Author Profiles 2008:
Don Worster is one of Americaís most accomplished historians of nature, ecologists, and environmental practices. In the mid-Ď90s, he turned to biography -- giving us the whole life of John Wesley Powell (released 2001) and the in-progress John Muir. For a concise display of all Worsterís books and monographs, click here. Since 1989, he has taught full-time at the University of Kansas -- they call it "KU," not "UK" -- in Lawrence, midway between Topeka and Kansas City. Worster is former president of the American Society for Environmental History and a member of the Western History Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association. Over the past two decades he has lectured extensively in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as throughout North America. Contact him at the University using (785) 864-9474 or DWorster@ku.edu.
†"KU," Natureís Economy, and the Slow-Motion Lure of the Plains
FRANK GREGORSKY: How long have you been teaching here [at the University of Kansas]?
DONALD WORSTER: I came here in 1989, after 25 years of "living in exile." I had lived in New England, Hawaii and California. But this is my home state. My wife [Beverly] is from southeastern Kansas, and we met here on this campus as undergraduate students. We were married and then, in í64, moved to Maine. I was away from this state [for most of the next] 25 years -- and I was really quite homesick.
They offered me an endowed chair in American history if I would come back, and [Bev and I] didnít hesitate very long. They wanted someone who had a background in the American West, and the chair of the committee was interested in this new field of environmental history. Also interesting to them was the fact that I had been an undergraduate here -- it probably indicated I might stay longer than some other people they could recruit.
GREGORSKY: Whatís the toughest class you are teaching these days?
WORSTER: The toughest class? Actually, the one I just finished -- a course on agriculture from a global and world historical perspective. Not a common topic anymore; and when itís taught itís usually taught as "American Agriculture" on an "Aggie" campus. Weíre a very urban campus here, even though weíre in Kansas -- weíre mainly a Kansas City general-area campus. Hardly any of our students have seen farms up close. But theyíre interested in agriculture and food issues.
Itís a very challenging topic to take on 10,000 years of agriculture: How it originated, and why and where; the evolution it has gone through. And then the current issues -- in world trade, environmental issues, and the conflict between traditional and modern styles of farming. The mix of students is also challenging. Some have grown up in a big agribusiness establishment and are deeply defensive about that enterpriseís virtue as well as its rationality. Other students [believe] that everything they [find in] the supermarket and eat is going to poison them [his emphasis there is done with wryness].
GREGORSKY: Are you familiar with [Grassland author] Richard Manning?
WORSTER: Yes. He "rants" against modern agriculture, which I generally share [mild laughter].
GREGORSKY: But we donít have -- to the extent they were here 20, 30, 40 years ago -- the alarms and famine forecasts and predictions of [food] shortages. One book I remember is Famine 1975. [That was a 1968 offering by William and Paul Paddock. For other extreme predictions from that idealistic era, see www.catholiceducation.org/articles/population/pc0020.html]
WORSTER: Yeah, some of those predictions were premature and overblown. The worst crises didnít come about. Malnutrition, though, is certainly rampant in this world. People are dying from malnutrition, in ways we canít always pin down. People are fighting over places with limited soil and food shortages. But yes, we "missed the bullet" that some people like Paul Ehrlich were predicting we would take.
GREGORSKY: The first book of yours that I read [holding up the paperback] was Dust Bowl -- 1979. Was this the first one you did?
WORSTER: No, it was my second book. The first was Natureís Economy. That was first, then Dust Bowl, then Rivers of Empire -- on water and the West -- and several books of essays. After a hiatus, this doorstop came out [laughter] -- on John Wesley Powell; to be followed by another doorstop, a biography of John Muir, the California naturalist.
Many people think that Natureís Economy was one of my best books -- it certainly was one of my best-written books. It has conceptual problems, but it was my dissertation. As a dissertation, it was a huge, amorphous, overweening kind of book to write. The advisors at Yale said no way, donít do that. I disregarded them. They were right [smiling]. I had trouble getting a standard academic publisher at first. Cambridge eventually took it on. But itís been translated into seven languages, and is still in print.
GREGORSKY: So the lesson is -- ?
WORSTER: Disregard what your mentors tell you [chuckling]. Theyíre right, but in some ways they can also be quite wrong.
We begin to talk about Dust Bowl, but this is the place to put what actually was a later part of that exchange...
GREGORSKY: Beyond that desire to be on the Plains again, where did the genesis for writing this book come from?
WORSTER: In 1972, I was a Mellon Fellow at the Aspen Institute, studying world food and hunger issues. There was a workshop assembled -- all of us living in splendor at the Aspen Institute thinking about poor people in Africa [more wryness!]. That was the time people were worried about desertification, and the creeping of the Saharan Desert southward, into the Sahel. And, that same summer, I passed through western Kansas and saw a lot of grain elevators that had been blasted by dirt -- they were still caked by blowing dust storms -- and thatís how I came to write, as part of Natureís Economy, a section on the dust bowl. It was a short treatment -- but I got very interested in the dust bowl.
When it came time to do Dust Bowl, I was living in Honolulu. People couldnít understand why anybody would get a grant -- a fellowship -- and go off to live in Kansas. But I was homesick for it. I never took to palm trees that much; or, for that matter, to the New England landscape. I liked them both, but they were just not my place.
GREGORSKY: What was it about the Plains?
WORSTER: [Pause] "What is it about the Plains" [he repeats the question, but without the question mark]. Itís perverse, I think -- to like a landscape that is so featureless, so dry, so disorienting. Sometimes I quote to myself Thoreauís statement -- Iíll have to look that quotation up. He loves swamps and other places that most people would stay away from...
When...I have analyzed my partiality for some farm which I had contemplated purchasing, I have frequently found that I was attracted solely by a few square rods of impermeable and unfathomable bog -- a natural sink in one corner of it. That was the jewel which dazzled me. I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village.
I like the sense of solitude here. You can go to the New England woods and go for a walk and nobodyís there, but you donít really feel alone; you donít feel the solitude that you feel on the Great Plains -- the space, the openness. To me it just seemed the way the world oughta be. I grew up driving my old automobile back and forth across the Great Plains, going down in the sand-dune country. I knew how lovely this landscape could be, and how full of life it could be, away from some of the big agribusiness operations.
Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s
Worsterís Dust Bowl is dedicated to his parents Delbert and Bonnie, who grew up on farms and married in the late '30s. Though not living "at the very dead center of the dust bowl, they were part of the whole 1930s economic collapse -- the drought, poverty. So they went over to Colorado, picking fruit near Pueblo -- basically Okie kind of work -- and drifted down into Arizona and California." Delbert then found work with "the Rock Island Railroad, which along with the Santa Fe runs through Needles, California, right on the Arizona-California border." Needles is named for a spire-like rock formation, right on the Colorado River; itís also where Donald was born, the month before Pearl Harbor. His father "answered the call, right away, as a volunteer," and shipped out to the Pacific as a Marine. Donís memories of him begin at age four. After the war, Delbert and Bonnie relocated to Hutchison, Kansas, where young Donald went through all 12 years of school; and where, in junior high, he had his own battle with a dust storm...
WORSTER: The mid-1950s were a time of very severe drought -- some big dust storms came rolling across. One spring morning at school, the teacher told us all to go home. The temperature was falling dramatically. In the process of getting home, I was engulfed in dust. I was severely asthmatic, so this was really a traumatic experience -- I practically choked to death. Then I spent the next day or two trying to breathe through that dust.
GREGORSKY: How many years did it take you complete the manuscript for Dust Bowl?
WORSTER: That was the fastest book of all. Some preliminary work had been done, as I noted, for Natureís Economy. But I arrived in Kansas with a 12-month leave of absence from [the University of Hawaii] and an $11,000 grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, two babies and a wife, and I had to get this thing together quickly. Within 12 months, I had done the research and written the book. You could say "12 months plus," but itís basically a 12-month book.
GREGORSKY: The photography is fabulous. The clarity of the writing and the depth of the research all come together -- I thought you were gonna tell me this took three years to do.
WORSTER: It should have! Now I can see the flaws in it. I donít back away from my conclusions or argument, but -- had I the leisure, as a professor, and the financial means, I wouldíve spent a lot more time on this book. It needed more careful research, particularly on the natural-history side. It also needed a lot more work on the economic conditions of the 1920s -- the land-use decisions and so forth that were being made.
But I didnít intend for Dust Bowl to be a long-term project. This book I thought of as "a year off from teaching" -- a chance to think about where Iíd been and what I had been through.
GREGORSKY: But then it wins the award -- the Bancroft Prize.
WORSTER: Which surprised the hell out of me -- I mean, it completely floored me. Thatís the whole --
GREGORSKY: You knew it was in the running.
WORSTER: I had no idea it was even in the running.
GREGORSKY: As a self-employed person, I have to ask: What was the prize worth?
WORSTER: At that time? Four thousand. It wasnít a huge amount of money. Itís probably gone up since then. Most of the prizes have been given for books on race -- race relations, slavery, the South. Weíve been in kind of a rut. But this last year I think they broke out of it again: They gave the prize to Jack Kirby for his book Mockingbirdís Song, on the environmental history of the South. Environmental topics have generally not been given a lot of space "in the room" -- by the prize committees, that is.
GREGORSKY: Do you know why that is?
WORSTER: I donít know who was on that particular committee, but they tend to be historians who are in the mainstream -- and the mainstream of American history, since I got out of graduate school, has tended to focus on the new social history: Race above all; and to some extent class; and gender. Thatís our mantra these days: Race, class, gender. I have no complaint to make about that, except it has tended to squeeze other topics out.
Environmental history was just getting started -- we didnít exist when I was in graduate school. I taught one of the very first courses on an American campus on the subject of environmental history. But it has had trouble because of this great huge monstrous tree of social history in the backyard [heís chuckling] that is "shading out" everything else. It has marginalized a lot of fields, among them environmental history, which doesnít fit into the mainstream concerns.
GREGORSKY: What are the total lifetime sales for Dust Bowl?
WORSTER: Maybe 75,000.
GREGORSKY: Is that the best [tally among] your books?
WORSTER: Natureís Economy has sold that much, or more. I canít tell exactly, because I donít get sales reports from Japan, Korea and China.
GREGORSKY: You couldnít read them if they came out anyway.
WORSTER: [Laughter] And this book -- The Dust Bowl -- has just been translated into Chinese.
One of the greatest difficulties under which Worster must have labored...is that two biographies of Powell -- one competent and one brilliant -- are already a part of the literature. William Culp Darrah's Powell of the Colorado (Princeton, 1950) was a workman-like treatment of the geologist-as-hero written by a practicing geologist. Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (Boston, 1954) is, on the other hand, a transcendent work that Worster himself acknowledges as "one of the most influential books ever written about the West" (p. xii). Why, then, another biography of Powell, as important a figure as he was? The simple answer is that Worster has the advantage of 50 years of scholarship on Powell and access to documentary information -- particularly about Powell's early life -- that were available to neither Stegner nor Darrah. He has used that additional material wisely and, as marvelous a book as Stegner's is, one comes away from a reading of Worster's biography with a better feeling for Powell as a human being.
†††††† -- The Western Historical Quarterly, Summer 2002
WORSTER: Our figures from the past are always a lot more complicated than we ever remember. Even when Iím done writing about John Wesley Powell, and when Iím finished writing about John Muir, Iíll have to go away and say: You know, I donít understand these people completely. There are huge gaps of knowledge. I try not to speculate but, nonetheless, I canít tell you definitely -- even when it comes to subjects that I have discussed -- I canít tell you definitively always what I think he felt.
GREGORSKY: That surprises me. Some of the presidential biographers [especially Remini on Andrew Jackson or Caro on LBJ] come across sounding like most of their principalís doings, and the reasoning too, were dictated to them personally.
WORSTER: Well, the thing about writing biography is that I have discovered [pause] humility [laughter]. I was a pretty arrogant author in early books, I know -- taking on huge topics. That was appropriate for someone in his thirties -- to think you can explain this, or explain that. I still think thatís what we should be trying to do; and sometimes our explanations will be controversial. Nonetheless, at a certain point, I have come back to biography -- having vowed never to write one.
GREGORSKY: Why did you hold off for as long as you did?
WORSTER: For one thing, I had been taught that "biography is not history." I still believe thereís a distinction to be made between the two. History deals with broader social forces and tries to explain those social forces -- those broader changes over time.
GREGORSKY: Seems to me that [in A River Running West] you did everything you could to include Darwin, Lyell, Wilberforce [and even Frederick Jackson Turner] -- many of the 19th-century greats somehow get pulled into this story of the Powells.
WORSTER: And thatís probably because I am an historian writing a biography rather than, say, a literary professor, or someone interested in exploration only. So the distinction [between history and biography] is an important one.
But I have come around to think of the differences more as differences of scale; and I think we have to learn how to write at all "scales" about the past -- from the global scale, right down to the scale of the individual. And in some ways, the hardest of all scales to learn -- to master -- is the biographical, the individual. Not so much in the Powell case, but in the Muir case, you are overwhelmed with volumes and volumes of letters that were saved. I have 55 reels of microfilm of John Muirís writings, letters and so on.
GREGORSKY: Weíll get to him shortly. Did Powell have an inner life?
WORSTER: An inner life?
GREGORSKY: Based on your portrait, if he were to show up here, and we asked him a bunch of questions, I could sort of predict how he would answer -- because I think youíve done justice to him. But some dimension of him is still missing.
WORSTER: [Pause] Well, youíre right. I didnít give much of an "inner" life to him, because he didnít give me any material to work with -- and I donít believe in trying to invent or imagine. Many friends over a glass of wine tried to help me invent episodes with this one-armed man and some fictional sweetheart. I put a little bit of sex in there, about these womanizing rumors at the end of his life. But can you really imagine this guy -- who in the pictures looks pretty beaten up, scraggly beard, cigar ash all over his vest, with one arm -- romancing women around the punch bowl at Washington events?
GREGORSKY: Maybe not [with] charm, but he had power.
WORSTER: He had power. Thatís one way you could go with this.
GREGORSKY: Stick with inner life, though. His relationship with his daughter -- do you have any clue as to what that was like?
WORSTER: Very little. Nothing. Nothing.
GREGORSKY: And it turns out that [his wife] Emma was some sort of a shrew?
WORSTER: People said this but -- you know, I just put it in. I didnít draw my conclusion very firmly, because I donít know anything about her. So there are some [historical figures where] you cannot get into their inner minds.
Wallace Stegner on Powell, and Donald Worster on Stegner
GREGORSKY: Wallace Stegner tried to hedge [at the start of his biography of Powell] by saying: "This is the biography of a career, not a man." That allowed Stegner to not do a lot of things that you had to do, in order to piece together a whole picture.
WORSTER: Well, I wanted to give him at least a boyhood -- the growing up that Stegner felt was irrelevant. Part of the reason Stegner did not deal with the earlier Powell, though, was not because the materials were lacking; it was because he really wasnít interested until Powell got to the Grand Canyon -- until he got to "Stegner Country," Utah and the Grand Canyon. And the reason for [the emphasis on] career is because Stegner was interested in the political issues of conservation, in the West, and where they were in the late í40s and 1950s among various Senators and Congressman in the West. He was looking for a hero to put against these people.
GREGORSKY: You say [in your own biography of him] that Powell "was elevated to sainthood" by Stegnerís book.
WORSTER: Well, when you read his book, you come away feeling that this guy was pretty close to a saint. Of course, Stegner himself was to me was a saint.
WORSTER: Well, what does "a saint" mean? I have enormous admiration for Wallace Stegner. Great respect.
GREGORSKY: Did you ever work with him?
WORSTER: No, I did not even actually meet him. After he read Rivers of Empire, he wrote a very nice letter to me, about the book, and how good he thought it was, and so on; and he said that he was going to use it for an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times that week. And he did; he sent me a copy of the piece. A few years later, we corresponded again, when we were to do a documentary film together -- on water and the west. It was to be filmed at his house near the Stanford campus up in the hills. About a week before [this was to take place] he was killed, in the automobile accident in Santa Fe.
GREGORSKY: Late in 1993.
WORSTER: So [subdued] -- that was my chance to meet him. A year earlier, thereíd been another chance. I was in San Francisco. I was to go down the coast to meet with him, in his house. And the earthquake hit the Bay Area that year -- it left his house in complete disarray. He called to beg off. So -- foiled twice. It would have been a great moment for me. I continue to respect Wallace Stegner today, and dedicated one of my books to him, right after his death.
GREGORSKY: Which one?
WORSTER: Itís the book I did with the University of New Mexico -- An Unsettled Country. [An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West -- 156 pages, University of New Mexico Press, 1994, 156 pages]
GREGORSKY: I learned to appreciate Stegner from our friend Dick Etulain. But letís go back to John Wesley Powell. Near half-a-century after this man Stegner offered his biography of Powell, along comes yours. You went a lot further than adding a boyhood.
WORSTER: A lot had happened in the writing of American history since Stegner wrote. Moreover, I thought: There must be more material out there that Powell himself had generated, or that one could find out. There was a whole life here. Even if I couldnít know his inner life, it would tell us a lot more about this guy if we went back and looked at who his parents were; where they had come from; what they had been through; where they had lived [once emigrating to the U.S.].
GREGORSKY: The research you did on that is just amazing.
WORSTER: Well, thank you. I had a lot of fun doing A River Running West.
One of the great things about doing a book of that sort is exactly one of the pleasures Iím having [with the John Muir research] -- itís to go to the places. Go to the actual places and spend a lot of time there. You see things and learn things you would never otherwise know about. I canít always put my finger on it, but it gives you insights into these peopleís lives that you canít get by just archival work. That might sound like a platitude, but Iíve felt it truer and truer as I go along.
GREGORSKY: How about a story along those lines about John Muir?
Was Muir "in a Set of Contradictions He Didnít try to Work Through"?
WORSTER: [Pause] I had to go to his boyhood home of Dunbar, on the coast of Scotland. A lot of books have been written on John Muir. But virtually nobody has ever been to Dunbar -- where he lived for 11 years! Or really talked to people there. Or looked into the records of the town to see why his parents left -- etc. etc. All his life, Muir identified with Scotland; and he went back to Dunbar himself.
GREGORSKY: You didnít repudiate your own boyhood [and geography] the way some Midwesterners do --
GREGORSKY: So maybe that "equips" you to want to fill in that gap for these other people.
WORSTER: [Pause] Well, you know Wallace Stegner said something very wise: "I may not know who I am, but I know where Iím from." And in a way, thatís the kind of biography Iíve tried to write. I might not know who [Powell and Muir] are, but I know where theyíre from.
GREGORSKY: And what shaped them -- or what seemed to shape them.
WORSTER: Right. And it works in other ways as well. In working on John Muir, for example, everybody goes to Yosemite and spends time there; and maybe even to Alaska, where he spent a lot of time.
Late in his life, when he was having trouble writing his autobiography, he was invited by the great railroad titan, E.H. Harriman, to his summer place at Pelican Bay at Klamath Lake in southwestern Oregon. So Muir goes up there and spends several months, with a stenographer following him around, taking down these bits of memory. I went up there to see this place, to find where theyíd lived and so on -- and the building had become a hotel. It had been a two-story log house; not a very impressive place, in the pictures, for a Harriman estate. Harriman would go up there to fish, shoot bears, and live the outdoor life.
GREGORSKY: And he just wanted John to come up and sort of hang out?
WORSTER: Harriman liked John Muir a lot, and John Muir came to respect him a lot -- he wrote a eulogy for Harriman, the robber baron of his day, along with Jay P. Morgan. Teddy Roosevelt was on the case of both of them. But Muir developed a very close friendship with Harriman, and his family. So I got there and started looking around.
GREGORSKY: Something good is coming here.
WORSTER: Went over to the local historical society, and began poking around. I asked myself: Why were they there at all? Why did Harriman pick this place, out of all the West? (It wasnít near any of his railroad tracks.) Well, he was there because he was plotting a railroad line from the Southern Pacific railroad -- which he then owned and controlled -- all the way up to the Pacific Northwest, to connect up with the other railroad lines coming into Seattle.
Now, why was Harriman interested in that particular route? Well, right across Klamath Lake is a whole series of lakes and wetlands that had been authorized as one of the very first reclamation projects [entitled to] federal dollars in the West. They were starting to drain wetlands and create agricultural fields there. This went on for decades until, finally, they ended up creating a lot of alfalfa hay -- and destroying one of the greatest waterfowl habitats on the west coast. Over time, three-fourths of the bird populations have disappeared -- through the loss of those breeding areas and wetlands.
This area has been in the news as a highly controversial area in recent decades. People have been insisting that the farmers put more water back into some of those wetlands areas; and former Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton was very much at the heart of some of those controversies. I went over there and looked at all of that. Saw the signs saying "weíre an endangered species" -- we farmers and so on.
But the interesting thing to me is that John Muir was right there on the edge of this. He was a smart guy. It wouldnít have taken him very long to figure out why Harriman was there, what he was doing. Yet he doesnít say one blessed word about it. Muir doesnít criticize Harriman. And, you know, theyíre friends -- but he criticized him for his hunting. He criticized him for his killing of bears -- Muir thought that was barbaric.
GREGORSKY: But you donít know that Muir knew why -- what was going on --
WORSTER: Well, he should have known [laughter]. I mean, how could you not know the effects of reclamation [and] the draining of wetlands? He had to know this. Whether he paid any attention to it or not is not my point. If he didnít, why didnít he? Why didnít he ask [pause] -- well, he tolerated government reclamation projects all over the place; he tolerated the whole transformation of the central valley of California. He bemoaned it to some extent, but -- he had made his peace with American empire, American technology, and American wealth.
GREGORSKY: Which is not the common idealistic portrait of Muir today.
GREGORSKY: So -- certainly when it comes to crafting a biography -- youíre saying: "Look at these people for what they did, or didnít do, in the context of their times."
WORSTER: Yeah. And in doing that here, Iím not condemning John Muir. Had I been Harrimanís guest, I might have done the same thing. I have some friends of considerable wealth. And generally we share the same views and outlook on the world. But you have to, as you get older, learn a little tolerance and openness. You realize that the world is not black and white -- [and neither was Harriman]. At times, Harriman was doing a lot of good for the environment.
But I think Muir was caught in a set of contradictions that he didnít try to work through. And I wouldnít have known any of this if I hadnít gone up there and poked around and spent some time -- and just started making historical connections. I didnít know where Pelican Bay was -- and nobody who has ever written on John Muir has ever written about Pelican Bay, and Klamath, and this lakes thing. Okay, itís a tiny episode -- but it shows why going to places is important. The places [were] important to the people themselves; they reveal things that otherwise would escape us -- if we stick our nose only in the archives.
GREGORSKY: Thatís a great story, and a fabulous example. Itís the kind of thing that other non-fiction writers need to appreciate. Got another one?
WORSTER: [Laughter] I think that will do, for the moment. I havenít been to every place John Muir walked -- but I have been to a lot, as far away as New Zealand and Finland, and Africa.
Seeking "the Intellectual Origins of the Modern Conservation Movement"
GREGORSKY: Did you somehow replicate Powellís trip down the Colorado?
WORSTER: I didnít go down the Colorado in a raft, no. My bones are pretty fragile [laughter] and my wife wouldnít let me go down the river. But I spent a lot of time in that area. Iíve been down to the bottom of the canyon, of course. Iíve been to Leeís Ferry. Camped along the river, and been at Echo Park -- all these places, repeatedly, in a little pickup truck, with a sleeping bag in the back. I took a mule down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon -- just to see what it felt like being on an animal all day long; and to try to figure out what kind of pain this man mustíve been in with a severed arm that was still giving him grief. The amount of hours these people spent forked on a horse or a mule was phenomenal. We donít even think about it today, except in a recreational way.
GREGORSKY: And you found it to be -- ?
WORSTER: Agony. Maybe after a while you get used to it, with your legs all bowed out. But itís absolute agony to be on an animal for that number of hours, day after day.
GREGORSKY: On or near his grave, in 1902, these are the three words that John Wesley Powell got: SOLDIER, EXPLORER, SCIENTIST. Are those the three best words? Would you add one or two others?
WORSTER: Well, the "soldier" is not a particularly great word, although he kept the honorific title ("the Major") all the way through his life.
GREGORSKY: And he went back [into the Civil War] after losing the arm. The guy has incredible courage and/or commitment.
WORSTER: He did that. Iím just saying [the military service] was a relatively short period of his life. And so many Civil War veterans wanted to walk around with those titles.
GREGORSKY: It certainly helped when he needed a favor from President Grant [laughter].
WORSTER: Well, I wrote that book because Powell is one of the two great figureheads, or sources, of the conservation movement in the United States. I picked Muir and Powell because I really wanted to understand the intellectual origins of the modern conservation movement. Now, you could write many different lives to get at that. But these two, it seemed to me --
GREGORSKY: Theyíre like the Washington and Jefferson.
WORSTER: In many ways, they are -- theyíre the bookends. Powell had been much more forgotten, eclipsed by Gifford Pinchot [and] the Forest Service. But, as far as a kind of utilitarian, economic-oriented, resource-oriented conservationist, Powell is an extremely important figure that had been neglected (despite Stegnerís biography). And Muir clearly is the founding figure of the spiritual, the aesthetic -- the "deep ecology" attitude, if you want.
I was fascinated by the fact that both of them had such similar backgrounds. The children of emigrants from the U.K. Strong evangelical parents who settle in the Midwest, and have agricultural work as their background. Both of them leave that and go west in almost the identical year. John Muir arrived in California in 1868, while Powell is out in western Colorado planning his trip down the Grand Canyon [for 1869].
GREGORSKY: Hmmph [impressed].
WORSTER: For a while, I was calling this "two Johns looking for a good time in the West" [laughter]. And yet -- they end with very different experiences; very different outlooks, in some respects. Both contribute to a common movement, in a way -- but they are very different men. It brings us back to the fact that what we call conservation or environmentalism in this country is a very diverse movement. Even when you hold so many things steady, there are still important diversities here. People give different emphases.
GREGORSKY: When did Muir die?
GREGORSKY: So he made it through the entire Teddy Roosevelt adventure. Had "Wes" Powell been in better shape, and gotten to be 75 or 80, and been able to "do something" in and around the Roosevelt years, do you have a sense of how he wouldíve navigated that scene?
WORSTER: [Pause] Iíve never speculated on that. I probably shouldíve. He had already been marginalized [at the start of TRís Administration] particular by Gifford Pinchot and the forest people. Powellís approach to issues of national conservation was so different from Pinchot and his group that he wouldnít have had any kind of role in the Progressive programs of Teddy Roosevelt. By that point, Powell had gone off the deep end philosophizing. He was reliving stuff that should have died [laughter].
GREGORSKY: And renaming a lot of stuff, too [in that surreal 1898 book Truth and Error].
WORSTER: Yeah. So maybe he died at the right time.
GREGORSKY: But you spent 10 or more pages trying to wade through that book, trying to look for any nugget that might be there.
WORSTER: Well -- I was obliged to. Thereís a lot of stuff I waded through and put into the book that I expect other people to wade through. All those hearings, and Powellís life in Washington -- people have said to me "I loved your book until it got up to that point."
GREGORSKY: The Washington political part is the part I understood the best!
WORSTER: Well [laughter] -- you understood it; you might not have enjoyed it the most.
GREGORSKY: Okay, it doesnít have the drama of the first trip down the Colorado. But no one should study Powell and ignore the 20+ years of politicking in D.C. If youíre going to be a visionary or a social pioneer, you face the question of implementation.
WORSTER: Uh-hmm [agreeing].
GREGORSKY: "Can I change the law? Can I change the behavior [of the average citizen]? Can I leave a legacy that is more than the idea?"
GREGORSKY: And we have to give Powell enormous credit for going in there and plowing away at it [as a matter of federal policy].
WORSTER: Um-hmm. Well, you know, my view of writing a story like this is: You donít have to put everything in, but you have to put in everything that was important -- whether or not it was enjoyable to research or read, or for readers to go through. [Those Washington activities constituted] a crucial part of his life.
GREGORSKY: Did the publisher [Oxford University Press] try to get you to shrink the book?
WORSTER: No, they did not. Not once did they say "this is too long a book." But when I sat down to write the John Muir book and asked for advice, they said: "Well, you might consider making it a little shorter."
Who Best Helps Us Grasp Americaís Permanent Value System?
GREGORSKY: In both Dust Bowl and A River Running West, you talk about capitalism, almost always critically, and you refer to Karl Marx here and there. But you donít quite come out and say "we need to replace the economic system." Letís not get into that, because itís too complicated --
GREGORSKY: -- but what is your take on American individualism? And isnít that really, at least in your and my lifetimes, more so than any economic philosophy, our sort of "secular religion" in America?
GREGORSKY: Right. Whether itís freedom to do business, or make lifestyle choices, or Gen Xers showing their "attitude" -- as in: my right to dress the way I do at a job and you canít fire me -- it seems to me that individualism ties together all these harsh forces and trends rather than any economic theory.
WORSTER: Well, theyíre not separable. Most of our individualism in this country is economic individualism. In other ways weíre a very conformist society, when it comes to other kinds of behavior. Itís the individualism of private property, of fences, of economic self-reliance, of anti-government or anti-state. But itís not necessarily the individualism of unlimited free speech.
GREGORSKY: Have you listened to Howard Stern? I mean, stuff is broadcast now that people wouldíve been shot for when you were a kid.
WORSTER: [Laughter] I agree. And, in a broad sense, these are forms of classic "liberalism."
GREGORSKY: There ya go.
WORSTER: "The freedom of the individual."
GREGORSKY: Your writings make this look like a boon for pro-business conservatives. A lot of people on the left side of the spectrum are taking advantage of this so-called freedom trend, in addition to those [groups and agendas] you just listed.
WORSTER: Um-hmm. Oh yeah. The problem -- or, not "problem," but I think youíd have to say that, even though we [as a people] say we believe in individualism, or "freedom," or "liberty," it means very different things to different people. On the left, they want to control the economic individualism; and on the other side, they want to control the social behavior of people, get into the bedroom and so forth. But politically, this is still a deeply liberal society.
Younger readers need to know that by "liberal" Worster means the limited-government doctrines of Frederick Bastiat or Herbert Spencer or, more recently, Milton Friedman -- who spent 30 years advocating total legalization of drugs while some of my fellow conservatives treated him as a demigod. Friedman was no conservative; he was one of the most reckless and narrow-minded policy advocates out there. Actually, many of the ecological authors I have met come closer to the essence of conservatism, in the sense that they -- like Edmund Burke -- are skeptical of rapid change.
WORSTER: But I still want to talk about the word "capitalism" because I think it can be misunderstood. Iím not a Marxist. I canít imagine how anybody could [think that]. I quoted Karl Marx once, as a kind of smart-ass way to put it in the face of my fellow Kansans [laughter].
GREGORSKY: But Dust Bowl had me wondering: What is the author not saying here?
WORSTER: But, if you read the book, itís not a Marxist book.
WORSTER: I mean, the person that actually influenced me a lot more than Marx was Max Weber [1864-1920]. His view of capitalism was really much more a view of the culture of capitalism -- the economic culture, the mindset.
GREGORSKY: Is there a good biography of Weber? Iíve never been able to study him.
WORSTER: I donít know of any. But he seems to me to be one of the most profound thinkers -- and critics. And nobody who wants to understand the modern world can afford to miss reading Karl Marx. Karl Marx knew how the market economy worked, whether you agree with his conclusions or not.
GREGORSKY: I donít agree that he knew much of anything. His theory did not allow for change -- for movement between classes, and for feedback and flux. Those forces are basic to capitalism. Marx simply assumed people got things [typically by a sinister method] and kept them. His theory had major, major -- as in fatal -- weakness due to its determinism.
WORSTER: Well, who hasnít had major or fatal [problems when they think on that big of a scale]? But heís not where we would go today to understand [the capitalistic economy], particularly from an environmental point of view --
GREGORSKY: Where would we go? Besides Weber, who do you really like?
WORSTER: I would go back to people like [Robert Henry] Tawney, Joseph Schumpeter, and a whole series of people in the 20th century. I also think Heilbroner understood very well, in The Worldly Philosophers, precisely what kind of world this is.
GREGORSKY: I liked Heilbroner. [Thatís Robert Heilbroner, 1919-2005, the longtime socialist who wrote in The New Yorker the same year the Berlin Wall came down: "Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over. Capitalism has won... Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism." For an account of his best-known, and marvelous, book, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Worldly_Philosophers. For a profile of the Britisher R.H. Tawney, who lived 1880-1962, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._H._Tawney]
WORSTER: And none of them -- Weber, Heilbroner, Tawney, Schumpeter -- were simply anti-capitalist. They understood the material benefits, the innovative benefits, that capitalism had brought. As I think I do.
GREGORSKY: Yes. The great thing about [this Powell biography] is that, even when I know where youíre going politically, and Iím having trouble with it as a conservative, thereís always something that was said -- some statistic, some acknowledgment -- a few pages ago that would back up a more conservative view. So thereís the scholarly aspect of "telling a whole story" -- while you get to put your spin on it, which is fine, because itís your book.
GREGORSKY: I think that balance is maintained pretty well. Do you consciously do that?
WORSTER: No [smiling] -- I think itís because Iím a confused individual.
GREGORSKY: [Sympathetic laughter]
WORSTER: I grew up in a family that probably represents the classic American triad of God, Money, Flag -- and I donít repudiate all of that.
GREGORSKY: Did your kids turn out to be Democrats or Republicans?
WORSTER: Oh, theyíre pretty staunch liberal Democrats and environmentalists. My son works for the National War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and my daughter is a high-school biology and environmental-studies teacher in Oregon. So [chuckling] Iím proud of them. Theyíre different from me. My son believes more strongly than I do in free markets. He has me reading The Economist pretty regularly.
GREGORSKY: Most conservatives no longer view The Economist as a conservative publication. Theyíre wrong about the thugs who control Gaza, homosexual marriage, capital punishment -- and geez, they endorsed Kerry.
WORSTER: [Laughter] Well, itís British.
GREGORSKY: Twenty years ago it was my favorite magazine, but I canít stand it any more.
WORSTER: Well, Iím not going to renew my subscription, probably because I get tired about reading about what the hellís going on in Ghana.
GREGORSKY: Well, thank you, this has been wonderful. I will need your permission to insert extracts [from the Powell biography] -- backing up points in the discussion.
WORSTER: Sure, okay.
GREGORSKY: Plus, Iíll insert helpful links in the appropriate places. And thatís it.
WORSTER: All right, Frank, Iím glad we did this.
© 2008, Donald Worster
with Frank Gregorsky
From A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell
[E]verywhere they go [in Colorado, Utah and Arizona] the tourist hordes encounter the name and image of John Wesley Powell. He has been canonized by the National Park Service and by the Bureau of Reclamation, by outdoor writers and boatmen, as one of the greatest pathfinders in American history and as a prophet of what the West might still become. Celebrity and fame, to be sure, often obscure a more complicated reality. Powellís views of nature and technology, of economic progress, and even of railroads, were more tangled than we usually remember. He did not hesitate, for example, to use the railroad to join his exploring party. He called for building dams, for transforming the arid lands into an agriculture empire, although at the same time he extolled the wilderness and criticized ruthless corporations. To discover the man behind the celebrity, with all his ambivalence and contradictions, is to discover a more complicated America...
Powellís story is finally one of Americans confronting and learning to live with the land they came to possess. He knew as well as anyone the Colorado Plateau and its great chasm, as he knew the arid West, but he also knew much of eastern America -- together, a land as impressive as any on earth. He became a founder of the national movement to conserve the land, to adjust settlement and economic use to its limitations, and (more muted) to preserve its beauty and diversity for future generations... Even today, travelers pass on their way without knowing what kind of man this was -- his faults and weaknesses as well as his strengths and achievements. This book seeks to explore that intrepid pathfinder and his place in the canyons of Americaís past.
-- Donald Worster, reprinted with permission