Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘How to Read the American West: A Field Guide’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘How to Read the American West: A Field Guide’

by Michael Engelhard for High Country News


‘How to Read the American West: A Field Guide’

William Wyckoff

384 pages, paperback: $44.95

University of Washington Press, 2014

Too hefty to be carried in a hip pocket or even a daypack, William Wyckoff’s “How To Read The American West” is a field guide unlike any other, with a focus on patterns, variations and the distribution of landscape features. Inspired by Peterson’s glorious bird books, it draws attention to eco-tones, watersheds, settlement patterns and corridors of connection (such as interstates or historic trails), and to questions of use, scale and control. Ultimately, it considers our grip on the land and the land’s grip on us.

Cross-referenced and studded with photos and maps, this guide invites us to browse, linking waypoints by topic more often than by region. It capably leads the reader through 100 entries arranged by theme. Much as birders learn to distinguish dozens of sparrows, we learn to read the nuances of the West.

Wyckoff teaches earth sciences at Montana State University and, for a cultural geographer, has a rather poetic voice. “Much of the West’s appeal remains connected to its physical musculature, its sheer material, visceral presence,” he writes. The Big Country’s sky is “wedded to the land beneath it by the interplay of atmosphere and terrain.” Chapters on cloudscapes and cacti, on Mormon architecture and vineyards, on military spaces and bungalow burbs form entwined strands in a narrative bolstered by facts and statistics.

The past pervades each page, and to a degree, still shapes the present. Folk-style “worm fences” made of dovetailed logs zigzag across Rocky Mountain pastures but are gradually disappearing. Similarly, roulade-like hay bales extruded from automatic balers are replacing traditional “bread loaf” haystacks. Numerous cultures have endowed Western landscapes with their legacies, whether symbolic, such as Navajo lore about four mythical mountains, or material — the Bureau of Reclamation’s barrage of dams. “Landscapes tell great stories,” Wyckoff states in his introduction. “But we need to know where to look for them and how to make sense of what we find.” This guidebook shows us where and how, with a raptor’s acuity and broadness of vision.

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