Saturday, October 13, 2007

Gamblers, speculators all! Sat, Oct. 13 pm

My friend Bill sent me this: Here are a few lines from Douglas taking the train in 1881 through Utah.


“…[T]he traveler… has time to think of the strange fate which induced a community… devoted by the very articles of their creed and the rules of their church to agricultural and pastoral pursuits, to plant itself in the heart of these mountains, where its members are industriously reclaiming the desert and tilling every nook and crevice among the mountain’s recesses which will raise a blade of grass, while around them surges a population of restless, reckless miners and speculators – gamblers all – their very opposites in character and pursuits; and one wonders what the upshot will be!”

Traveling by car through Utah, New Mexico and today the Texas panhandle, the traveler still has time to ponder answers to Douglas' musing about the fate of the West. Funny, they are all here and all still wildly pursuing their sometimes opposing, sometimes reinforcing
goals. Church and nation, cross and flag now dominate the symbolic visible landscape of western America. A scan of the radio dial yields little more than evangelical ministers calling for a new social redemption and gospel music (alternating ironically with rap and hip hop). Crosses (often lit up at night) have been erected in the fields and on rocky outcroppings illuminating the path ahead for wayward travelers. Yet these same agriculturalists and pastoralists: "industriously reclaiming the desert and tilling every nook and crevice among the mountain’s recesses which will raise a blade of grass . . ." have become as dedicated to individual pursuit of wealth as their "reckless" mining and speculating neighbors. The "social" gospel of the panhandle and much of the rural west is a gospel of individual wealth--in their parlance--"freedom." These pastoralists now lease their land for wind mills, oil rigs, coal mines, feed lots and every other way they can find to exploit the land for every dollar it can grow, produce or yield. Not sure what Douglas would say today as he looks out upon a landscape where the dollar is the crop of choice.

Yet what anger and discontent seethes just below the surface. While pursuing economic change--the main chance--these same good Americans and good Christians are angry at every other kind of change: angry at immigrants, ragheads, the Indian shop keepers who now own or operate every motel and gas station in the West, gays and lesbians, liberated women who refuse to obey their husbands. (Its worth reading
carefully the news accounts and transcript of the trial of the Utah Mormon tried as a polygamist and rapist, [or was it the reverse], whose vision of good social order placed himself in the center with his numerous wives revolving around his sun.)

Yet, ironically the old West--the West that Douglas imagined and was probably never there--has also grown amazing crops of urbanity and sophistication. Places--perhaps outposts or better, inposts--have sprung up in the rural centers; places like Austin, Rio Ranchero, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and more, places that glitter with a sense of community, albeit yuppie middle class technological community, slowly sowing the seeds of social change: "liberalism," god forbid!, and its urban cousin "tolerance" for true individualism, i.e. cultural and individual difference. Amen brother. Written from somewhere in the Texas panhandle where Bush continues to reign supreme.

No comments: