Dear Jackie, Please update your social profiles so that I can find you and we can chat — your Wister quote is one that I had written down in my journal after spending a summer in Wyoming. This essay addresses many points that have been revolving in my mind.


(Originally found at )

In Western myth, the land plays many different roles. Expanses of open land leave room for gun fighting, hunting, traveling—and also for losing and finding oneself. Land and civilization, however, are often portrayed as opposites that cannot co-exist: People who live in this landscape are often as uncivilized as the land itself. Even as characters in books and movies tend to portray such stereotypes, reality looks different: Real Westerners can survive in a world where both open space and civilization co-exist peacefully.

Though very old, the idea that open space and civilization cannot co-exist has become most influential around the time that westerns were introduced. In her book West of Everything, Jane Tompkins explores the elements of the western genre, including the importance of landscape and how it separates the weak from the strong. Tompkins points out that landscape in westerns is a tool that can be used to show the differences between civilization and wilderness: “We know that the people who get off the stage wearing suits and carrying valises, sporting parasols or mustaches, are doomed, not because of anything anyone says about them but because of the mountains in the background and the desert underfoot” (Tompkins 74). Here, Tompkins is saying something that most western fanatics already know: the landscape shapes those who live in it. Similarly, John Wayne was never popular because of his ability to balance a checkbook or dance the flamenco. His persona is uncivilized and rugged; he has become like the land. However flattering or unflattering it may be, that is his only image.

Nevertheless, it can be easy to get caught up in this romantic idea of the wilderness and the different people who one imagines might live in such a place. Generalizing that only an uncivilized, gun-slinging man can survive or enjoy spending time in open space leaves little room for exploration. Historically, though, real people who lived in the West were often agents of civilization, rather than the opposite, “for example, the hunters and trappers known as Mountain Men opened the wilderness to the very civilization they supposedly sought to escape,” Jeffrey Wallmann states (37). Tompkins similarly explains that as a western hero travels through open space, the space can create a kind of civilization for him/her, offering visual comfort, peacefulness, as well as sustenance: “If nature’s wildness and hardness test his strength and will and intelligence, they also give him solace and refreshment” (81). This space becomes the hero’s civilization, complete with everything the hero needs.

Though Western myth has transformed the way some people think about Western landscape, some influential literary works show that the wild and the civilized can coexist. Perhaps because of the way westerns portray land and civilization, many people believe that there are no ties between open space and civilization, but there are. Examples of this joining can be found in novels like Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady (1923). In The Virginian, the main character is a rough and rugged “cow puncher,” but he falls for Molly Wood, a refined woman who represents civilization. She, in turn, falls for him, bringing the two opposites together. Also, the narrator of the story is a man from the East who travels westward and is transformed by the openness of land—though it would be a stretch to call him “wild” or “uncivilized” by the end of the novel: “No lotus land ever cast its spell upon a man’s heart more than Wyoming had enchanted mine” (Wister 61). In A Lost Lady, Marian Forrester is a beautiful and charming woman, but she is deceitful as well. Her husband, Captain Daniel Forrester, is an older and rugged man who made his living by building railroad tracks during the pioneer times. Though seemingly a prototypical “wild” Western hero, now that those days are over, he delights in the beauties of his meadow and his wife: “In his eyes, and in the eyes of the admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs. Forrester chose to do was ‘lady-like’ because she did it” (Cather 6). Here again, readers see the two opposites attract and even merge in the same person.

The protection of open land in America is especially interesting because of the different views Native Americans and Euro-Americans have of the Western landscape—and also of each other. Traditionally, Native Americans have had close ties with the land. Yet as Europeans came into the country and proceeded to force Native Americans off it, the land became something to be won, not appreciated. Wallmann comments, “The harsh attitude toward Indians has modified over time, though traditionally most historians and fiction writers have seen little fault in how the West was won” (40). Even as the Euro-American conquest of the land and its native peoples was as savage as it could be, popular culture represented Native Americans as even wilder. During the post-Revolution Era, journals and other accounts about the Native Americans even admired and honored the way the Native Americans fought. This curious merging of “wild” and “civilized” also aided in the dissolution of the “Noble Savage” ideal (Wallmann 39).

In real life, wilderness spaces and human habitation go hand in hand in the West where the protection of open space has been going on for years. According to The Bureau of Land Management’s website there are at least 17 National Conservation Areas in existence, with all of them in the Western part of the United States. The website clarifies that NCA’s are designated by Congress as areas that are under protection but which can be changed or enhanced should the need arise. The site categorizes “Wilderness Areas” as separate pieces of land that mainly go undisturbed by people and are designated for personal enjoyment and education. There are many more areas designated as “Wilderness Areas” according to the site.

Human beings can have a desire to want to explore the land, which is why it’s a good thing that organizations such as the BLM exist. Many Americans participate in outdoor recreation activities from hiking, rafting, biking and fishing to camping, hunting and repelling that bring wilderness and civilization together. Protecting open land is crucial for these activities to continue, which is where agencies like the BLM, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency come into play. The RMEF alone has impacted over one million acres in Utah and raised over 17 million dollars through fundraising in order to help with land conservation and improvement (Christensen). Organizations such as these also help protect wildlife in their natural habitats.

Farming also is a very constructive way of bringing together open space and civilization. In her novel Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver proves this point. She takes her family to live on a farm in Virginia, where they agree to purchase and consume only locally produced food. At first her family is a little hesitant to follow through, but as they get used to the cycle of harvesting, they begin to see the rewards of eating locally grown food, even if they obtain it at the local farmer’s market: “Buying your goods from local businesses rather than national chains generates about three times as much money for your local economy” (Kingsolver 149). While her family learns to live on a farm, it is not as though they are giving up the luxuries of society. They do not become “hard” like the land. Instead, the family learns more about how important it is to bring the land to civilization: “Without rationing, skipping a meal, buying a corn-fed Midwesternburger or breaking our vows of exclusivity with local produce, we lived inside our own territory for one good year of food life” (Kingsolver 343). Not only does Kingsolver learn that it is possible to be self-sufficient, she also urges others to become aware of the origins of produce.

Civilization cannot survive without the wilderness—or at least without natural spaces. Society requires open space for agriculture in order to produce the food necessary for survival. However, with the process of shipping produce and only growing it in designated areas, local farming has gone down dramatically: “Over the last decade our country has lost an average of 300 farms a week” (Kingsolver 113). Preserving open space for agriculture seems to be more of a luxury now than a necessity. And yet, there are things that one should remember: “Agriculture is the oldest, most continuous livelihood in which humans have engaged . . . which makes farming substantially older than what we’d call ‘civilization’ in any place” (Kingsolver 178).

Any way one looks at the supposed conflict, it becomes increasingly clear that civilization and wilderness can—and must—co-exist peacefully. This peacefulness can depend greatly on how civilization cares for the wilderness, and how the wilderness, in turn, can help civilization. The melding of these two opposites results in human benefits such as outdoor recreation, gardening as a hobby, and the ability to purchase fresh, local produce. Failing to comply with the needs of the wilderness only makes civilization more difficult, and with the right purpose in mind, civilization can help protect open spaces that otherwise would not be taken care of. It is the balance, not the battle, that keeps civilization and wilderness both together and apart.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. New York: Vintage Books, 1923. Print

Christensen, Bill. Personal Interview. 15 July 2009. Print

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. New York: HarperCollins Publication, 2007. Print

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print

Wallmann, Jeffrey. The Western. Texas Tech UP, 1999. Print

Wister, Owen. The Virginian. Signet Classics, 1902. Print

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