When CU-Boulder's Center of the American West throws an event, things tend to wax academic, with speakers or panels expounding for hours on complicated issues relating to the place where we live: the American West.
That's why chairwoman Patricia Nelson Limerick thinks it's a good idea to kick off the center's season with Words to Stir the Soul: Readings From the American West. The event will join the academics with a variety of locals, who have literary and historical interests, to present disparate yet thoroughly charming five-minute views on those issues -- minus the usually dry attack. In an attempt to cut the pedantics and -- maybe -- catch some of those Western dreams and stories as they drift by, two separate readings are scheduled in the coming weeks, one on the Boulder campus and another at the Tattered Cover LoDo.
"The audience is always so happy at this event," notes Limerick. "One reason to be happy is that if something being read is not particularly to your taste, it's going to be over soon." Although it's short and sweet, it's also a literate event, with intellectual leanings: Limerick herself will be there, reading from poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming's works. Her writings attempt to bridge the gap between science and nature, especially as they pertain to the West -- or at least what's left of it, as a new century threatens to swallow up whatever shred of mythology still clings to the rapidly shrinking landscape.
"It's just one great planet," Limerick explains. "Every human has some relationship to land -- that's not particularly Western, but the Western image is so much powered by the mountains and deserts and plains. It's a planetary issue, but it's in italics here."
On the other hand, our image of "the West" has a lot to do with change -- the shifting of time through the landscape and the human migrations traversing that eternal ebb and flow. It is a rich vein for Limerick and her fellow readers to mine, and it shows its many-colored face again and again in their choices.
CU professor Ken Orona, for instance, has chosen a passage from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. It is an autobiography by a controversial figure in Mexican-American politics who eschews bilingual education and affirmative action programs in favor of advancement on personal merit. Though Orona doesn't necessarily share those views, he calls Rodriguez, the California-born son of Spanish-speaking Mexican parents, the "prototypical American of the future."
"He's at the cutting edge of issues that face the modern West," Orona says. "The issues he brings up in his life are the same issues that face the American West: education, Proposition 187, immigration. As Latinos, we are now the largest minority group in the U.S., numerically -- what is the consequence of trying to meld in or fit into the melting pot?"
In contrast, Denver author Manuel Ramos chose a story by fellow writer Sherman Alexie, who writes with painful eloquence in his fiction about life on the Spokane Indian reservation. "My slant comes from people who really feel the West is part of their blood," Ramos says. "With Sherman, that's going to come through. His view of the West is unique -- it's very poetic, very dramatic, all the things I like in good writing."
Good writing also shines in the excerpt chosen by Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis, who had an entire bookstore to peruse for the perfect passage: Willa Cather's Song of the Lark. "My eye just fell on it as I was searching the shelves for something," Meskis admits. "I started flipping through it, and my eye fell on page 349. It started out: 'It is a glorious winter day. Denver, standing on her high plateau under a thrilling blue-green sky, is masked in snow and glittering in sunlight.'" Meskis looked no further. "I usually would not pick a passage that way," she says. "But I always loved the old social critics. Sometimes it's nice to go back and visit old friends."
The same goes for archaeologist Cathy Cameron. She will read from Digging in the Southwest, a 1930s memoir by Ann Axtell Morris, who accompanied husband Earl on digs all over the Southwest. "Lots of people read nature passages, but I like the people angle," says Cameron, a perennial participant who knows that authors such as Edward Abbey and Barry Lopez are certain to be included in the mix. Morris, she notes, is both interesting and funny while relating tales about pushing Model-T Fords out of the sand or watching Charles Lindbergh buzz Chaco Canyon to take the first aerial photos ever made there.
The quirky award, however, goes to novelist Jerrie Hurd for her choice: a curt letter about mint tea and snakes, written in April 1950, by painter Georgia O'Keeffe to her accountant, William Howard Schubert, who was seeking her signature on some paper or another. Like O'Keeffe's paintings, the note is a clean and dreamy reply that slaps your face like ice-cold creek water. "I just like how the letter cuts past his concerns. You know -- mint tea and snakes," Hurd says. "I think that's the kind of letter you should write to your accountant, especially when he needs you to sign some papers." And, of course, Hurd says, the letter is shaped by the artist's fierce sense of place, making it perfect fodder for an evening of readings about the West, a region O'Keeffe lived and breathed for. "That's what most people have felt about West -- a sense of place," Hurd says. But she also praises O'Keeffe's inimitable style: "If she had never painted a thing, her letters would have made her famous." -- Froyd