An Unsettled Country, by Donald Worster

Review by Ed Quillen

Western History – June 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

An Unsettled Country – Changing Landscapes of the American West
by Donald Worster
Published in 1994 by University of New Mexico Press
ISBN 0-8263-1482-1

Some days it seems that there’s more fighting about the history of the American West than there was in conquering the West. The pioneers of legend only had to fight Indians and bad guys in black hats. Now, we see heated disputes between traditionalists and revisionists, Congress and museum curators, unifiers and diversifiers…

Donald Worster, professor of American History at the University of Kansas, enters the fray with this collection of four extended essays. Each argues, from a different vantage, that we cannot look at our violent history as mere cultural or political conflict.

There’s also “nature”–climate, landscape, and wildlife. He starts with John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer who came up with a basin-based plan for settling the West. Powell’s legacy has been claimed by hard-core environmentalists, who love to quote his rhapsodic descriptions of Glen Canyon before the dam, and by developers, who note that Powell wanted to divert every river to irrigation.

Worster concludes that Powell’s fundamental beliefs are worth heeding today. Institutions (like the grid system of property lines) should be adapted to landscapes (like drainage basins):

“Nearly a century after Powell’s death, we are still discovering the West, still exploring its hidden country and mapping its physical realities,” Worster maintains. “We have not yet invented all the institutions we will ever need in order to live in the place. That is why Powell is still worth heeding. He is somewhere behind us in the canyons of the past, yet we can still catch an echo of his vision: Learn where you are. Learn about this place and its history. Learn not only the history of its people but the history of the land itself, its deep history. Learn to adapt your ideas and institutions to that land. Learn to work together if you mean to endure.”

In his second essay, Worster expounds one of his favorite themes, “Water as a Tool of Empire,” and argues that we need a cultural history of water. He follows with an elegy for the destruction of wildlife that accompanied American settlement of the West, a land that teemed with bison, wolves and grizzly when Lewis and Clark visited in 1806.

“The West was to be the last and best version of the American dream, deriving wealth and civilization out of the wild landscape, but the dream opened upon a landscape littered with skulls and bones, drenched in blood…. More blood by far flowed from them than flowed at Antietam, indeed flowed throughout the entire Civil War. More living organisms died in that war on the frontier to create the dream of the West than in all the wars that America has ever fought.”

He concludes with some informed speculation about global warming and its possible effects on the Great Plains — where the Ogalalla Aquifer, the mainstay of plains agriculture since World War II, is dropping precipitously.

In sum, Worster argues that we neglect our environment at our own peril, that there are natural constraints on what humans can do in transforming the dry and rough West into a watered and smooth version of Iowa.

He is eloquent, knowledgeable, and provocative, and often I wanted to argue with him. He overstates the role of water development (follow the money instead of the flow, I say), fails to explore why some animals (deer, antelope) were deemed virtuous while others (wolves, grizzlies, prairie dogs) were deemed evils to be exterminated, and pays too little attention to the cultural baggage that came with the wagons.

But he gives us more than enough to ponder, and it’s easy to read, yet authoritative. An Unsettled Country is well worth your time.