Wilderness, Innocence, and Responsibility

By Heather HouserOctober 12, 2015

Reclaimers by Ana Maria Spagna

THE BUICK KEEPS BREAKING down. Phone calls and emails are ignored. Meetings canceled. These are some of the irksome practicalities that Washingtonian author Ana Maria Spagna faces while traveling through the American West in search of reclaimed rivers and cultures. The record of these travels, Reclaimers, is part road narrative, part memoir, part Native legal history, and part environmental history. By tale’s end, we’ve accompanied Spagna to Death Valley, Point Reyes Seashore, and the Sierra Nevada Range in California, as well as points along the Columbia River defining the Oregon and Washington border. The questions that drive the writer’s curiosity-fueled explorations, and thus drive the book, dwarf her mundane travails: how can we create or find a better way to be in the world? How can we as individuals and as a nation best care for the damages — environmental, social, cultural — we’ve done?

This “we” might sound too capacious given that Reclaimers opens in the memoiristic mode. A prologue introducing Spagna’s hometown of Stehekin, Washington, sets the pattern for the rest of the book: vacillating between personal anecdote and the legal and environmental details surrounding reclaiming projects. Often this approach succeeds in demonstrating, for example, the losses that attend tribal land theft and the destruction of salmon runs. At points, though, the personal interjections can feel gratuitous, or a juxtaposition isn’t particularly illuminating. The starting point for the journey to come is telling, however. Spagna lives and toils in this remote North Cascades town with her partner, Laurie, a recurring but minor character in the narrative. The difficulties of rendering their plot of land on “the low ground” inhabitable first sets the author in pursuit of reclaimers.

A pursuit that first seems personal soon radiates out beyond the local labors of rehabilitating the “feral” parcel of land in Stehekin. Spagna asks, “What is wrong or improper conduct when it comes to the natural world? Where is the moral high ground? […] And who decides?” People reading this review — or reading Reclaimers — likely have heated opinions about these concerns. Those opinions might manifest in veganism, technological optimism, or ecocentrism. Restrictive “-isms” don’t fuel Spagna, though. Instead, her belief that “land is what underlies culture” leads her on a less structured and less predetermined investigation of the practices and ethics of reclaiming.

Lest readers free-associate too wildly, Spagna lays out dictionary definitions of “reclaim”: “1. to recall from wrong or improper conduct 2. to rescue from an undesirable state; also: to restore to a previous natural state […] b: to make available for human use by changing natural conditions …” Such definitions aren’t wrong per se, but the list doesn’t go far enough. The rest of the book presents reclaiming actions that nuance the concept. (I follow here Spagna’s preference for using “reclaim/-ing” and “reclaimers” instead of “reclamation,” which has specific meanings associated with development — think, “U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.”)

“Wise and savvy women, elders you might say,” are the most fervid reclaimers in the story Spagna tells. Women like Beverly Ogle and Lorena Gorbet, working to get back ancestral lands and cultural knowledge for the Mountain Maidu peoples of the northern Sierras; or Pauline Esteves, an advocate for the Timbisha Shoshone, whose homeland was encompassed by Death Valley National Park; or, farther north, Phyllis Clausen, protesting dam construction on the Upper White Salmon River of southern Washington. These reclaimers don’t believe they have totally figured out “what works best,” and Spagna doesn’t idealize them. She reclaims them as unsung activists who model the slow process of imagining how places and peoples can thrive without inflicting enduring harm.

What Spagna learns from these women and her research is that power is at the core of reclaiming. “Land = power” could be the overly simplistic slogan for all the cases that spool out in Reclaimers. Dams are perhaps the most telling proof for this equation. On the Washington side of the Columbia River, the Rocky Reach Dam generates 1300 megawatts of power for about a million homes. But to make energy flow, the Columbia’s own power must be curtailed and harnessed, which in turn decimates populations of salmon. Salmon are “the crux of the fiercest debates and the most expensive lawsuits of the past fifty years” in the Pacific Northwest because they are the visible, if disappearing, symbol of how we’ve traded the inherent, vital energy of rivers and the soil for the energy that keeps modern life buzzing and makes utilities and mining companies staggering profits. Spagna carefully narrates how one set of displacements — of river power for electrical power, of salmon for profit — leads to others that deracinate human, and not just piscine, populations. In response to resource capture, environmental stewards like Clausen reclaim rivers for salmon, people, and for the river itself. They earnestly seek new ways for salmon to run, whether through technologies like salmon ladders or through the radical measure of breaching dams such as the Elwha in northwest Washington. Dams are just one of the encroachments on Native peoples who continually seek to reclaim the livelihoods and land that power-wielding governments and corporations have stolen.

My account of Reclaimers might suggest that removing dams or restoring homelands are inherently good. But one of Spagna’s crucial discoveries is that reclaiming precious ecosystems and those that thrived in them doesn’t always put us on the moral high ground. It generates its own problems because “it so often leads to displacing” as well. And when it does, it sets other power plays in motion. One of the driving narratives of Reclaimers involves the desert Timbisha Shoshone tribe. Through Esteves’s stalwart activism beginning in the 1960s, the tribe received formal recognition and a small plot for a reservation within Death Valley National Park. Though the US government granted the tribe recognition in 1983, the Timbisha didn’t secure a land base until 2000, when the US returned 7,500 acres under the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act. At this point in the story, power surges again. With more land, the small tribe splintered into those desiring gaming rights and those eschewing that path toward financial gain and political influence. In this conflict we see diverging notions of the three concepts Spagna finds essential to reclaiming: “to take back, to make right, and to make useful.” For some Native peoples as for those benefiting from settler history, these all must amount to “make money.” If the dictionary has us understand “to reclaim” as righting wrongs, Spagna’s journeys show instead that her “theory about the earnest good intentions that drive reclaimers was proving to be complicated, if not plain wrong.”

“What’s worse,” this passage goes on, “I felt personally implicated.” This ethical nuance is one of Reclaimers’s refrains and accomplishments. After calling herself to account, she elaborates in undulating yet gripping prose, “the blame for what happened on the Columbia [River] falls on all of us, the government and the true believers and Woody Guthrie singing ‘Roll on Columbia’ while backwater filled sacred sites and salmon smelled their way into walls of cement.” Statements like this retain their bite without instilling guilt. Instead, Spagna inspires readers to feats of imagination and invention. All the cases she explores show that the ethics of reclaiming are muddy at best. The reader seeking a digestible morsel of advice on how best to right environmental and social wrongs will find this book unsatisfying. The titles of the concluding chapters — “Hope without Hope,” “No Difference at All” — indicate the tenuous peace Spagna achieves when she accepts the difficulty of thriving without compromising ecosystems and human communities. Each reader must decide whether the lessons Spagna relays — “Do what you can. Hope without hope. Expect the unexpected” — forge more sustainable relations to the land or whether her ethical journey ends right back where it began, just as her geographical roaming does.

Nearly all Americans, even the most environmentally fastidious ones, consume water and electricity in astonishing amounts. Many of us also get spiritual and aesthetic sustenance or test our mettle in the national parks that have ruined Native communities since Yellowstone’s creation in 1872. There is no innocence, in short. This idea that courses through Reclaimers travels with another: there is no wilderness. Especially if we understand wilderness as US nature-lovers did in the 19th century (and to this day): as uninhabited pristine spaces in which one can briefly escape so-called civilization and reclaim (yet another meaning) innocence and health.

No innocence and no wilderness but not, therefore, no responsibility to care. Spagna is not the first to come to this conclusion. William Cronon’s influential critique of the concept in “The Trouble with Wilderness” (1995) helped environmental thinkers understand how the wilderness ideal has displaced Native peoples both physically and rhetorically. His critique ends with a message of care as well; once we “abandon the dualism that sees the tree in the garden as artificial […] and the tree in the wilderness as natural,” Cronon explains, we cease believing “we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails.” Spagna doesn’t invent this line of thinking, then, and it might seem well-trod ground to environmentalists and scholars. Yet she adds to this conversation stories of recent environmental and indigenous campaigns that show the challenges of “tak[ing] responsibility.” Her stories make Cronon’s analysis real for our day.

Spagna first trips on the significance of wilderness while hiking on a deserted Death Valley trail. This emptiness evokes the mythos of the wild as the “inhospitable” and “uninhabited,” but she immediately questions this ready association because of a sign spotted at the park’s entrance: “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone.” If “wilderness” implies the absence of people, how could it possibly be someone’s home? The wilderness ideal, which, we shouldn’t forget, has been environmentally and culturally productive as well as destructive, rubs up against the fact that, for millennia, humans and more-than-humans survived there because of their interdependence. This reality becomes especially salient for Spagna on learning that California Indians “managed the wild.”

Without effacing the difference between indigenous contests to reclaim homelands and environmentalist-driven projects to remove dams or recover waterways, Spagna finds commonalities between them. In the process, she reclaims “reclaiming” from its association with wilderness. To this end, she questions the possibility of “re-wilding” in the sense of returning a place to some elusive original state. The disastrous breach at Condit Dam along the Columbia River is an explosive instance of the failure to restore to supposed origins, one that also proves the law of unintended consequences. Whatever the surrounding valley becomes once the sediment settles, it certainly won’t be what it was before the damming spree began in the mid-19th century. Deftly deflating simple notions of pristine states, Reclaimers deserves to be read alongside Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (2011), by Spagna’s fellow Washingtonian Emma Marris. Both writers — and there are others, like Jamie Lorimer with the new Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature (2015) — are loosening the grip “wilderness” has on environmentalism while still striving to inspire forms of preservation and care.

After watching the consequences of the Condit removal unfold, Spagna finds herself back at Rocky Reach Dam wondering, “Is there a way to make a dam work for people and fish?” This question orients reclaiming toward the future rather than the idealized past. Here another gradation of “reclaiming” surfaces: “Maybe [it] isn’t about how it used to be or even how it should be, but how it could be.” While loss suffuses the stories Spagna tells, it doesn’t determine the overall emotional tone of Reclaimers, as is evident here. There’s more exultation of the capacity to observe, to admire, to care, and to strive for the better — an admittedly provisional and partial better — than there is lament or condemnation.

Even with the normative “should” removed from definitions of reclaiming, contests over value and use still shape reclaimers’ ambitions. These contests also spur conflicts between players that populate Spagna’s narrative. Whether hiking Death Valley and stumbling upon the falseness of desert emptiness or marveling at the plentiful rivers that define the western Oregon landscape, Spagna runs up against the meanings that places have accrued, meanings so often tied to norms about nature. What should a river be, she muses: “the free river, the restored river, the seductive vision of water rushing, charging unimpeded, untrammeled.” Spagna debunks the wrongheaded idea that rivers are most valuable ecologically, spiritually, and aesthetically when they are “liberated,” and then admits she too is attached to that value. She has lived beside just such a free-flowing river whose whims triumph over people’s fancies, and it’s tempting to want all rivers to attain such liberation, even when that desire matches neither past reality nor realizable future.

If there’s one “should” that emerges from Spagna’s account, it pertains to ways of being in nature rather than the final states of nature. Focusing on tribal activists and environmental reclaimers, Spagna does an admirable job subtly promoting practices of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. TEK is one antidote to the American penchant for valuing land only when it’s exploited or left untouched. Spagna first elaborates on TEK through her reading of M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (2005). Quoting Anderson, she relates what TEK entails: “An overarching gathering rule [of the Maidu] was to spare plants and plant parts; do not harvest everything.” While intuitive for some, this modesty is radical, a point subsequent chapters will prove. Spagna adroitly handles readers’ potential skepticism throughout the book, and that skill is on display here. She anticipates the counterargument to TEK: “Why bother? Isn’t practicing the old ways nothing more than historic re-enactment […] a sometimes unsettling mix of nostalgia and fantasy?” Encounters with people practicing TEK show that this dismissive attitude is false.

Equally false is the perspective of the pro-casino, pro-development chairman of the Timbisha tribal council, George Gholson. Spagna retells her conversations with Gholson in the last chapter before the book’s coda. His perspectives punctuate the clash between two opposing notions of how to thrive in the 21st century: TEK and capitalist entrepreneurialism. Gholson claims those who fought to get the Homeland Act passed were not future-oriented. To him, a future in which fatter wallets aren’t the goal is no future at all. Spagna knows, though, that women like Esteves passionately pursued a future, “one that was land-based, steeped in culture and tradition.” One that grows through knowledge cultivated from an enduring past, over millennia of surviving and thriving in landscapes that, to capitalists like Gholson, look inhospitable and demand “improvement.” Reclaimers doesn’t say much about how TEK might be scaled up and become a foil to resource capture, tourist development, or, what’s now entering the Pacific Northwest, technological infrastructure like data centers. Spagna’s formal decision to end the book with a coda set back in Stehekin, at her home, makes the question of scale even more glaring.

Advocating TEK and incorporating the discourses of US law, tribal history, environmental science, and more, Reclaimers ultimately serves as a compendium of the kinds of knowledge that we must bring to bear on environmental dilemmas of all kinds. Spagna’s narrative presents knowledge as a practice of listening, as patience, as discomfort, as humility, as dwelling in uncertainty. Ultimately, as hope without hope. None of this is easy, Spagna has us know, but pursuing knowledge in this vein counters the sense of loss social and environmental injustices produce. Rather than leaving readers with impossibly easy answers, Reclaimers leaves us with its author’s spirit of curiosity that’s powered by affection for a place, but encompasses an entire region in flux.


Heather Houser writes on contemporary fiction, the environment, medicine and literature, and new media.

LARB Contributor

Heather Houser writes on contemporary fiction, the environment, medicine and literature, and new media. Her most recent book is Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia University Press, 2014). She is on the faculty of the English department at the University of Texas at Austin.


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