February 27, 2008
East of Eden:
The Discovery of Innocence on the Western Frontier
What happens in the West? What kind of change takes place when an individual crosses over the boundary separating what has been settled from what has yet to be— the frontier. Over the last few weeks I have continued to probe the idea of the West as a place that has yet to be defined. Many times, authors and people are not even sure where it starts as it is an invisible border that exists only in the minds of those who seek to cross it. Once across this ambiguous frontier, the traveler encounters a place in which time seems to be suspended. As in the story of the Garden of Eden, paradise (or the West) represents a sphere in which God has held the hands of time, and the people and creatures live in a state of eternal sameness. The idea of ghost towns in the West embodies the notion of a place somehow being removed from the influence of time. Ghost towns exist as settlements that people forgot. However, unlike settlements in the East where space is at a premium and any unused building would quickly be removed and replaced by something else, in the West these places remain, like footprints on the moon where no erosion of time can disturb them.
The same principle applies to people. The West has the effect of amnesia upon the minds of those who partake of it. In many ways, it resembles the lotus flowers from The Odyssey. In the epic, any persons who tasted of the lotus flowers immediately forgot about home and opted to stay where they could partake of the flowers. A similar effect can be found among the mountain men and explorers of the Rocky Mountains. Often times these men would become so intoxicated by the rugged beauty and isolation they found in the West that they would spend years in the mountains instead of the months they had planned on. These men became real life Rip Van Winkles, being suspended from time for so long they were not aware of major events such as presidential elections, new territories, or wars.
Not only is the West edenic in the way that time operates, it is also closely tied to Eden by the innocence and purity of the land. People referred to the West as “untouched” and “virgin land.” This depiction of the West as an untouched woman inspired many men to adopt the idea of Manifest Destiny, or exclusive rights and a kind of sexual domination over the land. Manifest Destiny represents the United States efforts to warn other European nations that they claimed the right to take the virginity of the West. Sources
Ehrlich, Gretel. The Solace of Open Spaces. Penguin Books. New York. 1986.
This book has been a great read. Not only does it take me home, as Ehrlich writes very authoritatively on the reality of ranch life, but it also effectively portrays the possibilities of the West. Ehrlich writes briefly upon the existence of ghost towns and their place in the Western landscape. She also discusses how the West has affected her. Ehrlich was born in California but moved to New York to pursue a career in writing. She first travelled to the West with the intention of staying for a year to shoot a documentary film and ended up staying for more than a decade on a Wyoming ranch. Ehrlich’s experiences embody the effect that the West can have upon an individual who crosses the border of the frontier into the influence of an edenic state. She focuses much of her writing upon the actual inhabitants of the West—ranchers, cowboys, women—and shows how the land itself shapes their characters in ways that Eastern landscapes do not. This book is also very poetic in its prose and form. In many ways, it treats the West as a character unto itself, and Ehrlich’s writing seems aimed at narrating that character’s life in the arid Wyoming landscape. Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Harvard
University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1973
I think that Smith’s text is critical to...
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