The Degraded West
I organized a panel at the Western Literature Association in Big Sky, Montana. The conference theme was “The Profane West.” Shout out to my fellow panelists whose literary readings I thoroughly enjoyed: Mary Blew, Liz Stephens, and Peter Chilson.
Mary Blew, “Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin”: In my first published novel, Jackalope Dreams, I examined the experiences of a middle-aged woman who was brought up according to the traditions of the Old West (school-of-hard-knocks, taciturnity, self-reliance, masculinity), who values her past but longs for a means of self-expression as she encounters the New West with its transcience and its overlay of glamor and romanticization. In my current novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin, I explore the experiences of a young woman who also longs for a means of self-expression, who knows nothing of the Old West, but has grown up in a degraded West: packaged, oversold, abused, and environmentally exploited.
Liz Stephens, “The Lost Coast: Los Angeles”: My personal essay asks why we continue to move West despite its instability. The 1994 Northridge earthquake only verified something I’d suspected for a long time: the earth was alive, as a body. I found this comforting. That I could not control the earth as a body was absolutely unsurprising, a given. I knew how that worked. Rather than leave, I bought a $500 Chevette. I signed a lease on a dark first-floor Hollywood apartment. One of my roommates stood outside the window of my Silverlake bedroom every morning barefoot in the dew with her waist-length red hair down and waved her cigarette with deliberation as she turned slowly south and east and north and finally west, gesturing to her pan-American gods, offering them smoke to let her start every single day new. This was my introduction to how it was done, Los Angeles style, and I took its possibilities to heart. Just as I wished, time passed full of new starts, with very few middles and no ends at all, and took me with it.
Peter Chilson, “Sahara in the Alpine”: Combining narrative and reportage, my essay explores how globalization has changed the American West in surprising and uncomfortable ways. One recent morning near my hometown of Aspen, Colorado, I was skiing among across miles of forest and meadow near the house where I grew up in the 1970s. Back then, this stretch of land belonged to deer, bear, and coyotes. I recognized the familiar way sunlight tumbled through branches, casting bright, fractured stains on the snow, but there were other things I didn’t recognize. I’d been away for many years and now I found that dozens of new homes had invaded the forest, houses with great picture windows, wraparound decks, hot tubs, and high stone walls. Then, I rounded a corner near one of these huge houses and heard voices speaking in Bambara, a language of West Africa, where I’ve traveled and worked over two decades as a reporter and Peace Corps volunteer. I stopped, peering through the trees, about to meet a side of the American West about which I was shamefully ignorant.
DJ Lee, “Life After Life”: My creative nonfiction essay weaves my experience of watching the full blood moon lunar eclipse on September 27, 2016, with accounts of near-death from the eighteenth-century to the present day, as well as with the catastrophic forest fires that scorched the West in 2016. The essay takes the form of a walk down the Latah Trail in Moscow, Idaho, where I met a stranger who was also on the trail to see the eclipse. He told me about the time he had died and rode his motorcycle into heaven and was later revived by doctors. His near-death account matched other accounts I had been fascinated with since I was ten years old, including that of my great grandmother. Because he told me his story in the shadowy atmosphere of the lunar eclipse and the extreme forest fires burning all around our town, I began to think about how near death our planet was and what life after might be like.