Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview

8
THE UNFORGIVING WEST

In at least one respect, the American West—the vast expanse of land running from the 98th meridian bisecting the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to the Pacific Ocean—was all a big mistake. Following the Civil War a period of unusually wet weather that lasted roughly two decades inspired Americans to head west in droves. Urged on by scientists such as Cyrus Thomas, who pronounced the ample rainfall permanent in nature and “in some way connected to the settlement of the country,” Americans forged into the region under the delusion that moisture would increase in proportion to population. As late as 1884, one Chicago reporter wrote, “Kansas was considered a droughty state, but that day is past, and her reputation for sure crops is becoming widely known.” 1

One of the few people urging restraint as settlers rushed across the continent was a man by the name of John Wesley Powell. A Civil War veteran who lost his right arm in the battle of Shiloh, Powell went on in 1869 to successfully navigate the Colorado River. But his greatest contribution to American society stemmed not from his explorations but from his deep understanding of the hard reality that unfolded across the 98th meridian. The West might seem wet and inviting at the moment, Powell argued in the 1870s, but aridity—a fundamental inability to support agriculture without an artificial infusion of water— defined its true character. As the rain charts available at the time made clear, this was a land subject to less than 20 inches of precipitation annually, an expanse amounting to some two-fifths of the nation bereft of the moisture necessary to grow such crops as wheat and corn without a supply of irrigation water. We now know that it is the Rocky Mountains in league with the coastal ranges further west that, by blocking the passage of storm fronts and squeezing water from the clouds, make the West the dry land that it is. But Powell, in his day, understood enough to realize that it was folly to expect the rains to con

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Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Down to Earth *
  • Prologue - Rocks and History 2
  • Part One - Chaos to Simplicity 9
  • 1 - Wilderness under Fire 11
  • 2 - A Truly New World 21
  • 3 - Reflections from a Woodlot 39
  • Part Two - Rationalization and Its DisContents 53
  • 4 - A World of Commodities 55
  • 5 - King Climate in Dixie 71
  • 6 - The Great Food Fight 89
  • 7 - Extracting the New South 99
  • 8 - The Unforgiving West 116
  • 9 - Conservation Reconsidered 138
  • 10 - Death of the Organic City 157
  • Part Three - Consuming Nature 173
  • 11 - Moveable Feast 175
  • 12 - The Secret History of Meat 190
  • 13 - America in Black and Green 206
  • 14 - Throwaway Society 226
  • 15 - Shades of Green 239
  • 16 - Planet U.S.A 262
  • Conclusion - Disney Takes on the Animal Kingdom 282
  • Notes 287
  • Bibliography 311
  • Index 333
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