Second Nature

Jonathan Raban

The de-landscaping of the American West

When I was seventeen in 1959, the lake was as wild a place as I knew. My friend Jeremy Hooker and I would arrive there at around four a.m. in early summer, ditch our bikes in the tangle of rhododendrons, and pick out the narrow path by torchlight as we tiptoed, in existentialist duffel coats, through the brush. Still a long way from the water, we moved like burglars, since we attributed to the carp extraordinary sagacity and guile, along with an extreme aversion to human trespassers on its habitat. Crouched on our knees, speaking in whispers, we assembled our split-cane rods. In the windless dark, the lake’s dim ebony sheen was at once sinister and promising. Somewhere out there, deep down, lay Leviathan, or at least his shy but powerful cyprinid cousin.

Our style of fishing was minimalist – no weights, no float, nothing but a hook concealed in a half-crown-sized ball of bread paste, attached to 150 yards or so of nylon monofilament. Though the fish in the lake ran to 20lbs and more, our lines were of 6lbs breaking-strain. The carp, we believed, had eyes so keen that it would baulk at nylon any thicker than gossamer 2X, soaked in strong tea to camouflage it on the muddy bottom. Before first light, and the first woo-woo-woo-wooing of a wood pigeon in the trees, like a breathless child blowing over the neck of a bottle, we’d cast our baited hooks far out, settle our rods between two forked twigs, and squeeze a bead of paste on to the line between the open reel and the first rod ring. A quivering movement of the bead would signal that a carp was showing interest in the bait. The rest was watching, waiting, taking gulps of hot coffee from a shared flask, smoking Anchor cigarettes, and talking in a conspiratorial murmur about books and girls.

The lake slowly paled, with helical twists of mist rising from the water. As the sun showed through the woods, a big carp jumped, crashing back like a paving stone dropped from the sky and leaving behind a pin-sharp, reminiscent after-image of olive and gold. We strained for signs of moving fish – the sudden flap of a disturbed lily pad, or a string of tiny bubbles filtering to the surface – and, tense with expectation, willed the telltale beads to tremble into life.

We nearly always had the lake entirely to ourselves. It was out of bounds to the boys in the prep school, a converted Queen Anne manor, in whose estate it stood, and we regarded it – and the permission we had from the headmaster to fish there – as our exclusive privilege. The lake was no more than two acres at most, but, with its resident water rats, moorhens and wagtails, its visiting herons and kingfishers, and its enormous, mysterious fish, it felt like a sufficient world, magically remote from Lymington, Hants, a few miles to the west.

As often as not, the carp disdained our bait, and we’d leave at mid-morning, five Anchors apiece for the worse, but on good days, usually after hours of waiting, the bead of paste would twitch, then stop, then twitch again. This could go on for half an hour or more. The carp – with its big, lippy, toothless mouth – is a leisurely feeder: it rootles along the bottom, vacuuming up silt; swills it about in search of delicacies, then ejects the muddy mouthful like a wine taster using a spittoon. The bead would rise an inch or two towards the first ring, and sink slowly back. Then, either nothing at all would happen, or, at last, the line might begin to slide steadily through the rings, uncoiling from the open face of the fixed-spool reel. That was the moment to strike – to lift the rod, engage the pick-up on the reel and find oneself attached to what felt like a speeding locomotive as the carp ran for the deep, the rod bent in a U, the taut line razoring through the water. Of the fish we hooked, most were quickly lost when they jumped, doubled back or buried themselves among the lilies, but sometimes we’d have a thrilling twenty-minute battle, never seeing the carp until the last moments, when it flopped, exhausted, over the rim of the extended landing net. Out of its element, it looked prehistoric, like a paunchy coelacanth; its armour of interlocking golden scales glistering in the sunshine, its great mouth framing an O of astonishment and indignity at its capture. Still jittery from our encounter with this creature from a netherworld, we’d unhook it, weigh it and return it to the water.

Jerry later wrote a fine poem about these expeditions, titled ‘Tench Fisher’s Dawn’ (there were tench in the lake, too, though they evidently interested him more than they did me), whose last line reads, ‘Then, casting out, we’re suddenly in touch.’ In touch with what, though? Nature was how it felt at the time, an engagement with the wild. But in England, nature and culture are so intimately entwined that their categorical separation is a false distinction. At the lake at Walhampton, the two were fused. The rhododendron jungle where we hid our bikes was made up of species introduced to England from the Alps, North America and the Himalayas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Carp were first imported from Eastern Europe in the early thirteenth century. Until the monastery’s dissolution in 1539, Walhampton was one of the many outposts of the powerful Augustinian priory of Christchurch, Twineham. The lake was certainly artificial – probably a later enlargement of a monastic fish pond – and our fat carp were the direct descendants of the exotics farmed by the monks, or so I like to think now. The surrounding woods were sculpted by ‘improvers’ in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. We were fishing in the deep waters of several hundred years of patient engineering, cultivation, fish husbandry and landscape gardening – not first but second nature.

As the word itself says, landscape is land-shaped, and all England is landscape – a country whose deforestation began with Stone Age agriculturalists, and whose last old-growth trees were consumed by the energy industry of the time, the sixteenth-century charcoal- burners; where the Norfolk Broads – now in danger of becoming an inlet of the North Sea – are the flooded open-cast mines of medieval peat diggers; where the chief nesting places of its birds are hedges, many of which go back to hawthorn plantings by the Saxons; where domesticated sheep have cleanly shaven every hill; where coverts, coppices and spinneys exist (or existed until the ban) as subsidized amenities for the fox-hunting brigade; where barely a patch of earth can be found that hasn’t been adapted to a specific human use.

The English have a genius for incorporating industrial and technological change into their versions of both nature and the picturesque. It’s hard now to imagine the wholesale wreckage of the countryside by huge gangs of Irish navigators, otherwise known as ‘navvies’, as they dug and tunnelled their way through England during the canal-mania period of the Industrial Revolution. But spool on another century and a bit, and the canals – still busy with commercial barge traffic – had become symbols of all that was green, pleasant and tranquil in the land.

When my father was abroad in North Africa, Italy and Palestine during the Second World War, my mother kept him supplied with a series of slender books, printed on thin, grainy war-issue paper and illustrated with evocative wood engravings, about British churches and cathedrals, pubs, cottages, ancient market towns, gardens and scenic byways, designed to remind the patriotic serviceman of the world he was fighting for. One book in the series, brought home to Norfolk by my father in 1945, and a particular favourite of mine, was devoted to the canals of England and their locks and bridges, now solidly established as key items in the paraphernalia of conventional English pastoral.

Many city children of my generation got their first experience of nature courtesy of the Luftwaffe, when bombed-out houses were transformed into little wildernesses of thistle, teasel, willowherb and loosestrife. Redstarts and other birds nested in crannies in the ruins, among staircases leading to nowhere, peeling wallpaper and upper-storey fireplaces, still with ashes in the grate, now open to the sky. The bomb sites, where I yearned in vain to be allowed to play, appeared to me to be immemorial landscape features, full of character and mystery, and one of the major attractions of family visits to London, Liverpool and Birkenhead in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Or one might look at Turner’s astonishing Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (exhibited 1844), whose rendering of elemental swirl and tumult makes it close kin to his Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth… (1842). But where the earlier painting shows the paddle wheeler all but overwhelmed by a hurricane-strength wind and terrifyingly steep cross-seas, the train in Rain, Steam and Speed is not the victim of the wild weather but its apparent prime mover. To the peaceful, lately sunlit arcadia of Maidenhead, with its plough, scarified hare and the unruffled Thames below, where two figures are seated in a punt (gudgeon fishing, I suspect), has come this roaring Boanerges, son of thunder, raising a perfect storm. On the final page of his J.M.W. Turner: ‘A Wonderful Range of Mind’, John Gage asks, ‘Has the railway desecrated the beautiful stretch of the Thames it crosses here at Maidenhead?’ But it’s surely clear from the painting that Turner loves the locomotive, with the blazing inferno of its firebox eerily exposed. He paints the newfangled intruder on the landscape as a force of nature in its own right. Gage remarks on the ‘light-heartedness’ of the picture’s imagery; its wittiest touch is that the gudgeon fishers, if that’s what they are, don’t even bother to look up in wonder at the transcendent marvel of their age. But then they’re English, born to a casual phlegmatic acceptance of astounding alterations to the landscape, and perhaps the train and Brunel’s great flat-arched viaduct have already been absorbed into their sense of the natural order of things. If you’re bred to living in second nature, it’s relatively easy to find room in it for a Firefly-class steam engine alongside the gudgeon and the plough.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1990, I felt at a loss. Accustomed to living in England’s secondary nature, I had difficulty reading a landscape in which so much primary nature showed through the patchy overlay of around 140 years of white settlement and enterprise. Hunting for a workable analogy, I tried to see myself as a visitor to Roman Britain at the end of the second century, taking in the new cities, the network of paved highways, the agricultural estates and military installations, superimposed on a land lightly occupied by tribal people. But that conceit was flawed: the British tribes had permanently altered the land with mines, farms, forts, and ritual and funerary monuments long before the Romans came, while the Northwest Indians left few visible traces of their 12,000-year habitation. West of the Cascade Range, where wood rots fast in the soggy climate, the Indian past faded continually behind the ongoing present, like the dissolving wake of a cedar canoe. Artefacts like painted chests, ritual masks and wall hangings survived, but whole towns were reclaimed by the forest within a generation, leaving little more than overgrown shell middens to mark where they’d stood. Wherever the land was significantly shaped, or ‘scaped’, the work appeared to have been done just recently – a spreading accumulation of raw concrete, pressed steel, brick, sheetrock, telephone poles, pavement, fencing, neon, glass and vinyl, scattered in piecemeal fashion across a nature whose essential bone structure of mountains, lakes, forest and sea inlets was still so prominent that the most ambitious attempts to build on and subdue it looked tentative and provisional.

Living in Seattle, one would have to entomb oneself in the basement to avoid the view. On clear days, the snowy bulk of Mount Rainier, high as the Matterhorn, towers over the city, which squats on the edge of Puget Sound, more than a hundred fathoms deep. The lower slopes of the Cascades to the east and the Olympics to the west are thickly furred with forest, or the appearance of forest (for most of the visible timber is actually second- or third-growth ‘tree farms’). Black bears and cougars forage in the suburbs; threatened Chinook salmon flounder through the shipping on the Duwamish Waterway, struggling upstream to spawn and die; from my window, less than two miles north of downtown, I watch bald eagles on their regular east–west flight path over the Lake Washington Ship Canal; a walker in this city can see killer whales breaching, California sea lions hauled out on docks, beavers, coyotes, opossums, foxes, raccoons.

Nearly four million people live in the coastal sprawl of metropolitan Seattle, and there can be very few cities of its size where it’s so easy to feel like a trespasser on the habitat of other creatures, and to be uneasily aware that those creatures, given half a chance, would quickly regain possession of their old freehold. Squint, and you can imagine the wood-frame houses collapsing into greenery, and large mammals denning in abandoned malls. It’s hardly surprising that the urban Pacific Northwest is home to a strain of radical environmentalism whose aim is not just to conserve what’s still left of nature in these parts, but to dismantle the machinery of industrial civilization and restore large tracts of country to the wild.

Whenever a bridge on a forest road washes out in a winter storm, a lobby springs up to demand that the entire road be condemned. Some dams are being breached to return rivers to the salmon, and many more are targeted for demolition. The movement, supported by a string of court victories, to prohibit – or drastically restrict – logging, mining and livestock grazing on public lands has steadily gained momentum over the last decade, even though the Bush administration and – until January 2007 – the Republican-controlled Congress, have fought to unstitch the environmental legislation of the Clinton years. Gray wolves, fishers, wolverines and grizzly bears – all species that survive here in minuscule numbers at present – are being reintroduced. (In the case of the widely feared grizzlies, Canadians are making the reintroductions in British Columbia and the undocumented bears are immigrating into Washington state.) At present, two bills making their way through Congress will soon add 200 square miles of mountain lakes, old-growth forest and river valleys to existing ‘wilderness areas’ within an hour’s drive from Seattle. As the Wilderness Act of 1964 put it: ‘A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’

This is landscaping in reverse. Its main advocates are politicians, activists and non-profit foundations in large coastal cities such as Seattle and Portland, Oregon, who argue that the rise in ‘quality of life assets’, created by such wilding of the countryside, can amply compensate for the loss of jobs in traditional rural industries such as logging, mining, ranching and farming. ‘Nature’ and ‘Solitude’ – those Emersonian essay titles – have a potentially higher cash value, say the conservationists, than horizontal trees or pockets of natural gas trapped in the coal seams underlying a beautiful mountain pass. When land is designated as wilderness, property prices immediately increase in its vicinity, and so does the flow of cash brought into the area by campers, hikers, hunters, fly-fishermen, snowshoers and mountaineers.

For the economist in a city office, it’s a simple transfer of figures from column to column, from Agriculture & Industry to Services & Retail Trade: if the loss in one is equalled or exceeded by the gain in the other, nobody should have cause for complaint, at least in the long run. But that’s not how it’s seen in the country, where the fast-advancing cause of wilderness has been met with very modified rapture.

To the loggers and farmers, man-the-visitor-who-does-not-remain is just another tourist; a member of a breed much disliked in the rural West for its presumed wealth, ignorance and disdain for the concerns of people who work the land instead of using it as a weekend playground. Hundred-year-old lumber and market communities, faced with the prospect of a radical shift in their economies, can see the future all too clearly in the shape of the ‘gateway towns’ that rim national parks like Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite; those desolate strips of competing motels, minimarts, gas stations, gift shops and fast-food outlets. Whatever these places may once have been, their only business now is to make the beds, pump the gas, serve the meals and wash the dirty linen of the tourists – occupations in which there’s money but little dignity.

And it’s the assault on their dignity that so offends the country-dwellers: the treatment of the logger, proud of his skilled and dangerous job, as a reckless vandal; the subordination of rural work to the recreational interests of urban sportsmen and nature lovers; the assumption of intellectual superiority by city-based environmentalists, with their mantra of ‘best available science’, routinely abbreviated to BAS. The West is in the middle of a furious conflict between the city and the country, in part a class war, in part a generational one, which has significant political consequences.

In the 2004 general election, every city in the United States with more than 500,000 inhabitants returned a majority vote for John Kerry. The election was won for Bush and the Republicans in the outer suburbs and the rural hinterlands. Much was made of ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’, but the great rift was between the blue cities and the red countryside. Environmental politics, in the form of fervent local quarrels over land use, were at the heart of this division. Beneath the talk of Iraq, health care, terrorism, gun control, abortion and all the rest lay a barely articulated but passionate dispute about the nature of nature in America.

Forty miles east of Seattle, the crest of the Cascade Range, punctuated along its length by snow-mantled volcanoes, runs north to south, dividing Washington state into two regions. Crossing from one to the other over a mountain pass, you experience in minutes a violent change of climate and culture, as the inky green of Douglas firs, mosses, ferns and salal suddenly gives way to shale, sagebrush, juniper and piñon pine. Annual rainfall plummets from around eighty inches a year to ten or less; incomes and house prices drop; on the car radio, the news on National Public Radio fades into a drizzle of static, its place quickly occupied by a gospel or Spanish-language station. In the newly moistureless atmosphere, the light turns hard and clear, collapsing distances, so that the entire Columbia Basin, an area larger than France, seems to make itself visible all at once: a web of branching canyons, intricate as a leaf skeleton, threaded between bare whaleback hills.

On old maps, it shows as part of the ‘Great American Desert’ – an arid, treeless expanse, home to jackrabbits and rattlesnakes, fit for human use only for its mineral deposits and as an open range for sheep and cattle grazing on the sage and bunch grass. But the Columbia River and its tributaries, laden with snowmelt from the Cascades and the Rockies, flowed through the canyons, and the pillowy basalt uplands – solidified streams of the molten lava that coursed from the mountains during their formation – were coated
in fine wind-blown silt, or loess; soil in which almost anything would grow if it could be moistened with water from the rivers. What would turn into one of the most grandiose landscaping projects on earth began in a modest, ad hoc way, as nineteenth-century white settlers built diversion dams and sluices, and dug canals and ditches, tapping the nearest river for irrigation by using the same minimal technology with which Mesopotamians watered the Iraqi desert from the Euphrates, and the Hohokam Indians of Arizona periodically flooded their parched flatlands on the Gila and Salt rivers 1,500 years ago.

In the national mythology, it’s the quintessential American experience to arrive in a wild and inhospitable place, bend raw nature to one’s own advantage and make it home. So the land encountered by the Columbia Basin settlers was an American classic: mile upon mile of twiggy sage, spread over bald and shadeless hills, broken by sheer cliffs of fissured rock.

Near the junctions with the Columbia of steep, fast-flowing streams, settlers built weirs to channel water into irrigation ditches that hugged the contour lines and eventually, after a serpentine journey around the countryside, discharged into the main river, several hundred feet below the level of each weir. These ‘highline’ canals, most of them financed by railroad companies and consortia of city businessmen, opened broad swathes of land for cultivation. Sagebrush was ploughed into fields, fifty-dollar windmills were installed to pump the water to the soil and the lower canyons were transformed into a quilt of farms and orchards.

From the beginning, the US government watched over such private-enterprise schemes like a jealous parent. In the federal imagination, the watering of the dry West presented a fantastic opportunity, at once ideological and practical. The region was still best known for its mining camps, its migrant cattle and migrant men, and for wide-open towns whose success was measured by the number of their saloons, brothels, casinos and murders. Irrigation, on a scale far beyond the means of the private sector, would turn this barely governable land into a settled agrarian democracy – a society of family farmers with family values, beholden to the government for their good fortune. When the National Reclamation Act was passed in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt called it ‘one of the greatest steps not only in the forward progress of the States, but in that of all mankind’ and forecast that ‘communities flourishing in what is now the desert finally will take their places among the strongest pillars of our Commonwealth’. Reclamation of the soil would bring about a greater reclamation – of morals, manners and citizenship.

The Act’s sponsor, a Nevada congressman named Francis Newlands, envisioned that 60 million acres of arid wilderness would eventually come under the plough. The enormous cost of irrigation would be paid for by the sale of public lands to homesteaders on ten-year mortgages. To stop the corporations – especially the railroad companies – from making a government-subsidized land grab, each family would be limited to a maximum of 160 acres and would have to prove permanent residence on their farm.

The plan had the charm of a perpetual motion machine: it would produce a continuously revolving fund of money from a limitless supply of at present useless land, and generate a steadily expanding tax-base of prosperous small farms. It would tame the lawless West, ease overcrowding in the eastern cities, feed the hungry and enrich the nation – all at no cost to the taxpayer. It was the quintessential politicians’ dream.

The new US Bureau of Reclamation sent out teams of geologists to scour the West for possible sites for dams, and involved itself in a multitude of schemes, most of which ran awry as irrigation works fell behind schedule, costs overran, and farmers went broke trying to meet their monthly payments on the proceeds of scanty harvests. In 1923, the Secretary of the Interior admitted that, ‘Reclamation of arid lands by irrigation from Government funds…is failing on a majority of projects.’ Although successive presidents, including Hoover and Coolidge, talked up the federal dream of landscaping the West, it wasn’t until the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, more than thirty years after the passage of the Newlands Act, that the big dams, so long promised, at last began to take real shape.

In 1933, the first concrete was poured at the Boulder Dam across the Colorado River on the Arizona–Nevada border and work started on the Fort Peck Dam across the Missouri in Montana, and the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia. ‘We are in the process of making the American people “dam-minded”,’ Franklin Roosevelt said at the Grand Coulee site in 1934, where the sheer gigantism of the project made the dam a symbol of national regeneration in hard times. ‘The largest structure ever undertaken by man,’ Roosevelt called it, and a New York Times reporter, travelling with the presidential entourage, tried to convey to his readers the immensity of the Grand Coulee, first in familiar New York terms – ‘a structure that will be higher than a forty-storey building, longer than four ocean liners the size of the Queen Mary, and almost two city blocks in thickness’ – then in terms of the extraterrestrial: ‘It stretches across the Columbia like the crenellated wall of a giant fortress built to withstand the artillery of some super-warriors from Mars.’

It took eight years to build, the urgency of its completion mounting every year as conditions in the dust bowl worsened and more than 100,000 homeless farm workers and their families streamed into Washington state. Some found work as labourers on the dams, others as seasonal fruit pickers in the orchards around Wenatchee and Yakima; they set up home in smoky encampments along the Columbia Valley, living in tents, plywood shanties and cardboard boxes. More bold promises were made: irrigation would create farms of ten to forty acres, where half a million refugees from the agricultural catastrophes to the east could be resettled and their self-respect restored.

In 1941, when the dam was finished and the first hydroelectric turbines spinning, the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency, hired Woody Guthrie to sing its praises, giving him a month-long contract, a chauffeur-driven Hudson and a $266.66 pay cheque. The short, sparrow-weight folk singer was known to the FBI as Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, a Communist Party sympathizer, whose guitar soundboard carried the message, in big letters, this machine kills fascists. For four weeks, Guthrie was driven up and down the Columbia between the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, during which time he was reported by his driver to have never changed his clothes or taken a bath: ‘Poor guy had BO so bad you could hardly stand it.’

If his songs are to be believed, Guthrie’s usually sardonic take on the world melted in the face of the Columbia Basin project. ‘This is just as close to heaven as my travelling feet have been,’ he sung in ‘Roll, Columbia, Roll’, and seems to have persuaded himself that something not far short of a socialist utopia was dawning in the Pacific Northwest. In a homely voice, pitched midway between a croak and a yodel, he extolled, in ‘Pastures of Plenty’, the electrification of rural America – lighting farmhouses, powering factories and mills, and the greening of the desert.

Guthrie wrote: ‘I saw the Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam from just about every cliff, mountain, tree and post from which it can be seen’ – vantage points from which that other panorama, of penniless rural nomads in their Hoovervilles, unfolded all around him. Many of the songs, including ‘Talking Dust Bowl (Washington Talking Blues)’, are phrased from the point of view of the ‘Okie’ travelling man, wistfully imagining a settled future on a watered plot, his crops sprouting all around him.

But these songs were thick with cautiously subjunctive ‘woulds’ and ‘coulds’ because the irrigation scheme – Grand Coulee’s original main purpose – had already been shelved. More than a year before Pearl Harbor, the US government decided that, in view of the ‘national defence emergency’ created by the war in Europe, only the hydroelectric function of the dam could be justified for the time being, and the green pastures of plenty would have to be put on hold until the end of the war.

Hidden in a cleft between hills of unreclaimed sagebrush, its presence signalled only by converging lines of skyscraper-high transmission towers, the Grand Coulee Dam still has the power to astonish. The front of the dam – where Guthrie admired ‘the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray’ – is dry now, a stained and weathered concrete cliff, over which the engineers release water from Lake Roosevelt above the dam only for son et lumière shows, put on for tourists on summer nights. Wedged snugly into the landscape, the Grand Coulee has become a period piece, like the Mussolini-era railway stations that are its close contemporaries.

Though many other dams have since been built across the river – between the Bonneville Dam, upstream of Portland, Oregon, and the Grand Coulee, there are now eleven dams in US territory, plus a further three in Canada – the Grand Coulee is still the Columbia Basin’s haunting genius loci, the prime shaper of its landscape, and the hulking embodiment of the idea that man’s mastery over nature had reached such a degree that he could work transformative miracles of the kind traditionally performed by gods: water into megawatts, desert into garden, wilderness into civilization.

It wasn’t until 1950, under the presidency of Harry Truman, that the great federal irrigation scheme at last got under way. Nearly sixty years on, Truman, Guthrie, both Roosevelts and a string of presidents in between, would be astonished by the appearance of the rural wonderland they conjured into being in songs and speeches. On a recent drive across the Columbia Plateau, I had Guthrie singing on the CD player as I took in mile after bullet-straight mile of country whose desolate character remains obstinately unsoftened by no end of technological ingenuity and agricultural enterprise.

The roads run north to south and east to west, one mile apart in each direction. Aside from the occasional line of irrigated poplars, planted as shelter belts, the only verticals in the landscape are telephone poles; otherwise it’s like a gigantic sheet of graph paper. For this one must thank Thomas Jefferson who, in the 1780s, inaugurated the marvellous eighteenth-century rationalistic scheme of taming unruly American nature by imposing on it the ‘township and range’ system.

From an arbitrary point on the Ohio River, where it crosses the western boundary of Pennsylvania, surveyors were to map their way across the rapidly expanding territory of the United States, dividing it into ‘townships’, each measuring six miles by six, and further subdivided into thirty-six ‘sections’ of one square mile apiece. Section 16, near the centre of the notional township, three squares down from its northern limit and three from its western one, was to be set aside for the purposes of public education. In effect, Jefferson flung out a potentially infinite graticule across thousands of miles of as-yet-undiscovered country, planting phantom towns, each with its schoolhouse or college on every Section 16, wherever it might fall – on the craggy top of a mountain, or the muddy bottom of a lake.

Although actual townships never conformed to Jefferson’s grand plan but grew up for the usual reasons – because they were on a river, a cattle trail, a railroad, or, later, an interstate highway – the survey method, with its six-mile squares and square-mile sections, has improbably continued into the present. Wherever you are, in wide-open prairie or deep forest, you stand in a numbered section of a numbered township. Roads hew to the lines of the speculative graticule, paying no attention to contours, which makes driving in the West feel like being on watch aboard a ship on automatic pilot, locked to a rigid compass course. I was going south, on a road named ‘QNW’. Longitudinal roads were designated by letters, latitudinal ones by numbers: if one could count and spell, it was impossible to get lost on this dusty tableland, now more geometry than nature.

Each field occupies a full section – a 640-acre square, watered by a half-mile-long centre-pivot sprinkler, making a perfect circle of green or chocolate-brown in the pale-olive desert. The computer-controlled sprinklers, driven by electric motors, trundle slowly round and round on wheeled undercarriages, taking a day or more to complete a single circuit. The fields’ edges are strewn with the handiwork of the water engineers: pipes and spigots, squat pumphouses, lateral ditches and canals that, even after all these years, still look like rawly excavated trenches in the earth.

Miles of this flat, robotic agriculture separate farmhouse from farmhouse – a far cry from what was envisioned in 1952, when a lottery was opened to Second World War veterans, who had first dibs on eighty-acre parcels of irrigated land, each just one-eighth of a section, for an initial investment of $4,600. The federal planners were incorrigible sentimentalists, still clinging, in the mid-twentieth century, to that peculiarly American mythologization of the small farmer as the fount of human goodness and the small farm as the essential building block in the atomic structure of democracy. ‘Farmers are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,’ wrote Jefferson. The planners saw the Columbia Plateau as an organic society of pocket-sized family farms, like an epic Robert Frost poem, full of salt-of-the-earth types mending walls and fences, planting seeds, their long two-pointed ladders aimed at heaven through the trees.

What actually emerged was an enormous tract of government-subsidized agribusiness, a monotonous and lonely landscape dedicated to the mass production of such valuable items as the fast-food frozen French fry. Within the federally regulated area of the plateau, the family farms quickly swelled to a dozen times their original size, while on its fringes the agricultural corporations moved in during the 1970s and 1980s, to piggyback on the federal project, using cheap federal electricity to pump cheap federal water over farms whose acreages are measured in the tens of thousands. One barely credible statistic: in 2001, the New York Times reported that Columbia Basin farmers were paying $1.50 per megawatt of electricity at a time when a megawatt was commanding a price of $375 to $400 on the open market.

Sharing the narrow roads with eighteen-wheeler refrigerated trucks, catching intermittent glimpses of the Columbia River, flanked by sheer cliffs of dark basalt, nearly 1,000 feet below the plateau, I thought of how I’d been brought up with the quaint idea that cultivation gives a human shape and scale to the land. But this land seemed now less friendly to the human than when the farmers first arrived. The rectilinear severity of its roads and its vast identical fields of beet and potatoes robbed it of distance and perspective. Its chief architectural feature wasn’t the farmhouse but the ‘facility’ – the white metal shed, spread over the best part of an acre, where the vegetables were processed and packaged in the loading bays full of eighteen-wheelers, lined up hull to hull. From these grim facilities came French fries – machine-cut, parboiled, pre-fried, flash-frozen – along with tinfoil sachets of instant mashed potato and the rubbery, vermicular tangles that pass for hash browns on the breakfast plates of every chain restaurant at every freeway exit in America.

I stopped for lunch at Mattawa, a familiar-looking grid of bungalows and trailer homes, just big enough to support a supermarket and high school. servicios en espanol said the signboard by the Mormon tabernacle, an unnecessary piece of information since everything in Mattawa was so obviously en Español – the Catholic church; the grocery-cum-video store; the hair salon; the laundromat; the family clinic; the rival taquerias, La Popular and El Jato, where a Mexican soap opera was turned up to full volume on the TV.

Mattawa was a displaced barrio, more than 1,000 miles from home, with the melancholy air that displacement brings. Its per capita income, as I later found out, is around $7,500 per year; a minimum-wage town, and typical of the Spanish-speaking settlements scattered over the plateau. Where the town peters out near the Shell gas station, the facilities begin: one is a potato-packing plant, one makes malt from barley, a third produces compressed hay cubes for cattle feed. They are all owned and managed by Anglos, with Mexican, Guatemalan or Mexican-American workforces. During the picking season – from May to September – the Hispanic population doubles, as truckloads of migrant labourers pour into the Columbia Basin, filling spare rooms and run-down cheap motels, with many living in encampments hardly distinguishable from the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.

From the Mattawa restaurant, sucking on a bottle of Pacifico beer, waiting for tamales to arrive, it was hard to conceive that such gigantic investment – of rhetoric, sentiment, rural nostalgia, as well as now incalculable billions of public money – could have resulted in a farmscape so characterless and bleak, the majority of whose inhabitants appeared little better off than the dust-bowl refugees for whom this land had been designed as an agrarian sanctuary.

The map made me stop at Desert Aire, six miles south of Mattawa. It lay right on the river’s edge – a powerful lure – but what interested me most was its street plan. According to the map, it was a maze of culs-de-sac and crescents, with hardly a straight line in sight, in defiance of the universal reverence for the austere grid. It boasted an airstrip with a limp windsock and a narrow, looping golf course that functioned as the town’s main street. The buildings were mostly ‘manufactured homes’, ready-made houses in an assortment of styles – ranch, Queen Anne, New England colonial – that had been trucked out to the site and craned into place. Started by a developer in 1970, Desert Aire looked as if it had failed so far to take root; its curvy streets empty of people, its front yards neat but bare, a social experiment in a waste of sagebrush that was still in its beta-testing stage.

I drove down to the river – or to what had once been the river. A line of immature poplars shadowed a beach of thin shale. A rectangle, the size of a modest building plot, had been roughly excavated to create what the sign above it said was a marina, which held a single short pontoon but no boats. The beach fronted a mile-and-a-half-wide stretch of inert, tea-coloured water, formerly the Columbia. A couple of miles to the south lay the pale concrete ramparts of the Priest Rapids Dam.

Before the dams, the Columbia was one of the great rivers of the world. Black-and-white photographs (handily collected in William D. Layman’s River of Memory: The Everlasting Columbia) show it in its glory – its tumbling falls, narrow chutes, white-water rapids, whirlpools, slow, reflective deeps, changing continuously in character from mile to mile. On one page, it’s a level drift through a fringing forest of willows, cottonwoods and alders, its surface lightly patterned by arabesques of current; on the next, it’s a torrent of boiling milk.

As each dam went up, the river rose behind it, drowning its natural banks. Sandbars, islands, trees and farms went under. Where it had once thundered, it suddenly fell silent. People euphemistically renamed the dead water between the dams as ‘lakes’; at Desert Aire, I was standing on the beach of Priest Rapids Lake. But it wasn’t a lake; the best that could be said for it was that it was like an urban reservoir, a holding tank to supply water for irrigation and energy to drive the turbines inside the dams. From each dam, lines of pylons marched every which way over the bare hills, like gangs of thieves making off with their swag, robbing the Columbia of its life in order to sell corporate farmers electricity at the laughable price of $1.50 a megawatt.

For conservationists, the salmon is the paramount symbol of life in the river and the courts are full of ongoing litigation brought on the salmon’s behalf – especially the case for demolishing the dams on the Snake River, the Columbia’s biggest tributary. But as a sometime carp fisherman, I have another fish in mind – a creature bigger, stranger and more deserving of wonder than the salmon, which has the conformist mentality of a drudge on a commuter train, as it travels en masse between fresh water and the ocean. My candidate is the Columbia white sturgeon.

Somewhere down at the bottom of Priest Rapids Lake, grubbing its way in near darkness through the sludge, there must be a surviving sturgeon or two – a fish that might have sprung from the imagination of a myth-maker, its size and power commensurate with those of the Columbia River itself before humans destroyed its upper reaches. The sturgeon can grow to twenty feet long, live for more than a hundred years, and weigh up to 1,800 lbs. It has small myopic eyes, the streamlined build of a pike or a U-boat, with a tapering snout from which trail four whiskery barbules, and hose-like lips which it extends, concertina-style, to savour likely morsels. Its only true bones are in its head; its body is a mass of cartilage and muscle, armoured with rows of interlocking, diamond-shaped, razor-edged plates. It’s an opportunistic eater, foraging on plants, live and dead salmon, shrimp, lampreys, shellfish; one sturgeon, caught on the Snake, was found to have scoffed a bushel of onions, and pictures of trophy sturgeon, taken before strict size limits came into force, make their grinning captors look as if they should have been the fish’ lunch.

Before the dams, sturgeon were anadromous, swimming freely between the river and the sea, spawning many times during their long lives, unlike Pacific salmon, which spawn once and die. Below the Bonneville Dam, where there’s a healthy sturgeon fishery, that’s still true; but above it, the fish are trapped, too big to negotiate the ladders used by the ever-decreasing runs of salmon, and their numbers are shrinking fast. There are monster sturgeon that were striplings in their thirties when the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were built. Trying to recreate whatever dim, ichthyotic memory they may have of fast-running water, they hang around the spillways of the dams at spawning time and lay eggs in the shallows there, some of which actually hatch into fry. But these landlocked sturgeon, trying as best they can to adapt to their changed circumstances, are slowly losing the fight against extinction.

At Desert Aire, I spent a half-hour studying the water through Polaroid dark glasses like a fisherman, methodically searching each quadrant for rising strings of telltale bubbles, dark submarine shadows, distant humps or swirls. But no fish – sturgeon or otherwise – stirred. The water appeared lifeless except for occasional patches where it was frosted by a temporary and feeble breeze. It’s said that sturgeon, like carp, sometimes spontaneously fling themselves skyward. Suppose, on a still night, a spry, eighteen-foot nonagenarian were to leap for the stars: the ensuing crash would scare Desert Aire’s entire population out of their beds. That would be something to see.

A little way beyond the Priest Rapids Dam, I crossed the Columbia on a road trending south-west, which led through the most undisturbed ‘brush-steppe’ habitat in America, where no range cattle intrude on the sagebrush dotted with wild phlox, evening primroses and Piper’s daisies, the unchallenged territory of mountain elk, mule deer, bobcats, coyotes and porcupines. Peregrine and prairie falcons ride on thermals overhead. For thirty miles, one sees the land as it was on the Columbia Plateau to the east, before ranchers – then irrigators and factory farmers – changed its face for the worse. Even the road – State Route 240 – has natural bends in it, to conform with the swell of the hills.

‘Fat Man’ did this. The plutonium that powered the bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, immediately killing 40,000, was manufactured at the Hanford Engineer Works. The Manhattan Project required a site remote from human habitation, with access to unlimited supplies of water and electricity. Everything necessary was here, where the Columbia made a crooked dog’s-leg swing to the east, then north, then south, to frame a level stretch of country the size of Hertfordshire. The riverbank farmers were evicted and the place was code-named Site W.

From the road, there wasn’t much to see beyond the prohibitive barbed-wire fencing: the cluster of white buildings, six or seven miles off, looked like an innocuous farm town; they might have been grain silos, barns, a water tower, a church. More buildings tapered in the haze to the east, but nothing in view helped one to imagine the real scale of the plant, which, by the summer of 1944, employed several thousand more people than Fat Man killed, and which went on to make its specialized contribution to the US nuclear arsenal for another forty years.

Hanford is routinely described as the most polluted nuclear site in the nation. Some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste are stored in underground tanks, all of them obsolete, many of them leaking, and clean-up workers keep on finding unexpected burial grounds for irradiated reactor fuel along the west bank of the river. The business of decontaminating this lethal dump began in 1989, shortly after it stopped producing weapons-grade plutonium. Every year, the estimated costs rise, and the deadline for completion – when the waste will be vitrified into glass and safely removed – is projected further into the future. At present, that date is 2048; in a year or two, no doubt, a further decade will be added to it.

Yet the secrecy and danger of the site kept irrigation, farming and hydroelectric schemes away from the river and made a nature reserve of the land, which in 2000 became, by presidential proclamation, the Hanford Reach National Monument. So the A-bomb restored more than 600 square miles of what used once to be orchards and farms to at least the appearance of the wild, and left the Columbia to flow relatively freely between the Priest Rapids Dam and the McNary Dam, fifty-one miles downstream. But it’s a spooky kind of wild, where the razor-wire security fence and the black-trefoil-on-yellow-ground danger sign are part of the furniture, and the jackrabbits are lightly irradiated with trace amounts of radioactive iodine-129.

I drove on to Richland, at the junction of the Yakima River and the Columbia, once a small farm town, then a dormitory for workers on the Manhattan Project, and now, attached to its close neighbours – Pasco and Kennewick – part of a charmless urban agglomeration known as the Tri Cities. This is a sixteen-mile sprawl of malls, parking lots and high-rise offices, through which the two rivers flow as mere impediments to their more perfect union. At my first attempt to find the centre of Richland, I overshot, and found myself on the wrong side of the Columbia, in Pasco. On my second, I landed up in Kennewick. On my third, I clung to the west bank of the Columbia and found a hotel room that overlooked the river. My ambition was to see it move.

But an evening wind had sprung up and the ruffled tan water looked no less reservoir-like than it had done at Desert Aire. There’s a drop of seventy-five feet along the Hanford Reach – not much over a length of fifty miles, but enough to impart life and motion, and make it by far the best salmon-spawning ground on the dammed section of the river. Disappointed, I took myself off on a tour of Richland, looking for somewhere to eat that was neither a Red Robin, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Arby’s or Jack in the Box, nor a chain restaurant catering to conventioneers, and came across the local high school. What was one to make of a city whose high-school sports teams call themselves the Richland Bombers, and proudly wear a logo consisting of a capital R superimposed on a pluming mushroom cloud? After a long search, I found a small bistro tucked inside an unpromising-looking office complex, where, over the best bowl of Ukrainian borscht I’ve ever tasted, I wondered if Richland had many visitors from Nagasaki.

Shortly after dawn the next morning, I went down to the river to take another look. The air was perfectly still, and thin spirals of mist were rising from the glassy surface, just as they used to do at Walhampton. Inshore, the water was dead, but close to midstream, 150 yards out, the current showed in a scribble of lines and curlicues, bright silver in the early sun. Some way upstream, I heard the splash of a jumping fish and saw the concentric ripples it had left behind turn oblong as the river’s thrust distorted them. A late-running fall chinook, probably, still trying to rid itself of sea lice. To get to Richland, it would have had to struggle up the ladders of four hydroelectric dams – a killer journey that only a small minority of fish survive. Safe now in Hanford Reach, it would spawn and promptly die. After salmon-spawning time on Pacific Northwest rivers, the stench is terrible, the gravelly shallows full of putrefying corpses, but the smell – strong enough to make one gag – is a measure of the river’s health, and in recent years it’s grown steadily fainter as more and more salmon runs, including that of the Columbia chinook, are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Immediately south of the Tri Cities, where the Snake River joins the Columbia, commercial river traffic starts. Grain barges, bound for the container terminal in Portland, Oregon from as far inland as Lewiston in Idaho, pass through the locks that are built into the eight dams on the combined Snake–Columbia navigation. The busy road along the Columbia’s east bank was lined with wharves and with facilities belonging to industrial agriculture giants such as J. R. Simplot, ConAgra and AgriNorthwest. As I turned east, into the valley of the Walla Walla River and its dozens of small tributary creeks, marked by winding lines of cottonwoods, farmhouses were suddenly within hailing distance of each other. Fields came in all shapes and sizes. A horse at grass stood in the shade of an old tree. At the foot of the sagebrush hills and canyons lay exactly the countryside – the multicoloured patchwork of family farms – that the apostles of irrigation had designed and legislated for the Columbia Plateau. But what federal laws and money could never achieve was this kind of untidy, impromptu landscape, which had been settled by white farmers since the 1850s, and now might almost be mistaken for a stretch of rural Kent.

The cause for this change of character, and the source of the multitude of creeks, were the cloud-stopping Blue Mountains to the south and east. Low by the standards of the mountainous West, the Blues rose to around 5,000 feet – sufficient to increase the rainfall from six or seven inches a year to ten, eleven, twelve, just over the dividing line that separates ‘semi-arid’ from ‘arid’ land. Irrigation is still necessary, but it is of a piece with the landscape, small-scale, improvised. I stopped by one irrigation ditch, so narrow that I could almost have jumped across it, and watched clear water burbling over the lip of a shallow home-made weir. Its grassy banks were still – at the turn of October into November – speckled with wild flowers.

I had an appointment with Rick Small, a winemaker whose vineyard was in the hills to the north of the valley. When I could afford them, I’d much enjoyed his Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignons, boutique wines that start at $40-plus a bottle, and are scored in the 90s by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. I parked the car outside the nineteenth-century farmhouse where Woodward Canyon has its tasting room, and rode with Small up from the green valley into the bare hills to his vineyard.

‘My wife hates this bit,’ he said, as the truck took a tight corner, and hurtled up a narrow rutted track, roaring in first gear and raising a storm of brown dust behind it. The land was ‘rolling’, but the word conveys a gentleness entirely absent here. These hills rolled as a gale-torn sea rolls, in lurching peaks and troughs. As we kept on climbing, sage and thistle abruptly gave way to terraces of trellised vines on a slope as steep as the face of a wave. We stopped at the summit, beside three big water tanks, and Small liberated his young German shepherd from the cab.

Below, his forty acres fell away from the south-east to the south-west, tracking the daily path of the sun. The vines, brown now, were decorated with streamers of silver foil to scare the birds. Here and there, a bunch of unpicked grapes remained, their skin wrinkled but their taste still fresh and sweet. Rick Small, lean, bald and buff, dog capering around his heels, led me through the terraces. My local wine merchant in Seattle had told me that Small was an ‘enthusiast’ – an understatement. ‘I was born to do this,’ he said. He’d grown up on this land, where his grandfather and his father had been wheat farmers. In 1981, when the Washington state wine industry, now second to California’s, was still barely fledged, he planted his first vines.

I said that wine grapes must be the last remaining crop from which a good living in these parts could be made on such a tiny acreage.

‘So long as you have vertical integration. If you grow your own grapes, make your own wine, and be your own sales rep, yes, forty acres can make economic sense – all that, plus the passion for it. And patience. It may take twelve, fifteen years to get an idea of whether a grape is planted in the right place.’

On the excavated sides of the terraces, he showed me how unevenly the loess had settled on the basalt underneath. In places, the layer of silt was seven or eight feet deep; elsewhere, just a few inches. I rubbed a pinch of loess between forefinger and thumb; it felt as fine and smoothly lubricant as talc. A crumbled fragment of basalt was riddled with small bubbles – pockets of 10 or 15-million-year-old air, trapped when the immense, successive tides of molten lava rolled over the Columbia Basin, covering it to a depth of up to 16,000 feet.

Small’s Merlot grapes liked to be featherbedded in an ample layer of silt, and the tone in which he mentioned this had in it a faint but distinct hint of moral disapproval. What he wanted me to admire was the Spartan fortitude of his Cabernets.

‘See? It’s practically growing straight from the rock. It’s amazing. The silt’s so thin there that you’d think nothing would grow. But that’s cab. Not much fruit, and they’re rooted quite far apart, but look at that determination. It’s do or die.’

It was in this spirit that he kept his vines thirsty. We were standing on a latitude exactly midway between that of coastal Bordeaux and inland Burgundy, and I asked him if – given France’s generous rainfall – he’d take it as a blessing or a curse.

‘I can manage my moisture – that’s a great part of being here.’

The well at the bottom of the slope went nearly 800 feet down. The water was then pumped another 300 feet up to the tanks on the summit, from where Small dribbled it down to his vines in a measured prescription. ‘Half a gallon an hour for five to eight hours every eight days.’

Too much irrigation brought bigger crops, fatter grapes, more juice, less skin. ‘It’s what a lot of people like, but not me. The wine has flavour, but no concentration. My ideal is small berries with a big ratio of skin to juice. My best Cabernet vines are fifteen years old – just half a ton of grapes to the acre in a good year, which is way low by industry standards, but it’s what I like to see.’

Despite his high scores from Parker, he deprecated the trend towards Parker-style ‘New World’ wines – big and bold, all fruit and power. He wanted his own wines to have restraint, subtlety and the word he repeated several times, ‘concentration’.

‘How local is terroir here?’ I said, swimming somewhat out of my depth. ‘In a blind tasting, could you recognize the grapes from this vineyard from everyone else’s?’

‘I might have difficulty with Walla Walla Valley, but I could easily tell them from Yakima Valley, Columbia Gorge, or Horse Heaven Hills.’ Each was a separate Columbia Valley appellation, or AVA, a federally licensed American Viticultural Area.

‘And can you describe the taste?’

‘Herb, with nuances of tobacco, berry and cassis.’

I wasn’t sure if this was a straight answer, or if he was ribbing me for saying ‘terroir’. What I did cherish was his ‘flavour without concentration’ – a crisp, non-pseud description of a lot of wines I’d glugged down without much caring for.

No pesticides or herbicides touched his precious loess. Every terrace was hoed and weeded by hand. ‘It’s all about sustainability.’ He was proud of the fact that he was now employing the sons of the Hispanic men who’d worked for him when he first started the vineyard. ‘Sustainability again.’

I was admiring his plantings of native shrubs, like juniper, on the land around the terraces. Everything fitted – this was landscape-farming that moulded itself closely to the shape of its original nature. ‘It’s perfect here,’ I said, looking down over the valley to the forested Blue Mountains in the distance.

‘I love this place’s violent history,’ Small said, meaning the lava surges and the catastrophic, Noachian flood that had swept through the Columbia Basin in the last ice age, some 13,000 years ago. The flood had been caused when a huge glacial lake in what is now Idaho and Montana had broken through the ice plug at its western end and poured into the basin as a racing wall of water nearly 1,000 feet high, scouring the valley to bare rock. It had left behind low hills in the shape of giant ripple marks, dry coulees, cataract cliffs and plunge basins, and the Martian ‘Channeled Scablands’ that had drawn NASA scientists here to investigate the terrain that the Vikings would meet when they touched down. It had also left behind Rick Small’s favourite found object on his property, a lump of granite the size of a small chest of drawers. ‘My erratic.’

The boulder had once been trapped inside a floating berg. When the flood receded and the ice melted, the alien granite found a home on Small’s vineyard. One side was a sheer plane, the rock sliced through as cleanly as if it were cheese. ‘See those scratches there, how straight they arefi The ice did that. I had a geologist from the university come out here to look at it. He told me exactly where in Canada it came from. It’s kind of inconvenient where it is, but I’d never move it. It’s part of the history of the land.’

At the north end of the vineyard, the rising, roller-coasting hills of sagebrush steppe went on for as far as one could see.

‘So this was the last farm.’

‘Oh, no, all this was wheat. Dry-farmed, no irrigation. It paid some years, but just about everybody went bust.’ Pointing to the hills, he named the farmers.

I looked more closely, but couldn’t see a single fence post trailing strands of rusting barbed wire. There were no collapsed barns or abandoned ploughs, nothing to suggest that here had once been homesteads, farm tracks, fields. No doubt a botanist would have corrected me, but all I saw was pure natural habitat, sage-grouse country, as it must have looked when the first white settlers showed up in the Walla Walla Valley.

If the market for perfectionist, expensively produced wines were to collapse, Rick Small’s vineyard would fade back into the wild in the course of one generation, perhaps two. Hanford’s plutonium factory will take a little longer only because of the toxic horrors buried in its grounds. From there, it needs no great exercise of the imagination to see the canals of the Columbia Plateau run dry and its mega-farms revert to sage.

Here’s the difference between British and western American ways of seeing nature. Each time I drive through England on a visit, fresh blots on the landscape present themselves to my conventional eye: business parks, new estates, a motorway under construction, an expanded airport. But, as one does, I have a definite yet arbitrary line drawn in my mind between the undesirably modern and the immemorial. That line is recent – not much earlier than about 1900, or about the time the car arrived on the scene. A reflexive nostalgia for the antique is hardwired into my brain. Old stuff, however junky or ugly when it was first made, takes on value because of its age alone: the small thatched cottage with crooked windows, which began life as a miserable human sty, is a Grade II listed building now.

So I take indiscriminate pleasure in the packhorse bridge over the canal, the drystone wall, the field still marked by the medieval ridge-and-furrow system, the blackthorn hedge, the wooden stile, the now-dry communal village pump, the straight-line Roman road, the Neolithic tumulus, the one-track lane overarched by trees, the distant Victorian (or any other period’s) spire – all equally immemorial and to be cherished because they represent ways of living on and changing the land that are all either long gone or as good as gone.

But here, where the lust for the antique is no less keen than in Britain, the true antiquity is wilderness. Old mining towns, chasing tourist dollars, deck themselves out with false storefronts, wooden boardwalks, faux shoot-’em-up saloons, but nobody’s fooled. The real thing – the pricelessly antique antique – is deep forest, the river running wild, the open prairie. There is no second nature here to fall back on, only an either/or choice between nature as it was before we came and the dreck we’ve piled on it in the recent past.

In the dry and lightly populated West, for all the ranching, farming, logging, mining, damming and city-building that have gone on for the last century and a bit, for all the immense expenditure of public and private money lavished on its development, Americans have altered the land less immutably than the Romans, Saxons and Normans altered the face of England. Most of what has been done here still looks like a recent project, a work in early progress, that could yet be stopped.

In 1987, Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University made a shocking proposal in a short article for Planning magazine, in which they suggested that the Great Plains, lying west of the 98th meridian and stretching from the Canadian border down to Texas and Colorado, should be returned to the buffalo. ‘The small cities of the Plains will amount to urban islands in a shortgrass sea,’ they wrote, calling their scheme ‘Buffalo Commons’. The article was greeted with outrage by the Plains farmers. The Poppers were threatened with assassination (it didn’t help that they came from, of all places, urban New Jersey). The idea was so extreme and sweeping that many people took it as a joke in bad taste. Yet twenty years later the article is still discussed, and the Poppers remain unrepentant. As rural depopulation continues on the Plains, especially in northern states such as the Dakotas and eastern Montana, they see their idea as being vindicated by history. In 2004, Frank Popper said that the article was originally meant as ‘a metaphor for the environmental and ecological restoration of a lot of the Great Plains’, and that he and his wife had been astonished by the enormous audience it had attracted. ‘There is no question that some form of the Buffalo Commons will happen. We believe it is a done deal.’

That such a proposal could be entertained at all is a measure of how lightly white civilization still sits on nature in the interior West, how precarious is its tenure here. It’s as if the land itself whispers that everything could be otherwise, that it’s not too late to change, which is the vision that haunts the radical environmental movements.

Only in the West could one look at the Columbia Basin and so easily reshape it in one’s mind’s eye. Why not dynamite every dam on the Columbia and the Snake? Take down the power lines? Resettle the cities? Free the sturgeon and the salmon? Reopen the plateau to the elks and wolves? Farming would go on along the banks of the rivers, as it did before the federal government began to dream its grandiose dreams, but, for the most part, the land would soon go back to its immemorial state as sagebrush steppe, a tract of near-wilderness larger than any country in western Europe.

Of course it would wreck the US economy. It would send electricity prices rocketing, drive the local inhabitants to (probably armed) revolt, and mobilize the multinational agricultural and mining corporations to jam the courts with litigation for decades. The point is not that any of this is likely to happen, but that it’s conceivable that it could. And people do conceive it, as the Poppers conceived the Buffalo Commons.

The idea of home as a temporary habitation is built into the folk psyche of the West. Most of the farmers who settled in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas in the teens of the twentieth century eventually starved out and moved on. Loggers and miners were itinerants, accustomed to striking camp every few months or years. Driving through the West, it’s common to see houses mounted on the flatbeds of beflagged tractor-trailers, each off on a journey to a new site in another state.

In 1981, Norman Tebbit, then Mrs Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Employment, caused an outcry when he told the jobless in the north of England to ‘get on your bike’ and look for work elsewhere. The remark deeply offended the instinctive English sense that attachment to one’s place of birth and its known landscape and society is a moral right. People may move away of their own volition, but they cannot be cruelly ordered to get on their bikes.

It’s different here, where people are in the habit of getting on their bikes many times in the course of their lives. One’s local patch of soil is rarely an ancestral tenancy, going back through the generations, but rather a perch from which one may at almost any moment flit. That the demolition of the four dams on the lower Snake – an issue that’s now being fought through the courts – would drive many farmers from their land is of no great concern to the conservation groups that have brought suit, because upping sticks and moving on has always been the way of the West. Let them be compensated, and go farm – if they must – somewhere else. Get over it.

So the hankering to wild the West persists, and I suppose that the project of restoring the Columbia Basin to nature would be hardly more gigantesque and unrealistic than the federal project of filling it with human population. For a start, one might post billboards around the perimeter of the Tri Cities (population 168,000) to remind everyone living there that, in the fine words of the Wilderness Act, man is a visitor who does not remain – the unsettling truth that westerners know already in their bones.

The Tree of the Cross