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Donald Worster's Wealth of Nature is an eclectic collection of essays written over the last several years. They are revealing and worth reading precisely because they are such a mixed lot. Less tightly woven than Worster's monographs, they allow readers to glimpse an important set of ideas and assumptions that inform the body of Worster's work but are often obscured from view in Dust Bowl or Rivers of Empire.
Dust Bowl and Rivers of Empire have made Worster a major American historian. In both books Worster's gaze is fixed on capitalism and arid lands, although he defines neither narrowly. Capitalism for Worster is not just an economic arrangement, it is a culture, a particular take on the world. The culture of capitalism demands a relentless transformation of nature; capitalism commodities nature at a social and environmental cost that the planet cannot indefinitely endure. The arid lands of the West are always a vividly particular place, but they also come to stand for nature itself. The relationship of capitalism to nature is Worster's great theme, and it is one that he touches on repeatedly here, giving it a new twist in the last, title essay of this book.
But there is little sense in reading a book of essays simply to encounter in a condensed form what the author has treated expansively elsewhere; this book offers more. The very diversity of topics and audiences Worster addresses gradually draws the reader's attention to ideas which, while not usually occupying center stage in any of the essays, make at least cameo appearances in many of them. Indeed, they draw attention because they are so ubiquitous. Reading these essays, repeatedly encountering these ideas, reminded me of being a Gentile in Salt Lake City. After a while you noticed certain people simply because they seemed to show up in all the same places you did. These ideas, lingering on the margins, are like that. Worster is not happy with life on the margins, and in these essays he is creating a disturbance at the edge of the party. It is like someone heckling Orin Hatch on Pioneer Day.
Worster wants his concerns treated seriously, and he is an unusually eloquent heckler. And here …