20, 2003: Cowboys in classic Western movies reliably
make a mess. When they fight in saloons, they break chairs,
tables, bottles and the big mirror over the bar. When they
are finished fighting, they leap on their horses and race
on to the next adventure. The broken wood and shattered glass
await the attentions of an invisible, uncelebrated cleanup
crew, wielding brooms and dustpans, mops and buckets.
Meanwhile, I yearn for the Western movie in which the cowboys,
riding briskly out of town, will be suddenly stricken with
conscience. They’ll halt their horses; they’ll
look at each other with self-reproach; they’ll say to
each other, "Boys, we are supposed to be the good guys,
and yet we have left a terrible mess behind us. We’d
better go back and clean it up."
||"Can a cultural preference for
building, expanding, constructing and growing yield ground
to a new preference for maintaining, sustaining, healing
Hollywood may be reluctant to show cowboys at work with brooms
and mops, but in a number of ways, that image provides quite
a telling analogy for what’s going on in the real-life
Decades of full-speed-ahead development produced equal measures
of benefit and cost, gain and loss. Reckonings with those
complicated outcomes are under way everywhere in the region.
From attempts to restore wildlife habitat to efforts to improve
air quality, the moral equivalents of brooms and mops are
in wide use. The Bureau of Reclamation no longer builds new
dams, but tries to make existing dams less destructive to
fish, with water releases more closely mimicking natural flow.
Meanwhile, engineers, limnologists, hydrologists and aquatic
biologists tackle the legacy of mining, designing methods
to deal with the poisonous acid drainage.
And there are comparable efforts under way in the arena of
culture: undertakings to revitalize Indian languages, campaigns
to preserve the buildings and structures of the Western past,
projects to recover long-neglected writings of Mexicans and
Mexican Americans in the Southwest.
The enthusiasm for repair, restoration, remediation, rehabilitation
and recovery signifies a remarkable historical shift, an extraordinary
reversal of what once seemed to be values that would not submit
to challenge or change.
But the situation presents two cliff-hanger questions. Will
Americans support—or even tolerate—the necessary
political and financial investment to put the mops and brooms
to work? Can a cultural preference for building, expanding,
constructing and growing yield ground to a new preference
for maintaining, sustaining, healing and repairing?
||"It is a rare child who responds
positively and eagerly to the announcement, 'It’s
time to clean your room.' It may be an almost equally
rare Western resident who welcomes the suggestion, 'It’s
time to clean your region.' "
As revenues for state governments drop and dramatic budget
cuts loom, the timing of this value shift seems decidedly
ill-fated. War in the Middle East seems very likely to draw
attention away from domestic dilemmas and to redirect federal
money to weapons and troops. It will take considerable imagination
and creativity to make the case for ranking remediation and
repair as priorities in these very tough circumstances.
Cleanup, after all, presents a big attitudinal problem. For
decades of Western American history, excitement, adventure,
exhilaration and achievement were all tied to the activities
of expanding and building, discovering and exploiting. Cleanup
brings up an opposite set of associations: drudgery, tedium,
dreariness, poorly rewarded labor.
It is, after all, a rare child who responds positively and
eagerly to the announcement, "It’s time to clean
your room." It may be an almost equally rare Western
resident who welcomes the suggestion, "It’s time
to clean your region."
And yet the remarkable and wonderful thing is that so many
of those residents exist and take action.
It is my enormous good luck to work with people at the University
of Colorado who approach cleanup with optimism, spirit and
courage. I draw my inspiration from watching as civil engineers
Joe Ryan and JoAnn Silverstein work on acid mine drainage,
as atmospheric scientists Jana Milford and Mike Hanford push
for air quality improvement, as journalism professor Len Acklund
writes about the contamination of Rocky Flats and remedies
for that contamination, and as English professor John-Michael
Rivera pursues the cause of restoring the visibility of early
Mexican American writings.
I list a few names to add specificity and concreteness to
the assertion that an able and committed group of people are
doing their best to lead us from the zone of pointless regret
to the zone of productive and positive action.
Those folks are all around us. Let us try, even in these
tough times, to give them our support, our applause and, especially,