Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Scarcity Of Water Nurtured My Social Mobility

Two months from today will mark 164 years since many of my ancestors crossed the Great Divide and settled in the west, before it had been carved into territories let alone states and into what Wallace Stegner termed “the geography of hope.”

The roots of my own upward social mobility aren’t found until 55 years after my ancestors arrived in the West and 46 years before I was born.  That’s  when Congress gave its approval to President Theodore Roosevelt’s first successful piece of legislation, The National Reclamation Act.P7020073

In part, this Act spurred both my paternal great-grandparents and grandfather (where he soon met my grandmother during a visit to see her sister) to move further north along the Great Divide to homestead the ranch and farmland later nurtured by my parents along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in the upper corner of the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Eastern Idaho.

The Act also helped make possible the introduction and union of my future parents when my watermaster maternal grandfather and his family relocated just a mile away in the 1940s to care for the now nearly 100-year-old Ashton Dam, currently under reconstruction.

Given to me by my daughter when she was in college and just after he died, I still have a description by Wallace Stegner capturing the West’s incredibly unique sense of place:

“Aridity more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character.  It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity that leads the grasses to evolve as bunches rather than as turf; aridity that exposes the pigmentation of the raw earth . . .

In the attempt to compensate for nature’s lacks we have remade whole sections of the western landscape. We have acted upon (it) with the force of a geological agent. But aridity still calls the tune, directs our tinkering, prevents the healing of our mistakes; and vast un-watered reaches still emphasize the contrast between the desert and the sown. . . .

The primary unity of the American West is a shortage of water.”

Teddy Roosevelt, as President Abraham Lincoln did 40 years before by enabling the transcontinental railroad, understood as David Brooks writes, that projects like these were driven by “policies designed to give Americans an open field and a fair chance to spread the spirit of enterprise, enhance social mobility, and so built the nation.”

Stegner also wonderfully describes the spectacular mountain peaks that perpetually frame my native homeland memories:

“The mountains of the Great Divide are not, as everyone knows, born treeless, though we always think of them as above timberline with the eternal snows on their heads.  They wade up through ancient forests and plunge into canyons tangled up with water-courses and pause in little gem-like valleys and march attended by loud winds across the high plateaus, but all such incidents of the lower world they leave behind them when they begin to strip for the skies:  like the Holy Ones of old, they go up alone and barren of all circumstance to meet their transfiguration.”

As someone who spent nearly four decades place-making as an executive for community/destination marketing organizations in three different communities, two in the West and one, my home now for more than two decades, in Durham, North Carolina, I have a special appreciation of both Stegner’s beautiful articulation of place and the roots of my social mobility.

After all, “Home,” as Stegner wrote in his 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”

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