The American West is known around the globe for its great mountains and deserts, its sprawling national parks, its vast ranches and ghost towns. In recent years, though, it’s also become known for the war being fought over whether those Western forests, grasslands, minerals, wilderness, and rivers should be used or preserved.

For anyone who lives outside the region, it’s easy to forget that more than 50 percent of the West — and as much as 82 percent of some individual Western states — is the property, not of those states and the industries that consume their resources, but of all 270 million Americans. So when politicians open Western lands to mining and timber corporations, they’re offering up for destruction something that belongs to all of us, thus raising the question of true ownership.

“Who Owns the West: Four Possible Answers” is excerpted from a longer lecture (there were ten answers in all). The speech was given as part of the now defunct “Who Owns the West?” lecture series, which was inspired by author William Kittredge’s book of the same title.

— Ed.


Who owns the West? I’m not going to tell you. I’m a storyteller, not a pundit. I like Barry Lopez’s borrowed Inuktitut definition of the storyteller as “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” Anyone who uses words to try to stuff you full of wisdom has confused wisdom with turkey stuffing. Wisdom reveals itself because wisdom lives, hidden, within the self, where only the lone reader, the lone listener, the self itself, can free it. With a series of stories, I hope to create an atmosphere: nothing more. If the question “Who owns the West?” gets answered in that atmosphere, you will have answered it for yourself.

Answer #1: Manhole Covers

“Who owns the West?,” being a difficult question, reminds me of the first truly difficult question I ever wrestled. The wrestling ended when the question gave up on mere wrestling, reared back its fist, and nearly broke my jaw.

I learned a lot from that blow. Before it landed I was a typical American kid laboring under the false impression — planted in equal parts by fundamentalist Christianity and the public school system — that the only right way to handle any question is to cough up the One Correct Answer. I still remember Correct Answers of my school years, long after having forgotten their corresponding questions: “Coffee, bananas, hemp, cacao!” “The Bill of Rights!” “Be, am, is, are, was, were, been!” I now think of this as “answerizing” — an activity that stands in relationship to truly answering a question as the ability to memorize the phone book stands in relationship to the ability to love every preposterous flesh-and-blood person whose name the phone book happens to contain.

Questions that tap into our mortality, our pain, our selfishness, our basic needs, questions that arise from the immeasurable darkness, lightness, or mystery of our lives, require more than mere answerization. They require our suffering, our steadfastness, our silent prayer, our deepest faith. I learned this in 1969, thanks to a blow to the jaw. The same blow revealed to me an extremely valuable technique for dealing with exceptionally hard questions — a technique I have dubbed “the manhole cover.” It happened like this:

In 1965, when I was thirteen, my seventeen-year-old brother died of a staph infection after a number of unsuccessful heart surgeries. In the dismal years following his death, I couldn’t help but notice that other young men his age were dying, too — only these other brothers and sons were dying of what seemed to be avoidable causes. Knowing how the loss of my brother had blasted my family and me, I began to question whether it was right that the boys of my generation were being asked to die in Vietnam. The family supper table was the test site where I would detonate my questions.

I am the son of a good father, but a father seared, at the age of twenty-two, by the experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. I’ll never forget Dad’s description of the fat, glowingly naked body of the German commandant, killed by surviving Jews, lying on the ground beside the heaped, wasted bodies of hundreds of his victims.

My father loved his country and he loved his children. He expressed these two loves by serving in the war, then by working all his life in the electronics industry, where he helped make, among other things, components for nuclear warheads. He also expressed his two loves by embracing the idea that Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam were a threat comparable to Hitler and Nazi Germany. Dad believed this because it was told to him by American leaders in the same positions once occupied by Generals Patton and Eisenhower and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It never occurred to Dad that, between 1942 and 1966, one small thing might have changed: the Americans in power might have become liars.

After my brother died, though, this thought occurred to me. As I began to hear increasingly disturbing stories of the war, then looked at the faces of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his cabinet, I believed I was seeing a liar served by liars. My father saw no such thing. We had a problem.

A sidebar: Robert McNamara, a Johnson cabinet member, has since confessed to his lies in a book that came out in 1995, thirty years after the lies were told. I found McNamara’s confession sickening: for its belatedness; for the insult it gave to the soldiers and false enemies and innocents who suffered and died for his lies; and for the fact that McNamara, despite his avowed remorse over his grandiose Vietnam-era lies, continued to inflict pain and debt on other Third World countries with the equally grandiose, horribly ill-conceived development projects he launched as head of the World Bank.

Another sidebar: A lesser servant of the same cabinet was a Texan with the scrubbed looks of a Baptist seminarian, who, as Johnson’s press secretary, would dutifully stand in front of reporters and lie and lie and lie. So far as I know, this man, unlike McNamara, has never publicly announced his regret: he has simply proven it, by leading a different life ever since he stopped lying. This man’s name is Bill Moyers.

But my topic is not that war or its architects. My topics are difficult questions and manhole covers.

In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was because our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen that Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Then Dad would go off like a bomb, bellowing that I wouldn’t talk such rot if I’d ever seen a concentration camp.

I’d learned in high school that this response, for all its emotional vitality, was a logical fallacy known as a non sequitur. Needless to say, I didn’t tell my father this.

What I did instead was set out to answerize him into oblivion. I read scores of accounts of the war, studied the arguments of ex-hawks who’d decided the war was unwinnable, honed my rhetoric, documented statistics, memorized tales of American murderousness. My dad, meanwhile, spent his days obeying his defense-industry bosses in order to earn the salary that supported his family — including a son now bent on making a fool of him each night at supper. In his justifiable frustration, his rhetoric became ever less cogent, more blustering, closer and closer to a position of “Just shut up! The North Vietnamese are Nazis, and if we don’t kill them we’ll die like the Jews.”

I know now that no argument I might have constructed could have changed my father’s position any more than his Nazi mantra could have changed mine. We both needed wisdom, and wisdom is not a rote answer, not dogma, not ideology. It is not something we stuff into one another. Wisdom is often just a lightness, or a sense of empathy, or a fresh angle of vision that arises in the heart when the atmosphere is right. And my father and I had stopped creating the atmosphere in which wisdom could reveal itself. The friendliness, the levity, the shared stories that had once dominated our supper table had vanished. To stop creating this atmosphere is to move beyond help.

One night in 1969, after I had again answerized my dad with an antiwar harangue, he shoved back his chair in a fury, rose up over me, and began yelling down into my face, as if the higher elevation could give his “Ho Chi Minh–Hitler–concentration camp” sputterings the weight they so mysteriously lacked.

I saw red. When he ended with “I was in Germany! I saw! I know!” I shoved back my own chair, stood six inches from his eyes, and shouted with all my might that he did not see, that he did not know, that napalmed children were now the Jews, that we were now the Germans, and that he was the stupidest son of a bitch I’d ever met in my life.

The next thing I knew I was airborne. And, strange as it sounds, it was sheer release.

That my flight carried me backward over my chair didn’t matter; that my father’s fist was what had launched me didn’t matter. I’ve heard it said that mental suffering is worse than physical pain; my father’s fist convinced me that this is so. The anguish of our useless four-year verbal battle, sparked by our simultaneous grief for my brother, was so unendurable that I experienced his blow as pure relief. Even when I hit the floor and the pain registered, I remained giddy. Better my father’s fist than the rhetorical war we’d been waging. Infinitely better his fist than the real war, with an M-16 in my hands. I bounced up as if we’d been playing football, left the house without speaking, and didn’t return home for three days.

When I did return, Dad was waiting. And I saw at once that he’d been suffering, feeling nothing but fear for my safety the days I’d been away. I hadn’t been feeling so good myself — about my name-calling, about staying away just to make him fret. We ended up in a race to see who could apologize first. And, in relation to the question “Who owns the West?” or any of life’s most difficult questions, it is these apologies of which I want to speak.

Both my dad’s apologies and mine were clumsy, ponderous, heavy things. They created no agreement between us whatsoever. Yet how necessary they felt, despite their awkwardness. Manhole covers — that’s what our clunky apologies felt like. The way they placed an almost unliftable lid over our grief, our rage, the lies of Johnson and Moyers and McNamara. The way the causes of grief and rage remained, except covered now. The way we had each offered up our apology at the same time, each gladly placing a heavy lid over his own hurt and anger. We had both come to realize that we would never close the gulf between us with words, that the other was somehow helpless to cross over to our position. So, over our hate, our helplessness, our contrary positions, we set our big, clunky apologies. And we continued with our lives. And began to be friends.

Dad stayed in the defense trade, rooting for the troops, voting for war hawks and war chests. I went on opposing the war, evading the draft, advising every boy I knew to do likewise. Yet we continued to honor our manhole covers. We drove over them daily, our positions still utterly opposed; drove back and forth over them so often we forgot to worry about whether they’d hold. Of course they held. Who has ever fallen through a manhole cover? The problems occur when people remove one from its place.

Who owns the West? Anyone who can hear this obnoxious question and not think of the unforgivable, irreparable betrayal of the Indian nations and many African tribes has forgotten two of the most tragic stories on earth. These United States are founded, let’s face it, upon the enslavement of innocent Africans, the extermination of innocent Indians, and a revered piece of paper that lies, in the face of both tragedies, that “all men [sic] are created equal.” These States are founded, in other words, on hope, faith, idealism, love, sacrifice, ingenuity, courage — and some of the most staggering hypocrisies in the history of humankind.

Without manhole covers, the founding hypocrisies that gave us an America and a West will never be bearable, let alone discussable, let alone healable.

The need for big, ponderous apologies is endless.

For all my love of rivers, “our nation’s rivers” have not moved me once. The rivers that have moved me are those I’ve fished and fallen into and canoed and swum and slept beside; those I’ve lived on, nearly drowned in, . . . and fought to defend.

Answer #2: Its Inhabitants

As a born West Coaster who for decades has led a fairly pared-down life on a series of westward-flowing trout and salmon streams, I used to feel that I had a handle on what we call “Westernness.” Then I learned that my new father-in-law, a perfectly intelligent man named Joe Arleo, also considered himself a Westerner — because he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. What’s more, when I visited Joe in Manhattan, I found I totally agreed with his position. To be any more western than he already was would have forced him to fall off the edge of his known world into the Hudson. We couldn’t have that!

My Upper West Side father-in-law is very well traveled, and knows more about geography than I do. So when I point out that he defines “West” as the Hudson River, I’m obviously not talking about world geography. I’m talking about an alternative geography we all possess: the personal geography.

Joe Arleo’s personal geography has many unique features: one is a distinction between what he calls “the country” and “the city.”

“The city,” as you might guess, is Manhattan. “The country,” it turns out, is Long Island.

And I used to think I lived in the country!

Lest it sound as though this Montanan is trying to call a more intelligent Manhattanite “provincial,” let me confess that my personal geography is just as provincial. It is the nature of the personal to be provincial. The personal geographical truth about me is, I’m so Columbia River bred and Pacific-salmon fed, so steeped in the rain, rivers, moss, and mythos of the American Northwest, that I felt I’d migrated to the uttermost East when I moved, a few years back, to Montana. Just as the Hudson is as west as Joe can go without ceasing to be the Manhattanite he is, so the Continental Divide is as east as I can go without ceasing to be me.

Why? Because every creek and river I’ve known intimately in my life has ended up in the Pacific. And across a nondescript spine of mountains just east of my Montana home, the watersheds trade that familiar destination for the staggering complexity of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. This changes nothing, really. Yet it changes everything: no more salmon, sea lions, gray whales, or orcas downstream of me; no living connection to any known family members; no more temperate forests of cedar, spruce, hemlock, and alder; no totem-carving, seagoing, raven-worshiping tribes; none of the cities I’ve known since I was a boy, including Portland, city of my birth, city I’ve moved back to and away from seven different times.

Those who have left every such connection behind and feel they’re doing fine without them could fairly ask, “So what? Who needs all those connections?” I wouldn’t argue. I feel no need to present my case: the need I feel is to represent it. I choose to live this life under the influence of mountains and rivers that tilt into the Pacific because when I first awakened to this life I was already under that influence. I didn’t ask to be born precisely here, but I’ve grown to trust the mysterious indigenous wisdom that took care of that for me. The truth is, I don’t just trust that wisdom; I revere it so deeply that, more days than not for the past thirty or so years, I have reinforced my trust with a walk not so much along as in a Pacific-flowing stream or river.

These river walks have become a habit — a word that used to worry me, because it reminded me of the formidable-looking garb of nuns. Then, in a book called Grass Roots by a farmer named Paul Gruchow, I found this passage:

To inhabit a place means literally to have made it a habit, to have learned how to wear a place like a familiar garment, like the garments of sanctity that nuns once wore. The word habit, in its now-dim original form, means to own. We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives. What is strange to us, unfamiliar, can never be home.

Who owns the West? I’m still not willing to say. But my experience has been that almost nothing can stop us, no matter how little we own, from allowing loved things, beautiful things, trustworthy things, to enter the continuum of our lives. We need only move slowly enough to let them enter.

At the age of twenty-five or so, I consciously chose a life of rivers, words, and contemplation over, among other things, any real possibility of a large income. I made it my habit, my wearable habit, to walk in water as often as I could. For diplomatic purposes, among those leery of pagans — or, worse, mystics — I call these walks “fishing trips.” But I long ago realized that these wet walks teach me, more than almost anything else, how to inhabit and wear my chosen home.

I’ve spent thousands of days dressed in the waders I call “my portable sweat lodge,” simply walking in water. I possess no deed to any creek or river in which I’ve strolled. Yet I have no friend or family member, not even the closest, with whom I’ve spent more time than I’ve spent in rivers. And I dare say that — in their cold, wild, hard-to-describe way — rivers have befriended me in return. They’re very serious and strange in their friendships. They’re incapable of sentimentality or preferential treatment, and would always as soon drown as coddle you. Yet if you touch a river’s skin with the least tip of your finger, it instantly reconfigures itself in response. Is there a better name than friend for something so ready to respond to your most nuanced touch?

I don’t much care if my preoccupation with spiritual matters appears absurd to some people, since I’ll eventually be dying not with those people but all by myself.

Answer #3: Roots Touching Roots

Personal geographies can be wet or dry, hot or cold, crowded or solitary, urban or rural, microscopic or vast, but we all possess them. And they’re all quirky, provincial, limited. In fact, I’ve come to suspect it’s a far more serious blunder to think you’re not quirky, provincial, and limited than to readily admit that you are.

I believe in the effort to broaden the mind, but I believe even more in the effort to deepen it. And I have often found broadness and depth to be at odds. Your mind and energies are like a knife scoop of mustard, and your geography is like a slice of bread: if your bread slice is several thousand miles across, you’re doomed to spread your mustard mighty thin. This world, it seems to me, is awfully big, a human being awfully small, life awfully short, and most of our plates awfully full for our personal geographies to approximate national or international geographies. When people attempt to go global with their geography, bad things happen to their thinking. Look at the Roman and British Empires. Look at Coca-Cola, Norwegian wharf rats, nuclear weapons, carbon dioxide, CFCs, GATT.

More to the personal-geographical point, look at me: As the author of a couple of river books, I’ve had the good fortune, more times than I deserve, to speak to gatherings of river lovers. Twice these gatherings were deemed “national.” In preparing those two talks, I felt I should perhaps say a little something about “the nation’s rivers.” But I discovered that my mind, in the presence of such a vast concept, simply wilted.

I am seventy-two inches long. At a full shout my voice carries a quarter mile or so. I can walk maybe twenty miles in a day without quite dying. I’ve lived my whole life on a few small Oregon and Montana streams. How does a creature like me address a national anything?

I tried. In the name of democracy or rhetorical grandiosity or some such thing, I tried to write remarks that would be equally interesting to every member of a fifty-state audience. What emerged were sentences of such fiberless banality and gross generality that they could have served as a Bob Dole campaign speech.

W. B. Yeats once explained his approach to life and poetry in these words:

If I had written to convince others, I would have asked myself not “Is that exactly what I think and feel?” but “How would that strike so-and-so? How will they think and feel when they read it?” And all would be oratorical and insincere. If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others — not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root.

For all my love of rivers, “our nation’s rivers” have not moved me once. The rivers that have moved me are those I’ve fished and fallen into and canoed and swum and slept beside; those I’ve lived on, nearly drowned in, dreamt about, sipped tea and wine by, taught kids to swim in, pulled a thousand fish from, and fought to defend. Doesn’t the same go for geographies?

Another odd power of the personal geography: it has the mysterious ability to connect us to people and places we’ve never seen. For instance, I have never laid eyes on the Ohio River, except perhaps from a jet thirty thousand feet above it, but I have been so moved and haunted by my own Columbia River’s struggle for life that, when I read the poet James Wright on his dying Ohio, I am moved to tears.

Before I ever laid eyes on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River, I was so enthralled by the wild flow of Oregon’s Deschutes, and so crushed by the loss of a brother, that when I read Norman Maclean on the Blackfoot and the loss of his brother, I was enthralled and crushed all over again.

These are not geographical links; these are roots touching roots, as Yeats promised. Personal geographies converge inwardly, create resonance, and expand our knowledge through empathy. It’s a paradox that the particular alone leads to the universal. Even Bob Dole tickled me when he spoke of the personal geography he inhabits: Remember that elegant congressional porch on which he’d sun himself? He called it “the beach.”

Answer #4: The West Itself

After thousands of river walks, I’ve come to realize that I am no longer interested in saving the planet.

Planet saving once struck me as a worthy goal, and I still admire it in children, but in adults the planet-saving imperative has come to seem a complete waste of time. Christ and Buddha were enlightened beings, or possibly the same being on two subsequent visits, but neither spoke of “planet saving.” You’ve got to turn to an Op-Ed page or talk show to find things as sizable as planets getting saved.

My objection, as you might guess by my take on the nation’s rivers, is to the scale of the undertaking. Even tiny planets, like Mercury, are huge. A human being, in contrast, is very, very small. I know there are fatal billions of us altogether. But there is only one of each of us.

I find the smallness and singleness of myself crucial to effectively planning my day. I find an extreme degree of abstraction in the all-out planet savers I know. When some open their mouths, they seem so sure they’re speaking for large swaths of the global populace that, if I remind them that there is only one of them talking, they get mad and call me cynical.

I don’t like being called cynical, so I’ve learned to keep quiet when friends talk of saving the entire planet. But I call that notion of salvation abstract. And my daily work of fiction writing uses up all the tolerance I have for abstraction. When I leave my desk each evening, I long for the particular and concrete: my specific kids (Tom, Celia, Ellie), their specific pet chickens (Missy, Muttly, Daisy, Denise, Spike, Cute Face, Clara, Fig, Big Guy), and specific flowers, birds, rocks, trees, insects, and fish with idiosyncrasies so entertaining I can never even think of their Audubon Field Guide names.

Joseph Campbell once said: “We must claim the land, must turn the land where we live into a place of spiritual relevance.” But such statements are meaningless until we have in mind a personal geography, a particular piece of land — which for most of us means a neighborhood, a yard, a garden, a stretch of hiking trail or creek. Or, in the case of a traveler, as I am at the moment, wherever you are. This week I’ve been trying to turn the stalls in airport men’s rooms and pouches of airplane seats in front of me into places of spiritual relevance by leaving them all a bit cleaner than I find them. Lacking such specifics, Campbell’s declaration is just a planet-saving abstraction.

Wendell Berry honed in on how land is spiritually claimed when he wrote: “It is not out of the abstract ministrations of [those] . . . outside the immediate life of a place that the ceremonies of atonement with the creation arise, but out of the thousand small acts, repeated year after year and generation after generation, by which men relate to their soil.” If to the word men we add “women,” and to the word soil we add “air and water,” we’re getting sufficiently specific to pull on our work gloves and boots and get to work.

What I enjoy these days, in lieu of planet saving, is struggling to inhabit my personal geography through countless small acts of atonement. What I like is wading down the creek behind my house, picking up all the glass, cans, and plastic I can find. I like putting out suet for the nuthatches and the woodpeckers, sunflower seeds for the grosbeaks and the chickadees, sweet water for our four species of hummingbirds, millet for the buntings and the siskins, and watching the tuxedoed, nest-robbing magpies scrape by all winter on the dog’s turds. I like trapping any feral cat who tries to stalk even the magpies and moving it to a place infested with rodents instead of birds. I like sculpting a logjam for trout cover, catching the trout that enters, apologizing for scaring the bejesus out of it, then carefully letting it go. I like chopping wood for my own woodpile. I like to cut and stack words, too, creating stories about people inventing their own small acts of atonement, and now and then stories attacking the industrialized plans of those for whom the words atonement, inhabit, and river mean nothing.

None of these actions will save anything as large as even the three pine trees in my back yard, let alone the planet. And if I remember my high-school science correctly, the planet is sooner or later going to fall into the sun, or the sun is going to explode. But if Christ and Buddha are right, there is, even now, such a thing as salvation. It just isn’t planetary or physical.

I don’t much care if my preoccupation with spiritual matters appears absurd to some people, since I’ll eventually be dying not with those people but all by myself. Salvation, according to the world’s great wisdom traditions, has never been physical or planetary. It comes to a more essential part of us. And where I sense its balm most clearly is not in a church pew or at an environmental conference, but in every moment that finds me fully present — that is, fully self-forgetful — be it with a hoe, a fly rod, a pencil, a child, a bird feeder, a book, or a river.

Who owns the West? If we mean the land and waters beneath our feet, and the moon, sun, stars, and gravity that cast their spells upon this land and water; if we mean this millions-of-years-old realm created by celestial hydrogen explosions, ages of inconceivable heat and cooling, and oceans throwing their floors skyward to become what we now call mountains; if we mean these endlessly rearranging carbon compounds, cycles of condensation, cloud, snow, rain, and river, polar tilt, sunlight, and the compensating dormancies, hibernations, migrations, and transformations that give us our lives — if we are honestly asking who owns this fugue of harmony and terror, peace and change, then, God Almighty, what a stupid question!

This stupendous thing we so ineptly call “the West” owns itself, possesses itself completely, and us with it. Humans discussing ownership of wonders this vast are like bird lice discussing ownership of their host eagle in flight. “Who owns the right wing, and who the left?” The eagle just soars on.

The West is Buddhism’s chief truth (impermanence) and Earth’s chief attribute (beauty) in full conspiracy. The West deigns to host us, sometimes kills us, and ceaselessly blesses us. But allow itself to be owned by us? Never! No matter what we call it, no matter what we do to it, this inconceivable blessing will go on blessing us inconceivably — whether fools claim to “own” it or not.

These are today’s stories. Tomorrow’s could be slightly different.

With fear, trembling, and the good company of Pacific-bound rivers, I’m still working it out.