Book overview: The Backbone of The World

615220There are some books I re-read every few years. Books that seem to impart new lessons or something to contemplate every time I read them.  

I re-read River when I am (again) struggling with trying to balance a yearning for outdoor places while trying to maintain a career, pay bills and putting food on the table. Wilderness Ethics speaks to me in these days of increased connectivity and wilderness-as-a-bucket list. And of course, Cadillac Desert (unfortunately) resonates more and more with each passing year.

And one of the books I tend to re-read every few years is The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of a Vanishing Way of Life Along the Continental Divide by Frank Clifford

Published in 2003, the themes of the book perhaps resonates more now over a decade after it was first released.

The book has the yearning and romanticism of River, poses the questions asked by Wilderness Ethics and touches upon some of the environmental issues of Cadillac Desert.

The American West and the region around the Continental Divide is a storied area with a certain culture and history embedded within the American mythos.

And in 2015, that culture, history, and mythology are clashing with the sensibilities of the inhabitants of the “new West:

Families with colonial-era Spanish land grants seeing what they perceive as their ancestral land being taken for the National Forest.  The Blackfeet Nation taking umbrage being told they should not drill on their own land. Sheepherders and ranchers clashing with hikers and other recreation users. And so on.

These discussion seem to come down to the perennial quandaries in the American West: Recreation vs direct economic use of the landPreservation of the dwindling resources vs using them in a sustainable manner.

Of course, as the population increases along or near the Continental Divide, these conflicts will only continue to grow.

Clifford, in my opinion, has an apparent affinity for the inhabitants living around the Continent Divide. Specifically, those who live in a traditional manner vs. the more recent white collar recreationists (such as myself) that are now arguably the primary users and economic drivers of the land:

DeVargas [logger in New Mexico and activist] exposed a weakness at the core of the environmental movement, its own version of the expatriate’s syndrome. What do you do when the natives -poor, indigenous people, don’t behave the way you want them to, when they insist on cutting down old growth forests or killing whales or drilling for oil in a wildlife refuge? How do you reconcile love of nature with the reverence for tradition or sympathy for the downtrodden?  [emphasis mine]

I don’t know the answer.

When you are providing for a family, a lucrative logging or mining job is much more attractive than working in a gift shop selling tchotchkes to tourists.  The loggers or miners aren’t thinking of what they are doing to the environment I suspect. They want a job that will allow them to buy a home, put food on the table and heat in the home.

Growing up, I do not think our father was thinking of the potential of  the weapons he constructed during his career. It was a way to find steady  work in the otherwise declining (even then) industrial base of Rhode Island.  Perhaps not too different from finding jobs in the boom-bust logging, mining and energy cycle of the American West.

But Clifford does not take a naive or completely romantic view  of the traditional use of the West. It is a region devoted to independence, solitude and not needing government interference yet

“No region of the country is more devoted to the myth of the rugged self-sufficiency, none more dependent on federal largesse, none more contemptuous of the hand that feeds it.”

It is an overall balanced book on the “new” West and all the conflicts involved in it. Clifford may sympathize with traditional inhabitants and use of the American West (and nearby Canada), but he takes a realistic view of the impacts this lifestyle and economic use may have on the land itself.

It is one thing to hike through the land. It is another thing trying to understand the history and culture of within the land itself. The Backbone of the World is a book I suggest reading on the way to this understanding.  I still have a ways to go myself…but books like this help.

Ultimately, I think the book is one of hope. The book ends with Clifford and his guide semi-seriously contemplating a trip further up the Canadian Rockies.  The open spaces may be transformed by the oil fields in the region, but the land endures.

As a Wyoming rancher stated:

“Do you believe in heaven?” she asked me one day out on the prairie. “Because I don’t see how it could be better than this.”.  She spread her arms as if to take in all 10,000 square miles of the great gray, green desolation around us.  “No,” she said. “I don’t see any need for heaven”.

Spend some time on the Continental Divide. Enjoy the land. Try to understand the conflicts currently happening. But, above all, appreciate that this area of North America is indeed a little slice of paradise.

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Drew Smith
Drew Smith
8 years ago

Thanks for the helpful review. I’m going to download it right now.

Drew Smith
Drew Smith
8 years ago

Finished it. An excellent read, much better written than the vast majority of trail/mountain writing. The opening chapter made me fear that Clifford would be another instant redneck like Annie Proulx. But the succeeding chapters showed him to be sympathetic but no romantic. There certainly was no shortage of personal, familial and community dysfunction in his descriptions of the Divide’s inhabitants. Good stuff.