Can beauty alone save a natural place?

Essays that unravel the mystique of the American West.

 

For Robert Leonard Reid, protecting wilderness is a literary act. The Carson City, Nevada-based writer has spent 40 years roving Western landscapes in an effort to preserve them, primarily through his words. Reid’s latest work, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West, displays an almost claustral curiosity: An exploratory spirit envelops and propels him across the Arctic, the Sierras, the Rockies, the sacred spaces of Native America and all the toeholds and crags in between, from the High Plains of eastern New Mexico to the Bugaboos in British Columbia.

Reid writes with the flair of daredevil naturalist Craig Childs and the philosophical quotient of nature essayist Edward Hoagland. The book functions like an atlas; each essay is a wayfinding tool, navigating the reader toward “the mystique of the American West” — something that, despite the book’s subtitle, he seeks not to unravel but preserve: “A journey into the Sierra, even today, is a journey into ambiguity and mystery ... any account of a wilderness journey that omits the ambiguity ... is bound to be false.” Mystique is his muse in these essays, which blend wilderness and adventure writing, environmental reportage, and historical and literary analysis. Drawing on three earlier books and previously unpublished material, this career-spanning collection was a finalist for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

Caribou crossing a stream on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope.
Theo Allofs/Alamy

A central question unifies the book: How do you truly know a place? Topophilia — loving a particular landscape and identifying with it deeply — might be innate in each of us, but it is not necessarily accessible to us. It is for Reid, however. A formative experience with environmental writer Barry Lopez in 1979 fired Reid’s literary intuitions. A mountain climber and would-be writer, Reid attended a wilderness preservation conference that Lopez keynoted. His speech struck Reid like a bolt from the sky. Lopez argued that wilderness activists needed to tell their legislators “that a certain river or butterfly or mountain ... must be saved, not because of its economic (or) recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.” Reid’s future as a writer flashed into focus. Aesthetic value alone can save a landscape, but not unless it has a voice.

Reid builds that voice through sentences that construct landscapes and court curiosity, as his lexicon shifts with the terrain. His diction bewitches even the sleepiest of readers: J. Robert Oppenheimer is a “Heldentenor in cowboy boots”; the scientists at Los Alamos, those “Kyries of Trinity,” are “hosannas.” Reid is a craftsman: “Writers who hope to reveal the essential matter of their subjects must have the patience, the facility, and, not least of all, the good luck to discover the proper light.”

Reid is keen on New Mexico, whose “wide skies and yawning spaces” remind him of the Judeo-Christian tradition of “seeking God in big empty country.” Such places attract people “drawn to grand vistas and soul-searching ruminations” — such as Oppenheimer. Reid understands the contradictory forces at play in sacred spaces. In Los Alamos, “physics and engineering became prayers and incantations,” as if the magnitude of scientific discovery was a manifestation of the divine itself. A pilgrimage to a back-to-the-lander’s remote cabin in Alaska’s Brooks Range — “eighty miles north of the Arctic Circle, fifty miles from the nearest neighbor, two hundred miles from the nearest road” — dovetails with a story about the elusive Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates annually to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reid tracks down the caribou right as they give birth, unraveling a mystical ecological process that had previously eluded him.

Whether one agrees that awe and beauty trump economics might be beside the point for Reid. His writings are about the larger point: the courage it takes to pursue one’s ultimate aim, or telos. “To save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker — to live one’s life — one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.” There is an evolutionary quality to the way his ideas mutate and build in the book, each successive essay refining his lens on the West. This makes sense. You can’t capture mystique; it continually enchants us and then slips away. The more Reid interfaces with it — the more peaks and passes he pursues — the more his essays (and he) unfold — and are re-framed.

Eric Siegel, a poet and writer, is a field instructor for the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Montana, and teaches Environmental Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. 

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