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Elliott West


A Dialogue with the Land

For more than 500 years the popular image of the great West has flip-flopped between that of a wilderness and of Eden. Pre-Columbian Europe was full of stories of what lay beyond the Atlantic—hideous monsters and irredeemable savages, islands of beautiful psalm-singing children and even the Garden itself. Columbus thought the first natives he met were "without knowledge of what is evil," and on a later voyage he believed he had found the immediate approach to Eden. Embedded in such images were cultural and religious messages about what was to be done with, and done to, these lands and the peoples living there. This new world—new, that is, to Europeans—was at once a wild land begging to be brought under civilization's dominion and an earthly paradise where men might glimpse their lost innocence.

This paired imagery has proved astonishingly resilient, although its focus has narrowed over the centuries. The realm of Eden, once all the Western hemisphere, was whittled down steadily by European conquest. By the late nineteenth century in the United States, its heart was in what was now called the West, particularly those parts most resistant to development. Among the purest survivals was the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada—arid, largely treeless, witness to nature's most extreme crankiness.

In this fine and subtle book, Mark Fiege leads us on a tour of part of that region, the valley of the Snake River in southern Idaho. Visitors today would find it an odd setting for fantasies from Before the Fall. You'll see lots of sagebrush. There are long vistas punctuated by lava outcroppings and bordered by distant ranges of desert mountains. And there are farms. The Snake, a tributary of the Columbia and itself one of the West's great rivers, bleeds off into canals and smaller ditches that feed fields of potatoes, grain, alfalfa and other crops. The country has its moments, but to most outsiders its appeal is limited. Vacationers usually ...

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