SEEING THINGS WHOLE Edited by William deBuys

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from AmazonBuy from KoboBuy from IndieBoundBuy from Collected Works

Edited by William deBuys

John Wesley Powell was an American original. He was the last of the nation’s great continental explorers and the first of a new breed of public servant: part scientist, part social reformer, part institution builder. His work and life reveal an enduringly valuable way of thinking about land, water, and society as parts of an interconnected whole; he was America’s first great bioregional thinker.

SEEING THINGS WHOLE presents John Wesley Powell in the full diversity of his achievements and interests, bringing together in a single volume writings ranging from his gripping account of exploring the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon to his views on the evolution of civilization, along with the seminal writings in which he sets forth his ideas on western settlement and the allocation and management of western resources.

The centerpiece of SEEING THINGS WHOLE is a series of selections from the famous 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region and related magazine articles in which Powell further develops the themes of the report. In those, he recommends organizing the Arid Lands into watershed commonwealths governed by resident citizens whose interlocking interests create the checks and balances essential to wise stewardship of the land. This was the central focus of John Wesley Powell’s bioregional vision, and it remains a model for governance that many westerners see as a viable solution to the resource management conflicts that continue to bedevil the region.

Throughout the collection, award-winning writer and historian William deBuys brilliantly sets the historical context for Powell’s work. Section introductions and extensive descriptive notes take the reader through the evolution of John Wesley Powell’s interests and ideas from his role as an officer in the Civil War through his critique of Social Darwinism and landmark categorization of Indian languages, to the climatic yet ultimately futile battles he fought to win adoption of his land-use proposals.

SEEING THINGS WHOLE presents the essence of the extraordinary legacy that John Wesley Powell has left to the American people, and to people everywhere who strive to reconcile the demands of society with the imperatives of the land.

  • From the Introduction

    Powell emphasized two things that many of his contemporaries, especially westerners, found troubling. The first was that the lands of the West were not an empty stage that westering Americans could people and build upon as they wished. The land had limits, Powell said again and again, and one of them was its aridity, which the settlers of the region would ignore at their peril. Many people, westerners and would-be westerners, from homesteaders to senators, did not like that kind of talk. It sounded too negative for what seemed to be a boundless American future, a future in which the West, as everybody knew, would play a central role. Still, they listened to Powell, and they almost adopted what he advocated because he was clear, he knew the facts, and he had the authority of a proven national leader. In the Civil War and later in his explorations of the Colorado River, Powell had stared death in the face, fed it his right arm, and then defied it again by riding a nine-hundred-mile cataract through territory known to the rest of the world only by rumor, legend, and tiny scraps of fact.

    In 1869 when Powell embarked with nine men and four boats on his exploration of the Colorado River, the little that was known about the downstream country only magnified the great deal that was conjectured: the canyons of the Colorado River country abounded with difficulty and peril. To enter was to risk all. Powell did not hesitate a moment. He fairly leapt in, beat the odds by a hair, and he not only came out alive, but returned to society with hard-won wisdom. Although celebrated for his achievement, he became more than a celebrity. His adventure followed the arc of an American Jason or Odysseus. By the standards of both myth and history, he was a genuine hero.

    The second troubling thing Powell kept saying was that the way in which people settled the West would have irremediable consequences. Provide the wrong institutions, the wrong systems for survey and land tenure, the wrong basis in law for holding water rights, and the result would be harvests of suffering, betrayed ideals, loss of wealth, and the erosion of democracy. Powell was right about this too, and probably even his enemies at some level knew he was right.

  • From Part VI, "Advice for the Century"

    Powell tended to see the connectedness of things in social as well as ecological terms. The most revolutionary of all his conceptualizations is his idea of watershed commonwealths, of which he envisaged the formation of as many as a hundred and fifty, and it is here that we encounter the greatest difference between the Century articles and the Arid Lands report. The earlier report called for the formation of numerous grazing cooperatives structured similarly to irrigation districts, and it would have placed timberlands under the control of "lumbermen and woodmen." By 1890 Powell's view of how best to govern western lands and resources had changed. In the third of the Century articles, "Institutions for the Arid Lands," he states clearly that "the plan is to establish local self-government by hydrographic basins." He has enlarged his unit of organization from local cooperative associations to entire watersheds—perhaps because he realized that he had earlier asked for more in the way of voluntary self-organization than the public was willing or able to give. Perhaps also because he realized the value of creating broader, diverse management units whose interlocking interests would act as checks against resource abuse.

    In the 1890 articles Powell's understanding of the interrelationship of lands within the political unit has also advanced. He calls for the management of all three major land classes (as he defined them: irrigable, pasture, and timber lands) to be integrated under the control of each commonwealth. Wisdom would rule the use of those lands—or at least have a chance to rule it—because decisions would emanate from "a body of interdependent and unified interests and values." The commonwealths, as Powell explained in his address to the Montana Constitutional Convention (see Selection 11), would be roughly equivalent in political heft to counties, which they would replace. They would administer grazing and timber lands as a kind of commons, held for the benefit of all within the commonwealth. Interestingly, however, Powell would not have the commonwealths receive title to these lands, lest they sell or otherwise dispose of their commons and break the unity of relationships binding the lands in a whole. Instead, the United States, would retain sovereign ownership of the commons of the Arid Lands, and would serve as their trustee, holding the lands in perpetuity for the benefit of the commonwealths.

    This is a remarkable vision and well worth considering today in the early years of the twenty-first century. Institutions for the management of public lands in the American West continue to evolve, albeit slowly. In most of the region, the level and intensity of public involvement in the development of management goals, if not decisions, continues to increase. Although no two formulations of the latest managerial grail — "ecosystem management" — seem to be exactly the same, most of them trend in the same direction—toward recognition that no long-term management regime, however technically correct or grounded in the "best" science, is likely to succeed without public support and understanding. Accordingly, nearly all such undertakings claim to seek a high level of public involvement and a strong sense of local ownership, watershed by watershed. It is hard to avoid the impression that matters are headed, albeit falteringly, in the direction that Powell urged more than a century ago. Much of the western landscape is still held in trust by the federal government. Watershed polities have rarely been formed, but in recent years watershed-based interest groups, some with a modicum of government sanction and varying levels of clout, have become an increasingly common feature of the political landscape. They have come into being for the simple reason that Powell said they must: because problems touching society's relationship to its environment do not obey the limits of arbitrary political boundaries. When those problems are contained, they tend to be contained or confined bioregionally, and watersheds are the simplest of all bioregional units.

  • "This is a superb selection of the most important writings of the great American explorer, scientist, and conservationist. Powell's name has often been evoked over the past century, but few people have had access to the full range of his vigorous prose. Now deBuys has given us an exceptionally good introduction to the man, his ideas, and his America." —Donald Worster, author of A River Running West: The Life Of John Wesley Powell

    "Powell remains the preeminent interpreter of the American West. Many of his most important writings are little known and, until now, have been largely unavailable. This compilation, with skillful editing and commentary by William deBuys, is an essential book for anyone who ventures west of the hundredth meridian." —Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, 1993-2001

    "As John Wesley Powell's ideas have become steadily more relevant to today's West, the need for direct access to Powell's own writing has become critical. William deBuys has filled that need superbly by choosing the best of Powell's work and surrounding it with his own thoughtful and sparkling commentary. No western bookshelf can now be complete without this book." —Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West

    "'The Essential Powell' indeed. This exceptional man and his accomplishments are essential to our understanding of the American West, and now William deBuys has given us an essential compilation that spreads before us Powell's remarkable vision as a scientist, an ethnologist, and student of the West's promise and limits." —Elliott West, author of The Contested Plains and Growing Up with the Country

    "We have been blessed with outstanding writing about John Wesley Powell, but finally we have a comprehensive collection of Powell's own words. William deBuys has chosen the selections [for SEEING THINGS WHOLE] wisely and his insightful commentary accentuates Powell's depth, courage, thoroughness, and, perhaps most of all, his vision. [...{For, as his varied and penetrating writings show,}] John Wesley Powell was the American West's ultimate public intellectual: a physical and social scientist, adventurer, and philosopher who stands every bit as tall in our twenty-first century and he did in his own nineteenth." —Charles Wilkinson, Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado and author of Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest

    "Presents readers with a selection of writings from western explorer John Wesley Powell ... William deBuys, author of such wonderful books as RIVER OF TRAPS, provides an excellent introduction that thoroughly contextualizes this great American thinker." —Bloomsbury Review