Bookmonger: 'How to Read the American West' a very different type of field guide

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 21, 2014 

Last week was my children's spring break from school, so we took off for a couple of day trips - the tulip fields in the Skagit Valley on Thursday, and historic Fort Simcoe State Park in the Yakima Valley a few days later. Both of these were worthwhile destinations - but if you want to see the tulips, I recommend going midweek to avoid the crowds.

At any rate, these modest adventures made me appreciate even more the book I'm reporting on this week. "How to Read the American West" is billed as a field guide, but it is unconventional. You won't find much about birds or butterflies or hiking trails on these pages.

Instead, Montana State University geography professor William Wyckoff spent five years traveling to all 414 counties that lie within the 11 western states of the continental U.S. After taking thousands of photographs, consulting scholarly literature in regional archives and libraries, and talking with hundreds of locals along the way, Wyckoff boils his observations down to focus on 100 distinguishing features of the western landscape, and to provide what he calls a "toolbox of ideas" for readers whenever they travel through the region.

He encourages us to see with fresh eyes even as we're barreling down the interstate - to remember to think about the role of time in shaping a landscape, as well as the role of water. He asks us to think about who controls the landscape, and how these places have been shaped by different human interventions. He suggests that we can learn how communities think about themselves by examining their publicly ordained places, from civic centers to national parks to those giant letters emblazoned on the hillside above town.

Wyckoff begins with geographic fundamentals - topography, climate, flora and fauna, riparian corridors and coastlines. But there are some idiosyncratic entries, too - how about cloudscapes or dust storms and dust devils?

While the above-mentioned seem to be natural features or occurrences, the author reminds us that none has been untouched by human impact. Then he moves on to other landscape characteristics that more clearly have resulted from the interplay between people and their environment: farms and ranches, cities and towns, gritty extraction sites such as mines and meta-logged forests, and playgrounds from ski resorts to neighborhoods that have been zoned for adult video stores and strip clubs.

The book is helpfully cross-referenced, and generously augmented with Wyckoff's photos and informative captions.

I have one complaint: coverage of the Pacific Northwest is rather skimpy. And one fact-check request: That aerial photo of a brown, flat, township-and-range platting system can't really be a suburb north of Seattle, can it?

"How to Read the American West" isn't as prescriptive as the title suggests. But it is a marvelous springtime tonic for wanderlust and a wonderful invitation to see our surroundings in a new light.

As Wyckoff says, "You really do learn from looking, preferably with an open mind."

And I say, it's time to get back on the road!

THIS WEEK'S BOOK

'How to Read the American West' by William Wyckoff

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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