Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Essay - Essays and Criticism

Marc Reisner

Essays and Criticism

Dramatic and Literary Elements

From the first chapter to the last, Marc Reisner pulls his readers into his extensive and thought-provoking research on the exploits and consequences of water depletion in the West in his classic environmental treatise Cadillac Desert. His pulling is done subtlety, like any great storyteller. Reisner involves his readers so completely that most won’t notice his techniques. They may only note that the thick book, which is packed with historical, economical, and statistical facts, is one of the easiest nonfiction books to read. It is engaging, suspenseful, and even comical. But Reisner never loses his focus. He is an environmentalist concerned about the land that he loves. He is also very much aware that facts and figures don’t tell the whole story, don’t compel people to action. Therefore, Reisner employs dramatic effect. He fills in the gaps between the statistics and historical facts with the excitement of a novel, the spectacle of a Broadway play, the thrill of an Academy Award-winning movie, while simultaneously exposing the story that surrounds the misuse and abuse of some of America’s grandest rivers. It is through his dramatic techniques that Reisner slowly draws the reader more deeply into the information that he has painstakingly gathered.

The book begins with Reisner recounting a personal experience of flying over the vast western deserts. This account gives the reader a literal overview of the remaining chapters of the book, and by using a personal style, Reisner invites his reader in. He gives the story a face, allowing the reader to identify with it. This is not just a story about the desert and the rivers that flow down the face of the earth, it is the story of that desert and the rivers as seen through the eyes of a very intelligent and sensitive man. By using this technique, Reisner gives his story not only a narrator, but a reference point to which the reader can return when the comprehensive details become too overbearing. That reference point is introduced to the reader as a very uncomplicated man—someone who flies tourist class and takes an aisle seat without grumbling when he would much rather sit next to a window. He is also a man who obviously loves history. He knows a lot of facts. He recognizes the landmarks, is aware of the people whose lives are affected by those landmarks, and he’s anxious to share all his accumulated stories. He is also a tease. He hands out tidbits, like someone tempting a wild animal to eat out of his hand. He mentions names like John Wesley Powell, telling the reader that Powell knew something that no one else seemed to know, but he relates only part of the story, as if saying that he, Reisner, also knows something that others don’t know. He hints that there is a great drama building up at the Mexican border, as well as in California, Arizona, and Colorado. He talks about unrenewable groundwater supplies that are drying up, freshwater rivers that are turning to salt, and great rivers of water that are being forced to run uphill. Then he states that maybe these are not unusual things. Maybe they do not spell out a doomsday scenario. Maybe everything will work out all right. But of course, as the dramatist, as the storyteller that he is, his readers are put on edge, knowing that it is exactly the opposite of these sentiments that Reisner believes. Reisner is, of course, baiting his readers, coaxing them to turn the page.

Reisner begins a history of the exploration of the West by telling stories of some of its most interesting characters, none more so than Jedediah Smith whom Reisner describes by saying ‘‘no explorer in the continent’s history was more compulsive and indefatigable’’ than this wild mountain man. The story about Smith reads like a script for an adventure movie starring a leading man who combines the on-screen personalities of Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone. Smith is too big for real life. He had to have been invented. No one could have accomplished as much as he did, outsmarting death at least a dozen times. But Reisner didn’t invent anything in retelling Smith’s story. He just dug up the facts and presented them as any good novelist would. Reisner must have known how compelling Smith’s story was. Reisner, himself, must have been drawn to it and then found some place to stick it in his book. And it works so well. What a great distraction. What a great device to use, to keep pulling that reader along.

Reisner also fills in the details of the life of John Wesley Powell, whom he briefly mentioned in his introduction. He introduces Powell with this sentence: ‘‘John Wesley Powell belonged to a subspecies of American that flourished briefly during the nineteenth century and went extinct with the end of the frontier.’’ The immediate response to this sentence is: What is Reisner talking about? What does he mean when he uses the word subspecies? What is he inferring when he says that this type of American is now extinct? Reisner is, of course, leading the reader once again. He knows that these questions will pop up in the reader’s mind. He knows that if he can put these questions into the reader’s consciousness, the next logical step is for the reader to seek out the answers. And Reisner is ready with the answers. He wants the reader to understand, to share in the...

(The entire section is 2170 words.)

Romanticism of American History

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert operates more as a ‘‘call to arms’’ than a solid historical analysis of plumbing the Great...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Feedback on Reisner's Ideas for Desert Communities

When the United States expanded across the continent in the 19th century, its landed empire claimed the arid expanses of the American West....

(The entire section is 653 words.)