Identity and Space in the Wild West
America is a frontier country, it is part of our identity. As soon as settlers reached the New World they starting heading west in search of opportunities, adventure and resources. However, these people were cowboys, gold prospectors and other rugged individuals that tall tales were made of. The vast majority of Americans stayed safely home in their towns and cities and only ventured west when the foundations were laid and the trains ran on time. As a result, the narrative defining wilderness and the west was largely constructed using mythology and fantasy. This construct was also malleable, it could be idyllic and romanticized or scary and oppressive, fabricated purely as a “reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires” (Cronon 70). The type of rugged individual who inhabited this wilderness was also a stereotype based on fantasy and mythology. In Alexandra Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, employee-rights and environmental protection themes are examined through the life of a young man who died working on an oil rig. Colton is not heroic, but his story is mythological in that it tells a story that has philosophical significance. It means something, it has a moral and should be shared. However, these artificial human constructs of pristine wilderness and its heroic inhabitants are not just myths, they represent a delusional fantasy that creates a false duality that has negative unintended consequences.
In "The Trouble with Wilderness" environmental historian William Cronon asserts that pristine wilderness is only a fantasy. It is not wild, it is a man made construct, a product of our civilization. The problem with understanding the American wilderness as a larger-than-life mythical concept is that it creates an incorrect duality. Wilderness is the other place, not here. Therefore, we live in an artificial world, which we imagine is quickly developing into an Orwellian landscape out of a science fiction movie, where everything is metal and glass without a tree in sight. The world we live in is synthetic, and we spend our time in air-conditioned cubicles “imagining that our true home is in the wilderness” (Cronon 74). When Americans do experience nature, it is a national park for a week, then back to civilized society. After seeing the majestic mountains and natural landscape, they return home feeling more alienated from nature than ever. Nature is beautiful and alien at the same time.
This has many environmental implications and negative unintended consequences. If a city or town is not wilderness, or nature, then throwing trash on the ground is acceptable. The river that cuts through a city is a suitable dumping conduit for industrial waste. There is a detachment from nature that makes realistically understanding it impossible. However, the busiest Manhattan street is also part our ecosystem. It is nature. A mythological romanticized notion of nature might appeal to our senses, but we should protect all landscapes and environments, not just the pretty ones. Moreover, today no place it truly wild, or untouched, because environmental effects like pollution and oil drilling leave their mark on everything.
Before the 1800's, wilderness was a scary place, uncivilized and unknown. Society created fables to scare children from going into the woods. There was a distinct shift in ideology
in the mid 1800's, when Thoroux wrote Walden, a book advocating a retreat to nature. Once the nastiness of the Industrial Revolution started to emerge, Americans began idealizing nature. Cronon believes natural wilderness has been given sacred status in the American consciousness:
the culture that created and idealized it, it had to become
sacred, nature could a religious experience (Cronen 81)
According to Cronon, the notion of wilderness appeals to the American sense of rugged individualism: “By fleeing to the outer margins of settled land and society—so the story ran—an individual could escape the confining strictures of civilized life” (Cronon 81). This romantic appeal was the basis for Walden and clearly an important part of John Kraukarer's Into the Wild, which documented the story of Christopher McCandless, a young affluent man who graduated from college, donated all of his money to charity, and began a journey to the American West and up into Alaska. He was eventually found starved to death in Denali National Park and Preserve. The book describes McCandless embarking on a spiritual journey to find out what is real. What was eventually real was the extreme cold and harsh conditions an Alaska winter. Kraukauer concluded that McCandless died in part because of this idealized conception of nature. He wanted to experience a fantasy, and did not understand the reality of nature (Krakauer). The Environmentalism movement has embraced this religious spirituality of wilderness a virtual
Garden of Eden. This concept, like religion, a human construct, however, and has evolved over time. Today, wilderness is a spiritual concept that “serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest” (Cronen 80).
Cronen concludes with some suggestions for realistic sustainability. Learning to honor the wild “means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails” (Cronen 82). When we see nature as an amusement park, and not where we live, we can easily neglect our responsibility to it. The cultural challenge is to integrate sustainable practices into our purple mountain majesties and our suburban cul-de-sacs.
The mythic frontier individualist is usually masculine, a real burly man untouched by the softness of civilization. In Alexandra Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, employee-rights and environmental protection themes are examined through the life of a masculine young man who died working on an oil rig. Colton Bryant was born and bred in Wyoming, and loved it. He did not have many options so he took one of the few jobs available, on the oil rigs. According to Fuller, this is the modern west, fueled by the extraction of fuel. The company exploited him, and the land that he loved. The job was boring and dangerous, but he was happy to get a paycheck and support his family. He is a sympathetic unsophisticated character, focused on hunting, guns and big trucks. His friends and family love him, even though he has problems. Colton is not a hero, or a myth, but his story is epic and mythological, and the book explores some deep existential themes. He died after falling off a drilling platform that lacked a safety rail. The company Bryant worked for was
fined $7,000 for safety violations. Bryant's family received no compensation. Fuller is creating a legend, because she wants his story to be passed around the same way good mythology is culturally shared to spread specific messages.
In the book, Colton is no hero but the lesson – about exploitation – makes for good mythology. A myth of legend is a story worth repeating because it has meaning. However, they should not be used to analyze or frame environmental debates. To define Wyoming as a wind-swept and barren wilderness is dismissing what else it is, a state with universities, museums and culture. Generalizations and stereotypes lead to faulty understanding. To understand out environment as a dichotomy between wilderness-nature and everything else (city, rural, farm, suburbia) is creating two worlds, with two different sets of rules. Culturally, we respect nature as an idea, but in reality we continuously abuse it.
However, a society has to have some norms, some accepted beliefs, shared traditions. Myths and legends can help enforce norms and drive change. Manifest Destiny was ideological, but really we just wanted that land and those resources. The National Parks were an effective way to displace Native Americans. Myths and legends can reinforce cultural ideas and support agendas. The rugged individual is a productive member of society, willing to go to war and unlikely to look for governmental support. Culturally, the sacredness of nature and the mythology revolving around the rugged individual help enforce cultural norms and justify policies and agendas. Myths and legends are also entertaining. They provide a shared vision of what is exciting and exotic. Cowboy movies exist because Americans like them, from John Wayne to Midnight Cowboy.
Our historical identity was largely built around a false representation of nature. Historically, nature killed you. It was a wasteland you stayed away from. Villages, towns and cities were built to get away from it, and that is where we find ourselves today. It is easy to neglect and destroy something far away that you rarely see or use. Ultimately, what we think about the wilderness, or Wyoming, or what happened to Colton Bryant is culturally influenced, and may be distorted by a host of different evolving ideas and stereotypes. Therefore, it might be a good idea to look at nature or oil field worker rights from a cleaner perspective, so it is not influenced by myth or legends but by reason, logic and some humanity.
Cronon, W. (1996). The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History, 7-28.
Fuller, A. (2008). The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. Penguin.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor, 1997. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David, Owen Paul Thomas, and Henry David Thoreau. Walden and Civil Disobedience: Authoritative Texts, Background, Reviews, and Essays in Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Print.
Wagenfeld, Morton O. "A snapshot of rural and frontier America." (2003).