Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

by Marc Reisner
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

Nature versus Technology
The recently popularized genre of revisionist history signifies a shift in the conceptualization of historical narratives, examining thematic structures of the past and present rather than a chronological grand narrative, retelling events through a selected viewpoint of, for example, technological development and theory. Reisner’s book, one of the most popular of this kind, embodies this new approach in its thematic selection of events used to tell a new history of the West. The theme of nature versus technology is an obvious choice in writing from an environmentalist perspective.

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In its very title, Cadillac Desert contains an ideological dualism that Reisner explores in his book: one symbolized by a car brand, as an all- American emblem of transportation and exploration, and the other equivalent to nature’s most hostile habitat for humans—and the most difficult one to adapt to their use. The fact that the Great American Desert has been populated and drastically changed to fit human needs is criticized throughout the book, in keeping with a developing environmentalist tradition. Reisner condemns taming the desert and tampering with nature because it can only result in severe damage—to the landscape and to the society attempting to live outside its environmental means.

Although it criticizes all human efforts to conquer the West’s most precious resource, Cadillac Desert also suggests that dams are the most visible points of the conflict between nature and technology. In his descriptions of the water projects in the West, Reisner acknowledges they are both majestic and hideous: ‘‘When visitors were led to the canyon rim to watch Boulder Dam on the rise, there was usually a long moment of silence . . . that expressed proper awe and reverence for the dazzling, halfformed monstrosity they saw. The dam defied description; it defied belief.’’

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While he acknowledges the benefits of water systems, such as the role that hydroelectric power plants had in winning World War II, Reisner places more emphasis on the devastating effects of these developments on the various ecosystems and the land itself. In the Afterward, he describes recent ‘‘natural’’ disasters in the West and points out that they were either worsened by human activity or were entirely man-made.

American Dream
Through his examination of the history of the West and its water, Reisner deconstructs the American Dream by pointing out what is wrong with American mythology when applied to the development of the West. In the political creation of the Dream, the media plays an important part: Reisner reveals the ways in which public opinion was shaped and manipulated to attract settlers to the arid West. For example, the newspapers carried editorials and accounts bordering on the fantastic. The papers proclaimed the new frontier a paradise for farmers; some even ‘‘promptly published a map of Desert that contained an inset map of Palestine (‘The Promised Land!’), calling attention to their ‘striking similarity.’’’

Reisner further describes how the U.S. government ‘‘discovered’’ and, in time, destroyed the land already occupied by Native Americans, all the while advertising the westward move as a step into uncharted, ‘‘virgin’’ territory. Unlike the premise of the American Dream, the land was already inhabited when the settlers began to pour in. The atrocities committed against the native tribes are best represented in the government’s purchase/takeover of 155,000 acres of the best land from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. At the document signing in 1948, the chairman of the Tribal Council burst into tears saying: ‘‘The members of the Tribal Council sign the contract with heavy hearts . . . Right now, the future does not look good to us.’’ These facts, however, had a slim chance of being included in the American narrative, precisely because they conflicted with the ideals of the American myth.

In the chapter ‘‘Red Queen,’’ Reisner describes the irony of the very idea of taming the West, since the new society has to run just to stay in place—or, keep developing new water projects in order to sustain the unsustainable yet heavily populated oasis in the Great American Desert. The cost of turning a desert into paradise through conquest of nature eventually turns into imminent danger for those living in it, because nature reclaims its space at a tremendous cost to society. Thus, the dream of persistent and blind conquest inevitably turns against the conqueror; as Reisner points out, ‘‘the West’s real crisis is one of inertia, of will, and of myth.’’

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