The Wild Gods of the West and the Paradox of Beauty and Terror
I am a child of the American West. It is the great space of the West that defines my concepts of the valuable and the sacred—a terrain that inhabits me in the form of wild pantheistic gods of beauty and terror.
I grew up in the West at a time before television when Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy defined heroism every Saturday at the movie matinee. On the prairies, grasslands, and sage deserts of the open landscape of the West emerged the quintessential American hero—the cowboy. The cowboy contended with a landscape of range fires, flash floods, stampedes, blizzards, dust storms, and droughts as dangerous and unpredictable as Ahab’s rolling sea in Moby Dick. The voyagers on the western sea first encountered and then almost eliminated the herds of buffalo that to the Native American were deities not unlike Ahab’s white whale. The buffalo were supplanted by herds of cattle themselves creatures of the wild canyons and ranges of the western grass and sage sea. The mounts of the cowboy had to be broken, tamed, trained, and maintained in control by a technology of skill, saddle, lariat, and bridle: tools not unlike in purpose the gear and lines of Ahab’s whaling vessel. To encounter and subdue the raw, untamed beasts of nature, the cowboy evolved a code involving courage and ritual not unlike the ritual on a whaling vessel. The code, the tack, the courage, the practice were necessary to cope with the ravaging forces all around in weather, terrain, and beast.
In the sculpture of Frederic Remington can the cowboy be seen fully defined, chiseled and distinguished from the elements of nature. The cowboy in Remington’s art looks like a Greek Apollo: the ideal form of maleness, power, control, and technique. This male icon is about as far from the pagan, feminine earth and stone as it is possible to get. But in another sculpture End of the Trail by James Fraser can be seen the denouement of the cowboy story. In the work an Indian brave leans over on his mount slumped in a state of exhaustion, his lance pointing toward and almost piercing the ground—his form slowly dissolving into the primordial soil from which he came.
The movie stereotype of the cowboy eschewing the attractions of the female who would have him remain in town close to family and home, the cowboy riding off into the sunset after kissing the girl; the restless cowboy in pursuit of the gods to be found in weather and beasts was perhaps an image not too far from the truth. But like Ahab and Zeus, the cowboy seemed to be grasping for the mysterious feminine just over the next sensuous horizon—a presence he wanted to rope and brand, never quite succeeding thereby condemning himself to endless wandering as if trying to reclaim the rib torn from him by God.
As a symbol of the encounter of the Wild West, nothing surpasses the rodeo. According to Elizabeth Lawrence, an anthropologist, the rodeo “ . . . represents a dramatic expression of the values [of the cowboy] . . . the extension of culture over nature, the human over the animal, the tame over the wild, the controlled over the free. . . . Within the context as ritual I theorize that certain relationships between people and the rest of nature are symbolically defined and ordered. . . .
I suggest that this phenomenon represents a mastery of self as the innermost component of nature—and that this mastery comprises the initial step toward control of the outer portions of the environment.” I agree with Lawrence as far as she goes, but I think the encounter with the West and the rodeo represent a spiritual encounter.
To understand the changing terrain of the West the movie The Misfits is instructive. In the film the central male figure played by Clark Gable, represents an Ahab of the steppe in his quest to round up the last wild horses on the sage flats and dry lakes of Nevada. Only by selling the horses for dog food can the cowboy figure he represents maintain his free lifestyle—a lifestyle that fears a regular job more than anything else. But there is a deeper subtext in Gable’s character Gay. Gay must appropriate the wild heart of what remains in nature in order to maintain some integrity and identity as a free man. The fecund feminine organic froth of nature must be subdued and ordered lest it destroy the very structure of male hierarchy and independence. He must deprive the wild horses of their freedom in order to retain his own perception of freedom. When Roslyn, played by Marilyn Monroe, enters the story, she is vulnerable and fleshy and organic much like the wild nature Gay seeks to appropriate. Soon he attempts to capture both. In the end, Roslyn with the assistance of a more sensitive male figure cuts loose the wild horses Gay has captured on the salt flat. Gay in a struggle reminiscent of Ahab’s struggle with the white whale, regains control and totally subdues the stallion. In a stunning scene worthy of an Oscar, Monroe’s character Roslyn directs an emotional polemic at Gay casting him as an agent of death unable to feel anything for life. At the end of the film, it is clear that the cowboy mythos of the American West is dead and has given way to concerns for environment and the preservation of what is left of the original West. The film proved to be the last for both film icons Gable and Monroe and a denouement in the careers of both legendary author Arthur Miller and director John Huston.
The cowboys were fatally attracted to the primordial feminine indwelling beauty of the terrains they could not leave, ignore, or reject. They struggled against it but ultimately surrendered to the seductive pull of it. As Camille Paglia has stated, “There is danger in beauty.” The poet Rilke put it even more clearly, “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” Once they laid eyes on the terrains of the West, their fate was sealed. In the end, they were consumed because one cannot see God and live.
One day many years ago when my father and I were fishing in a meadow near Jack and Jenny buttes, a cougar emerged from the timber to the west and began running towards me. I was about eight or nine. My father panicked, threw down his rod and began running toward me as I sat on the bank of the stream. At the last second the cougar veered from its path and jumped across the stream between us. I do not know why it veered. Later my father asked me what I was thinking as the cat came at me. I remarked about how surprised I was that it could jump clear over the stream. My father said that the cougar was beautiful but terrifying.
Christ’s saying in The Gospel of Thomas summarizes my feelings about the West of my youth and the West I still live in and love. “If those who guide you assert: behold, the Kingdom is in the Heavens, then the birds are closer to it than you; if they say: behold, it is in the sea, then the fishes know it already . . . The Kingdom: it is within you and it is outside of you . . .” The wild kingdom of the West is within me and outside of me and always will be.
Melvin Adams was born and raised in the eastern Oregon town of Lakeview. After graduating from Oregon State University in 1963, he went on to serve as a high school science teacher for twelve years and later returned to college for training as an environmental engineer. He then worked twenty-four years at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as an engineer and manager. He is a published poet and the author of Netting the Sun: A Personal Geography of the Oregon Desert published by Washington State University Press. He has two grown daughters and two grandchildren and is married to Onneta Lu Adams. They live in Richland, Washington.