The American West is more than a geographical location. It’s an idea that encompasses certain traits, such as freedom, adventurousness and courage.
And while the West is a landscape, it’s also a place heavily defined by the kinds of people who choose it as their home.
It was those people that writers Corinne Platt and Meredith Ogilby set out to find. The two spent four years traveling the Rocky Mountain West, clocking thousands of highway miles and interviewing dozens of the West’s “heavy lifters.” Their subjects included politicians, artists, environmental activists, ranchers and scientists from New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Arizona and beyond.
Voices of the American West is the result of that adventure.
The book is a collection of 49 monologues, drawn from the duo’s interviews and accompanied by portraits shot by Ogilby.
The pressing issues of the West are identified through these monologues, and the book is divided into sections such as “The Spirit of the West,” “Fighting for the Wild Lands” and “Energy Outlook.”
Land-use issues are prevalent throughout the book—and the unifying theme is the need to work together to tackle the challenges facing the American West.
“We’re really in a mess,” Platt says of the political, social, environmental and economic situations of the West and the world. “Now it’s time for people to start cooperating and looking at things differently. [For example,] the way some of the ranchers in the book have done—they’ve left their old mind-set of ‘I can do anything I want because it’s my land,’ to trying to learn and understand that land use takes thought and science and sustainability…All across the West, that is very much in demand and happening, too.”
That interdependence, both authors believe, is the key to preserving both the heritage and the environmental bounty of the West. “What’s always drawn people to the West is the land,” Platt says. “It’s always been the land. It’s always been the land of freedom, the land of plenty, the land of open spaces. It’s always been the new frontier, and that has defined the West from the beginning.”
Platt and Ogilby hope readers will be inspired to work for the West as the book’s subjects have. “People read it and they think, ‘What can I do?’” Platt says. “My husband, after he read the book, said, ‘God, Corinne, what are we doing with our lives?’”
Ogilby agrees, adding: “The reader does come away with a sense of hope, I think.”
This week, in advance of an event featuring Platt and Ogilby, SFR presents three of the book’s New Mexico chapters, which profile former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell and alternative energy guru Mark Sardella. Udall, Swentzell and Sardella each explore the West from a different point of view—politically, culturally and economically. But together, they show the challenges and opportunities about which all of us should care.
Voices of the American West
Book signing and discussion with Corinne Platt, Meredith Ogilby and other contributors
2 pm Saturday, Jan. 30
Garcia Street Books
376 Garcia St.
Stewart Udall served in the US House of Representatives for three terms and as the secretary of the interior under presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson.
During eight years as secretary, he worked tirelessly for environmental causes and land conservation. He celebrates his 90th birthday this month.
Being a westerner has special meaning to me. I grew up on the tail end of the frontier in a small town, St. John, Arizona, surrounded by national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. When I was eight years old, I took care of the garden. I milked the cow. It was important that everyone in the family contribute. I think that growing up in a small town was part of what shaped my interest in character and convictions. You had to irrigate; kids had to work, tend the gardens, and take care of the pigs and chickens. I grew up in a dry part of the West understanding the importance of water.
I’ve always said, even when I was secretary of the interior, that I’m a troubled optimist. I’m a little more troubled about the West now than I was back then, but I’m not despairing. I hope that some of the problems we’re seeing help us revert to looking at the West and the environment as a whole in a more sensible, conservative way.
I had the great fortune to come into office at a time when people wanted new policies. The reason that I and so many others were able to pass the wilderness bill was because in the 1900s Theodore Roosevelt started the conservation movement. The conservation movement was very powerful, and most of the people in this country thought that preserving land and creating parks were good for their communities. We felt we had a moral responsibility, a legacy, to leave the Earth, or that part of it where we lived, better. Recently, I went back and found the Congressional Record: the wilderness bill passed by a vote of seventy-eight to twelve. Of the twelve, six were Democrats and six were Republicans. I use some of my time now trying to remind people of the wonderful, broad bipartisan support that we had then.
I traveled the West with Kennedy two months before his death. We started in Pennsylvania and we moved across Wyoming, Utah, and other western states. We went out into the West and dedicated a park or a wildlife refuge, which gave people the sense that conservation mattered. If President [George W.] Bush or any of his department made this trip, I missed it.
We need presidential leadership. We need it desperately.
As westerners we are rich. We may be poor in many ways, but we have the richest environment there is. We have public lands, mountains, rivers, wildlife, and wilderness. I know that as a leader you can build a legacy and leave a legacy by creating open space, but you can also lose a legacy. I’ve been reading the stories that it’s the hottest it has been in history. We are seeing a synergy with drought and global warming that will cause us to lose part of what we have.
I think the real test of the West in the coming decades will be whether we take action against global warming and whether we adapt to the end of the petroleum age. We’ve created a society based on cheap energy. Our automobile culture is unique in the world. I voted on the damn interstate highway program in 1956. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t discuss it. We thought we had hundreds of years of oil. It was a mistake. And now we have to face up to the problem.
I supported the Central Arizona Project. We told Congress that the water was for agriculture. But the water was so expensive, most of the farmers couldn’t use it. Now it’s supporting this explosive growth of Phoenix and Tucson, and draining the Colorado River.
If we continue treating the land as something to be exploited, we will see the case made by the anti-conservationists that we have to shrink the wilderness, the national parks, and the national forests, that we can’t afford them any longer.
The statement that is on my mind now is from Aldo Leopold. It puts what is happening today into focus: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). The approach of the Bush administration and the approach that a lot of westerners favor is that land is a commodity. In Montana or Idaho they say we’re holding back progress by having too much wilderness or by restricting the mining industry’s access to federal land. It was unthinkable to sell off parts of the national forest when I was in Washington. And now that’s what they’re talking about.
There is so much that is disturbing. I saw a poll that says 46 percent of the American people think a conservationist is a bad person. What is conservation? It is preserving the best things we have.
I think the way for things that I value in the West to be protected and to be funded is to have a return to a bipartisan approach. Maybe that’s a dream of mine, but I saw it. I helped orchestrate it in a way, and it was wonderful to see the overwhelming support for these changes. I think we need to strike a positive note, have epigraphs up of Wallace Stegner: “We need a society to match our scenery.”
I have the old-fashioned view that it’s important to have ties with the land. I feed my wife’s birds every morning. I’m losing a lot of my piñon trees, but I’m trying to water and save what I can. I think there’s hope. Maybe this big burst of growth will subside and people in the West will again see how rich they are in terms of the environment that surrounds them and how important it is to preserve it.
WE ARE ALL BORN OF THE EARTH
Roxanne Swentzell's hands create stories in clay. Her sculptures—many of people with wonderfully recognizable expressions—offer a glimpse into the Pueblo culture. Her sculptures often parody the confusion of the traditional Native world meeting the modern non-Native world.
Her work is exhibited in her own gallery as part of the Pueblo of Pojoaque Poeh Center.
I believe that my art comes from way inside me, and who I am happens to be from this place. You can’t detach the two. I am part of the Santa Clara Pueblo, and we have been in this area for hundreds and hundreds of years.
From a Pueblo perspective, our aim is to have balance: balance between night and day, summer and winter, male and female. Everything has to be balanced by the opposite or it becomes misaligned. If that happens, bad things follow.
My father was German. He taught philosophy and had a very European mentality.
My mother grew up as a Pueblo Indian girl. Somehow they got together. Talk about extremes! My father saw me as an artist. My mother sees me as a struggling person, I think, trying to make sense of it all. In the world my mother comes from, calling yourself an artist doesn’t make sense because you just do what you do. If you made art, you didn’t call it art. We didn’t sign our names to artwork. It just was. In my dad’s world, there is Michelangelo and all the great artists of the world. I grew up more with my mother’s side of the world because that’s where we lived.
I started sculpting as a very small child. My mother was a potter, and clay was part of our life. She calls us mud people. I had an intense speech impediment, and no one could understand me. I found that sculpting little figures about how I felt was how I could communicate. I made little people, beginning when I was four or five years old, and I never stopped. The figurines were all about emotions, how I felt. I remember making a little girl crying on a desk because I hated school. I’d sculpt the things I saw, like my father reading a book, just scenes from my life.
Pueblos believe in rings of centeredness. We understand the need for having a center place, a heart, a soul, or being centered in oneself. Even the way the buildings themselves—the pueblos—are built, and the ceremonial houses, all focus to the center, toward what we call the Gaia, the mother. The theory is that it brings us back home. We are the people of this place. We didn’t come from somewhere else. We’ll point to the ground and say we’re from this spot. There’s something about knowing this that makes me feel grounded.
Pueblos are amazing tribes. Unlike the rest of the tribes in the United States, they were not moved from their original place. We are still in our homeland. We’ve continued our dances and our language up till now. Most other tribes have broken away from that. So to me, the Pueblos have a really strong sense of core, though it’s been shaken a lot from the outside. I sometimes think that what I’m doing with my pieces is trying to find the core of my being.
Here is a sculpture of a woman in her traditional clothes drinking a soda. She shows the conflict of two cultures coming together. A very real conflict. Sometimes it boggles my brain to see two worlds in the same place. When I watch our traditional dances, I feel like I’ve gone back in time. Especially when the men wear animal skins and branches and mud. But then a car drives by. These two worlds don’t go together, this very old tradition next to modern society. These feelings come out in my work.
I always think of my artwork somewhat as my babies. My pieces are like children who are born through me. This woman has her babies emerging out of the pot on her head. The pot we are all born of is the earth. And she is Mother Earth.
My mother is an architect who grew up building mud houses. When HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] housing came in to help the Pueblos set up tract housing, it destroyed the structure of the pueblo architecturally. She was distraught. One more way of destroying our culture is to give people free housing. We don’t know how to fix those kinds of houses. We know how to fix mud. HUD housing killed a lot of tradition for the Pueblos in the name of help. Mom went to architecture school so she could fight it and learn how to approach those kinds of people.
My mother talks about growing up on the pueblo where you had all your aunts, uncles, and family all around you. The kids are raised by the community. When my kids were growing up, I had my aunt next door, my brother next to her. His kids and my kids roamed around. The doors were all open. The traditional buildings of the pueblo were built around a central outside area. You can think of it as rings around the place. It’s a lot harder when you break it all up into separate neighborhoods and separate yards. There were no yards back then. The outside was everyone’s outside. Today my son lives next door. My daughter actually has a piece of land right next to his. And that’s a tradition too: your family stays within the pueblo.
When George Rivera offered to let me make this building into a gallery, it was just an old pigeon coop, full of pigeons. When it came time to fix it up, my entire family, grandmas, aunts, babies, uncles, and all the teenage kids, came to help. We don’t hire outside contractors with hard hats to come in. Instead, we do it together. My sisters and aunties plastered the walls. All the kids mixed up the mud. That is a very cultural thing for Pueblos. If someone’s house needs fixing, the family comes. I guess it is similar to a barn raising in other cultures.
There is a big sculpture out front of the Poeh. The girl is holding a little bead. I call it Window to the Past. Throughout these hills are old ruins of our ancestors. Often I’ll find little beads from old jewelry. We get so excited when we find an arrowhead or a bead because it is a very real connection to the past. The beads have a little hole, and in my sculpture, the girl is looking through into the past. That’s us.
This is a Pueblo clown. They’re striped figures. They’re slightly different depending on what pueblo you are at, but basically, all the pueblos have them. They are sacred. They fool around, they play tricks, but for a specific purpose. They love to make fun of the tribal officials, for instance, because they’re important. They act as reflections for people.
I remember as a little girl watching five or six clowns at a pueblo. They were holding something. I could tell that it was important to them. They started fighting over it, and I thought whatever it was must be very precious. Finally one clown ended up with it and the rest of them left.
The clown who had it sat down on the ground. I waited to see what it was. Eventually he dropped his hand and got up and walked away. There was never anything in his hand. It was so profound to me because we make all kinds of fluff about nothing, and the clowns were teasing us for that.
I don’t believe I can make art detached from my culture. I’m a woman, so my work has a female influence. I’m a mother, so it has a mother aspect. Because I’m from Santa Clara, my work reflects that, because that’s who I am.
I CAN'T FIX THIS PROBLEM FOR THE WHOLE WORLD
Mark Sardella believes that replacing oil with renewable energy technology is not enough to solve the energy crisis. To this end, he co-founded Local Energy, which develops community-based energy projects that promote local ownership and job creation. He was instrumental in installing the biomass heating system at Santa Fe Community College, where he teaches.
I created Local Energy as a way to help communities become energy self-reliant, to learn to protect themselves against the hardship of rising energy costs. And by the way, I’m a lot less of a lunatic now than when I started this. I know I can’t fix this problem for the whole world.
When you study energy in this country, it’s mostly a study of money flows. This economy was set up to make certain people very wealthy through the control of energy resources. There is nothing that can produce a concentration of economic wealth the way petroleum does.
Almost all the money in our society is petroleum money. The ability to control the production of large amounts of energy is control of the economy.
I found out that utility dollars leave New Mexico at a rate of eighty-five cents on every dollar. If you have an investor-owned utility and you pay it a dollar, eighty-five cents of it goes to Wall Street and fifteen cents stays in the community. Santa Fe County alone leaks $85 million a year just in electricity and gas bills. Eighty-five million a year! And the money that leaves doesn’t undergo the local multiplier, which is 2.2 for utility dollars, so really, we lose about $190 million in economic activity per year by just paying utility bills.
I look at a community and ask, “What does this community have that it can use to protect itself against what is going on? How can we empower the rural communities?” The reason the biomass industry and biomass technology come to mind is because we have so much biomass fuel and it’s really not used much.
By definition, biomass is solar energy stored in organic matter. Everything that grows outdoors, all the plants and trees, are biomass. The neat thing about working with a tree is the only carbon a tree gives off when you burn it is the carbon that it took in during its lifetime. That’s all it can give. So while burning a tree does produce CO2, it is CO2 that was taken in during its lifetime. And the next tree actually pulls the carbon back in. So as long as you’re harvesting and consuming biomass at a sustainable rate—in other words, no faster than the trees are growing—you’re actually reducing carbon in the atmosphere.
Biomass at one time accounted for the biggest component of work done in the economy. Farm labor and going out to cut wood were pretty much what we did, wood for the stove and the wood for cooking. We had a biomass economy, and we gave it up because along came higher value resources. But a biomass economy is not something we have to invent.
In Tres Piedras there’s a lumber mill called Kuykendall Lumber. It’s the biggest sawmill left in northern New Mexico. The guy cuts around four million board feet a year, and he has an enormous pile of leftover slabs. I estimate, based on the slab piles I looked at, that he’s got to have fifty thousand tons of biomass sitting on-site. When we got there, he was setting up a gang saw to try to push fifty thousand tons of slabs, one piece at a time, through the saw. He was going to try to cut it up into eighteen-inch pieces and see if he could get people to come haul it away for firewood. When I pulled in, the fire marshal had just left and told him that he needed to get rid of the piles because he was in danger of burning down all of Tres Piedras. Biomass is a totally unutilized fuel right now. There are probably millions of tons of it nationwide, sitting in piles waiting for people to do something with it.
I saw the finest biomass technology in the world in Austria. You can throw log chips into a biomass boiler and more than 90 percent of the wood’s energy ends up as hot water to heat your home or business. Austria is a tiny country, and they have 843 biomass systems similar to the one we’re doing at the community college. They have very little land: they’re one fourth of the size of New Mexico, and their population is three and half times larger. They have a very dense environment, very little space, and a lot a lot of forest, and they do very intensive forest management.
I received a $1.3 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to research how to use local biomass to create the maximum amount of economic benefit for a town like Santa Fe. It turns out you don’t start in downtown Santa Fe; you start in the rural communities surrounding it. So, Local Energy just did a project at Santa Fe Community College. We put in a very small biomass unit, and we created a biomass vocations training program there. Now the college’s goal is to become the premier biomass vocational training outfit in northern New Mexico.
We not only promote learning about biomass vocations, grading the fuel, stoking the furnace, and so on, we’re also teaching how one would actually go into business and become a value-added producer. In other words, how would you take a fuel wood producer from the rural community, maybe someone who is currently cutting and selling firewood, and help him become a heat provider? How would you help him own, operate, and maintain a small, low-cost biomass system? How would you help him finance it and then sell heat? We show people how to outfit their systems with utility-grade heat meters so they can do that. I want to help put money directly into rural people’s pockets. That’s how we create economic development.
The Santa Clara Pueblo and the Taos Pueblo both figured it out. The Santa Clara Pueblo just asked us to develop and implement a system to heat thirty-five low-income homes on the pueblo with biomass. When I asked them how they were going to get their fuel [and told them] that they were going to need to create a fuel cooperative, they said, “Well, we’ve got twenty-two guys with pickup trucks and chain saws who drive up into the woods every day. Why don’t we just have them load their trucks before they come home?”
People ask me all the time if I get depressed looking at all this information. The answer is no, not anymore. The fact that we’re undergoing change is what’s important. It may be difficult, but it’s a good thing. I think the time between where we are now and when we discover how to live a sustainable lifestyle is going to be loaded with hardship and really, really difficult issues. But ultimately, we are going in the right direction, and that’s what really matters.
From the book Voices of the American West, reprinted with permission from Fulcrum Publishing.