Consider the sagebrush

Towards a simple test for the categorization of Western literature

Consider the sagebrush
[A]ll around the battlefield between hilltop and river
larks trill and chirk in the long sweet grass and the
the holy sage, that purifies.

—Ursula K. Le Guin, “Places Names” (1981)

You can’t get far in writing about the literature of the American West without wrestling with issues of categorization. What are we even talking about, here?

Perhaps more than any other region on earth, the West is associated with a single literary genre, the romantic adventure tale set within a historical period that lasted, in its purest form, for all of a few decades. Of course we want to move beyond the confines of the dime-novel cowboy story, but what should we take with us when we do? Was the marriage of the West with the Western a mere accident of history, or is there something essential to this land, specifically, embedded within a genre whose geographic boundaries now stretch not only around the world but into fantasy realms and outer space, too? And if we’re limiting ourselves to works written in or about the actual West, where are we drawing the lines? Does California count? How about Texas or Alaska, or, for that matter, Alberta or Sonora?

There are no real answers to these questions, only viral quote-tweet bait. But to the extent that it’s useful both for myself and for readers, I hereby propose a simple test for identifying which kinds of authors and works this newsletter is interested in: Have they considered the sagebrush?

Even more neatly than the cowboy story, the dozen or so endemic species of the genus Artemisia that we call “sage” define the West, dominating entire ecosystems between the Sierras and the Great Plains, virtually nonexistent elsewhere. By most reckonings, it’s the most abundant shrub in North America, and yet few people living on the continent have ever given it a second thought.

Western writers have long known the power of the sagebrush to transport the Eastern reader to an exotic, almost otherworldly place, beginning with one of the genre’s earliest and most popular novels, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Rendered in his florid, sentimental style, Grey’s purple hillsides are a landscape from an alien planet, and his characters are always speaking, half in allegory, about going “to the sage,” or riding “in from the sage,” or being “alone on the sage.” Like the surface of Mars or the moon, the sage, to Grey, is beautiful but desolate, a vast, inhospitable place where only a few scattered outposts of humanity can survive:

A grave in the sage! How lonely this resting-place of Milly Erne! The cottonwoods or the alfalfa fields were not in sight, nor was there any rock or ridge or cedar to lend contrast to the monotony. Gray slopes, tinging the purple, barren and wild, with the wind waving the sage, swept away to the dim horizon.

To this day, debate goes on as to which plant, exactly, Grey was so reverently and repetitively writing about. In case you hadn’t noticed, the West’s sagebrush-covered hills and valleys are … not actually all that purple. The species most commonly called “purple sage,” Salvia dorrii, is not a sagebrush at all, and it doesn’t grow in expanses “ten, fifteen, twenty miles” across, the way Grey described. That could only be big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, or its cousins, none of which stray too far from their familiar gray-green hue. A hundred years’ distance — and, frankly, the quality of Grey’s prose — make it difficult to know whether he meant to refer only to one plant or the other throughout the book, or both at different times, or if he was just letting his imagination get the better of him.

We can blame the confusion in large part on the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who published the first English-language descriptions of Artemisia tridentata after encountering it in Montana in 1805. “There is a kind of wild sage or hyssop, as high as a man’s head, full of branches and leaves, which grows in these bottoms,” wrote the expedition’s Patrick Gass, whose journal was the first to be published and widely read. “Sage” was a misnomer, a botanical blunder — indeed, it may be history’s first recorded instance of the kind of mistake that white settlers would make again and again in the ensuing centuries, imposing Old World thinking onto a harsh new landscape that was unlike much of what they’d ever seen before. Presumably more for its aroma than anything else, the plant was grouped by Gass and other members of the expedition with the Mediterranean sages, the Salvias, used medicinally and culinarily by Europeans since ancient times.

In taxonomic terms, the explorers’ classification was off not just by an entire family, but an entire order — the sagebrush is an Artemisia, most similar to wormwood or mugwort, and more closely related to daisies and sunflowers than to true sages or mints. In the decades that followed, trained naturalists like David Douglas and Thomas Nuttall arrived in the West and attempted to correct the record, dutifully classifying and naming its various Artemisias, but it was too late. By the time John C. Frémont traveled over the Rockies in the early 1840s, he was learned enough to be able to tell one species of Artemisia from another, but wrote in his wildly popular narrative of his expeditions that the shrubs were “in this country commonly called sage,” and used the terms interchangeably.

As scientifically illiterate as it may have been, and as much confusion as it may still cause today, the Americans of the early 19th century were unquestionably correct in deciding that descriptions of “twisted, aromatic wormwood,” as one explorer put it in 1834, simply weren’t a match for such a singular shrub. Whatever other aesthetic failings Western literature may have, it hasn’t afflicted the reading public with two centuries of rhapsodizing about the Great Basin’s shimmering sea of mugwort.

As moonlight unto sunlight is that desert sage to other greens. The wind has magic in it, and the air is full of birds and birdsong. Meadowlarks pipe all around us, something else — pipits? true skylarks? — rains down brief sweet showers of notes from the sky. Hawks sail far up in the blue, magpies fly along ahead, coming back now and then like ranging dogs to make sure you are not lost. Not a house, windmill, hill, only that jade-gray plain with lilac mountains on every distant horizon.

—Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (1971)

Like the semiarid Western deserts it calls home, sagebrush is a new arrival — almost as new as us. On a continent where redwood forests have stood for more than 240 million years, the first recognizable sagebrush evolved perhaps two million years ago, just as homo erectus and other early hominids were evolving half a world away in Africa — and as best as we can tell, it achieved something like its current ecological dominance between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago, around the time that modern humans were populating the Americas and civilization began to emerge out of the fog of prehistory. Since then, something like an equal number of human and sagebrush generations have lived and died, as the life expectancy of an individual Artemisia tridentata isn’t all that different from ours.

For all this coexistence, though, sagebrush has been of little immediate use to us as anything other than a plentiful source of campfire fuel. Indigenous tribes took advantage of its mild antiseptic properties in a variety of medicinal applications, but hopefully for the sake of the early American explorers who confused it with the Salvia sages, they didn’t try seasoning any stews with its bitter (and lightly toxic) leaves. Aside from burning it, just about the only thing white settlers could think to do with sagebrush over the next century was to sell a tincture of it as a miracle baldness cure.

Despite being superior in nutritional content to traditional forage crops like alfalfa, sagebrush leaves contain volatile oils that make them difficult for large herbivores, especially cattle, to digest — only one of the many adaptations that’s made the shrub so dominant in the interior West. Its formidable root system manages both to soak up scarce desert moisture near the surface and to sink its taproot as deep as 12 feet toward the water table. The characteristic hue of its leaves comes from a dense layer of silvery hairs that prevent evaporative water loss, while a complex series of dormancy processes allow it to survive long periods of drought.

The sagebrush ecosystem that had spread across the intermountain region for millennia wasn’t all that disturbed by its first half-century or so of contact with American empire. A few lonely forts and fur-trading outposts came and went. Wagon trains passed through on their overland routes to California or Oregon. It wasn’t until the 1860s, after miners had struck it rich in Nevada and Colorado and westward-roaming settlers turned their attention anew to the vast interior that Stephen Long had written off as the “Great American Desert,” that a collision began in earnest. “If the land had its way, nothing would grow taller than sagebrush and buffalo grass,” notes Larry Watson’s narrator in the opening lines of his novella Montana 1948. But it wasn’t just up to the land anymore.

The arrival of large-scale cattle operations in the arid West in the late 19th century began a series of disasters that would devastate sagebrush country — some of them natural, most of them all too manmade. By the time the early Western cattlemen drove their herds into the sage, the idyllic open ranges of Texas and the Great Plains had mostly been closed. The high deserts stretching between the Rockies and the Sierras offered a final refuge for America’s vanishing cowboy culture — that is, for a few enterprising capitalists who could fatten their cattle on vast expanses of land owned by no one in particular, rarely even bothering to count the size of their herds. “The Great Basin was the last natural grazing land to be exploited in western North America — and, most probably, the world,” write James A. Young and B. Abbot Sparks in their history of ranching in the region, Cattle in the Cold Desert.

The effects were catastrophic. Wherever they roamed in the sagebrush, cattle quickly denuded the land of its native bunchgrass understory. In the harsh winters, they resorted to grazing on sagebrush, which so slowed their metabolism that they starved or froze to death. A mass die-off in the “white winter” of 1889–90 left behind so many cow carcasses that when the spring thaw came, heaps of rotting flesh dammed and fouled rivers across Idaho and Nevada. Together with a similarly devastating winterkill that had struck the high plains of Wyoming and Montana a few years earlier, it was the literal putrid death knell for the American open range.

Of course, the enclosed ranches and alfalfa fields and irrigation systems that followed only further upset the ecosystem’s natural balance. And in the early decades of the 20th century, when stockmen continued to look to the West’s wide open spaces as suitable, government-subsidized summer ranges for their herds, they decided to blame the desert’s inhospitality on the only thing left standing on much of the overgrazed landscape: big sagebrush. North America’s most abundant shrub “uses moisture and nutrients that should be producing good forage,” declared one early range-management handbook. It impeded the movement of cattle; it snagged wool from sheep fleeces; it caused lambs and calves to stray; it provided cover for coyotes and other predators.

So began the era of sagebrush “control,” when Western cattlemen and the federal land agencies in their pocket settled on a more or less official national policy of eradicating sagebrush from as much prospective rangeland as possible — by cutting it, burning it and, eventually, by the most efficient control method of all, killer chemicals like 2,4-D and tebuthiuron. “Spray big sagebrush and watch the grass grow,” read a caption on one 1954 Interior Department manual. This systematic destruction reached its peak in mid-century, when the government’s aerial spraying of tens of thousands of acres at a time became one of the many agricultural horrors chronicled in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but it’s by no means a thing of the past. A 2009 video from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association touts a new Dow AgroSciences “specialty herbicide” capable of decimating sagebrush, which it calls an “invasive” species.

The annihilation of vast expanses of wilderness to make way for industrial agriculture is a dramatic enough tale on its own — but what makes the shattering of the sagebrush ecosystem a uniquely Western saga is that quite often, this program hasn’t even been successful on its own terms. Killing dense stands of sagebrush produces a short-lived rangeland sugar high, as nutrients from the dead shrubs boost the growth of new grasses for a year or two, but not much longer. In the places where it has stood for thousands of years, sagebrush is a key to sustainable herbaceous growth in ways that we’ve only just begun to understand. It shields understory grasses from drought and overgrazing; its root system extracts vital minerals from deep underground; it prevents snowfall from accumulating in uniform ice sheets that can lock moisture out of the soil; it supports everything from pronghorn herds to microbiotic crusts that help keep fragile desert ecosystems biodiverse and resilient.

Now, it does a lot less of all that than it used to. Best as we can figure, the sagebrush steppe covers about half as much territory as it did two centuries ago, and much of what’s left is badly degraded, threatened by grazing, recreation, oil and gas drilling and actual invasive species like cheatgrass, which, along with a warming climate, has left the surviving sage highly vulnerable to wildfire.

And what do we have to show for it? After more than a century of generous support from the federal government, cattle raised on the vast sagebrush deserts of the intermountain West still account for less than 2% of national beef production; this year, producers in Florida will raise more beef cattle than all the ranchers in Utah, Nevada and Arizona combined. It turns out you can’t manage or “control” your way around the iron law of Western aridity, and in the final tally, the country seems to have bargained away half or more of one of the earth’s last great wildernesses in exchange for a handful of thirsty, inefficient cattle operations that compete for the region’s ever-scarcer water supplies and occasionally lead armed uprisings against the government.

The snow was gone but the wind was blowing, and they were out on a dirt road with sagebrush and last year’s dry bluestem sticking up from the new grass behind the barbed-wire fences on both sides, all of it pale and cold-looking, showing dim and shadowy in the blue light of the high white stars.

—Kent Haruf, Plainsong (1999)

Americans have never known quite what to make of “the everlasting sage-bush of this desolate region,” as Horace Greeley put it in his widely-read 1860 Western travelogue. There’s a certain bewilderment running from the earliest pioneer accounts all the way to the present, a discomfort evident in the way we’re always likening the sagebrush landscape to other, more familiar things. In Roughing It, Mark Twain described the shrub as “an imposing monarch of the forest in exquisite miniature,” and wrote of lazy afternoons lying in its shade, imagining himself Gulliver among the Lilliputians. The more enduring simile, of course, is the “Sagebrush Sea,” rolling over hillsides, waving in the wind, swallowing us up in its vastness.

Equipped with a literary inheritance passed down largely from northern and western Europe by way of the Atlantic seaboard, we lack even the basic vocabulary necessary to situate the steppe, the scrubland, the high desert, in our minds. It’s no great leap to consider the deeper disorientation this landscape can provoke in a cultural tradition so long accustomed to farm and forest, paddock and plantation, manorialism and monarchy. “The disappearance of the forest shocks on many levels, most importantly on the imaginative,” writes the academic A. Carl Bredahl Jr. in New Ground, his 1989 survey of Western literature.

“The imaginations making up the traditional canon confront space by converting it into salable commodities, units of known value,” he adds. “Confronting an environment of extravagant size, weather and configuration, the western imagination had finally to discard assumptions of imposing self and enclosing landscape, efforts that in the West inevitably met with disaster.” No wonder, then, Bredahl notes, that “the earliest pioneers leapt across this space, seeking Oregon or California, a world physically more congenial to the eastern mind and cultural patterns.” A long campaign of enclosure and “reclamation,” meanwhile, has conquered the eastern longitudes of the Great Plains for that old, feudal imagination. But in the great middle, beyond the 100th meridian, where the land rises and the thin, dry air begins to take over, there’s no maintaining the illusion of control.

If there’s an essence of the West and its art, then, this is it: not the sagebrush itself, but the conditions that created it, the slow process of learning and adapting to them. A discontinuity — the dawning sense that this is a place unlike anywhere we’ve been before, or, if we were born here, that we live according to systems and structures that weren’t made for it. If that’s daunting, it’s also liberating, and of course all the best classic Westerns are rife with these themes: as we venture beyond the boundaries of civilization, what do we bring with us, and what should we leave behind? What did we go looking for out there in the first place?

The American frontier has long since closed, but for better or worse, in the vast empty spaces of the West it can be easy to forget it. And so the Sagebrush Test offers us not only a way to identify true Western literature but also to explain why it’s so valuable. “Across a sagebrush flat,” wrote Bernard DeVoto, “the spatial relationship of objects gets out of true.” If the configurations, the dimensions, the very physics of the world we’ve known come undone, there’s no telling what they’ll be like when we put them back together.

The night it happened Pearla dreamed of a memory, only different. She was seven years old and still lived in Saguarita, where her papa worked the mines. They had a company house, a one-room cabin without electricity or heat. The floor was dirt and the ceiling was patched with grass where, sometimes, blue sky winked and snow drifted down onto their bed quilts. Pearla ran between the mountains, the land beneath her feet jagged with quartz and sagebrush, her little body a blur of white lace and black braids. It was church Sunday and she was late. When Pearla’s legs couldn’t carry her any faster, the wind picked up and she lifted over pine trees and the mirrored ponds, where she saw herself sailing toward that adobe steeple with her arms open to the land.

—Kali Fajardo-Anstine, “Galapago” (2019)