Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
One summer 43 years ago, I headed west with a photographer friend, interviewing Americans at minor league baseball parks, fairgrounds, tourist spots, campgrounds, wherever the moment and our Volkswagen van took us. Grandiosely enough, our goal was "to tap the mood of the nation," which led to my first book, Beyond Our Control: America in the Mid-Seventies. Looking back, I now realize that, in 1973, three decades ahead of schedule, we met the precursors to the Tea Party movement, angry and unnerved white Americans of a certain age, camped out in their RVs and distinctly dyspeptic about where this country was going. This was a crowd, as I wrote at the time, that when it came to the lifestyles they had known and enjoyed could already "feel the tremors under their feet" and I predicted that one of these days they would be the ones to suffer. "You can bet," I observed, that "America's corporate pushers won't be going through the same sort of withdrawal pains as their victims." And I added, "What makes it so frightening is this: When these people find themselves desperate, they may panic and grab for the first help in sight, and I'm afraid to think what that will be." All these decades later, we may finally have a better idea of what that, in fact, is.
As it happened, for this born-and-bred New York City boy for whom Central Park was the wilderness, there was another unforgettable aspect of that journey from coast to coast. I saw up close and personal something of the West, of lands that seemed to stretch out toward eternity, that could take your breath away, and that, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys points out today, still -- though for how long we don't know -- belong to all of us. Of our visit to Yellowstone Park (where the warnings about grizzlies in the campgrounds touched off the panic button in this urbanite), I wrote:
"Early this afternoon, we rested by a lake and watched a Swainson's hawk hover and hunt, all its energy focused on a few yards of field. Suddenly, it plummeted out of sight, rose with a field mouse in its claws and was gone. Yellowstone's been like that, just the opposite of our expectations. Gigantic, wild-looking, beautiful. The roads don't even dent it, at least in the eastern part where we've come in. Strangest of all, it's not crawling with people. We didn't see anybody until we pulled into the parking lot of the Hamilton General Store."
And here's a small miracle: in this era of privatization -- even the military now goes into its war zones with a set of corporate warriors in tow -- those awesome American lands are still ours, still public. My children can still spend time in them and appreciate a world they would otherwise have no access to. But my grandson when he grows up? Who knows? As deBuys makes clear today in "Privatizing America's Public Land," behind the latest wing-nuts of the American West lie corporate interests that, in this age of growing inequality, might someday take part in one of the great land grabs of modern times. Fortunately, there are still writers like deBuys to remind us of just what's at stake.