One our favorite books from this past year was Jedediah Roger’s Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country. A thoughtful and richly written history of the often contentious story of roads and wilderness in the canyon country, Roads in the Wilderness won the 2012 Wallace Stegner Prize in American Environmental or Western History, and has received praise by both the High Country News and the Salt Lake Tribune.
Currently the Managing Digital Editor for the Utah Historical Quarterly, Jedediah is among a growing breed of Western Historians working outside of the academy having worked for Historical Research Associates in Missoula, Montana, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and BYU’s special collections. He has recently completed a documentary history on Joseph Smith’s Council of Fifty. In our conversation asked Jedediah about his connections with canyon country, the meaning of roads in the American West, and how his work as a public historian has influenced his writing.
What were the origins of this project? How did you come to it, and who where your mentors along the way?
I have wistful childhood memories of spending time in the red-rock desert of southern Utah and northern Arizona—of scrambling over sandstone, camping under the expansive desert sky, and staring out the window as the family station wagon zoomed across what appeared to me as a vast, otherworldly landscape. But my memories are like spotty home videos, blurred and hardly complete. My impulse to write about the canyon country sprang from a desire to place my memories on a map and locate them within a context—a region, a culture, a history. This meant coming to know the canyon country not just as a physical place but also as a mental landscape, to understand how people think about and associate with it.
And so, casting about for a dissertation topic, I settled on a place that was both intimate but also somewhat foreign to me. Recognizing from my training in environmental history that place matters, I really hoped to unpack the layers of experience, memories, and meaning in what I call the canyon country. In particular, I was interested in uncovering the roots of environmental conflict, to examine what the past would tell us about contemporary issues that seemed intractable and endemic. Working with my wonderful mentor Paul Hirt at Arizona State University, I settled on conflicts over roads and access to the public lands. This had its own particular challenge, since the “story” I wanted to tell is still very much alive and ongoing. Stephen Pyne and Donald Fixico rounded out my committee.
In the introduction of Roads in the Wilderness you place roads at the center of a seemingly much broader debate between residents who “cling firmly to a conquest narrative that the land is theirs by birthright and divine decree,” and outsiders who believe “that the land demands distance from human touch and ought to be protected.” How much are these opposing viewpoints based upon religion and how much on are based upon differing economic views of lands? (I am thinking of extractive industry verses tourism in the region.)
A central argument of my work is that environmental conflicts in the West—and, for my purposes, the canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona—are deeply rooted in history and culture. When we think about the canyon country not just as a physical place but also as an imagined landscape, it becomes important to tease out the influences that shape one’s relationship to a particular place. It’s simply impossible to ignore the religious element at work in the small communities that ring the region’s outer edges. Bluff, Escalante, Kanab—these are all Mormon communities, settled under a deeply religious impulse to make “straight the crooked paths” and the desert “blossom as a rose.” But the larger point here is that religious ideologies informed a particular approach to economic development.
A case in point of a religious ideologue is Calvin Black, a powerful county commissioner and wealthy businessman in San Juan County, Utah—also the prototype of Bishop Love in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Black’s ideology wove strands of religious and secular ideas into notions of land and nature. His was a faith in economic growth, in the power of technology to mold the natural world into a commodity, and in man’s preeminent role in this undertaking. Each of these ideas derives in part from the mainstream American intellectual tradition, but they also hold particular prominence in Mormon doctrine. Black’s concept of “creating”—that is, turning raw materials into usable, consumable products (like desert into irrigated farmland or trees into two-by-fours)—aligned with the Mormon idea of God organizing a chaotic mess from raw materials into an organized, usable form. Black certainly believed that the earth had been created for human use and dominion. I argue that religiously motivated anthropocentrism suggests the sense of entitlement to land and resources that many Mormons in southern Utah claimed.
That said, we need more research on the role of religion and theology in our western wars over land, access, and water. And I would even caution historians not to place too much emphasis on religious tenets. Conservative ideas about the environment are a blending of religious, political, and secular notions of land that have been historically dominant in American culture. Mormons today espouse what writer and activist Stephen Trimble calls “the sanctity of industrious hard work” as zealously as they had once embraced communal ownership of resources. Religious ideas now dovetail neatly into the dominant thinking of the American mainstream.
The majority of the book provides chapter-length narratives (my favorite being the first on Edward Abbey and Calvin Black), but you close with a more thoughtful chapter on the meaning of roads in history. How did you come to write that chapter?
I felt it important to dig deeply into this idea of roads as a cultural and historical construct. After completing my research it became clear to me that roads are more than mere objects on the land or lines on a map. Rather, they are cultural and political symbols: “roads are important not because they defile the land or because their presence detracts from the wilderness experience, although they can do both. Rather, they have come to betoken something much larger than themselves: their absence suggests wilderness, and their presence suggests human history and culture. Wrongly or rightly, roads suggest a stark choice between wildness and civilization.”
The concluding chapter is where I tried to make this point: that historically there have been primarily two ways of understanding roads—roads as a means of progress and roads as exploitative. For generations, roads have long served a basic human need— to move from one place to another—but they also facilitated nearly every other human endeavor. Not until relatively recently has the moral virtue of the road been questioned. (Certainly this speaks to the excellent work of Paul Sutter and others.) But I suggest that a third ambivalent position seeks a balance between the two: the road as desired but also lamented. While people value access, they bemoan the effects of modernization on the landscape. Leo Marx called it the pastoral dream, the middle landscape wherein people hope to enjoy just the right mix of nature and artifice, wildness and technology.
I think it’s a mistake to either demonize the road, as some environmentalists are apt to do, or hold it up as a paragon of virtue, as the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers and many of their descendants tend to do. Part of the problem lies in the ways we tend to think about wilderness—as roadless. I probe into this. It is absolutely true that wilderness is closely tied to the road issue—certainly county officials sometimes call out dozers for road work to keep the road’s imprint fresh for fear that disappearance will qualify the area for wilderness, and wilderness proponents fear the passage of each new year without official protections as a whittling away of wilderness areas. But it is simply not the case, and should not be the case, that road marks automatically disqualify an area from wilderness consideration. In the concluding chapter I lay out what I think the “middle” landscape may look like, and I suggest that the road beyond being a symbol of progress or exploitation is one of its essential features. That paying attention to roads—those intermediaries between nature and civilization—may help us reconceptualize the landscape of the New West.
Are there any broader lessons to be learned about the American West you wish your readers to take away from the book?
In the West we confront seemingly intractable issues that divide individuals and communities. I think it’s important for historians to look closely at the ideologies that drive these conflicts. I used Edward Abbey and Calvin Black to characterize the polarity that we often encounter in the West. But I’m concerned about how individuals and groups are caricatured and about reducing complex issues to us v. them. Our “enemies” are more human and, indeed, more relatable than we often consider them to be. As a general rule, I think, environmental historians tend to know more about environmentalists than their critics or opponents. I wanted to know more about folks like Calvin Black—what made him tick, how did he “see” the land, what was the role of religion in his worldview, etc.—and as with most things when you dig deeper, individuals are not quite the caricatures we make them out to be. I think that’s an important lesson to be learned.
I also think there is a cautionary tale here. On both sides I heard folks complain about changes, which is one way of lamenting loss—whether it’s the loss of “pristine” areas, or heavy federal oversight, or unwanted population growth. Abbey, for example, believed that there was a loss associated with paving roads, especially roads in remote areas like the canyon country. He cherished old State Road 95 connecting Blanding to Hanksville, but lamented the new modern high-speed highway completed in 1976. What is interesting about Abbey is that he was wistful about how things “used to be.” He yearned for “as it was”—to return not necessarily to a pre-human landscape but to a pre-industrialized one; in essence, to the kind of landscape that Mormon pioneers set out to create, with village communities and farms and dirt roads wandering into the backcountry.
A central final question that confronts us not only on this issue but any aspect of our modern lives: where do we draw the line? At what point does the celebrated road become a degraded highway?
We wrestle now with which roads to leave open and which to close to public access. And here I’m speaking particularly about rights-of-way claims. The resolution is primarily a matter of law—which roads satisfy rights-of-way criteria. But it is also, I think, a question that demands close attention to culture and history—and by this I mean to consider not just when the road was constructed and whether it was “maintained” over a period of years, but also what meaning it holds and stories it tells.
Can you highlight or pinpoint a couple of research or writing moments that reshaped how you framed your overall argument?
In my early attempt to frame my argument, I left out discussion of the Mormon Hole-in-the-Rock trek. It wasn’t until I really began to look at that story, and particularly at the ways people remembered and commemorated that story, that I began to recognize its centrality in the story I was trying to tell. In brief, it took these settlers six labored months to reach the San Juan River, where they established the settlement of Bluff. I don’t wish to talk about the details, except to point out what is not often emphasized: the pioneers sought not just to reach their destination but to construct a “road” for others who would follow. And they exerted a lot of time and resources to do just that. The sweat, fatigue, and wonder of that first journey produced a powerful founding tale that continues to give purpose and direction to San Juan residents, representing the indomitable spirit of industry and sacrifice, of humankind’s struggle to tame nature and create a society in a most inhospitable place.
So why should we be interested in the road forged by pioneers across the broken desert of southeastern Utah? Elsewhere in Mormon country, irrigation canals represent human permanence. But I suggest that in San Juan County settlers turned to road building to order a chaotic landscape. As such, they promised to transform a “wasteland” into a productive Eden. As I’m sure folks familiar with the region can attest, roads are essential for mobility and access. It is through the literal and figurative use of these roads, I believe, that many southern Utah residents have formed an intimate connection to their homeland. In one sense, this is why roads matter.
I paired that story with a lesser-known tale of young explorer Clyde Kluckhohn’s journey to the top of Wild Horse Mesa, what today we call the Kaiparowits Plateau. My friend Paul Nelson introduced me to Kluckhohn, a young adventurer whose story intersects with the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers in interesting ways and who turns out to be one of the very first advocates of wilderness preservation in the Four Corners region. In Kluckhohn’s book he emphasized in all caps “NO ROADS, NO BUILT TRAILS.” Kluckhohn is important not simply because he provides a delightful and rhapsodic account of a young man’s encounter with the Southwest, but because he belongs to and likely helped to inspire the broader countercultural tradition that gave rise to wilderness activism in the twentieth century. His story provides a counter narrative to the Mormon Hole-in-the-Rock expedition. Kluckhohn had a different reason for venturing deep into the canyon country than the Mormon pioneers. His purpose was not to etch permanent transportation routes and habitations into the land. He sought, as many have since, in the deep canyons and high mesas an encounter with the sublime, a retreat from modern society.
What advice do you have for other scholars pursuing their first publication? Is there anything you might have done differently?
Publishing is a long process, and it helps to get started early. This means speaking with press reps, making contacts with scholars working on similar topics, tracking down photos and illustrations for your publication, and identifying your target audience. If you are an academic writing a dissertation, I recommend writing for a public audience beyond your committee and a handful of specialists. I can’t say I succeeded in this as much as I would have liked, but at the urging of Steve Pyne I tried my hand at it. That one bit of advice probably saved me hours of revision. I highly recommend Pyne’s Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.
Although my manuscript was published relatively soon after graduating, I hesitated letting go of it, skeptical of its quality and all-to-aware of its shortcomings. If after writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking, others experience similar misgivings, take a deep breath and be at peace. You’ve produced your best work. It may not be perfect; mine isn’t, and if I were smarter and more insightful the final product would have been better. But consider your work as sufficient—a gift, your gift, to the world.
You have years of experience in Public History, including working as historian for Historical Research Associates. How has your work in public history influenced your writing?
I am committed to writing for a broad audience and having my work matter in the public sphere. At least that is where my inner compass points. I’m sometimes told my work is “timely” in that it addresses pressing contemporary issues. I had a colleague at my previous job opine that history is not history after about 1990 or so. Take that as you may, I offer no apology for producing a work that is now being taken up by journalists. Years ago I read Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, an engaging and actually very good history of the 1920s published in 1931. But unlike Allen, who was able to find a nice tidy conclusion to his study with the abrupt end of the twenties, I offer readers no satisfactory ending.
I would submit, with all respect to my friends in journalism, that there is much that history can contribute to contemporary issues. For one, history—and particularly environmental history—anchors us to a place, to a region; it clues us in to how people develop a sense of attachment to the land or to a community. Place is not just the land itself, it is also the cultural forces at work on the land and the baggage we bring to it. Historians try to take notice of the roots, the underbrush—those hidden features easily missed. To extend the metaphor, historians not only pay attention to the variety of the underbrush but also the depth of the roots. We notice change over time—that is, in this case, the origin and development of ideas about nature, about place. Too often, when discussing the environmental battles that rage in the West, we forget that ideas about nature and place are culturally derived. So it might be easy to characterize individuals and ideologies without seeking to understand how they came to be.
So, I think historians have a lot to contribute to contemporary issues that westerners face. Writing a book is certainly a different enterprise than writing expert reports for attorneys working on some environmental problem. Rather than merely an end in itself, I see my writing as a means to an end, as part of the public dialogue, as a process—to enhance public understanding or resolution of hard issues.