Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado
by Andrea M. Jones (U of Iowa Press, 2013)
The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning
by Julene Bair (Viking Penguin, 2014)
Although both Between Urban and Wild and The Ogallala Road are nonfiction books focused on place, both contain autobiographical elements, and both are written by Colorado authors, they could not be further apart in style and ecological agendas. To be fair, the subtitles give us a hint of the differences to expect: Jones chooses the essay format to introduce the reader to her life and environment while Bair considers her personal history and connection to the land to be a memoir. Most importantly, both address the problem of how to live responsibly on this fragile earth.
Andrea Jones grew up in a suburban landscape outside of Durango, Colorado, but relocated closer to nature when she moved to a house a few miles west of Boulder where she was surrounded by Ponderosa pines and could look down on the city as well as the plains to the east. However, when she and her husband purchase an undeveloped acreage in Cap Rock Ranch, a rural, mountain subdivision west of Canon City, she has to wrestle with the impact that their new residence will have on the landscape. She recognizes that “there are environmental and social implications for living in a relatively undeveloped landscape . . . Part of my project of becoming at home has been trying to understand some of the obligations, the drawbacks, the demands, and the benefits. I reject the idea that the world exists only to satisfy human desires as well as the opposing extreme, in which human beings are inevitably toxic to the natural environment. The question becomes how to best occupy the boundary zones that are not urban but also not devoid of people. How do we define an ecology of habitation?” (10). Her life becomes an attempt to “create a life in the interface zone that’s minimally disruptive to the natural systems” (12). My husband and I are facing the same challenges, for we are also residents of a rural subdivision, one of many on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, and we, too, want to conscientiously co-exist with our environment. Like Jones, I struggle to reconcile the fact that while we love the isolation and natural beauty of our mountain home, we are intruders in this former wilderness.
Each chapter of Between Urban and Wild chronicles a different aspect of living with the natural world, describing interactions with birds, deer, bears, and mountain lions as well as the problems of gardening, weed control, water, and fire mitigation.What impresses me most about Jones is her level-headed approach. She writes, “I am suspicious of monochrome thinking, and this propensity to value the natural over the built threatens to become a lazy routine” (27). For example, in the chapter titled “Lay of the Land,” Jones tackles the issue of thinning the forest. Many newcomers want their homes to look “natural,” so they do not want to fell a single tree. Having come from the plains of Nebraska, where every tree that survives is a victory, I can understand that way of thinking. Each tree that we had to cut when we first arrived in Colorado broke my heart. However, after working with the forest service, we discovered as Jones did that in most places, the forest today “is composed of spindly trees growing too close to one another to mature properly, their trunks crooked and leaning in a quest for light. The soil beneath these dog-hair stands, cast in perpetual shade by a thatch of boughs and incessantly showered with pine needles, is acidic and starved of the humus that accumulates with grasses and forbes grow, die, and decompose in a normal cycle” (32). Our society’s suppression of natural forest fires has caused this unnatural growth. “Wildfires burn away dead vegetation and clear underbrush, and some forest trees have co-evolved with fire to the extent that it plays a central role in their reproductive cycle. More intense stand-replacing fires open up the tree canopy, allowing tree species such as aspen to take their turn in the slow-succession by which the landscape changes its botanical clothing” (147). Like Jones, we have thinned the trees around our house to protect it from fire and have discovered that native grasses and wildflowers, dormant for decades, are resurfacing, to the delight of the deer and the turkeys. And like Jones, we burn the wood all winter in the fireplace to heat our home, thus saving more natural resources.
One interesting chapter that expands on the interaction between people and nature, “A Walk in the Park,” discusses America’s national parks, “a peculiar category of landscape, a hybrid of development and wildness, and inevitable mix of people, vehicles, and natural wonders” (60). Jones has mixed feelings about them and the reasons people visit these public spaces: “to get a whiff of history, to clean city-clogged respiratory pipes with some fresh air, to feed a pair of eyeballs hungry for the sight of non-engineered landscapes, to feel a little swell of national pride or the contraction of humility.” She also realizes that many stop only as a break on road trips because they offer restrooms, sandwiches, and a souvenir shop, or they want to take a “trophy photo” to show that they’ve “been-there-done-that” (68). Although she appreciates the efforts of the National Park Service to educate visitors, she worries that these honorable efforts will transform environmental education (and the parks) into another commodity for purchase or exploitation. She concludes, “The what for? of paying a visit to one of our nation’s national parks is, in the end, deeply personal, but it emerges from an ancient and pervasive human impulse: to explore the world, to see and touch and hear it for ourselves” (75). Our national parks are expansive, providing room enough for those who desire to escape civilization as well as those who simply want to walk the paved paths to the highlighted attractions. National parks are another example of the coexistence of urban and wild.
As a writer, what I enjoyed the most about Between Urban and Wild were the many sentences that literally dazzled me with their images, word choice, rhythm, and insight. Here are just a few samples of Jones’s exquisite prose:
“In high-country meadows, melting snow reveals last year’s grasses, ironed hard to the ground. Pressed down for months by the icy residue of blizzards, the fibers are draped across the contours of the land like wet silk” (23).
“The wind exhales through the evergreens in a gently shifting collective sigh that undulates over the hillside” (25).
“The [mountain] lion is a reminder that I live not merely at an address, but in an ecosystem” (46).
Ogallala Road, on the other hand, focuses on land already highly developed with little or nothing left of the original “wilderness” of the Great Plains once inhabited by Native tribes who lived in harmony with the environment. Julene Bair grew up on an isolated farm in western Kansas but skipped out during her first semester at the university when she was eighteen to follow an “exotic guy with a plan” to San Francisco. She had decided, as many farm children do, to leave the hard-work and small town monotony behind. She “hadn’t wanted to settle on being just a wife married to ‘just’ a farmer . . . I could go make my mark in the world, and the ground of my being would be there waiting for me anytime I wanted to touch in” (228). However, the hippy glamour and her “spacey” husband were disappointing, and her marriage ended in divorce and loneliness (86). Through a boyfriend, she became passionate about wilderness areas, especially the deserts, and even lived by herself for a couple of years off of the grid in a deserted miner’s cabin in what is now the Mojave National Preserve. There she married a cowboy, “the classic tale of a responsible woman who falls in love with an irresponsible man” (103). When this marriage begins to fall apart, she hauls her husband to the stability of the family farm in Kansas. However, this does not last long; he leaves when Bair is pregnant. She decides to stay, determined to help her father on the farm and raise her son there. While farming with her father for a year and a half, Bair begins taking correspondence courses. She decides to attend the University of Iowa, offering to return during the summers to help farm. However, she does not return to the farm as she promises her father but continues to work toward her graduate degree, ultimately accepting a position at the University of Wyoming.
Bair’s memoir contains three major conflicts. First, Bair has to come to terms with her father’s legacy. “Hang on to your land! Dad always commanded us. If we didn’t, he warned that we’d die broke, just as he predicted our aunts and uncles who’d sold out would do. He’d been right” (54). Second, she has to navigate another relationship with a cowboy, one who ranches near her family farm. And last, she opposes the misuse of water by farmers on the Kansas plains.
As a memoir, The Ogallala Road succeeds fully, with descriptions, dialogue, and scenes expertly written. Bair guides the reader smoothly as she flashes back and forth in her life. Her starry-eyed relationship with Ward, one she hopes will provide a strong father figure for her rebellious son and pull her back to the land, draws the reader forward. So does her torment in her relationship with the farm and her father. When he dies, what will become of the land that her family has toiled on for generations? Ultimately, she and her brother sell all twenty-one quarters, 13,440 acres, to the highest bidder, “megafarmers” from Colorado who own one hundred sections (64,000 acres) and run a big feedlot (237).
For me, however, the subplot of the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer misses its mark. Just as Bair romanticizes her affair with rancher Ward, she also romanticizes the land, engaging in what Jones describes as “monochrome thinking.” She describes the aquifer as “the mastodon in the room, being driven to extinction on the plains east of Denver. It isn’t talked about much in public because farmers have senior rights to the water” ( 265). Like the Poppers who envisioned the Great Plains as a Buffalo Commons devoid of inhabitants and replanted and restocked with native grasses and animals, the only vision Bair provides for the future of farming is investing in the Slow Money movement that supports grass-fed beef, locally and organically grown food, and composting. Rather than working at the grass roots level with farmers to change the misuse of irrigation water, rather than speaking up at the district water board’s annual meeting that she attended, rather than supporting and encouraging her son and nephew in an attempt to farm in a more sustainable way, and rather than renting the land to families who have lived in the area for generations, Bair sells out. She even laments the fact that if they had waited a few years to sell, they “could have gotten more than two times” what they’d sold it for (251). She will certainly not die broke as her father predicted, but what legacy will she leave?
Ironically, as a result of her land sale, every inch of the family’s former land supports irrigated corn, with the new owners using more water than ever. Bair asks herself, “Could I have found a way to farm it sustainably that wouldn’t have led to financial disaster and without having to give up the rest of my life? Should I have given up the rest of my life?” (253). She is not willing to do that for her beliefs. When Ward ends their relationship, he tells her, “It’s just not practical . . . You’re an idealist. I’m a realist” (201). Fortunately, many farmers today are realists like Ward, devoting their lives to finding ways to farm responsibly. Bair neglects to mention the steps many state Natural Resource Districts have taken to meter and limit water use or the proactive stance of many farmers’ organizations who are introducing legislation that addresses water sustainability, chemical use, and erosion control. In her last chapter, Bair concedes that at first, her book was to be about the Ogallala Aquifer, but that it became more than that. It did. It became a memoir. The very real problem of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer as well as water resources throughout the Great Plains and the West must be addressed, solutions discovered, and changes implemented. However, the topic deserves to be more than a poorly developed subplot.
The important question that both books address is what Jones terms “an ecology of habitation.” How do we best occupy the land, whether mountains or plains, in a manner that is not toxic to the environment? We must learn to cohabit with nature responsibly and realistically.