Putting it to rest

Essay by Paul Larmer

Residency – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

“I’m a third-generation Coloradan,” the man tells me, leaning in close across the kitchen table inside his trailer home. “My people settled country down in southern Colorado.”

I read between the lines: “I belong here. Do you?”

Not really. I am a newcomer to this part of the West — only five years in western Colorado under my belt. I hold no title to this landscape, except that with each passing day the dusty hills, the orchards, the coal mines and the mountains feel more like home. I could tell him that I am a fifth-generation Californian, having been born in that state where my great-great grandfather unluckily settled the year after the 1849 gold rush. But people here don’t think much of Californians. We are the latest invaders, and the cause of unaffordable housing and trendy coffee houses.

I just nod.

My companion then surprises me. “You know my wife and I are still considered outsiders, and we’ve lived here 21 years,” he says. “Unless your kids marry into one of the old area families you’ll always be an outsider.”

That’s what fascinates me about the West: It’s old and new at the same time, and there are as many shades of nativeness as there are varieties of broken down trucks in its weedy back yards.

I remember when rural western communities began passing ordinances proclaiming that grazing, logging and mining on public lands were their “custom and culture” and should be preserved no matter how destructive or uneconomic they might be. The counties were saying: “The West is ours because we got here first.”

But first is a relative term. I loved the editorial by a Native American writer from Wyoming questioning the custom and culture crowd’s sense of time. Why, asked Debra Calling Thunder, should society declare the recent activities of European invaders the law of the land, while ignoring the customs and cultures of native peoples who have lived on the land for hundreds of generations?

The truth is the West has always been a place in motion, culturally and biologically. Before the mountain men gave way to settlers, Native tribes pushed each other in and out of various valleys and canyons just as surely as the real estate developers and the people they serve now push around the “old timers.” The only difference today, and it’s an important one, is the scale and speed of change. Within just one century people from every nook of the United States and around the world have discovered the West. And they have reshaped it with powerful tools, blocking and rerouting rivers, plowing up grasslands, and, most recently, sprawling suburbia across the land.

Yet we newcomers still come, drawn to a region that appears wild and untouched compared to the tamed habitats of the East. But it’s not untouched. Rapid human alterations have triggered radical shifts in the plant and animal world. Tamarisk, an Asian shrub that escaped the gardens of southern California, chokes thousands of miles in the Colorado and Rio Grande river drainages, outcompeting native cottonwoods and willows. Spotted Knapweed, cheatgrass, leafy spurge and a host of other annual grasses and flowering exotics, many inedible to exotic cows and native wildlife, cover millions of acres of grasslands. European starlings and finches dominate my bird feeder, which hangs from a Chinese elm.

I should feel at home among such company, yet part of me wants to join the loggers and ranchers, and even the environmentalists, to fight the exotic invaders — plant, animal and human. How can the West accommodate so many newcomers without losing its identity?

As a child, I moved with my family every three or four years on the trail of my father’s corporate career. We were American weeds, and we lodged temporarily in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. Yet these were never home. Family, not place, defined my home, which is why I still search for a homeland.

I often take my children to the cemetery on the mesa above my new town. We look out over the valley and wander among the graves, reading the names of the families who toiled to become natives of this place. I recognize a few, but most are unfamiliar, names that only live on in cities and towns far away, if at all. Will my children want to stay here, or will they drift elsewhere, like windborne seeds in search of new ground? And will this place ever seep into my bones before I take my rest?

Last spring, a carpet of exotic tulips sprang up in the cemetery, sprinkling rainbow colors on the ground between the stones, beneath the ancient cedars. The living, the dead, the native, the introduced, all together, as if it had always been that way.

Paul Larmer is the editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, a bi-weekly newspaper based in Paonia, Colorado covering environmental and community issues in the West.