Dan Flores. Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. xv + 312 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-2011-7.
Reviewed by Fred McVaugh (National Park Service)
Published on H-Environment (October, 2001)
Nature and History Relevant To Our Lives
Nature and History Relevant To Our Lives
Like Southwestern sunsets' peaches and crimsons, this is a book to be admired. Horizontal Yellow is a hard won, candid meditation on the Near Southwest's natural world, the author's place and experiences in it and people's fateful impact on it. Dan Flores' knowledge is enormous, embracing not only today's physical actuality but also the Horizontal Yellow's ecology and human occupation through time and how and why both have changed. What is more, Horizontal Yellow demonstrates effectively, and with a compassion and conviction often absent in scholarly writing, that history is relevant to our daily lives. As a result, perhaps unwittingly, Flores carries "frontier anxiety" to the twenty-first century's doorstep.
At the outset, Flores warned that Horizontal Yellow is not a book of environmental history. It is a book about history and nature and humankind's impact on nature in the Near Southwest, the largely horizontal region of yellowed grass spanning from the Rocky Mountains' eastern range to Louisiana's bayou country and southern Kansas to the Gulf Coast, that is, Flores claims, delineated by "water", "history" and "sensory impression" (p. x). Horizontal Yellow is not a historical monograph in the accepted sense, either. Instead, it is a collection of seven essays--two containing fictions--connected by a common subject: Flores' twenty-year "search for something--Wild America, if it has to have a name" (p. xii) in Texas and the Near Southwest. These essays are not, however, about the Horizontal Yellow in its entirety. The region is too large, its environments too diverse, people's impact there too expansive to be thoroughly or even adequately understood and written about by one man alone. Flores instead presents illustrative ruminations on the origins and metamorphoses of the American wilderness ideal and desert appreciation; he reflects on the mystery of the Red River's origins and Texans' penchant for grazing over, plowing under and otherwise privatizing their State's land. He writes about the American origin and die-off of horses, and the post-Columbian reintroduction, explosive spread, commodification and the virtual disappearance of wild horses (along with, in a separate essay, that of the wolves). Throughout Horizontal Yellow, Flores offers his own self-aware analysis to explain nature's current condition, including his ancestors' roles in constructing it, while also suggesting a better, more salubrious way of living in the world by embracing teachings beyond academic history's institutional bounds and a faith grounded in the land and humanity's physical and emotional need for nature.
Numerous historians and other writers--Patrick Dearen, Richard Francaviglia, John Miller Morris and Kenneth Ragsdale, to name but a recent few--have written histories about parts of the Near Southwest. None of these historians, however, defined the Near Southwest in a manner alike Flores, nor, with the possible exception of Francaviglia, did any of them write about the region from a bioregional perspective. Horizontal Yellow most readily calls to mind William deBuys' remarkable Enchantment and Exploitation, yet Flores' work is far broader in scope, encompassing a vastly larger place, and melds genres and forms, exploring the limits (limitlessness?) of historical narrative, while broaching big moral, spiritual and methodological issues normally avoided in scholarly prose. Flores admits, accepts and unabashedly proclaims historians' subjectivity (vice scientists' alleged "objectivity"), for example: "History is no science but art, and an art confronting not one root but a whole tangle of them, a chaos of growth welling up out of the past that has to be made sense of" (p. 93). Later, he wrote, "history is the art of explanatory storytelling" (p. 225).
Flores is a historian and writer with broad vision and thought-provoking opinions (dare I say beliefs?). He is, nonetheless, a writer to a degree constrained--hindered not by his reasoning or passion but by his language. His writing, as intended, is chiefly explanatory and cerebral rather than descriptive and experiential, although he advocated experience--immersion in place--as necessary to restore humanity's place in nature: "Knowledge is insufficient in itself to enable humans to open to a place as home. Knowledge is too cerebral. Experiential, sensuous immersion--the way we've always done it--is the path home" (p. 176). Flores relies on Horizontal Yellow's numerous photographs, mostly his own, to show nature. These photographs, while pretty pictures, do not connect with the narrative and convey a sense of place nearly as effectively as descriptive language could have. Where he dabbles most closely with "art"--in his fictions--is where his storytelling and persuasiveness are most tenuous, however; for in the fictions Flores asks the reader to suspend belief in his veracity. The result: the fictions, especially the "Trickster Coyote" (p. 300) tale interspersed throughout the final essay, failed to attain the level of emotional power or cogency found in the book's other essays.
Horizontal Yellow's strength rests on Flores' knowledge, reasoning and synthesis of primary and secondary source material, personal memoir and theory from different disciplines. The book's greatest triumph is Flores' willingness to challenge capitalism and contemporary American lifeways and practices (including the mainstream practice of history) that are founded on the Judeo-Christian acceptance of humanity's supremacy over nature. "The present culture," Flores observed, "has deeply internalized a conservative and Christian worldview that appears to regard itself as outside nature, with the natural world as superfluous" (p. 174). His advocacy of and willingness to live by a philosophy--bioregionalism--intended to restore some semblance of the land's pre-Columbian condition supports this position despite an earlier assertion, "I certainly don't buy that culture (or religion) has extracted us and separated us from the world of nature" (p. 34). His "going native" (p. 185) idea--learning about and appreciating the natural world in a specific area and living according to what it sustains--and his acknowledged nostalgia for "Indian America" (p. 35) likewise contrasted with the latter statement. By Horizontal Yellow's end, I was convinced Flores believed that religion and American culture have alienated people (in the Horizontal Yellow especially) from the natural world. Sadly, Flores' confessed departure for Montana belies his optimism in bioregionalism's promise for restoring a healthy ecosystem to the Llano Estacado; more importantly, perhaps, it evidences a disheartening loss of faith in people to learn from history and do what is best for nature and humanity.
Professional historians bear some responsibility for this. The profession's lack of attention to "shared history" (p. 185)--critical, Flores writes, to understanding and restoring a healthful relationship with nature--prevents people from fully understanding their affect on nature. To this end, Flores does what few (environmental) historians to date have done: he raises the question of Hispanic society's historic relationship with nature in northern New Mexico and the impact it had on the region's ecology. Here Flores points to an issue scholars need to examine closely. Perhaps Hispanic land use patterns and practices, especially the commons, were not as ecologically destructive as heretofore asserted by Anglo-American historians. Perhaps, he speculates, they may be less damaging than current ranching and U.S. Forest Service policies. Only future study may reveal the answer.
Whatever minor weaknesses or contradictions Horizontal Yellow might contain, it reveals a man who has created his "own original relationship with the universe" (p. 235), as had Flores' hero Georgia O'Keeffe. We are all the richer for his vision, opinions and sense of self-rooted-in-place found in the book. "One of the things about history as a form of storytelling," Flores concludes, "is that stories about the past are most effective when they either have a moral or they connect us to the time string of the now and the beyond with a set of sharp insights that shift the field of thought" (p. 226). This Horizontal Yellow does in abundance. This is what we need.
The opinions expressed in this review are the author's alone. They do not represent the opinions of the National Park Service or the Federal government.
. For a concise and thoughtful intellectual history of "frontier anxiety"--the national trepidation concerning the "close" of America's western frontier, its feared impacted on American society and the resultant public policies after 1890--see David M. Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).
. Patrick Dearen, Portraits of the Pecos Frontier, Rev. Ed. (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1999); Richard V. Francaviglia, The Cast Iron Forest: A Natural and Cultural History of the North American Cross Timbers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000); John Miller Morris, El Llano Estacado: Exploration and Imagination on the High Plains of Texas and New Mexico, 1536-1860 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1997); Kenneth B. Ragsdale, Big Bend Country: Land of the Unexpected (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998).
. William deBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985).
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Fred McVaugh. Review of Flores, Dan, Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest.
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