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Too hefty to be carried in a hip pocket or even a daypack, William Wyckoff’s How to Read the American West is a field guide unlike any other, with a focus on patterns, variations and the distribution of landscape features.

Inspired by Peterson’s glorious bird books, How to Read the American West draws attention to eco-tones, watersheds, settlement patterns and corridors of connection (such as interstates or historic trails), and to questions of use, scale and control. Ultimately, it considers our grip on the land—and the land’s grip on us.

Cross-referenced and studded with photos and maps, this guide invites us to browse, linking waypoints by topic more often than by region. It capably leads the reader through 100 entries arranged by theme. Much as birders learn to distinguish dozens of sparrows, we learn to read the nuances of the West.

Wyckoff teaches earth sciences at Montana State University, and for a cultural geographer, he has a rather poetic voice. “Much of the West’s appeal remains connected to its physical musculature, its sheer material, visceral presence,” he writes. The Big Country’s sky is “wedded to the land beneath it by the interplay of atmosphere and terrain.” Chapters on cloudscapes and cacti, on Mormon architecture and vineyards, on military spaces and bungalow burbs form entwined strands in a narrative bolstered by facts and statistics.

The past pervades each page and, to a degree, still shapes the present. Folk-style “worm fences” made of dovetailed logs zigzag across Rocky Mountain pastures but are gradually disappearing. Similarly, roulade-like hay bales extruded from automatic balers are replacing traditional “bread loaf” haystacks. Numerous cultures have endowed Western landscapes with their legacies, whether symbolic, such as Navajo lore about four mythical mountains, or material—the Bureau of Reclamation’s barrage of dams.

“Landscapes tell great stories,” Wyckoff states in his introduction. “But we need to know where to look for them and how to make sense of what we find.”

This guidebook shows us where and how, with a raptor’s acuity and broadness of vision.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

How to Read the American West: A Field Guide

By William Wyckoff

University of Washington

440 pages, $44.95

Published in Literature

For 25 years, Peter Essick traveled the globe as a National Geographic photographer, and he was recently named one of the world’s 40 most-influential nature photographers.

In 2010, Essick began “a potentially controversial” project in his native California: shooting in Ansel Adams’ Sierra Nevada—and in Adams’ signature black-and-white style.

Paying homage to a master without imitating the work is a delicate balance to strike. Essick’s results, though, are stunning. In The Ansel Adams Wilderness, he captures groves of shimmering aspen trees and alpine lakes, whose calm surfaces perfectly mirror the granite formations and pine trees above. Quotes from Emerson, Thomas Cole and others, plus Essick’s own notes, round out the book.

Essick, like Adams, conveys a deep respect for his subject matter. And he defends his use of digital technology: If Adams were working today, he says, “He would have a similar model” of the latest camera—although “his would probably be better.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Ansel Adams Wilderness

By Peter Essick; foreward by Jamie Williams

National Geographic Society

112 pages, $22.95

Published in Literature

In her deft debut novel, Colorado writer TaraShea Nesbit imagines the lives of the wives of the men who were stationed in New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Nesbit writes in the collective voices of the women, whose physicist husbands suddenly announced, “We are going to the desert,” without offering too many details. The women cannot even tell their relatives exactly where they are headed. “Our mothers understood,” Nesbit writes. “Our mothers had kept great secrets.”

The collective narration gives the prose an incantatory rhythm that suits the story, once the reader becomes accustomed to the frequent contradictions within a sentence. For example: “We arrived in New Mexico and thought we had come to the end of the earth, or we thought we had come home.” Out of the threads of each woman’s experiences, a tapestry is woven, revealing a peculiar, complex and yet temporary society.

The families are assigned houses inside a fenced complex patrolled by Dobermans and mounted guards. “We handed over our cameras. We denied we kept a diary.” The women know their scientist husbands are engaged in a secret war project, but most have no idea what is really going on.

Since the wives can’t share their lives with people outside the compound, they confide in each other and form a lively society, throwing cocktail parties, swapping clothes and minding each other’s children. “The military officially ran the town in one way,” Nesbit writes, “and our husbands in practice ran the town in some ways, and we ran the town clandestinely in others.”

The suspense for the reader comes from wondering how much the women know about their husbands’ work, and what they think about it. The answer varies for each of them, but none of them knows the complete truth until they see the devastation the atom bomb inflicts on Japan. The aftermath leaves them all deeply affected, even as their trajectories splinter from collective to individual again. Some decide the U.S. was justified in using the bombs; others, horrified by the unprecedented destruction, want to dedicate their lives to limiting nuclear weapons. In the end, however, all of them are bound by the part they played in the atom bomb’s creation.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

The Wives of Los Alamos

By TaraShea Nesbit

Bloomsbury USA

240 pages, $25

Published in Literature

If it’s possible to paint in words alone—to create a wildly colorful story of grief in sentences layered like one of van Gogh’s swirling night scenes—Colorado author Peter Heller accomplishes it in his second novel, The Painter, narrated by artist Jim Stegner. A fly fisherman with a violent streak, Stegner is determined to overcome his tragic past, but he can’t seem to avoid causing more pain for himself and others.

When Stegner moves from Taos, N.M., to an off-the-grid cabin tucked into the mountains near Paonia, Colo., he finally finds himself in a landscape he considers “a good place … to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.” But not long after he’s settled in, his dark side resurfaces, and he kills a man in an unpremeditated act. Instead of spending his days as he had hoped—painting canvases and fly-fishing as the sun dips below the horizon—Stegner packs up and leaves Colorado to pursue a commission in Santa Fe, N.M., hoping to outrun his guilt.

The murdered man’s brother, burning with the desire for revenge, and an eclectic host of law-enforcement officials stay hot on the artist’s heels, and even as he tries to dodge the tragedy and violence that follows in his wake—including the deaths of his parents and the murder of his daughter by a drug-buyer—he can’t evade it. “That engine. Grief is an engine. Feels like that,” muses Stegner. “It does not fade, what they say, with time. Sometime it accelerates. I was accelerating. I could feel it, the g-force pressing my chest.”

Even though Stegner’s interior conflict adds depth to the story, the plot lulls at times when the narrator’s thoughts alone fill the page. However, Heller—an award-winning adventure writer—masterfully creates enough suspense to hold the tension taut in this book’s more-action-packed moments, which include shootouts, car chases, a barn-burning and an unexpected final scene.

Heller’s deep-feeling narrator tells his story in a candid, casual voice that ultimately extracts sympathy from the reader. With an ending that’s surprising and fresh, The Painter will leave the reader wondering what it takes to salvage something artful from a painful past.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

The Painter: A Novel

By Peter Heller

Alfred A. Knopf

384 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

You’ve heard of The Horse Whisperer. Now, meet The Horse Lover, a cowboy on a mission to save wild mustangs—1,500 of them, all nickering and snorting at the Mustang Meadows Ranch in South Dakota.

“When my brother told me he’d agreed to keep hundreds of wild mustangs on his ranch, I thought he’d temporarily lost his common sense,” writes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the author’s sister, in the foreword to H. Alan Day’s memoir.

The 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act dictated that thousands of mustangs on public land be rounded up, corralled and offered for adoption—something for which many of the animals proved utterly unsuitable. That gave Day the idea for his project: a refuge for wild horses.

Already a cattle-rancher who owned and managed two ranches—totaling 250,000 acres, in two states—Day bought a third, a 35,000-acre property in South Dakota, just to provide a home for unwanted mustangs. “This was an opportunity to plow unfurrowed ground in building the first wild horse sanctuary in the United States—a never-before-done project,” Day writes.

He describes the fun he had in meeting and caring for his new charges, as well as the problems and frustrations involved in trying to keep 1,500 horses—that’s 6,000 thundering hooves—healthy and happy at his wild equine rest home. Fortunately, he had help: The federal government paid 100 percent of the project’s cost during his four-year contract with the Bureau of Land Management. Still, Day has harsh words for the way the BLM manages mustangs.

“The Bureau of Land Management treats wild horses as numbers and objects rather than as individuals to be treated with love,” he writes. “Man is the worst enemy of mustangs, especially men in helicopters who cause terror and trauma. If you don’t make friends with them and teach them that you’re not their enemy, then you are.”

When the contract expired, Day rebid for it and lost; he then sold Mustang Meadows Ranch to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 1993, and another contractor took over the care of the horses.

Asked if he’d do it again, given the chance, he answers without hesitation: “Make me 30 years younger, and I’d damned well do it over again.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs

By H. Alan Day with Lynn Wiese Sneyd; foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor

University of Nebraska Press

264 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

After nearly two decades of literary silence, former mystery writer Bernard Schopen is back with Calamity Jane, a new novel that asks serious questions about the West.

His protagonist, independent filmmaker Jane Harmon, returns triumphantly from Hollywood to Blue Lake, Nev., to showcase The Last Roundup, a documentary she’s made about the townspeople’s lives. Jane’s received “bouquets of encomium and accolades for her assessment of the rural West and the American desert, of what should be done in it and who should do it.” The Last Roundup even aired on PBS.

Winnifred Westrom, the book’s narrator, is a former schoolmarm and closet poet who reassembles the story of Jane’s one-year sojourn in Blue Lake and tries to come to terms with this modern-day Calamity Jane (as the locals call her), who’s wreaked havoc on their lives at every turn. Winnifred has sympathy for the realities that Jane’s film portrays, but also “feels it at odds with (her own) sense of things.” After all, Jane arrived with “ideas and attitudes shaped by Out There teachers. … She took us in, made us material to be worked by her art and didn’t recognize us otherwise.” This emotional flaw keeps Jane from penetrating or even recognizing the barrier that stands between her viewpoint and that of the town.

Jane’s larger-than-life stories of two characters—Brock Walden, a Don-Juan-of-the-West TV star who owns a local ranch, and Ione Hardaway, the pistol-packing manager of Walden’s livestock operation—miss the hidden details that don’t fit into her well-crafted narrative: the stuff of ordinary rural people who ain’t tellin’ their secrets to nobody.

“Out There,” the sensibility that shaped Jane’s version of the Wild West, collides with “Out Here,” the authentic Real West represented by the town. Schopen has taken a wise, smartly written, complex look at the everyday mysteries to be found, and perhaps solved, in a group of human beings with various passions, Achilles’ heels and a near-addiction to small-town gossip, which is often flavored with the truth. Can Jane, with her limited awareness of other people’s inner lives, ever understand what this land means to those trying to wring a livelihood from it? Or will she always be an outsider, bending the truth to fit her own myth?

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Calamity Jane

By Bernard Schopen


270 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

In Katie Gale, anthropologist Llyn De Danaan chronicles the life of a 19th century Salish (Pacific Northwest Native American) woman who married a white man, gave birth to four children, became a successful oysterwoman, suffered greatly in a divorce settlement, and watched two of her children die of tuberculosis before succumbing to the disease herself.

An extraordinary life? Not really. An exemplary one? No. But Katie Gale represents more than an individual: She stands in for an entire generation of Native American women trampled under the boots of white expansion.

“Of this I am certain: Katie Gale was a refugee, a person displaced by war and threats of war from her country of origin,” argues De Danaan.

Katie’s tribe lived on the oyster-rich Washington coast “before the first non-Indian oystermen arrived in Oyster Bay with their values, dreams and aspirations that rapidly turned a largely subsistence harvest to one based on accumulation of wealth, investment and growth.”

In the late 1800s, whites arrived in large numbers, the beneficiaries of laws encouraging homesteading. Joseph Gale and others claimed vast oysterbeds. But lacking knowledge of the area’s unique harvesting practices, the settlers were at a disadvantage—hence the high number of intermarriages between white men and Native women who knew how to manage tribal lands for sustenance.

But subsistence living vanished when the 1893 depression struck. “Economic downturns had never touched her people before. Only natural disasters could bring shortages. Now Katie lived in a world that was plummeted into near chaos by the national and even international activities of marketing and finance.”

Despite its difficulties, Katie’s life is also full of love and community, all chronicled in fascinating detail by De Danaan, whose previous anthropological work includes field studies in Malaysia. The book is a masterpiece of creative interpretation of extensive archival work, as Gale left no diaries or letters.

Clearly, De Danaan is moved by Gale’s life and legacy. “Surely my life is as insubstantial, as ephemeral, as was Katie’s. I will become like her, another mostly anonymous wraith, a specter who will walk the shores with all the others.”

But De Danaan underestimates her work; this volume is well worth the contemporary reader’s immersion in another life and time.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay

By Llyn De Danaan


336 pages, $29.95

Published in Literature

Jerry D. Mathes’ second nonfiction book, Ahead of the Flaming Front, portrays the day-to-day life of a wildland firefighter. With a poet’s sense of language, Mathes describes his experiences as a rookie, gaining knowledge as he rises through the ranks.

Mathes works mostly for the Krassel Heli-Rappellers, a fire crew that works out of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He performs a variety of jobs—not just sliding down ropes into remote fires, but also pitching in on hand crews to build fire lines, working as a sawyer, and traveling to fill in on other crews throughout the West. Although the landscape and environment change, the physical routine and the danger of the work do not.

Mathes introduces us to a range of characters—perhaps too many to keep track of—but he gives us vivid portraits of the women and men who pursue this hazardous and sometimes tedious job. What emerges in the end is one hugely important thing: the importance of camaraderie in the work of firefighting.

The tragedies of past firefighters are woven throughout the book, both as cautionary tales and as a rationale for all the rules, regulations and paperwork, but Mathes rages against the bureaucracy that he believes sometimes prevents firefighters from acting efficiently. The book was already in publication before the Yarnell disaster of last summer, in which 19 firefighters died, but Mathes was always aware of the potential for that kind of tragedy. When he became an instructor, the most important thing he instilled in his rookies was their right to refuse an assignment when the risks are too great.

Occasionally, the language verges on sentimental, and proofreading errors distract from what is otherwise a fascinating read. One conversation gets at the heart of the book: Mathes and a fellow firefighter, Flegal, are fishing while waiting by a river to be picked up. As the helicopter approaches, Flegal says, “It’s still good times, bro.” Mathes responds, “I gave him a thumbs up. ’As long as we’re still breathing.’”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire

By Jerry D. Mathes II


260 pages, $17.95

Published in Literature

Most communities across the West, urban and rural, are home to the animals in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s new book, The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, a collection of joyful meditations on the fauna that scamper over our lawns and roost on our power poles.

While eastern gray squirrels, crows and the other denizens of Haupt’s bestiary make up the most accessible of the local wildlife, Haupt worries that their very familiarity renders them somehow “unwild” to us, and therefore not worth our notice. We imagine wildlife as, say, a moose wading in some distant boreal swamp, but consider nearby and more common animals like racoons and starlings as much less important, reducing them “to fluffy cuteness or mere annoyance.”

That simplification, Haupt argues, robs us of a better understanding of the world and our influence on it. “I come to this understanding by exploring wilderness with a pack on my back and with my ear to the wind, yes, but also by observing a migratory warbler in my backyard and by joining my daughter in watching a nonnative house sparrow gather nest material in the backyard garden, while allowing myself to recognize fully that these activities are all of a piece.”

Haupt, as a good naturalist, loves all things fauna, but she’s gracious about those who don’t, and even finds some humor in their uncharitable views of many urban animals, often the result of ignorance or of unnerving interactions with an animal trapped in a kitchen, garage or garbage can. She refuses to scold, even when confronting urbanites’ outsized fear of coyotes, a solitary and collie-sized predator. “Most adults cannot accurately identify the song of an American robin,” she writes. “Why on earth would we know what to think of a coyote?”

Haupt’s big-hearted approach especially benefits those animals even nature lovers tend to hate: introduced species. In a chapter on what she calls the “nonnative triumvirate,” Haupt mounts an impassioned defense of sparrows, starlings and pigeons. “These birds aren’t here because they have chased away everything else; they are here because we have chased away everything else, because there are so few other species capable of living on little besides concrete and car exhaust and bread crumbs.”

There’s something heartening about the animals that do more than survive despite us; they actually manage to thrive alongside us. In doing so, they remind us of how fuzzy the divide between urban and wild really is.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild

By Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Little, Brown

352 pages, $27

Published in Literature

For 40 years, Barry Lopez has been at the center of the national and international conversation about social justice, and the fate of humanity and the Earth.

In Conversations With Barry Lopez, the National Book Award-winning writer’s thought, precision and intelligence are brought gracefully to the page in three candid personal interviews with his longtime friend, William E. Tydeman, a writer and archivist at Texas Tech University’s Southwest Collections/Special Collections Library. The book also features an introduction to Lopez’s life and work, 19 black-and-white photographs and a comprehensive bibliography.

Tydeman’s close relationship with Lopez allows the two men to travel through the kind of conversational territory that begins in restraint and formality, and leads into the heart. If Lopez’s manner appears rehearsed, it also lacks pretense; rather, it reflects his careful and heartfelt consideration of his art and of the world in which we all live. Lopez and Tydeman take on a wide range of topics with clarity and eloquence: the writing life, the social responsibility of the artist, the future of our planet, justice, animals, love and beauty, and photography.

In his introduction, Tydeman explores Lopez’s ideas about “individual genius.” Facing what he calls “the disquieting dimensions of (his) own ego,” Lopez strongly believes that “humanity has more often benefited from the genius of the community than from the genius of the individual.” Anyone praised for great work in any field, Lopez attests, must admit that achievement is not possible without the community’s support.

Lopez goes on to speak about the environmental and social challenges of our age, which he calls “a singular time of concern.” In America today, we talk a lot about finding and destroying the enemy, whatever it is. Lopez says bluntly: “I don’t believe there is an enemy. … If you spend your energy trying to identify an enemy, and you track down this putative enemy, and you kill him, he will rise again in another quarter, in another costume.” The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are prime examples. “The thing to do,” says Lopez, “is to make the enemy irrelevant.” Lopez doesn’t explain how an individual or nation can accomplish this, but he believes that such an approach to the problems of the 21st century may help lead us out of the darkness.

One of the most engaging sections of the book is poet and archivist Diane Warner’s 43-page list of Lopez’s published works. It features notes by both Lopez and Warner that offer a deeper understanding of the writer’s path and development. For example, a 1969 essay, “Gull in the Rocks,” mentioned as “an early example of (Lopez’s) concern for the lives of animals, the state of the environment, and ethical human behavior,” informs the 1989 publication of “Apologia,” which addresses the disquieting deaths of animals on America’s highways. Charles Hobson turned that essay, illustrated with original woodcuts by Robin Eschner, into a limited edition book for his Pacific Editions press; it was then published as a trade book in 1998 by the University of Georgia Press. What began as Lopez responding to a single event (the death of a gull) rises into a lifelong exploration of the way human beings treat other living creatures and how we treat each other. Lopez’s books Of Wolves and Men (1978) and Arctic Dreams (1986) are seminal works on this theme.

A longtime editor and friend once said of him: If there is anyone in America writing better than Barry Lopez, I don’t know who it could be. There is wisdom in this little book, Conversations With Barry Lopez, because there is so much wisdom in the man—in fact, in these two men, who open the door for each other to think and feel, and invite the reader in to join them.

The book encourages all of us to ask the same question Lopez asks himself: “Do I help make the world safe and beautiful by what I do?”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Conversations With Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination

William E. Tydeman

University of Oklahoma Press

208 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature