Author of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ pens book on Red Desert

The Red Desert earns some well-deserved attention in the new 412 page book Red Desert: History of a Place, written  by Annie Proulx, author of such notable works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain. The desert and Annie Proulx are featured in last month’s issue of High Country News.

I have to say that I’m thrilled there is a sizable article out there about the Red Desert. The article is beautifully written and accompanied by some of the photographs from the book, taken by Martin Stupich. While the attention to the desert is nice, Proulx seems to be coming from the perspective that the desert is a curious place, raw, unknown, not particularly beautiful and perhaps a wilderness already lost.

Take this excerpt from the HCN article:

“This is the story that Proulx tells — that writing about a third of Red Desert: History of a Place,…, was a task inspired by curiosity rather than love. That the end result, including Stupich’s photographs and contributions from a dozen Wyoming scholars on the desert’s history, geology, hydrology, plants, animals and insects, is more an elegy than a plea for conservation.”

It’s true what she says about the desert being a hard place to love. It is more awe-inspiring than anything else, partly just to think of the overwhelming amount of creatures that have adapted to live out there, including people. It’s a place you go and immediately feel vulnerable.

Proulx’s position about the desert is interesting. She almost revels in the harshness of this place and the perpetual presence of man, then docks the environmentalists for trying to paint a picture of the desert as a “calendar” destination.

“There is an air of unreality about many efforts to protect the Red Desert, perhaps because (conservationists’) reasons for wanting to save the area seem to be largely based on beauty, solace of the wild and exquisite ephemeral qualities.” (HCN, April 13, 2009)

I can see the merit of her argument, that to portray the desert as beautiful and devoid of human presence would be deceptive, but so is the other extreme. (Maybe she is trying reverse psychology to get people to care about this place.) But I do think the answer is more in the middle.

One of the biggest flaws I think the U.S. has when it comes to land management  is this separating of man from the concept of nature or wilderness. Folks from the BLM will tell you that if a place has been changed by man, it can no longer be considered for wilderness designation. This immediately puts managers in an “it’s either us or the nature” mindset, instead of figuring ways to better integrate our existence so that it doesn’t take over the environment.

The Red Desert is a land that hangs on to any change that happens to it, especially the man-made variety. (You can still see wagon ruts from people crossing the Oregon Trail.) I imagine this thinking could be part of why the environmentalists in the desert want to show all the beautiful and unspoiled areas.

In Proulx’s mind, it sounds like the desert is already gone.

‘”It’s not going to be saved. It’s not possible to save it,” Proulx says, matter-of-factly. “This is Wyoming; it’s an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We’ll see how that one goes,” she says. “I’m  not holding my breath.”‘(HCN, April 13, 2009)

Overall, it’s exciting that a place hard to love is getting some airtime and being portrayed as undeniably magnetic, even if it’s not always pretty to look at. But it can be beautiful, just as it is harsh and flawed and undeniably marked by man. And unlike Proulx, I don’t think it’s too late for the desert. It’s just hard to think that way when no one knows it exists.

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2 responses to “Author of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ pens book on Red Desert

  • denisedh

    I’ll probably skip her book.
    I don’t live close enough to go to the Red Desert often. I’ve been there before and since the latest energy boom.
    I don’t have many words for my experiences there. Anne missed the essence of the Red Desert, according to your reviews. It’s not your typical sight-seeing destination and if you approach it that way, you’ll be disappointed. Magnetism is a good word because the place does draw you and it is alive in a way that is both subtle and dramatic.
    The first time my son saw Boar’s Tusk (he was 3) he said, Look, a volcano! And there it is, a volcano left over from a time when the land was tropical.
    In the sand, you see hundreds of tracks from birds and lizards and animals and maybe run into a wild horse or a Golden Eagle.
    thanks for the blog.

  • Paula

    “(You can still see wagon ruts from people crossing the Oregon Trail.)”

    I almost don’t want to tell you that those are NOT the original trail marks. I know, for a fact, that State employees re-do those tracks on a semi-regular basis. It is a nice thought though, that everything that touches Red Desert stays… but it isn’t true. As with any place, everything changes over time. Especially the Sand Dunes. You must have noticed that a road you used one year is not accessible the next? That a road you drove just that morning will be hidden by night if we have high winds? That, for me, is part of the excitement of Red Desert. You never know what you are going to find, and there is ALWAYS something else to explore that was missed the last time.

    As for Annie Proulx, I’ve read her other books about Wyoming. She has an interesting way of writing, and I think that if someone isn’t a fan of her other works than they certainly won’t care for this one. I haven’t read it myself, as of yet, so I don’t feel I can comment on this particular book and it’s contents.

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