A friend and fellow founder of Adirondack Wild first urged me to read Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (Houghton Mifflin, 1954). Perhaps my friend sensed connections between the “second opening of the west” and the Adirondacks. Regardless, it remains a fascinating work, to be read and re-read. Although never part of my schooling, it should be on anyone’s lifetime reading list.
Stegner chronicles the explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell, who spent his middle life and health attempting to teach our late 19th century politicians (and those moving west) that only scientifically-based land use planning and restrictions would save us from the disaster of letting Americans willy-nilly settle, break sod, and farm the arid west under the 1862 Homestead Act.
As head of brand new scientific agencies in Washington DC, the Geological and Irrigation Surveys, Powell acted for the “common interest” through his dry-eyed assessment that 160-acres, a mule and a plow on either side of the 100th meridian were irrational and pitiable against prairie and desert wind, snow, sun, drought and loneliness. Rain, it turned out, did not follow the plow in the 1880s and 90s, or during the 1930s Dust Bowl. Powell fought tenaciously against scientific misconceptions, false prophets, personal gain, corrupt practice, and speculative acquisitiveness – whereby a handful of individuals could and did gobble up millions of acres of the public’s dry lands and whatever little water existed there, for their own use. » Continue Reading.