Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
It must have been wild back then; open, unspoiled vistas in every direction, wild game behind every ridge, stars bright enough to hurt your eyes, and not much above us in the food chain. Oh, the occasional, cranky Indian band might thwart your idea of a good day, and it would be impossible, even in this day and age, to dismiss the dangers posed by an unsociable grizzly bear.The words of long-dead authors give us a clue as to how western pioneers viewed the world, and it’s not always attractive. The area from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean was once thought of as a vast, unexplored region, forbidding and inhospitable to all but the most stalwart of mountain men. Native Americans weren’t even referred to generically as “Indians,” but called instead savages, no matter their view of the world.We have a tendency to look on past ages with a somewhat pitiful stance, wondering how people back then could possibly have navigated through life without our modern equipment, inventions and technological advances. No one can say for certain, but I’d bet those pioneers of the early 1800s would take one look at today’s world and say, “No thanks.”Our western attitude has been one of “conquering” nature, starting with the Lewis & Clark Expedition and continuing onward until the moment you read these words. We drill into the dank, dark world underneath the Gulf of Mexico to extract ancient oil, and then when technology fails us we naively demand a better system of fail-safe oversight, as though we really can control everything. The cumulative effect of our inwardly focused thinking seldom enters the equation.If we look closely at Lewis and Clark, we find a tough but misbegotten band of explorers, sent out to do the impossible by an egocentric president, Thomas Jefferson. It took this group three years to travel to the Pacific Coast and back, and they’d still no doubt be somewhere along the Lolo Trail, looking for lost horses and men if it had not been for the help of the Native Americans who had long before settled this country.In 1806, barely three months into their winter stay at Fort Clatsop on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, the Lewis & Clark expedition had completely exterminated the area’s once-plentiful elk herds. It was just one of many egregious errors. The Chinook and Clatsop Indians, who had lived there for generations in relative comfort, were no doubt horrified. Such early, bad behavior had ugly forebodings: Look to Aspen in the 1880s and we witness the same disregard for the local environment with the obliteration of native elk and deer populations.Many mistakes were made along the path of federal land management, not the least of which was the Homestead Act of 1862. This contrived scheme to settle the West was in reality a method of doling out stolen Native American land to taxpaying “Americans.” The key word, just like today, is “taxpaying,” as in property. Soon to follow the treatment of the “Indians,” of course, was a cry for the extermination of natural predators such as the wolf, coyote and eagle. We killed off the buffalo, plowed up the prairies and wondered where the apocalyptic Dust Bowl of the 1930s came from.Today, we build hugely visible towers on mountaintops to direct air traffic; we build taller and uglier antennae for the transmission of cell phone signals; throw darts at each other over the now-contrasting philosophies of “wilderness” and “public land”; we still fear wolves and, in Aspen, talk about neutering crab apple trees because we don’t know how to coexist with black bears.Just like those who came before us, we predictably forge ahead, intent on “conquering” Mother Nature, actually arguing about what kinds of mechanized and motorized travel should be allowed in our last remaining pristine areas. I’m not sure we’ll ever get it, for like old dogs, we seem incapable of learning new tricks.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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