Why Culture Matters

The day I realized I am a Westerner, I was in New York City. I was visiting family in my hometown and bent down to talk to my three-year-old in what felt like a miniature grocery store aisle. Crouching among tiny, packed shelves and tiny, packed shopping carts, I understood: I am at home in wide open space. I am a Westerner. In the midst of what is arguably the cultural capital of the country, I understood that my identification with the West is shaped not only by its landscapes, but by its culture. The stories of Stegner and Abbey, the art of Remington and Moran help explain me to myself. Of course, culture matters more than just as a reflection of identity.  It also conveys values, questions norms, and celebrates life.

Though the West is more urbanized than most of the country, with more of each states’ population living in cities than not, many of us in the West are here because of its big open skies, majestic mountains, cold running streams, sublime and spectacular deserts. From the words of Ivan Doig and Terry Tempest Williams to the transcendent light-play of Douglas Snow and Bonnie Posselli and the soaring dynamics of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir our literature, art, and music illustrate these landscape qualities and express their value. If you live in the West, chances are that you feel connected to the land in some way, that you identify with a relationship to it whether as a steward who tames it to use its raw materials, a steward who strives to conserve its most natural state, a recreation enthusiast reveling in wild places, a pilgrim seeking solace and spirit—or a combination of the above. The identity you take reflects how you value the landscape, and the stories you tell, read, and share about it convey the values you hold. Culture matters because it is the vehicle for sharing our values and shaping our identity.

In addition to conveying values, culture illustrates and even questions norms. As America’s nineteenth century cities grew more industrial, writers, artists, and musicians looked west for inspiration, and in the process changed American identity by incorporating the heroes and hardships of the American West. It was the last frontier, the last place settled by Europeans—and for good reason. With annual precipitation sometimes a quarter of that typically received east of the Mississippi River and strewn with unnavigable rivers and canyons, the West didn’t offer much promise of successful settlement. The literature shaped by the West shows an evolution of identity and values. Mark Twain explored the ruggedness of the Western landscape and the people who settled and developed it despite its crushing difficulties. John Muir suggested that the wild places being conquered held other benefits, some more spiritual than material. Edward Abbey went further, arguing not only that wild places are a spiritual resource but also that our land management practices are destroying them. Today, writers such as Timothy Egan and Erica Olsen contemplate both the desolation of destruction and the still point of hope that can lead us to new ways of living with the land.

Indeed, living with the land is the crux of our culture here in the West. And celebrating our place-based culture adds richness to our lives. Beginning September 28 and 29, the Utah Humanities Council brings the Utah Humanities Book Festival to the Salt Lake City Library and venues across the state throughout October, giving every Utahn the opportunity to participate in the creation of our culture.

-Kirsten Johanna Allen

About Torrey House Press

Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature.   We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. By building and engaging community in the conversation of conservation, we make our contribution to, as Wallace Stegner hoped for, a “society to match the scenery." THP books are distributed by Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, a subsidiary of Ingram Content Group.
This entry was posted in Kirsten, Literature and the Environment, Nature Writing, Publishing, West, Western Lit and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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