Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Poetry Supplement Summer 1999, Volume 17.0

Reading The West

read-ing (from ME reden, to explain, hence to read) - vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to, study.


Education of the Soul

Michael Richard Bonin of Gonzaga University writes in a recent Rocky Mountain Review recalling a moment from his graduate education:

When I was starting graduate school, sixteen years ago, I took a seminar on the American Transcendentalists. We spent three class sessions discussing Walden, along usual graduate-seminar lines: Thoreau's Kantian epistemology; the details of mercantile culture in mid-nineteenth-century New England, the cancellation of meaning by Thoreau's unstable irony. As the class prepared to move on to Howthorne's The Blithedale Romance, I tried to prolong the Walden discussion with our treatment of the book; I was having an academic crisis of faith.

Walden was the first book I had read as an undergraduate English major, six years earlier, and for me that reading had had the force of revelation. Thoreau's call to live life deliberately, expressed on every page in physically thrilling lines converted me... So the question I asked that day in the graduate seminar was "Is he right?" I meant, "Have Thoreau's words changed your  mind? Your life? Have these lines seized your spirit as they seized mine?" No such question had been raised in the three days of discussion, yet I asked it apologetically, of course, for I was (in the first place) breaking the unspoken agreement palpable in very classroom when a topic is "done" and the next syllabus item can now be covered. Worse yet, I knew how naive I sounded. I had raised what Falstaff calls "a question not to be asked."

[But] it seemed to me intellectually - no humanly - dishonest not to encounter a book at least once during its classroom treatment, on its own stated terms. If we read and discussed works only from the outside (maintaining "critical distance"_, as if we were not being addressed by the author, if only undergrads or "general" readers were simple enough to have their minds or souls enchanted and transformed by a book, then graduate and professorial literary study was reduce to an exercise in competitive cleverness.

Source: Rocky Mountain Review, Spring 1999, pp. 83-84


The Wisdom of Evel

If he had been born earlier in the century, Evel Knievel may have been a nameless cowboy. As it was, he became famous for self-destructive acts of riding a motorcycle over ever longer and more dangerous reaches of space. Having shone little "sense" in his career, it is a little surprising to find him interviewed by Mike Sager in the July 1999 issue of Esquire. From his Montana home, the sixty-year old Knievel shares "What I've learned;"


When you're mad at someone, it's probably best not to break his arm with a baseball bat.


This country has become a nation of the government, by the government, and for the government. Our politicians are destroying us. We need a revolt.


You can't forbid children to do things that are available to them at every turn. God told Eve, "Don't give the apple to Adam," and look what happened. It's in our nature to want the things we see.


Anybody can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it.

Source: Esquire (July 1999, p. 99)


The Fires To Come

Writing in the June 1999 Atlantic, Sasha Ambramsky observes the frightening illogic of our nation's criminal justice system. Notes Ambramsky, we are putting more people into prison, punishing them more ruthlessly, doing much less to rehabilitate them, and making little provision for the return of the resulting sociopaths to the community. Estimating that there may be 600,000 prisoners released in the year 2000, 887,000 in 2005, and about 1.2 million released in the year 2010, she concludes: "Without making contingency plans for it - without even realizing it—we are creating a disaster that instead of dissipating over time will accumulate with the years."

With Ambramsky's warning in mind, it is instructive to consider the number of State and Federal prisoners held in the West and the state incarceration rate (prisoners per 100,000 population):

State Number of Prisoners Incarceration Rate
North Dakota 883 126
Nebraska 3,519 206
Utah 4,479 211
Washington 13,841 243
Oregon 8,620 248
New Mexico 4,751 263
Wyoming 1,424 297
Hawaii 5,103 299
Montana 2,714 308
Kansas 8,037 308
South Dakota 2,360 320
Idaho 3,959 321
Colorado 13,960 352
Alaska 4,216 421
California 158,742 477
Arizona 24,879 504
Nevada 9,482 529
Oklahoma 20,994 629
Texas 143,299 700
West Total 435,262 —
U.S. Total 1,277,866 452
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 1998" (March 1999)


Cows Not Condos

There is heartening evidence that the "war" between environmentalists and cattlemen may be changing as each of the parties discover they have some common interests. Perri Knize, writing in the July 1999 Atlantic reports:

In recent years wildlife biologists at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks have returned cattle to wildlife management areas as part of a cooperative arrangement with local ranchers. They have observed that when cattle remove rank vegetation, in the fall, they enhance spring fodder for geese, elk, and antelope. Cattle are also used in these areas a reseeding tool; they knock the seeds from mature seed heads to the ground and plant them with their trampling. The capacity of cattle to revegetate has proved useful, too, for reclaiming mining sites in Arizona that have resisted reclamation by other means.

Efforts to remove all cattle from wildlife areas have proved in some instances to be misguided. Managers at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, in Oregon, are perplexed by a drop in antelope numbers only seven years after livestock were banished from the refuge so that the land could "recover." The managers theorize that the problem is a rising number of coyotes, which prey on antelope fawns. But local ranchers say that the managers have it wrong: numbers are dropping because pronghorn antelope depend on cattle to clear away older grasses and make available younger, more palatable shoots...

More and more environmentalists are recognizing the stake that all Westerners have in the preservation of private ranchlands - and the inevitable consequences of inflaming the range wards. COWS NOT CONDOS is a bumper sticker seen around Montana's more liberal communities lately. It's the concept behind the Montana Land Reliance, a conservation group that is helping ranchers find tools - such as conservation easements - to save family ranches from subdivision and thereby keep ecosystems intact.

Source: The Atlantic Monthly (July 1999, pp 58, 62)


Images of West

Imagine for a moment that everything you know about the American West came from TV or magazine advertising. In such a case, you might easily believe the West was a primitive, uncivilized place, populated largely by migrants and Morlboro Men. Western geography would be strikingly devoid of cities - Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, Dallas, et al., would have mysteriously vanished. The landscape would be mountains, rugged rocks and arid desert, accessible only by air-conditioned, leather-appointed SUVs.

An unhappy variation on this traditional view of the "primitive West" appeared in a recent two-page ad for the Christian Science Monitor. The advertisement showed people who actually lived in Idaho, but they were still primitive. Using half inch orange letters, the ad's left hand page proclaimed "TO MOST NEWS FOLLOWERS, THESE ARE TYPICAL NORTH IDAHO RESIDENTS." Below that headline, a black and white, 4" x 8" photograph showed grim-faced Aryan storm troopers leading dozens of Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia down the streets of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Aryan storm troopers leading dozens of Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia down the streets of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

The ad's right hand page softened the images of hate but only slightly.

Racists, fascists, survivalists, supremacists. That pretty well sums up  most people's impressions of who lives in the Idaho Panhandle. Fueled by media reports, fed by most news coverage, it makes for more compelling reading than the fact that probably 99% of the residents oppose these extremists.

Monitor readers got a clearer picture. Rather than dwell on the 92 neo-Nazis who marched down the streets of Coeur d'Arlene, we also looked at the thousands who protested and the ongoing human rights efforts of local businesses and individuals.

Results: a deeper,  more accurate account of the problem, the causes, the solutions. In short, the brand of journalism we've been working at for 90 years.

But the impact of the full-page hostile image remains...

Source: The Atlantic, July 1999


Forske Simplistic Antagonism!

One of the continuing problems facing the country is the stridency with which public issues are argued. Whether it pertains to questions of water allocation, urban sprawl, right to life, presidential impeachment, patient rights, or almost any other public policy issue, discussion too often focuses on differences rather than commonalties. This antagonism and its problems are highlighted in an essay on global warming by two economists (Peter Wilcoxen of the University of Texas at Austin and Warwick McKibbin of Australian National University). Wilcoxen and McKibbin observe:

The heated policy debate about global warming often seems like a Rorchach test: If you're an environmentalist, you advocate quick and significant cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions to prevent the worst-case scenario, which includes more violent storms, changes in the course of the Gulf Stream, melting of the polar ice sheets, and higher sea levels. If you represent an industry group, you argue against taking any action now, because cutting emissions is likely to be expensive, and the benefits are not clear. Unfortunately neither of these positions is a prudent approach to the problem.

The reason we can't seem to get beyond the extreme viewpoints is that scientists are uncertain about just how serious the problem of climate change is. It would be far better to forsake simplistic antagonisms, admit our ignorance, and strive for a realistic policy that acknowledges the inherent uncertainties by mandating small, cost-effective steps to reduce global warming.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, July 2, 1999


The Mission of Education

Speaking at the 85th annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, noted researcher Alexander Astin of the University of California-Los Angeles blamed much of the antagonism in civic life on a basic contradiction that exists in our college and universities:

Let's first consider our beliefs about academic excellence. For a number of years now I've been very critical of our traditional approaches to making ourselves academically excellent, which often seem to be reduced to acquiring as many resources as possible and building up our institution's reputation so we can move up as far as possible in the institutional reputation so we can move up as far as possible in the institutional pecking order. My concern about these approaches is that they fail to address directly our basic societal purposes of teaching and  public service. Not that we don't need reputations or resources in order to teach and serve, but rather that a unidimensional focus on resource acquisition and reputation building as ends in themselves can ultimately cause us to neglect our basic educational and service mission. Paradoxically, it can also cause us to neglect our research mission, because we become focused more on acquiring top scholars and researchers than on developing the scholarly talents of the incumbent faculty.

The roots of many of our seemingly most intractable problems can be found in this preoccupation with resource acquisition and reputational enhancement: the valuing of research over teaching, the struggle between equity and excellence, and the lack of community that we find on many campuses. We value research more than teaching because we believe that outstanding scientists and scholars will add more to our reputation and resources than will outstanding teachers or mentors. And when we define our excellence in terms of the test scores of our entering freshmen - the high-scoring students being viewed here as a "resource" that enhances our reputation - we set our sense of excellence in direct conflict with our desire to promote educational opportunities for those groups in our society whose test scores put them at a competitive disadvantage. Finally, when we place the highest value on the individual scholarly accomplishments of our students and faculty, we reinforce their competitive and individualistic tendencies, making it very difficult for them to develop those qualities that help to promote a sense of community on the campus: good colleague-ship, collaboration, community service, citizenship, and responsibility. These latter qualities, of course, are the same ones that are needed to make any democracy work.

Source: Liberal Education, Spring 1999


Looking for the Action?

Gambling has become big business. In an essay titled, "Chasing the Devil into the Millennium," Tom Barker and Marjie Britz discuss what appears to be the ever-increasing presence of legalized "gaming." They note that the gross amount wagered on all forms of legal gambling in 1997 was $638.6 billion, with 50% of that amount accounted for by the casino table games and slots in Nevada and New Jersey. Lotteries account for the largest share of gross gambling profit (the amount wagered less winnings paid our) $15.5 billion. And of course the government gets its share - estimated gambling privilege taxes form 1997 were $18.5 billion, which does not include the normal taxes a gambling businesses will pay such as corporate taxes, real estate taxes etc.

Not all gambling is monitored. There is no way of estimating the money involved in private poker games or other wagers. There are some estimates that sports betting (which is legal only in Nevada) is "probably the most prevalent form of gambling and the largest source of revenue for organized crime."

In the legal arena, Nevada and New Jersey are no longer alone. Currently 33 states have casino gambling, 38 have lotteries, and 45 allow parimutuel betting of horses, dogs or Jai Alai.

The action available in the West is shown below:

  Casino Lottery Pari-mutuel
Arizona o o o
California o o o
Colorado o o o
Hawaii – – –
Idaho o o o
Kansas o o o
Montana o o o
Nebraska – o o
Nevada o – o
New Mexico o o o
North Dakota o – o
Oregon o o o
South Dakota o o o
Texas o o –
Utah – – –
Washington o o o
Wyoming – – o

The gambling and gaming industry in the united states, as outlined above, is mammoth and glutted. Anyone who desires  to play the lottery or a gambling machine (slot, video, or VLT), visit a casino, or engage in some other form of gambling can easily do so and legally. Before 1988, the trip to Atlantic City or Las Vegas required a plane trip and time,  not to mention money. Now, a visit to a casino-land-based, riverboat, dockside, Indian, or day cruise - is within driving distance for Americans. The lotteries in the thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia, competing for their own and other states' players, are aggressively advertising and introducing new games to stimulate play in a saturated market. Multi-million dollar lottery jackpots are hot topics on national and local news, stimulating feverish buying among in-state and out-of-state buyers. State lotteries, in addition to generating revenues, create new state bureaucracies loaded with career-minded bureaucrats interested in job survival.

Source: Platte Valley Review, Spring 1999


Power to the People

Paul Rogat Loeb is, an associated scholar at Seattle's Center for Ethical Leadership, writing in the Utne Reader, makes a powerful point about the power of ordinary individuals.

Infact, seemingly powerless people may be in a better position to change history than their more fortunate counterparts. Consider Martin Luther King Jr. early in his career, a 26-year-old preacher heading into Montgomery, Alabama, uncertain of what, if anything, he might achieve. Indeed, King's campaigns failed as often as they succeeded. Lech Walessa was a shipyard electrician before events thrust him into the forefront of Poland's Solidarity movement. Wei  Jingshen, the long-imprisoned dissident who helped inspire the Tiananmen Square protest by placing his democracy essay on a public wall, was a technician at the Beijing Zoo. Lois Gibbs was an ordinary housewife until she organized her neighbors at Love Canal, then founded Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. These people were not fulfilling a preordained destiny. They were developing character-their own unique character-by speaking  out for what they believed. As the 18th-century Hasidic rabbi Susya once put it, "God will not ask me why I was not Moses. He will ask me why I was not Susya."

Source: Utne Reader Online, July 19, 1999,


Recommended Reading

The Wyoming Humanities Council's 1999 "book discussion program" contains a reading list for those interested in exploring how the West's diverse geography, cultures, and histories have shaped the traditions and customs of the region. The council's top six reading picks:

bulletWhere the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992) by Wallace Stegner
bulletDeath Comes for the Archbishop (1912) by Willa Cather
bulletAll The Pretty Horses (1992) by Cormac McCarthy
bulletThis House of Sky (1978) by Ivan Doig
bulletRiver Song (1989) by Craig Lesley
bulletRefuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1992) by Terry Tempest Williams

And if you have time to read more, the Council recommends:

Edward Abbey, Desery Solitaire; Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain; Ivan Doig, Dancing at the Rascal Fair; A>B> Guthrie, The Big Sky, The Way West; Linda Hasselstrom, Land Circle; Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home; Daniel Kemmis, Community and the POlitics of Place; William Kettredge, Hole in the Sky; Thomas McGuane, Nobody's Angel; Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove; N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain; John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War; Chip Rawlins, Sky's Witness; Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Marie Sandoz, Old Jules; Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony; and Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters On An Elk Hunt.

Source: Wyoming Council for the Humanities,


The Cost of Predation

As part of the effort to reintroduce Wolves into Yellowstone and other parts of the West, the Defenders of Wildlife have created a private trust fund which compensates livestock owners for losses from verified wolf predation.

Since 1987, the fund has paid 84 ranchers a total of $79,399 to cover the loss of 114 cattle, 213 sheep, and 9 other animals. The magnitude of wolf predation is suggested by the payments made in the first half of 1999:

June 1999

bulletFlorence, Montana, 2 calves (one verified, one probable), $576
bulletClayton,  Idaho, 3 steers, $1000
bulletMarion, Montana, 3 calves, $1200
bulletKemmerer, Wyoming, 2 lamb, 1 miniature donkey (50% comp. FWS reported it was likely a released and not a wild wolf), $330
bulletPima, Arizona, 1 calf, 1 stock dog (inc. vet costs for wounded stock dog), $390

May 1999

bulletRock Springs, Wyoming, 3 ewe, $330
bulletKemmerer, Wyoming, 2 ewe, 1 guard dog, $39
bulletLeadore, Idaho, 9 sheep (inc. 50% compensation for prob. predation of 4), $665

April 1999

bulletCarmen, Idaho, 1 calf, $400
bulletJackson, Montana, 1 steer, 1 heifer calf, $785
bulletSalmon, Idaho, 1 livestock guard dog, $500

February 1999

bulletMarion, Montana, 1 cow, 2 calves, 1 wounded calf, $1700
bulletMarion, Montana, 1 steer, $500



Cartooning the West

Mike Ritter has been the editorial cartoonist for the tribune Newspapers in Mesa, Arizona since 1992. His cartoons and illustrations have appeared on Good Morning America and in USA Today. He is currently writing a book about "The Road" film comedies starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. More of his cartoons can be seen at

Cartoon by Mike Ritter depicting an elderly person in a hospital bed with a button pinned to his gown reading "hands off medicare."  Into his left arm feeds an I V drip, with a baby instead of a bag of medicine feeding the tube.

Mike Ritter cartoon with four rats representing hate groups in a maze shaped like a swastika with Uncle Sam in the center.

[Mike Ritter's cartoons reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate.]


Back to Top