The Wraith of Order | Harper's Magazine
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A hawk carries a lamb in its talons towards a mountain range.In the beginning, when I first went West, I thought it was because I was in love with loneliness. Love of a certain kind of life and a certain kind of natural beauty was involved as well. But as I grow older, as I see more of the world, I realize that it was not actually loneliness I sought, but rather the fulfillment of a more subtle and persistent human need. It was the pursuit of the wraith of order: the unformulated wish to find some place where man had not yet begun to set out his garbage can and, if possible, to help direct the growth of that place so that when the garbage cans became necessary they might even be pleasant to look at.

And so I went West. Here I found mountains, huge, ragged, snow-covered; trees, great forests of pine and fir, virginal, aloof; open places, particularly the bed of the valley, which ran for sixty miles on either side of a river. The essence of these mountains and forests and open places was a contentment, a dignity, an elation. In the Far West I have seen in a dramatically condensed way the whole history of mankind and the history of this country. I have seen these things in microcosm—the beginning, the middle period, the apparent climax. The result is that I feel a trifle homeless.

The Far West, the very foundation of which was beauty and common sense, one of whose principal assets, if you wish to put it that way, has been beauty, whose life and ideals have been conditioned by beauty, has suddenly decided to become childish. Having had a chance to construct a world that had some order and charm to it, the Far West engaged in the national pursuit of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It is not sensible to destroy what before very long you will want again; it is not good business to pull apart what in thirty years you will want to buy back.

In the years I have known the valley, I have seen an absurd decay take place and I have seen the majority of people regard the decay as a sign of increasing civilization. I now see the West bending every effort to turn itself into a bad copy of Pittsburgh. Lumbering, done under government rules, is nonetheless done carelessly; the lakes are greedily watched by waterpower companies, and it is a constant fight to keep them out; wherever an unnecessary road can be put, it is being put. No one denies that almost every man has to make a living, that trees have to be cut down, that waterpower is necessary, that sheep have to graze; no one is so foolish as to try to abolish automobiles. But these phenomena can be kept from being indecent and outrageous.

We grasp beauty and reality and let them slide out of our hands. We had a magnificent inheritance, but we have let the “boosters” get the better of us. “Boosting” is telling a man a lie with a smile because you want to sell him something. Near Jackson Hole is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In the future it would have been a Lake Como, a Louise, a Lucerne. Then a private company built a dam across the outlet, to supply water to an irrigation project that was not even in the state. Today the lake is ruined. Not long ago, an attempt was made to dam Yellowstone Lake. This attempt was made in “the name of the people.” Read between the lines.

What is the use of money or power if they bring you neither dignity, charm, nor contentment? We are not a happy race, and we know it, though the gods have poured their gifts into our laps. After destroying everything that is lovely and individual, everything that makes it worthwhile for others to come visit us, if we can build something that resembles a fifth-rate New York hotel we believe that we have at last achieved an ideal. Most of us won’t know that we have lost a civilization, won’t know that we have defeated the very object that brought us where we are, until the defeat and the loss are absolute.

From “The Crime Against the West,” which appeared in the April 1926 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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