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Healing the West by Cowell , Collinge, and Limerick.

by on December 5, 2011

by: Kaity Plath



The Introduction to Healing the West by Andrew Cowell, Sharon K. Collinge, and Patrica Nelson Limerick intended firstly to emphasize the objective of the text as both ‘”a call for action and a provocation of thought”, and secondly to define the word ‘healing’ with respect to this collection of passages.  The authors begin by proposing that there is a multitude of varying problems regarding the American West, all of which can and should be imperatively addressed. It is believed by the authors that the distinctiveness and large range of these issues is a direct outcome of the extreme diversity of Western human and natural landscapes. With this, the authors put forth that it is in the greater interest of productivity to refrain from “wallowing in too many details”. Instead it is useful to take generalizations from each field of study and attempt to find common themes or issues. When doing so, one will find that behind a majority of situations in the world and every situation described in the book are people. Thus the solution to every problem is also people. Once this becomes clear, the problem is not finding a solution, but achieving it. In most cases this requires a social consensus and a lot of politics.

For example, scholars in California are trying to restore vernal pools many of which are located underneath housing communities. In order to save vernal pools that have not been built on, the Californian government would have to propose laws that would decrease development. This is very unlikely to happen. There is no line that can neatly be drawn between general societal problems and formal expertise; there will always be opposition. The second part of the introduction pertains to the definition of healing. In this context, ‘healing’ must be used as a metaphor in respect to the array of ways it can be used. For example: ‘Healing’ can be used in a more spiritual fashion like Terry Tempest William’s book about healing the land and the soul, or it could be used in more technical terms like in the recent issue about stabilization and healing of sick landscapes in the Journal of Wildlife Management. The authors also suggest that ‘healing’ is more than “dealing with”, “solving”, or “resolving”, because ‘healing’ must address the underlying issues. In this way, using the word ‘healing’ can also be dangerous because it insinuates that there is an ideal state of “health” or an equilibrium that the patient can return to.

On the other hand, use of the word healing allows us to “clarify our goals” without imposing our solutions because full recovery may not always be possible. In addition the authors propose there is a third level, which allows us to look at the relationships between groups as the underlying theme behind most issues. The authors state, “We must acknowledge that injured relationships have produced many of the West’s problems.” Finally the mythology of the West remains attractive to the American citizen because of the overall sense of individualism, frontier utopian possibilities, radical social reform, and limitless ecological capacity. In conclusion the authors stress that facing the “real” west is the only way to face the problems, and identifying the similarities will potentially land you at a solution.

I think that the authors of Healing the West would agree more with Hollings definition of equilibrium because they disagree with the idea that the ideal ‘health’ of an ecosystem can defined. There is not one constant equilibrium, but a multitude of possible equilibriums that change through time and through the different interactions/relationships of groups. I really enjoyed this passage because I think it respects the importance of deep research but also values generalizations because together they can lead to a more profound solution. I also enjoyed the author’s use of the word ‘healing’ because it suggests a progression towards health or a ‘solution’, which I find important since there is no instantaneous remedy for any issue. The word ‘heal’ encourages us to keep trying.


1. Do you think that there is a state of ‘ideal’ health that the American West can return to?

2. What is your response to the author’s use of the word ‘healing’?

3. Do you agree with the authors that people are behind every problem and solution?


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  1. Megan Powell permalink

    To address your first question; I am not sure that there is an “ideal health” that any landscape can return back to. I think I agree with the authors there in that I’m not sure an “ideal health” can realistically be defined. I think there is a difference though of defining some standard or goal of health or acknowledging negative changes in a landscape and making efforts to reduce them. The latter seems more realistic to me. I think that overall, this article emphasizes the importance of defining terms that at first glance, we wouldn’t give a second thought to. A word so familiar as “heal” or “healing” doesn’t beget any confusion at first, but when we think critically about the different ways the word is being applied, we may realize that there are slight variations in the meanings meant by that word. In my opinion, if anyone would like to have a productive discussion about anything, it is important to define ambiguous terms — and sometimes to recognize that a familiar term actually IS more ambiguous then previously thought.

  2. I keep going back and forth with how i agree and disagree with the authors on their ideas of solutions of “healing” the western landscape. I agree with you Kaity that using the term “healing” in order to come up with a solution makes the views on land degradation seem like there is hope in the future to fixing many many environmental issues, especially when you are targeting the general public. However, i disagree with many aspects of their argument because the authors did not focus on any particular problems with the land or how they wish to solve these issues. They both argue that we need to focus on the general issues of the West in order to come up with solutions. However, general solutions can only get you so far, and using a medical metaphor of healing with the environment only makes it seem less probable to find an answer. Just like with any patient, even if two people have the same disease or illness, the two patients could have different symptoms and react differently to the same types of treatment. This is why I disagree with the authors on their ideas of making generalized solutions because even if two separate areas are suffering from something like deforestation, many different aspects come into play with figuring out how to “treat” or “heal” the landscape. Every case study is going to have its own issues, whether they are political, environmental, moral, etc.

  3. 242colleencarey permalink

    Yes, I think that there is a state of ‘ideal’ health that the American West can return to, the question is though, can it? Does it have ability? This is where people come into play. People are indeed behind every problem. If you look at the West before and after people inhabited it, I think that ideal health was present. But then people came, exploited the resources, used everything for their benefit and created problems. People can help the West return to ‘ideal’ health, but I don’t think they will. I also really like the word ‘healing.’ It not only gives this hopeful feel, but it implies that there is a solution or process in which the West can return to being healthy.

  4. Fred Reisen permalink

    I have a hard time grasping the idea of an “ideal health” and think there is simply too much flux in the universe for there every to be ‘one state’ the American West should be aiming for. Throughout the course I think some of the readings we have done including those examining pre-colonial anthropogenic changes in Amazon have shown me that looking back to try and find that ideal state for the environment is a lost cause. Furthermore in regards to Colleen’s comment even if there was an ‘ideal health’ I do not think America currently has ability to get there. And that is because of the third question raised above. I do believe people are the problem and they are only the solution when we talk about what is good for humankind. If we were only worried about the health of the world and the biodiversity than humans leaving the planet one way or the other is probably the best way to do that. Citing the fact that most of us want to stay here I believe that the power to heal the earth on our terms must come from us but America seems too bogged down with obsession of being the world leader, economic chief, and police force. Healing must come from within but often time it seems America is concerned too much with what is going on outside of us instead of creating the example at home.

  5. Yes, I also believe that there is what the author describes as a “ideal health” for the environment. I would argue that there is always an ideal point or level that our environment or ecosystem can reach. However, I believe there will be great variations to what people believe this actual point or level is, and if it is truly measurable and even reachable. On the other hand, I think trying to realistically reach this “ideal health” for our environment is inconceivable. We have already had such an impact on our earth and retreating back to the balanced point the author discusses is quite impossible. Furthermore, this does not mean as humans we cannot make a difference to limit or correct our destruction. It will be a long and strenuous project that will progressively improve our ecosystem and our world. It will not by any means be a fast process, rather it will be a very slow and ongoing process of humans trying to improve what we destroyed.

  6. The Gosnell article, Healing with Howls, presents biologists Reed Noss’s reasoning behind the rewilding approach to conservation. “Our principle premise is that rewilding is a critical step in restoring self-regulating land communities.”(5). This reasoning is really interesting when applying it to the discussion that we had in class today. Although Noss believes in the effectiveness of rewilding, is this really going to provide successful results or will it result in other unintended consequences. The majority of these disturbances stems from human interaction with the environment, thus humans must advocate for conservation practice to restore the damage. In my opinion, approaches such as rewilding only serve as further human intervention, which can potentially produce unintended consequences.

  7. Benjamin N. permalink

    I think the concept of an “ideal” state for the West is romantic and implausible. The ideal for any area, in my opinion, is the way it is in nature without modern human interaction. Completely removing human interaction is literally impossible, and therefore we cannot return to the ideal. We can, however, create a synergy between reality and idealism, if proper processes are put to use. If we reduce our impact on the land in as many ways as possible, then we can give the land the opportunity to thrive while still supporting human growth and development.

  8. punam123 permalink

    For your last question, i think that people are the one who creates the problem in the environment and they do have solution with the problem but we might not be able to make it like what was before. In order to implement the solution, people need to get rid of the idea of free riding effects and work together in solving the problem without dilemma. But as you posted in the blog, behind solving problem, politics is one of the hindrance.

  9. I think Kelcy brings up a good point about how the authors seem to bring up a lot of points but don’t fully answer them; they address different solutions, but how in-depth do they go, really? I, too, think that it’s a somewhat unrealistic goal, but like Benjamin, I agree that there are things that we can do, things that are not so high up in the clouds that we can’t reach them. I believe every little thing helps, and if we moved away from idealistic notions and worked towards what was much more likely, then that’s when change can truly happen. I’m not saying that ideals should disappear entirely, since they play a vital role in helping dreamers take that first step, but I do think that with each step we can achieve the ultimate goals of preservation, growth and development.

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