- Stegner, the Cypress Hills, and an "Impenetrable Foreignness":Still Writing the Wests
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Toward the end of The Wide Open, a very contemporary response by writers and photographers to the landscapes of eastern Montana, Richard Manning offers a key comment. When Lewis and Clark, George Catlin, and Prince Maximilian came into contact with Native peoples during the early decades of the nineteenth century, he writes, "the tribes they found in the plains were already thoroughly engaged in the fur trade. The slaughter and extinction of the bison was well under way, handled by red hands bound by whiskey to a globalized economy" (182). Just after, The Wide Open concludes with four poems by Richard Hugo, among them "Bear Paw," which includes these lines: "V after V of Canada Geese. Silence / on the highline. Only the eternal nothing / of space. This is Canada and we are safe" (195).
Twenty years ago I began The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination (1989) by quoting from Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (1962) and citing Henry Kreisel's 1968 axiomatic assertion that "all discussion of the literature produced in the Canadian West must of necessity begin with the impact of the landscape on the mind" and Robert Kroetsch's question, "How do you write in a new country?" (3). How, indeed? The five new books under review here demonstrate in their various ways that such considerations, far from being answered, have retained both their allure and their pertinence. Above all else, The Wide Open asserts the ongoing attraction of the prairie as home or personal place—memoir dominates the prose, the photographs are stark evocations of landscapes, and the overarching concern as Manning reveals is with the politics of living on the land, now. Barbara Belyea's Dark Storm Moving West, in some ways a book equal in its gorgeousness to The Wide Open, offers six imbricated essays connected to the central metaphor of the title, as she explains: "the figurative dark storm moving west is the European-American reach across the continent" signified by the fur trade initially and then by Lewis and Clark as official emissaries of President Jefferson (xiii). Drawing upon the records each left—especially the maps—Belyea seeks sternly to correct [End Page 65] the misunderstandings of other scholars. Though primarily Canadian in its focus, Dark Storm Moving West pairs well with Walter Hildebrandt and Brian Hubner's The Cypress Hills: An Island by Itself. This book offers a deep map of the Cypress Hills, a place where geology, geography, and history (cultural, economic, social, and Native) came together, amid the binational swirl of high plains exploration, exploitation, and settlement from the eighteenth century to the present. Among those "settlers" of this "last plains frontier" was the five-year-old Wallace Stegner, whose life and writings are the basis of the other two books discussed here.
Manning's brief evocation of the fur trade with recognition of long-standing Native complicity and Hugo's geese, heading north, still provokes contemplations of mutability and the passage of what small stretch of time each of us has. Hugo's lines also remind of the allure of "crossing to safety" to a place of refuge, a Canada, where things are different—or where we hope they will be. Yet the prairie-plains landscape throws such contemplation into...