"The year 1990 strikes me as an excellent vantage point," Stewart L. Udall writes early in "Beyond the Mythic West." "Powerful forces that have molded the West this century, most notably the Industrial Revolution and Cold War, are waning. It has been 97 years since historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed: long enough for the West to have outgrown its callowness, short enough that we can still remember that frisky youth."
Poised on the brink of a new century, Udall and four other essayists pause, in this new collection, to reflect upon our post-adolescent region's past, consider a few of its contemporary challenges, and urge all of us to think about where we're headed.Our collective memory of yesterday's West is deservedly subject to scrutiny, clouded as it is by the gun-smoke of six-shooter legend - the "myth" of the book's title - and questionable cultural perspectives. The diverse, rapidly growing West of today is peppered with problems, from our hiccuping boom-and-bust economy to long-simmering conflicts between developers and conservationists. And the West of tomorrow . . . .
"It's hard to predict anything, especially the future," goes an apt old saw usefully resurrected by contributor John M. Volkman.
This, to put it mildly, is quite a chunk of territory to stake out for one slim and handsomely illustrated volume. Striking full-color images of the urban, rural and wilderness West by Utahns Tom Till and John Telford and other photographers give it somewhat the look of a coffee-table concoction, but "Beyond the Mythic West" is definitely more than that.
The collection has been printed by Utah's Gibbs Smith, Publisher/Peregrine Smith Books in collaboration with the Western Governors' Association. And, despite its attempt to shake off the mythicized past, there's still a pioneer-descended "can-do" spirit in the essays, as well as a thread of New West regionalism.
The five essays vary markedly in approach, accessibility and literary intent.
Udall, a former Arizona congressman and interior secretary, gives us the reminiscence and eyewitness analysis of a public man whose life has coincided with the 20th century in "Pausing at the Pass: Reflections of a Native Son." As a Westerner he's seen the creation of Promethean dams, the dawning of the Atomic Age and the startling rise of huge new cities.
"As a place to rear children and enjoy a healthy lifestyle, a case can be made that the West is now the most attractive region in the country; simply put, it is the `last best place,' " he writes. "This is not boosterism but fact, supported by irrefutable evidence." Nevertheless, he says, it's a land in peril.
Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick's essay has the feel of a dissertation. Her argument: Turner's conception of the retreating frontier is wrong. We've had it drilled into our heads that the West was "conquered" by white European-Americans, when what really happened was that many peoples and cultures, "a swirl of populations" - Indians, Spanish, French traders, blacks and Russians as well as Europeans and their children - intermingled and exchanged goods, genes and traditions, and occasionally clashed, over a period of 400 years.
Charles F. Wilkinson, a Colorado legal scholar, promotes an "ethic of place" and the quest for consensus in his thoughtful essay, while Volkman, a Utah native and representative of the Northwest Power Planning Council, considers the concept of sustainable economic development and the search for balance in his sometimes technical but practical-minded chapter.
Montana writer William Kittredge, in a selection excerpted from his book "Owning It All," reviews the artistic and literary legacy of the West. Yes, until the 1930s most of our major art "was centered around the myth of the Western: gunslingers and settlers and savages, invading armies and law-bringing."
But today, Kittredge writes, "artists are trying to run their eyes clear of mythic and legendary cobwebs, and see straight to the actual. But sometimes you have to wonder about that. As a friend of mine says, `I ask for truth, and what do I get? Candor.' "
"Beyond the Mythic West," in words and pictures, reflects a deep appreciation for a vast and varied territory. But its contributors aren't blinded by their admiration. Yes, the writers are opinionated - or candid - in places, but they're also perceptive, definitely thought-provoking and tackle many a thorny question.
"What will it finally take to wean us from a pace of development that cannot be acceptably maintained at the rate it has proceeded since World War II?" Wilkinson wonders at one point. "What sort of places will there be in the West if we allow that pace to continue? Are we willing to leave it to our bright-eyed children and grandchildren to live with the stark consequences of the answers?"