Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient

Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient

Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient

Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient

Excerpt

All of us conjure up images of lands that we have heard about, intend to visit, or would like
to live in, and retain impressions of those places that we have seen
.

Robin W. Doughty, At Home in Texas: Early Views of the Land (1987)

IN OCTOBER OF 2004, ISRAELI GEOGRAPHER REHAV “BUNI” RUBIN and I were intently discussing the landscape of the Holy Land as we drove north from the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley. Rubin, who has extensive knowledge of the Middle East, pointed out various irrigation projects and talked about the settlements we passed as if they were personal friends he had watched growing and changing over the last several decades. Given my extensive travel experience and fieldwork in the American West, my perspective was naturally quite different from Rubin’s. Although I took in every one of his words about the landscape and savored every view of this “new” place, I was amazed by how a lot of what I observed here in Israel reminded me of a place much closer to home— namely, the Imperial Valley in Southern California’s low desert. Gazing at the Dead Sea, which receded in the side-view mirror of Rubin’s white VW station wagon, I pondered just how much that body of water resembled the Salton Sea. Like the Dead Sea, this salt-rimmed inland lake in California lies below sea level and looks like a slab of blue stone set into a beige-colored plain bordered by bone-dry, heavily eroded hills. Looking left and right as Rubin drove northward on that clear early October day, I was surprised by how familiar this otherwise exotic place felt. As date palms and citrus groves flashed by, I could visualize those same plants that had transformed California’s Coachella Valley into a garden spot—and gave such a similar Middle Eastern “feel” to the landscape of that part of the Golden State.

My thoughts here were not mere fantasies. There are indeed real geologic, climatic, and biotic similarities between these two landscapes, which are further connected by agricultural enterprise and human imagination. However, there are many differences, too. I was conscious of these differences, but what surprised me most was how readily and repeatedly that Southern California . . .

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