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The Natural West — Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains
By Dan Flores

Oklahoma: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2001
304 pp., $29.95
ISBN 0-8061-3304-X
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As a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) transplant to New Mexico from New England, I am captivated by the natural landscape of New Mexico and besotted by its lore, myth and mystery. In New England, there is the rich tapestry of American history that revolves around the birth of our nation — symbolized by the remains of forts, battle sites, statues, and by the stories of Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In New Mexico (and other parts of the West and Southwest), the history of the country and the people who formed the nation are dwarfed by the natural landscape that depicts a land thousands of years old with stories that are older than the capture of history into words.

The collection of ten essays by Flores are mouthwatering eye candy to a Western wannabe like me. Indeed, Flores posits that "what might be called "human nature" is probably visible at every level of Big Picture Western History. For instance, it seems that irrespective of our cultures or our ethnicities, we've all found the West a magical place. Count me in.

While almost scholarly in its detail, with notes and reference to historians past and present, there is throughout the collection Flores' personal passion for his theory that the triad of people, animals (as if we are not), and the land make up the environmental history that informs human nature. Flores points out that the beginning of conventional history in the American West is generally placed in the 1840's, with the Belgian Jesuit DeSmet's founding of the first Christian mission in the northern Rocky Mountains. Conventional history typically focuses on events. Western environmental history has to "do with our interaction with the ecological landscape, with what we might call the "natural west", as both idea in mind and as tangible rock, grass, and flesh..."

Emerging in the 1970's, environmental history is, in fact, predated by a rich tradition in Western writing that goes back to Frederick Jackson Turner, Walter Prescott Webb, and James Malin. All those pioneers in the field wrote between the 1890s and the 1950s and Flores pays his respects appropriately. Flores weaves their views into his own, from the essay on the bison ecology/economy of the mid-1800s to the buffalo recovery of this century. While I admire his optimism, I cannot share Flores' enthusiasm that buffalo recovery is almost certain to be one of the biggest stories of restoring the West in the twenty-first century, largely because I do not believe that any substantial restoration of the West is possible.

The focus on the Great Plains and The Rocky Mountains serve Flores contention that these two "places" are an especially compelling stage for environmental history. He calls the Plains the origin source for environmental history; and America's great experiment in privatization. He positions the Rocky Mountains as the site of America's historic communal land experiment. The lands of trail drives and miners are the stage for environmental history as human natural history.

Flores hits his stride with his essays that deal with environmental history as human natural history. While only mentioning Jung and Freud in one passing sentence, there is the ring of the "collective unconscious" in his writings about human interaction with the natural West. Flores doubts that there was a "Golden Age of environmental balance and harmony in the human past." If there was such an era, why did humans leave the Paleolithic age? He finds the premises of the Deep Ecology movement unexamined and unsupported. The culture and history of Hispanics, Mormons and Native Americans all provide grist for Flores' environmental history mill.

"Dreams and beasts," Emerson once wrote, "are two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature." Flores asserts that "the historical dream, particularly one that involves humans and nature and animals all yoked in common to places with great power in our imaginations" are essential to the discussion about the secrets of our nature.

I love a book that makes my brain hurt. I love an author who can examine a vastly complex area of study with passion and reverence and pepper the examination with the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of others without feeling the need to impose his ego on the discussion. Flores writing in this collection of essays meets both those criteria.

— Susan Abbott

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Norman, OK 73069-8218

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