The West's Many Shades of Nativeness

'I'm a third-generation Coloradoan," the man tells me, leaning in close across the kitchen table inside his trailer home. "My people settled country down in southern Colorado." I read between the lines: "I belong here. Do you?"

Not really. I'm a newcomer to this part of the West - only five years in western Colorado. As such, I hold no title to this landscape, except with each passing day the dusty hills, the orchards, the coal mines, and the mountains feel more like home.

I think of telling him I'm a fifth-generation Californian, having been born in that state where my great-great grandfather settled the year after the 1894 gold rush. But people here don't think much of Californians. We are the latest invaders, and the cause of such ills as unaffordable housing and trendy coffee houses. No, I just nod.

My companion then surprises me. "You know, my wife and I are still considered outsiders in this community, and we've lived here 21 years," he says. "Unless your kids marry into one of the old area families, you'll always be an outsider."

That's why the West fascinates me: It's old and new at the same time, and there are as many shades of nativeness as there are varieties of broken-down trucks in its weedy back yards.

I remember several years ago when rural Western communities began passing ordinances proclaiming that livestock grazing, logging, and mining were their "custom and culture" and should be preserved by the federal land agencies. It was as if a child were stamping his foot and whining: "The West is mine because I got here first."

First is a relative term. I loved the editorial by a native American writer from Wyoming questioning the custom-and-culture crowd's sense of time. Why, she asked, should society declare the recent activities of European invaders the law of the land while ignoring the customs and cultures of native peoples?

The truth is the West has always been a place in motion, culturally and biologically. Before the mountain men gave way to the settlers, native tribes vied for turf and resources just as surely as the urban real estate developers and the people they serve now push around the "old timers."

The difference today - an important one - is the scale and speed of change. Within just one century, people from every nook of the US and around the world have discovered the West. And they have reshaped it with powerful tools, blocking and rerouting rivers, blooming the deserts, and sprawling suburbia across the land.

Yet the people - and I am one of them - still come, drawn to a region that appears wild and untouched next to the tamed habitats of the East. Firs and aspen still clad the mountains, descending to oak and juniper woodlands and sagebrush valleys. Native fauna, elk, coyotes, golden eagles, and rattlesnakes still abound.

But a closer look reveals a menagerie of recent invaders. Tamarisk, an Asian shrub that escaped the gardens of southern California, chokes thousands of miles in the Colorado River drainage. Spotted knapweed, cheatgrass, leafy spurge, and a host of other annual exotics, many inedible to cows and native wildlife, cover millions of acres of grasslands. I should feel at home among such company, yet part of me wants to fight the invaders, too, like the loggers and ranchers. How can the West accommodate so many newcomers without losing its identity?

As a child, my family moved every few years on the trail of my father's corporate career. We were American weeds. Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia all were home. And yet, they never were. Family, not place, defined my home, which may be why I still long for a homeplace.

I often take my children to the cemetery on the mesa above town. We look out over the valley and wander among the graves, reading the names of families who toiled to become natives of this place. I wonder if my children will want to stay here or whether they will drift elsewhere, like windborn seeds in search of new ground.

Last spring, a carpet of tulips sprang up in the cemetery, sprinkling the ground beneath the ancient cedars with brilliant reds, whites, and pinks. The living, the dead, the native, the introduced. It looked as if it had always been that way.

* Paul Larmer lives in Paonia, Colo., population 1,500.

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