty of land as well. My own margin of tolerance would not include some faceless corporation “responsible” to a hundred thousand stockholders, making a crater you could see from the moon. Nor would it include visiting exploiters—here in the seventies, gone in the eighties—with some pipe and some skyscrapers left behind…. Alaska…by virtue of its climate, will always screen its own, and will not be overrun. If I were writing the ticket, I would say that anyone at all is free to build a cabin on any federal land in the United States that is at least a hundred miles from the nearest town of ten thousand or more—the sole restriction being that you can’t carry in materials for walls or roofs or floors.

In the society as a whole,” says McPhee, “there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go—important even to those who do not go there.” This proposition, which most Americans would accept without argument, may have some things to be said against it. Societies without frontiers are different from those that have them, and perhaps have advantages. Just as life in prison is said to be more endurable when there is no chance of escape, so perhaps will we only learn to live in our cities—the real places Americans have to learn to live—when we cannot dream of escape. Without a frontier we would have to address ourselves seriously to living with what we have, something which the attitude in Congress toward energy makes clear we are at present unable to do.

A society without frontiers must devote itself to politics; politics means factions, divisions—or, to put it positively, engagement. To the Westerner, those are qualities of Eastern American life he would avoid, and he feels them coming West. The Easterner is suspicious of the laid-back Westerner, and may feel that his myths are degenerate and brutal, associated with things like guns which our society would be better off without.

If the urban civilization is ripe or inevitable, it could be that keeping Alaska in wilderness, or as a last frontier, may be just an unnecessary cultural luxury, slightly fake, like a giant Disneyland Wilderness Visit temporarily closed for repair; maybe we would do better to subdue it at once, incorporate its riches, abandon our individualist philosophies, and resign ourselves to our perimeters. But most of us would agree, I think, with the implications of McPhee’s book, that keeping an Alaskan frontier is in fact a cultural safeguard, protecting certain valuable myths of independence and cooperation and personal enterprise that appear to be surviving there. Maybe noble lies can only thrive in open clean places, and if they can survive, then maybe they can exert some regenerative power over the rest of American life.


Unkind Cut June 15, 1978

  1. *

    In three days, without effort, I came across: a Sports Illustrated spread on Alaska; another in the Smithsonian magazine; a report of The Wilderness Project from the University of Montana; two books from a friend who works for a press in Seattle which every eleven days prints a new book on the wilds: Fog Swamp: Living with Swans in the Wilderness and Harvest of Salmon: Adventures in Fishing the B.C. Coast.