In Cities and Nature in the American West, scholars dissect what land, water, and urban existence have meant throughout the last century and what they continue to mean to today’s Western residents. In the introductory essay, editor Char Miller, a scholar of urban and environmental history and the director of the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College, frames the collection by detailing how the West’s cities grew to be the powerful and populated centers they are today: “They came looking for work and weather, for rest and recreation,” referring to the crowds that crossed the country as construction on the nation’s highways after World War II linked town to town (4).
Cities and Nature in the American West examines the permeable border between urban and rural environments and how, as in the case of the levees of New Orleans, culture shaped the natural world, or sometimes – like with hurricane Katrina — how environment shaped the urban experience. The book pays attention to the marketing and packaging of nature by the government and corporations throughout the last century and how both have changed in accordance with shifting attitudes – including the establishment and development of the national parks and the planning and selling of Vail, Colorado in the 1960s and 70s. In some cases, authors address ongoing battles, such as the destruction of salmon habitat in and around Seattle; Matthew Klingle, a professor of history and environmental studies, writes that Seattle residents must “confront the contradictions of wanting salmon and the good life at little or no burden to themselves.”
A few of the essays — such as Phoebe S. Kropp’s exploration of the politics of camping – are surprising in what they reveal, including camping having to define itself from transients and instead establish itself as middle-class leisure activity.
It is this historical perspective that makes this book a necessary contribution and serves as a reminder of where we have come from as a nation in our attitudes and policies and occasionally — like with the struggle for salmon – how far we have to go. Some of the 14 essays are overly dense and academic, but they nevertheless place today’s conflicts under a lens that illuminates the relationship between nature and city.
Cities and Nature in the American West
Edited by Char Miller
Fall 2010, University of Nevada Press
— Andrea Clark Mason