Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" by Wallace Stegner ***

This book essentially recounts the life of John Wesley Powell, especially as it involves his work as an explorer, geologist, and Washington administrator. I was drawn to it because Powell is referenced in so many books about western water rights and because it was written by Wallace Stegner, whose work has not previously disappointed.

Perhaps had I not had such high expectations I wouldn't have been disappointed by this one either. What you get is a hagiographic portrait of the man's work, one that doesn't seem near as interesting as Stegner's random thoughts on the west in his book of essays Where the Bluebird Sings to Lemonade Springs or as in depth and nuanced as the character studies that show up in his novels.

Powell's claim to fame in water books is that he set up the hundredth meridian as the border between wet and dry land in the United States. In the east, there would never be worries; in the west, there would be nothing but. But of course, Powell did a whole lot more than that.

The book starts with a short summary of his earlier life, which included a stint in the army during the Civil War, during which he lost half of one arm (not that he let that stop him from rejoining). Afterward, he set off on an exploration of western rivers. The description of his first descent of the Green and Colorado proves exciting at times indeed, if a bit long winded. Much time is also spent disparaging Powell's detractors. The idea of the West post-Civil War world was one that was often wildly optimistic, with some claiming it as a Garden of Eden if only people would plant trees (the weather would change) or that the rapid-heavy rivers were actually navigable. Making down the Colorado proves dangerous indeed.

More and more, however, Powell's life is taken over by his work gathering funds and government support for his scientific surveys. He begins to leave the exploration to others, and the book shifts mostly to his battles with Washington bureaucrats, some of whom resent government paying for science (the arguments about socialism versus the free market go back more than a hundred years, it turns out).

One of the most interesting sections to me, after the discussion of the first foray downriver, had to do with maps of the Old West. Powell set out to map the United States, a task that was not even finished in 1952, when Stegner was writing. It's crazy to think it took so long to do something that is now essentially completed and updated regularly using satellite technology. Anyway, in the early days, many cartographers simply assumed rivers continued on, using anecdotes or other mapmaker's work as their sources, so often water would be plotted where it didn't appear, rivers would be joined that didn't join and lakes would appear that didn't exist. Powell set out to correct this.

The other most interesting sections for me had to do with Powell's irrigation survey, something that was related to his attempt to map the country. It was Powell's desire to spell out where the best dams could be built and what land could be easily irrigated. His hope was to hold off speculators while helping out people who might put a life savings into land that had no adequate supply of water. Of course, the survey took forever, and local politicians grew restless and eventually got the survey tossed so that development could occur without adequate planning. But ten years later or so, after droughts and other "I told you so" problems, many of Powell's ideas were readopted under other names.

Of course, I couldn't help but wonder if Powell could do anything wrong. Such is hagiography.

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