Welcome to Idaho. We have ten major rivers, eighteen ski resorts, and fifteen people per square mile. We have hidden valleys where the wind pours through seams of aspens and makes a sound in the leaves exactly like the sound of rain falling on a pond. We have forests where the growing season is so short that fifty-year-old trees are only four feet tall, and get so rimed with ice in January that they look like gardens of oversized, glittering cauliflower. We also have an escalating methamphetamine crisis, looming water disputes, massive agribusiness feedlots, and hour-long lines to eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.
I’m very fond of Anthony Doerr’s fiction; he has a way of blending science, place, and humanity into gripping stories. And now I find his non-fiction does the same. You can read this essay online (it’s on Page 45 of the magazine, but it’s page 59 of the Issuu document).
I was a bit thrown by the changes in focus. We start out with a long view: Idaho. He zooms in close very quickly to the small, reclusive, and obscure band of Native Americans who lived with nature in these very parts, a hundred and twenty-eight years before:
They’ve been known by lots of names: Tukudeka, Sheepeaters, Toyani, Snakes, Arrow Makers. There probably weren’t ever more than a couple of thousand of them. They lived in caves, in clefts in the rocks, and in wickiups made of sticks. They wore snowshoes in winter, and their furs were expertly tanned. Sometimes, supposedly, they hunted while wearing the decapitated heads of animals. Their bows, painstakingly crafted by heating and laminating sections of sheep horn, were renowned; one witness describes one of these bows sending an obsidian-tipped arrow through a nine-inch pine tree at a distance of fifteen paces.
This particular group, related to the Shoshoni, are yet another tragic chapter in the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the expanding United States. I’m taking a World History course at the moment, so I’m recently steeped anew in the arrogance of the nineteenth century Caucasian taking what is desired from whoever might have it. But while this article does describe the conquest of what was likely the last free group of Native Americans in the Lower 48, Doerr looks a lot closer. And he looks at both sides, from an equally personal distance.
The diary entry of a soldier – one Private Edgar Hoffner, probably a very young man – notes his burial of one of his comrades, and his casual report of the burning of everything in a small Tudukeda settlement. Doerr reflects on this:
How do things get to the point where a person would think so little of burning the possessions of eight or nine families?
Any time you look for evil in an individual person, though, you’ll almost never find it….
And what about the settlers who demanded the Tukudeka be brought in? Isn’t it folly to judge them, too?… All their lives they’d pumped each other full of terrible stories: Indians were attacking wagon trains and burning children in front of their mothers; Indians were ruthless and inhuman assassins. By the late 19th century, the Tukudeka were probably more legend than reality, anyway; they were yetis, sylphs, bogeyman. Anything happened – a rancher was murdered, a horse was stolen, a pie disappeared off the windowsill – and who are you going to blame?
While this may seem the story of something that happened a long time ago, it doesn’t take much consideration to bring it into the present. At the time, the soldier didn’t think he was committing an atrocity. To the contrary, he probably felt he was helping out the settlers, acting in the service of his country and the grand and glorious thing called Manifest Destiny, something that seemed like a good idea at the time.
What is it that we’re doing, right now, that someone fifty or a hundred – or ten – years from now will look back on, and wonder how we slept at night? My in-laws, who were staunch liberals (they’ve now passed), used to tell me about how it seemed prudent, even necessary, to them to imprison (and that’s what internment was) Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. Not so long ago I was uncertain about whether maybe there really were WMD in Iraq. Things look different when everyone’s scared, or caught up in the fervor of mass patriotism. Does that excuse the excess committed in the name of safety? And when do we finally admit that perhaps what we’re calling “safety” is merely “expediency”? And that no one wants to be the one who goes down in history as the one who got it wrong, so everyone errs on the side of paranoia?
Doerr shifts focus again at the end of this very moving section, this very personal look at both the Tukudeka and Private Hoffner, zooming out to Idaho again, and even further:
Every life here, no matter how sequestered, no matter how impounded, is still informed by the land, for better or worse. And that for me is what Idaho continues to be about, this territory, this state, this country, the stripe of the Milky Way printed across a velvet sky and the silhouettes of mountains strobing in and out of view during lightning storms.
Everything – mammoths, short-faced bears, western camels – eventually goes extinct.… And there’s no reason to think it won’t happen to us, too; that, someday, some final band of humans will build signal fires among the rocks, and looked down at who or what ever has come to finish us off.
To be honest, I think the connection of the two ideas is tenuous. But maybe that’s because Doerr did such a great job drawing me in to the lives of the Tukudeka and Private Hoffner; I didn’t want to leave, to return to the present, to zoom out. Or maybe, not being nature-minded, I just went in a different direction from where Doerr went. Maybe that’s what a great essay is: it lets you live in a place you don’t want to leave, and links together the long shot and the close-up – the personal and the universal, or the inward-view and the outward-view – in ways that let the reader go far. Exactly where the reader goes, is up to her.