Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beyond the last best place (Part 1)
   Welcome to the Pleasure State

You may have heard Montana referred to as “the last best place.” It seems a fitting slogan, in the New West I hear is coming (version 1.0 of the New West was described by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1906 book, The Rise of the New West—in it, Turner noted that “every period of [American] life is a transitional period").

In our current transitional period, maybe Dan Kemmis will get his way, and we’ll be ruled by appointed commissions of stakeholders—i.e. those who matter—and we can forget all that trouble about consent of the governed.

Maybe Rick Bass will get his way, and the loggers will leave the Yaak to him and the wolverines so he can expound more fully on what he intends by making a home in the wild.

Maybe David James Duncan will get his, and all the world will attend his churchless sermons and all religion will be disorganized.

Less likely, maybe I will get mine and people will be careful what goods they jettison on their overloaded journey to the promised land.

If you Google “the last best place” one of the first articles that pops up is about a nursing home in Florida. Florida, the writer says, is “the place where [the elderly] hope to live out, with as much verve, comfort and security as they can find and afford, the extra decade of life that advances in health care have given them.” At a “life care facility” called Canterbury, you can contract with an institution “to care for you for the rest of life. It is like a small well-managed village, or a very adult camp, and that is as good as it gets.”

The article caught my attention because I’ve always thought Montana’s unofficial slogan sounded like the sort of thing a person might say about somewhere he was going to die. It has, as Jedediah Purdy pointed out, a “slightly alarmed” quality, as when progressives, having debunked everything in sight, come to the gut-wrenching realization that they really are going to die anyway, and turn their attention to really enjoying that latte.

For me, listening to New Westers activates those parts of my mind that get me thinking about jasmine-smelling boutiques with shoppers gliding around the pyramids and mirrors, sampling metaphysical potions and charms, unable to get to the dream at the core of existence. Not that I mind the smell of jasmine or the quirks of my mystical friends.

Still, they aren’t the sort of people you want to count on when things get real hard. They tend to be hedonists, and hedonists, even mild hedonists of the sort who long for steamed broccoli, have difficulty comprehending soul-deep love and the meaning of sacrifice. Pleasure is subjective, which is to say private, and when it comes right down to it, they figure, they’re alone.

So we are never in it together, though we may experience our private thrills side by side and mistake it, in the short run, for something more important.

In any case, I tend to take talk of a “New West” as a wispy byproduct of the season, wafting like morning mist through the canyon, or the clatter of conversation half heard in the distance, mingling with the rattle of pebbles dislodged from an ancient trail to a remembered place that I intend to see again. Death is an illusion we use to learn what to let go. There is no last place. There is no best place.

But there is Montana. In some ways, the slogan may be as indicative of the sentimental state of some Montanans today as “The Treasure State” was of the Montanans of 1895, when that slogan first appeared on the cover of a guidebook published by the state government. At that time, Montana led the nation in the production of copper, gold and silver, and turning earthly resources into marketable goods felt right. It seemed to people then a reasonable way of heading toward Eden. Though the mines themselves could be hellish, people could also see the beauty of promise, which they called progress, in freight trains billowing coal smoke over the landscape.

Today, decades along in an environmental crusade full of Epicurean sermons that endlessly rehearse the idea that “the system” is evil—organized on principles of exploitation, oppression, capitalism, consumerism and commercialism—it’s become second nature to feel alienated, truly at home only among those who have the same feelings.

We have an entire class of oddly detached people who have a lifelong habit of frowning and shaking their heads about the economic system that fills their pantry and finances their vacations. They keep their jobs and manage their retirement portfolios, all the while holding themselves aloof from it all. To soothe their desire for coherence, they adopt public policy positions in favor of rain forests and whales and against Wal-Mart and pharmaceutical companies. This lets them feel a sense of moral purpose without interfering too greatly with their cherished freedom of personal choice. They may have to use less styrofoam but they can still find nice clothes at Patagonia, and if they really want something from a big box discounter they need only make a little self-mocking joke by giving “Target” a French pronunciation. To satisfy their hunger for real commitment to transcendent affairs, they can save the polar bears by turning off the porch light when they’re not using it.

Deviously, though the system is unquestionably evil it creates tons of stuff nobody wants to do without. The wealth that it generates is real enough to liberate lots of people from all sorts of commitments and duties that once formed the framework of many American lives—religion, civic organizations and family. They soon find other things to occupy them, so the detachment heightens rather than interferes with the pursuit of pleasure. As with the ancient Epicureans, their detachment creates space for the pursuit of pleasure—though with considerable care. After spending the day looking for the perfect restaurant, it’s important to eat sparingly, thus avoiding such trouble as gaining too much weight or getting diabetes. People who are no longer harangued by Sunday morning sermons or the threat of hunger see fewer and fewer reasons not to experience the world as a playground where it feels good to believe it’s one’s birthright to choose among pleasures. What is life other than a spectacle to be enjoyed?


Screenshot from Ameya Preserve website. Ameya is a
proposed development near Livingston, Montana.

The exclusive housing developments springing up throughout the West would seem to fit perfectly into this world view. David Nolt notes that “the cultural features” at Ameya Preserve, a proposed housing development near Livingston for the super rich, will include, along with open vistas of the Rocky Mountains, “restaurant and cooking classes, courtesy of Alice Waters, the reknowned Berkeley-based chef.” Those with time can explore “the dinosaur digs with Jack Horner.” Life can be planned around “readings, lectures, and . . . the largest observatory telescope in the state.” Ameya is only one of many housing enclaves dedicated to enjoying the Montana spectacle: Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin, Saddlehorn, Iron Horse Ranch and Rock Creek Cattle Company.

Of course, lots of New Westers find it pretty hard to like these gated communities such as Ameya—not because there’s anything wrong with a life dedicated to self-fulfillment and aesthetic gratification in whatever last best place can be found—but for other reasons. It’s so darn inegalitarian. It locks up natural resources for private use. It develops previously undeveloped habitat. Wade Dokken, the financial industry CEO who’s trying to develop Ameya, really ticked them off by saying that the opposition to his plan was mostly due to “class envy.”

I would bet on the guy with money and a plan. He’s got some elements of that deep dream at the center of life in Montana figured out: wilderness is our garden. We plan it and cultivate it just so. It pleases us.

We are past the point where wilderness is possible, except as a style of gardening. The language of Genesis was the language of commandment but also of prophecy, and the part about dominion has largely been fulfilled: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The earth is largely subdued and the extent of human dominion is, by historical standards, amazing. If grizzlies still wander McDonald Peak in the Mission Mountains, it is because bureaucratic committees have met and decided that it should be so.


Tranquility Ranch, Swan Valley

The good news is that grizzlies do still wander McDonald Peak, because the committees, reflecting the wishes of the people, echo the Creator somewhat in concluding that the earth, including the bears, is good. If the ideas of people such as Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold still seem a little odd, at least the lifestyle seems cool. We’ve been converted. No one wants a porch on main street. Everyone wants a Walden Pond or a weekend house on the Wisconsin River.

Rather than dreaming of seeing new factories built, we admire the beauty of all the showy houses the wealthy are building beside small lakes and along ridge tops everywhere in the West. Wouldn’t it be fine to build a house with a nice view of some special little piece of Montana and then to lock things down, so it too doesn’t get ruined? As much as possible we would keep the infrastructure decently hidden—the interstate trucks laden with Italian olives and and Mexican apples for our table would be kept too distant to hear. We may connect to the Internet every day, but the massive server farms running Google are low profile and down river along the Columbia, and we’ll insist that the power lines from the grid to our breaker box are tastefully buried. There will be no visible wires in this fantasy.

The last best place, I imagine, becomes a simulacrum of a wild world, tenuously holding the wild world at bay.

Welcome to Montana, the Pleasure State.

Part 2


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/13 at 01:33 PM
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© 2008 Michael L. Umphrey
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