Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West.
By Donald Worster. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Notes. Index. x + 292 pages. $12.95 paper.
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Reviewed by Thomas R. Cox, Professor of History at San Diego State University and author of The Park Builders: A History of State Parks in the Pacific Northwest and other works in environmental history.
Donald Worster is a foremost practitioner of environmental history. Focusing on the history of land use policies and practices, and, in the hands of its more sophisticated practitioners, on the roots of the attitudes and values underlying such use, the field has made remarkable strides in recent years. Under Western Skies, a collection of eleven essays, is a superb introduction to Worster’s important contributions to this development. Throughout, the essays demonstrate the lively style, intellectual imagination, and challenging ideas that are his hallmarks. Nine of the essays have been previously published or given as addresses. The two longest — one on the Sioux-white contest for control of South Dakota’s Black Hills, and the other on the exploitation of Alaska’s mineral (especially oil) resources — are new. Although expressed in a variety of ways, a central theme runs through them all: the traditional history of the American West, which celebrated the subduing of the frontier, needs to be replaced with history that is more self-critical, more humble; we must halt our destructive approaches to the land and learn to live in harmony with it in sustainable ways. This is not history written for narrow specialists, but history written for a wide readership. At times it verges on becoming advocacy literature — a charge that Worster would probably not deny; one suspects that he would simply reply that intelligent advocacy challenging our misuse of the land is long overdue. At times — in his essays on Western agriculture and Alaskan oil, for instance — Worster seems on the verge of launching an all-out assault on capitalism and its spirit of acquisitiveness. This tendency has appeared in some of his other works too, and has led to his being criticized for being possessed, like Karl Marx, by a “narrow materialism.” But a careful reading shows the charge to be a distortion. The basic problem that Worster sees stems not from capitalism but from overblown ideas of humanity’s ability to shape and control the world, ideas rooted, he argues, more in the works of Francis Bacon and John Locke than in the economic order. San Diego goes unmentioned in the pages of this book, and Southern California appears only briefly. But there are essays on the building of Hoover Dam and on irrigation in California, and both in these and in others of his essays San Diegans will readily recognize attitudes and ideas at work that have played a major role in their county and which have served to generate numerous conflicts over public policies regarding development, recreation, land use, and the like. As citizens of the West and of the world, San Diegans could profit from reading these essays. They will at times find Worster s arguments irritating, for he attacks many established assumptions — sacred cows, if you will — but they will also find his essays consistently vivid and intellectually challenging — which is precisely what Worster set out to make them. They are, in other words, not only a “good read,” but also thought provoking. What more could one want? nation.
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