What Is The West?

Laura Pritchett

Usually, I’m on the ground in the West, but recently I was flying above portions of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona in an old Cessna and it provided me with a reminder of what the West is: high alpine, high desert, waves of blue mountains, the shocking red rocks, the undulations of landscape as it bore out its transformation from range to basin and back again. When I peered closer, the details revealed themselves too: the way snow had blown itself into watersheds, the glint on the curves of cutthroat trout streams. I also saw the unbeautiful: the spiderwebs of fracking roads, missing mountainsides, uranium mines, orange tailings ponds, clearcuts, the yellow haze from coal-fired power plants. Death by a thousand cuts, made more visible by air. It was a gentle and graceful reminder that the landscape is not what we make it out to be. We speak in the West of state lines, designations, management agencies, political jurisdictions, reservations, and water and mineral rights. We put up a lot of fences, literal and metaphorical. We do not often speak of—or see—the land as a continuous living thing. But it is, it is.

Laura Pritchett is an American author whose work is rooted in the natural world. Her four novels have garnered numerous national literary awards, including PEN USA Award for Fiction, the High Plains Book Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and the WILLA Award. She’s published over 200 essays and short stories in magazines (including The New York Times, The Sun, O Magazine, Salon, High Country News, Orion, and others), mostly about environmental issues in the American West. She holds a PhD from Purdue University and teaches around the country. She is also known for her environmental stewardship, particularly in regard to land preservation and river health. She has two books forthcoming—a novel The Blue Hour (Counterpoint, 2017) and Making Friends with Death, Kind Of (Viva Editions, 2017). More at www.laurapritchett.com