Authenticity is not a fad when it comes to sense of place, but use - or should I say misuse – of the word has become one.
This will pass, and when it does the attributes of authenticity of place will remain by definition nearly temporal.
My personal story begins as the only son of an only son, born at the tail end of five generations of Rocky Mountain ranchers who gradually migrated during the hundred years before I was born from the Central to the Northern Rockies.
Our ancestral ranch is where I learned sense of place, e.g. the smell of sage brush, new mown hay, and rain on a dirt road, as well as the sound of a Meadowlark and the colors of Yellowstone Cutthroat in the Henry’s Fork.
But it is also where I first learned about myths: including myths about rugged individualists, the cowboy errant Knight and other stereotypes of the West that I see fleeting across the eyes of people who want to hear my story.
I didn’t read Wallace Stegner until I came across his incredible essay in my early 30s entitled, Sense of Place. This is where he coined that term and I still recommend to anyone seeking an understanding of authenticity.
It was my daughter, then in her third year of college, who brought me to Stegner in more depth. Having heard my story, she knew that the breadth and depth of his writings would resonate. It is such a gift to be understood.
One of my favorites is a book of essays written over a span that covered my first two decades entitled, The Sound of Mountain Water. The first was published the year before I was born, the last in the collection as I turned 21.
The namesake essay in the book is a lyrical description about my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho and its famed Henry’s Fork including this resonate memoir from his first visit there in 1920:
“I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river…”
It is a myth though that the west was settled by rugged individualists.
While that characteristic was prevalent, in several of his books, Stegner supports, as he does in one of the essays in The Sound of Mountain Water, that “cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves” the American West.
When all but two lines of my ancestors crossed the Rockies, to be followed by the remaining two within a decade, there were fewer than 90,000 people inhabiting 750,000 square miles (twice the area of Western Europe.)
There were fewer than 70,000 along the Rockies, nearly all living in what are now New Mexico and Arizona.
Even after the Gold Rush and the arrival of 11,000 Mormons by 1850, the entire West when my ancestors settled there was less than 1% of the US population at the time.
Ranches required an average of four square miles or 2,500 acres, so to avoid isolation and provide safety and shared resources, much of the West was settled on what is called a “village and square model.”
It’s also why early jurisdictions for governance there relied more on river basins and watersheds for boundaries.
Predominately, during the fifty years prior to 1890 as the West was won ranchers lived in settlements near craftsmen, artisans, granaries and supply depots and commuted out to their land and livestock.
Sometimes historians also refer to this as a “village-farm system.”
Much of what is depicted in novels and movies about the West as well as that depicted by many of those who profess to be westerners today is synthetic.
Pure and simple, the West evolved to what it is today through a sense of commons that revolutionized the sense of land and water ownership.
The myth of rugged self-reliance became evident during the 1930’s Great Depression.
Groups such as Mormon leaders felt their recently evolved welfare program would be sufficient and pressed by partisans expressed that somehow the new federal program which emulated it would create sloth and dependency.
But the Mountain states where Mormons were then centered became the largest per capita users of the federal aid program. Mormon leaders marveled at the public works projects completed by those receiving it as a condition.
Given their history, they shouldn’t have been at all surprised.
Apparently, they had forgotten that it is trust that led to economic development of the West, just as a new study has found in a study of survivors of Atomic bombs that trust enabled them to rebuild from that trauma.
Today, a small group of regressives in the West are pushing to let special interests get their hands on public lands for mining and drilling, backed quietly by Wall Street interests who have over the decades, raped the West in similar fashion.
They are dismissing economic analysis, which I have written about previously, showing that rural counties adjacent to public lands have outperformed others and that counties where resource exploitation occurs ultimately fall much lower.
But it was not the various gold, silver and copper strikes in the early west that provided sustainable growth.
In part, it was this unique, resilient, drought tolerant wild grass that led my ancestors who had settled in 1860 along each side of the Utah-Idaho border to relocate to the northern extreme of the Upper Snake River plain to create new homesteads along the Henry’s Fork.
Famously framed by the Continental Divide, Yellowstone and the Tetons, this area of my origin is the culmination of a hundred mile stretch that is no more than 70 miles wide at its widest narrowing to 20 or 30 miles where I was born.
The sides of this valley range to 10,000’ framed by the Lost River and Lemhi ranges stretching down from the Sawtooths and on the east by the Caribou, Snake River and Teton ranges.
My ancestors were following an old stagecoach supply route between Utah and the mines in Montana which, beginning in the late 1870s, was becoming the path of a slowly emerging railroad eventually to supply tourists to Yellowstone.
But above where the Henry’s Fork joined the South Fork to form the Snake River, settlers such as my ancestors were surprised to find the landscape covered not by sage brush, but waist high, wild bluegrass from the river to the Tetons and north to forests of the Centennial range.
The area had already been transited by trappers and then a cattle company but it was still available to homestead. But they still followed the modified “village-farm and ranch” model adapted from when their parents cross the Rockies in the mid-1840s.
My ancestors found that the western side of the Henry’s Fork was even better adapted to ranching. They had modified the village-ranch model but settled this new area as they had others in the West through cooperation.
Together, they marked off land, built bridges and roads, created reservoirs and irrigation canals, established granaries for the poor, created cemeteries and erected school houses.
Tough, independent and self-reliant – certainly – but with an even greater commitment to cooperation, the commons, public education and the welfare of those less fortunate.
By the time I was born in 1948, a hundred years after ancestors began settling the Rocky Mountain west, rich potato farms had replaced the bluegrass in our nook of Idaho, as they have the ranchland on the west side now thanks to pivot irrigation systems.
The West is always changing. Although I haven’t lived there since the 1970s, I travel along the Rockies each summer on road trips with my grandsons and daughter.
Much more dramatic than the subtle land use changes since my youth are the demographic and psychographic changes. Much of Idaho has been inhabited by in migration that seemingly seeks to replace the real Idaho by making it a refuge for the synthetic West.
I don’t mean the Aryan Nation which was expelled fifteen years ago. Places in Idaho are exurbs such as Coeur d’Alene. While whites represent only 8% of the population growth in the past decade, they represent 73% of the flight to exurbs.
Most seem to be chasing myths created when misinformation is re-harmonized to fit worldview.
It is complicated but emblematic. The best way to understand why my homeland now seems foreign, click to watch an episode of the phenomenal PBS America By The Numbers program entitled Our Private Idaho.
As a fellow North Carolinian once wrote, “You Can Never Go Home Again,” and that is sad. But the West will keep changing.
But as Stegner wrote, the West is also “the native home of Hope.” My hope is that it will once again claim its authentic roots.