We're Pretty Sure This Bad-Ass Pioneer Would Like to Kick Congress in the Nards
Last week a confluence of sorts. I had finally reached the part in the book I’m writing about the American West when I could focus on Major John Wesley Powell. And then, after a couple hours of studying Powell, I went to get my coffee and saw this headline in the New York Times: “Not Even Close: 2012 Was the Hottest Ever in U.S.”
At first glance it might not seem like much of a coincidence. What does the latest overwhelming evidence of climate change have to do with a Civil War veteran most famous for being the first man of European heritage to plunge down the Colorado River?
Well, quite a lot as it turns out. Powell might be best known for running a river in a wooden boat, but it was what he did over the next 20 years that places him right at the top of the pantheon of Western environmental thinkers. What he did was wade into the halls of Congress, in his role as the head of the Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region from 1870 to 1894, and consistently, unflappably, stubbornly, but reasonably, place scientific fact before a body of politicians who practically wallowed in irrationality, self-interest, and superstition. What he did was continue to fly the flag of reason and fact, consistently putting the public good over private interest, despite those who tried to tear him down. And what he did, most of all, was form an over-arching vision of the American West as an arid to semi-arid land where humans, if they were to inhabit it at all, would need to understand certain facts, facts specific to that particular place.
Oh, and did I mention he had one arm? Well, he did, which makes it even more impressive that he led nine men down the Green River and then the Colorado into the Grand Canyon. It was terra incognita, and he had heard rumors that they would encounter falls the size of Niagara, meaning that every time he heard a rumble around the corner he knew it might be sounding his crew’s doom. The physical courage that held him in good stead in the canyon translated into intellectual and political courage when he emerged. For others the exploration of the Colorado might have been the climax of a career, but for Powell it was just the beginning, in particular, the beginning of his understanding of Western lands.
The late 1800s were a time of gung ho expansion and the irrational belief that “rain follows the plow,” that is that while the lands might be dry and hot, that would change for the better once the land was cultivated. The West was sold as a kind of Garden of Eden, just waiting for anyone with an ounce of gumption to go claim. In the face of this vision, Powell put forth another. The West was a near desert and to try and settle it in the manner that the East had been settled would lead to both personal and environmental disaster. For instance, while a cow might properly graze on a half-acre in the lush east, it would require fifty times that amount of land in most of the West. It followed that the standard acreage of settlement should be different, and it followed that settlement should take into account sources of water. What was needed above all else, Powell believed, was to know the land, to map the land, to understand the land, and to react accordingly.
It was for these ideas that Powell fought in Congress, and for these same ideas, which were directly opposed to those individuals who were profiting from the West’s exploitation, that he was eventually run out. But before that happened, he provided a model of a large thinker not giving in to smaller ones, a reasonable mind fighting superstitious minds, and a man who gave the people credit for the ability to make connections.
I will jump in here and say that this is largeness of thought that does not come naturally to me, or to most of us I would guess. Powell was a great connector of dots, and “connecting the dots” is a phrase I have heard again and again while traveling around the country over the last few years. I’ve heard that same phrase from a waiter at an Applebees in Georgia, a Nova Scotian fisherman, an MIT climatologist, and an entrepreneur who wanted to build wind farms off the coast of Cape Cod. Does it have any real meaning or is it just an environmental cliché? Well, consider that the phrase comes from a children’s game where, if the dots are connected, a picture forms. Many people turn away from the picture that forms. Right after Hurricane Sandy hit, for instance, I heard Rush Limbaugh laughing about the way that liberals make everything about global warming. The flooding in New York, well that’s global warming they say. Only it wasn’t really -- it came from a storm. Oh, so the storm is global warming, too. Hearty Laughter.
But exactly, Rush, the Powell in me wants to say. You’re starting to get it. You may have the makings of an ecologist, after all.
It was the Rushes of his day that Powell fought, particularly the elected Rushes. To Congress he presented a clear picture made up of connected dots, each dot a fact, and they responded by trying to rip the picture apart. And they were good at ripping: they de-funded Powell before he could achieve his goal of fully mapping the West. Given recent events, we may think that that we have a monopoly on venality and corruption in congress, but the gang Powell was fighting could teach ours a few dirty lessons. In his biography of Powell (which I’ve leaned on heavily for this piece), Wallace Stegner quotes Mark Twain’s description of a prototypical congressman. The congressman, Twain wrote, has “the smallest mind and the selfishest soul and the cowardliest heart that God makes.”
That we could use Powell today is obvious as our leaders continue to dawdle, not acting on something that any rational person can see clearly: the world is warming, weather patterns are changing, and there are both reasons for and consequences to these facts. Like their political ancestors, they bloviate and undermine, thinking their self-interest the most important thing in the world, never stopping to once consider that the world itself might have something to say about what’s important.
As for Powell, he went down, but he went down swinging. Those on the right love to accuse those on the left of being soft, of not living in the real world. Powell was as tough and as real as you can get, whether climbing up to the rim of the Grand Canyon with one arm or fighting for his annual allocation of funds. When his enemies finally ambushed him, it was only after decades in which he had forced them to acknowledge, for the first time in American history really, that science was a force to be reckoned with in politics.
If only he were still around to make that case again today.
Image: Grand Canyon National Park Service