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Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes

Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive lndscapes James Conaway Shoenaker & Hoard, 275 pp., $24.95
Way up near the forested headwaters of the Boise River in Idaho, where the roads and the houses give out, James Conaway finds a site where the Nez Perce Indians once pitched camp.

Even the most rabid supporters of western expansion were forced to acknowledge that there was something special about the Nez Perce. Lewis and Clark found them both elegant and amiable; they were hospitable to those who came to Christianize them; they didn't fight with neighboring tribes; they loved their land, preferring to dig camas roots from the meadows to ranging across the plains in search of buffalo. But then came the Gold Rush and the white settlers, with their nonnegotiable demands, and in 1877 the Nez Perce fled, chased for a thousand miles by implacable soldiers, heartbroken at being uprooted from the places that had defined their identity.

The tragedy of the Nez Perce isn't a bad metaphor for the journey on which Conaway embarks in his haunting and beautifully written book, Vanishing America. In more than a dozen other places from Maine to the desert Southwest, his premise is simple: if we lose our attachment to a specific place, to its history, its vistas, its currents of air and water, we risk losing those things that make us fully human. The people he meets along the way test this idea.

One of the great virtues of Conaway's reporting is that he has little interest in either plaster saints or caricatures of evil. He loses it just once--in a long tirade against the Bureau of Land Management and its craven surrender to the oil and gas drillers who tear into rural Wyoming, rip up the earth, and will drive off to the next bonanza once the wells are exhausted. But short of such extremes, things get more complicated. Ranchers, ATV enthusiasts, second-home owners, and hard-rock miners may all be intruders on the land, but most are neither hero nor villain, and many are a bit of both. In a footloose society, some of them may be just as capable of putting down new roots as they are of tearing out old ones, and in the process they may even force us to reconsider what a sense of belonging means in our time. The questions that Conaway poses don't always have clear-cut answers. Example: if a local historical society opens a gift shop to sell Native American tchotchkes to tourists, is that a way of honoring a place and its traditions, or of defiling them? You tell me.

Or take Glenda Reynolds, an arthritic, 90-pound, 65-year-old rancher in Sand Springs, Montana, who homeschools her grandkids and appears to live on cigarettes and beer. Here, in the "emptiest country you've ever seen," Reynolds keeps a small herd of buffalo, a nod to the way things were before humans arrived, but she is also an aggressive defender of cattle, scornful of environmentalists who dream of restoring a "buffalo commons." Now, cattle are the most unnatural of additions to this unforgiving landscape; they're here only because the buffalo were wiped out. But Conaway is shrewd enough, and respectful enough, to recognize "both pride, and longing" in the way Reynolds gazes out over her badlands and her cows.

Inevitably, the Nez Perce were defeated in the end, brought to heel, shipped south to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and thence to Oklahoma, to lands they neither knew nor wanted. The powers
arrayed against them--a relentless army, a collusive government, well-meaning easterners bent on "civilizing" them--were too much to resist. Our own predicament, as we struggle to preserve our own sense of belonging against similarly implacable forces, may, in the end, be just as hopeless. Nonetheless, Conaway declines to despair. One can only admire him for this. Call it pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Related Tags: George Black, James Conaway
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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >