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Lake Tahoe:
A Maritime History

Chapters 

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite countless past attempts to describe and analyze it, the American West retains an enigmatic quality that continues to attract and intrigue us. As Gary J. Hausladen, editor of Western Places, American Myths, states, "The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people."



The essays in Western Places, American Myths are the work of a dozen scholars from several disciplines, all examining the West as both an actual region and as an enduring element of American culture, demonstrating how today's West is the result of a long and continuous process, a constant reinvention and redefining of place. Their essays address such topics as a role of the West in the development of the scholarly discipline of historical geography; the changing role of the ranch and the rancher in Western culture and economy; the role of the West in the development of the National Park System; and the impact of conflicting systems of land tenure and concepts of space on Western development--those of the Native Americans and those of the Anglo-European settlers.

The region's minorities are not unnoticed, as evidenced by ruminations on the role of Mormon theology and culture in shaping settlement patterns and the economy of the Intermountain states; the mainstreaming of Hispanic popular culture; the changing role of Native Americans in regional politics and development; ans the impact of Western realities on traditional gender roles, as exemplified by the adventures of nineteenth century British travel writer Isabella Bird. Nor is the mythic quality of the West left unexamined. There are essays on the evolution of gambling in the West, from frontier pastime to economic mainstay; on ghost towns as an element of the West's past and present image; and on the ways that Western films both reflect and shape the myth of the region; and a color photo essay illuminates the visual power of the West's mythic and perceived spiritual qualities.



This chapter, by Goin, is titled "Magical Realism" and provides a creative photographic essay of western desert places. The chapter begins:



 

I live in this place called the Great Basin. This "place" is a complex topographical basin, comprised mostly of Nevada, with added parts of Utah, Idaho, and Eastern California, Wyoming, and Oregon. Death Valley is part of this enormous "basin," as is the area of the interior drainage of the Great Salt Lake, the Mojave Desert, and the Carson Sink. Those of us who travel basin and range country know well the essential geography of a "basin," yet this is a descriptive term easily and often misunderstood. The word "basin" is neither a very familiar nor an especially descriptive noun. It certainly is not a word commonly used to describe the interior West, and while accurate, both topographically and descriptively, "basin" is a depression, a sink, a phrase that somehow seems incongruous with literally hundreds of north-south trending mountain ranges. I have not once heard someone tell me that they, too, live in the "basin."
I am surprised at how frequently I meet people, including some neighbors and close friends, who argue that they have never been to, or "out in" the Great Basin. Perhaps this is because most of us, whether writers or photographers of the American West, are visitors from places with greater rainfall, walls of concrete, and masses of people. We are perhaps forever tourists with a different frame of reference and daily experience than those whose ancestors lived within this land, hunting and gathering, for centuries. While my birthplace is in the Midwest, I wish to argue: No longer am I "visiting" this landscape. It does depend, of course on whom you ask. A Paiute leader once told me that al tibo'o [Paiute term for a person who is the color of white] are, by definition, strangers. Compared to 10,00 years of ancestral legacy, we are certainly immigrants. But we can still belong. ...

Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Atomic Culture, eight scholars examine the range of cultural expressions of atomic energy from the 1940s to the early twenty-first century, including comic books, nuclear landscapes, mushroom-cloud postcards, the Los Alamos suburbs, uranium-themed board games, future atomic waste facilities, and atomic-themed films such as Dr. Strangelove and The Atomic Kid.



Despite the growing interest in atomic culture and history, the body of relevant scholarship is relativel sparse. Atomic Culture opens new doors into the field by providing a substantive, engaging, and historically-based consideration of the topic that will appeal to students and scholars of the Atomic Age as well as general readers.

Goin's chapter is titled "The Nuclear Past in the Landscape Present." His photo-essay represents one of the most innovative contributions to the collection by using a series of photographs, taken of similar subjects, four decades apart, to comment on the nuclear landscape. His pictures encourage the reader to reflect upon how the post-Cold War society understands the remains of the High Atomic period:

Most people passing through Nevada on its highways perceive this landscape as an enormous expanse of arid, brown, and empty desert--in short, visually tedious. I must be an anomaly, however. Nearly twenty years ago, I became fascinated with basin and range country. Most of Nevada is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government and is therfore open for camping, exploring, hunting, photographing, and numerous other outdoor activities. Except for the Nevada Test Site. This 1,350-square-mile government testing area is the largest fenced, "off-limits" section in the state. Two decades of nuclear tests, both above-ground and belowground, replete with mushroom clouds and subsidence craters define the site and perhaps the state.

 

During the 1980s I had been told it was impossible to gain access to photograph the Nevada Test Site. Nuclear explosions, albeit underground, were still happening. In those days protestors avoiding armed military guards were trespassing onto ground zeroes, disrupting planned detonations. Announcements of nuclear tests were delayed because of these tactics, and a veil of secrecy was draped over the test site. The simple question "what does this landscape really look like" remained. Finally, after a long and difficult negotiation, the Department of Energy granted me permission to photograph within the Nevada Test Site. ...