Sometimes I just get in the mood to read westerns, but they have to be of a certain type. Not about cowboys—ranch life doesn’t interest me. Nor does violence. I’m interested in the adventures of a man (or woman, but in these books it’s nearly always a man) who can read the sky or listen to the wind. A man who can interpret a bear’s track or find water in a dry land. A man who can be alone in the woods for weeks and months at a time, comfortable with himself and at home in the world.
Elmer Kelton is one of the best writers of westerns, and this is one of his best books. Young Michael Lewis is entranced by his father’s stories of far-away Texas, which still belongs to the Spanish. One of those men who keeps moving his family westward as the land gets too crowded, Mordecai continually leaves Michael and his brothers to farm the land while he himself sets out to find some better place or seek some great adventure.
Listening to their father talk about Texas, Michael dreams of a vast and unspoiled land, so when his father and a group of neighbors set out for Spanish-controlled Texas to capture wild horses, Michael decides to follow. However, his first encounter with that land is both brutal and devastating, and he barely makes it home alive. Years later, having become a solitary trapper in the woods he loves, Michael is still haunted by his dreams of Texas and eventually decides to return, accompanied by his younger brother Andrew. As Michael travels along, he recognises that the land around him is good farmland and considers abandoning his quest and staking a claim here. But he is afraid it will soon be settled and changed.
Susan Lang, author of Small Rocks Rising and other books, has said that in westerns, the land itself is a character. As I mentioned re All the Pretty Horses love of the land seems to be wrapped up with nostalgia for an unspoiled world. Perhaps it is just our hindsight, but the trappers and mountain men in these stories, even as they forge their way into new territory, are already regretting its loss, as if the present were shadowed by the future. Part of the romance of the west is that it was “unspoiled” and “unsettled”. But of course there were people living there already.
In The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder points out that what we call wilderness isn’t all that wild. When explorers landed on this continent or pioneers pushed into the interior, they were not entering an unpopulated land. There were people there and animals and trees and plants, all with their own sets of rules. Ecologists have picked apart the components and interdependencies, even of systems devoid of people. There are rules. They may not be our rules, but they are there nonetheless.
So when we set off into the woods, we are not entering a truly wild place, merely a place where our normal rules don’t apply.
These liminal places fascinate. We sing songs in a minor key and read those fairy tales about venturing off into Germanic woods. It seems—at least until we learn the language—as though anything can happen. Where there is space for something new to emerge or be created, an opening, something new to be explored, an adventure to be had.