William Kittredge came to writing in his mid-30s having already lived one sort of life and career on a ranch in southeastern Oregon. This experience gives him a somewhat different take on the West and our relationship to the natural world evident in such works as Owning It All (1987), Hole in the Sky (1992), Who Owns the West?(1996), Taking Care (1999) and The Nature of Generosity (2000). Several themes run repeatedly throughout these major works: ownership and stewardship, compassion and empathy, story-making and storytelling. As a brief introduction to Kittredge’s work, I want to consider, in particular, two of these themes – ownership and story-making – as they appear in Who Owns the West?
“…it’s one of our customs, reverence for having, owning…”
Much of our mythology of the West, according to Kittredge, depends upon the idea of ownership, most recognizably, of land. People came west for land – to stake a claim to the physical. Owning that land meant possessing, controlling and appropriating the natural resources – the grass, the water, the timber and the minerals. We made the West over, and we found worth and identity in that work. However useful that kind of ownership and its narrative have been in shaping our Western heritage, it is nevertheless aggressive. Aggressive, not only in context of the violence between Native Americans and Anglo-Saxon settlers, but in man’s presumptuousness that the land and its resources were there for the taking, to be manipulated and used as he saw fit. Kittredge reminds us in the prologue, “Not long ago in the American West it was easy to think we were living in harmony with an inexhaustible paradise. That became, for many, a habit of mind, hard to shake.” But we must shake that habit of mind Kittredge insists, and to do so, we must own our past – our stories and our mistakes.
“We are all ‘making story.’ It is the most important thing we do.”
Those stories – where we find them, how with inhabit them, how they (should or could) evolve – preoccupy Kittredge throughout much of Who Owns the West? Story-making is an iterative process. We must discard the stories that are no longer useful, reimagine stories that allow us to see the world for what it is and how it could be, and then choose to tell and inhabit those stories. Specifically, we must “invent a new story for ourselves, in which we live in a society that understands killing the natural world as a way of killing each other.” Once again we find an intersection between stories and the natural world, and Kittredge’s writing, his own ongoing story-making, finds a home in the greater Sowell project.
Kittredge, William. Who Owns the West? San Francisco: Mercury House, 1996.