Of Chiles, Cacti, and Fighting Cocks

The West, that imagined place of infinite space, and the “true West,” the place of chili cook-offs, mustang herds, trailer parks, saguaro protectorates, fading dreams, and disappearing cowboys, are the twin subjects of Frederick Turner’s fascinating mosaic of field notes. Turner writes of his Chicago childhood and the West of the popular imagination conveyed through Gene Autry movies and dime-store shoot-’em-ups; then, in the role of cultural historian and curious bystander, he records his incursions into the West which lies hidden behind the facade of myth and fantasy. Turner has the instinctive ability to adapt his posture to the situation at hand: This allows him to talk freely with Bohemian farmers at a festival in Deming, New Mexico, with scattered Basque shepherds in Oregon, and with secretive, paranoid “cockers” (those who raise fighting cocks) in central Arizona. His chameleonlike qualities and his immersion in the history of the West provide Turner’s readers with startling insights about the inhabitants— past and present—of the “true West.”

Though he fully comprehends how the West continues to be romanticized despite its devastating history, Turner himself is no romanticist. His vision of the harshness of the region is clear-eyed and stoic. He writes of the cruelty inflicted on horses headed for the butcher, of the hard lives of the West’s farmers and sheepherders, of the unthinkable brutalities inflicted on humans and animals in the “winning of the West.” Yet he also writes eloquently of the wonders of the saguaro cactus and the chile pepper, of the cowboy art of Will James and the nomadic lives of the Blackfeet. Turner’s “hands-off” approach may disturb some readers who seek opinions, but these rich, suggestive sketches provide a kind of untold, participatory history of the West which invites, as part of that history, a response and the desire to see it all for oneself, while it is still there.