Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The West

With Rapid arguably marking the beginning of the West, I wonder what are the defining characteristics of the West? All geographic distinctions are inherently nebulous, full of caveats and counter-examples. This is particularly true of the West because it encompasses so much territory with much divergent history. For example, does Arizona and New Mexico belong to the West or how about Alaska? Seattle is firmly ensconced in Washington state but sure seems different than Spokane.

Nevertheless, certain features of the West do exist. Here is my partial list: physicality, emptiness, ranching and mining, and attitude.

What defines the West?

  • Physicality: By that I mean the physical landscape. We know that the land cannot be fully tamed, but in the West that is physical reality. The mountains, forests, and high plains dominate the landscape and dominate man. No tilling can erase the markers. You cannot blast away all mountains. In the West people live within this tension of the land. Today you still can not count on the crops growing. 
  • Emptiness: The West is defined by what it lacks. It is an empty land, both for people and for animals and plants. It is not that people, animals, and plants are not at all present; rather, it is that they are fewer and farther between. And in those great empty/wild places is the West defined. The West begins when the rainfall sputters and the towns move farther and farther apart. 
  • Ranching: the primary agricultural activity in the West is the management of steers and cows. Though raising crops has its place, it is not the defining feature. In the West people own ranches, not farms. 
  • Mining: People depend on what laid millions of years ago. The harvested crop is the hard-pressed minerals of the earth. It is in the bowels of the earth that towns found a reason to exist. 
  • Attitude: An independent streak that is best summed up with, “Don’t bother me.”
Thoughts from those living in the West?

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