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IV. Regional Identities in Question

From Gated Communities to the Yaak Valley: Identity and Territoriality in Montana

Pascal Bardet
p. 257-266

Abstract

Habiter un lieu nécessite une démarche d’identification au territoire. Les liens qui unissent identité et territorialité sont ici étudiés à travers l'examen de deux démarches en apparence opposées. Les gated communities, enclaves résidentielles fermées qui ont fait leur apparition il y a une dizaine d’années dans le Montana, répondent à la volonté pour certains de se forger une identité collective basée sur l’entre-soi. Ici, le besoin d'habiter un espace cerné, borné permet de renforcer le sentiment d'appartenance et d'existence. Pour d'autres, tel l'écrivain Rick Bass, la construction identitaire nécessite un rapport fusionnel entre soi et un espace que l'on souhaite garder inviolé, territoire de l’intime et de la contemplation. Cependant, une analyse plus approfondie montre que, quelle que soit la démarche envisagée, l’individu a besoin de borner son espace pour s’identifier à lui. Qu’il soit naturel ou construit, le balisage ancre le lieu et territorialise celui qui s’y installe.

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1The State of Montana is slightly smaller than France and has less than a million inhabitants, compared to 66 million. It is mostly a rural state (with only seven towns with a population higher than 10,000 inhabitants) and has, along with Alaska and Wyoming, the lowest population density in the U.S. (2.39 inhabitants / square kilometer) while the national average is 31 inhabitants / square kilometer.

2In this vast open area where the horizon merges with the sky, man seeks to establish boundaries, landmarks, so as to anchor himself in his environment and give meaning to his presence and existence. In an already built environment, man can settle down and find his own coherence within a complex network that defines and bounds his living space.

3The purpose of this paper is to study the links between the notion of American identity and that of territorial domestication through an examination of two seemingly diametrically opposed approaches. We will first consider the desire for some to live within a shared and collective environment such as a gated community, a desire showing the need to inhabit a bounded territory in order to strengthen one’s sense of belonging and existence.

4Conversely, the construction of one’s own identity, for others, may require the rejection of any built environment and the willingness to merge with a landscape that has to be open, free, untouched, in which the individual is going to settle and with which he can identify.

5The construction of an individual or collective identity necessarily entails the domestication of one’s environment, a phenomenon with both physical features (creating a network of built spaces) and symbolic, personal characteristics (the connection between self and place). Our identity is shaped within a space that is our own and within a double pattern of assimilation and differentiation. This personal space has boundaries that define what we could call the community (the neighborhood, the town, etc.), a community that allows us to place and ground ourselves in the world. Our own existence could then be defined as a form of "spatial inscription". For some, this inscription requires the creation of an artificial and fragile communal sense based solely on segregation and residential self-confinement, a direct consequence, according to Françoise Navez-Bouchanine, of the fragmentation of our modern experience:

Our former unified and organic urban structure has now been replaced by a random set of fragmented spatial forms, marked by strong spatial domestication processes, spatial forms that are not only cut off from each other, but also caused by some sort of social and political retrenchment. (Navez-Bouchanine 19, my translation)

6Gated communities are enclosed housing subdivisions subject to rules of private territorial governance. These are residential areas where access is controlled, and in which public space is privatized. Their security infrastructures, typically walls or gates and a guarded entrance, protect the residents from the outside world. They may be located in new areas or older neighborhoods that have been fenced in and are found both in urban and suburban districts. Gated communities promote the establishment within the same territory of a social group that meets certain common characteristics of age, income or status. Therefore, we see that the marketing of these closed enclaves is based not only on the preservation of a safe environment but also on the willingness to protect a self-proclaimed community against external intrusion, ensuring the preservation of one’s peace, one’s social status and the value of the property. These enclosed territories generate a kind of ideal community. In a country prone to suburban sprawl and to the infinite repetition of soulless spaces, gated communities create focal points and bound the territory, thereby putting up a unifying and collective network built on exclusion and discrimination. These communities represent the spatial inscription in the American landscape of both the fear of what is different and unknown and the rejection of the known.

7Although the establishment of gated communities is marginal in Montana (no more than a dozen today compared to about 10,000 nationwide), this new form of privatization of the American West deserves to be highlighted.

8Contrary to what one can observe in the rest of the United States and especially in highly urbanized areas where the residential enclave aims at creating a more or less autonomous, homogeneous pocket reflecting the conscious avoidance of any external disturbance, what or who do people want to protect themselves from in an area as open as the American West?

9The growing privatization of the American West is a direct consequence of the influx of seasonal or part-time residents for whom the feeling of security that is prevalent there, both during their stay and in their absence, is a significant factor in the acquisition of such property. These enclaves represent fortified rural pockets of wealthy investors who come from all parts of the US and cause, therefore, a break and an intrusion into the landscape and the local population. The surrounding wall reduces contact with other segments of the population. Last but not least, the privatization of the West seems to exemplify the willingness to recreate the myth of the Frontier even in the most minute details: some technical and administrative buildings that look like barns are added, roads are covered with gravel in order to reproduce in a very imperfect way the mythical trails of the West, hundreds of ponderosa pine trees are planted to preserve the illusion of an untouched natural environment in harmony with its surroundings. These enclaves are more like a theme park, a disneyesque intrusion in the landscape rather than a modern version of a Jeffersonian vision of the West.

10As if to echo the New Urbanism theories developed in the late 1980s by Andres Duany, among others, which focused on a rebuilding of the American city centered around the well-being of its citizens and not the automobile, the concept of New Ruralism became a new approach to rural America, with the intrusion of urban and suburban concepts within the American countryside. The enclaves in the American West are indeed not yet widespread, but they nevertheless contribute in their own way to create "strong territorial domestication [...] caused by social retrenchment" within an open and infinite terrain, according to Françoise Navez-Bouchanine cited above.

11This retreat into high-end enclaves and the slow privatization of the American West have recent political justifications since they date back to the late 1990s and early 21st century, a period that corresponds to the domination of the Republicans on the political scene. Throughout its history, the Republican Party has often been in favor of the privatization of land use to the detriment of governmental control of environmental issues. The ratification of the Wilderness Act in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, which protected millions of acres of land and drastically restrained their use and exploitation, was seen as an encroachment of the federal government on public land access and control. The return to power of the Republicans, especially Reagan's presidential term from 1980 to 1988, coincided with an anti-environmental counterattack by conservatives, who felt that many of the federal environmental regulations restricted private enterprise, diminished economic development, and intruded on states' rights. Under the Bush administration, population growth, resource consumption, and technological development further intensified the ever-growing intensity of land use to the benefit of private enterprises.

12The development of gated communities and the privatization of Western enclaves represent, therefore, a political and sociological response to the various campaigns for the protection of public land. These rich private communities both privatize vast tracts of land and prevent the further expansion of public designated and federally protected areas.

13More than being a response to the fear of the outside world, the few gated communities located in Montana represent a form of spatial displacement of one’s personal sphere. In other words, the enclave can facilitate the foundation or recreation of one’s own identity in an unknown territory. It functions as a new port of call, a new anchor that is essential in maintaining a sense of belonging while providing the seasonal and non-native residents with the illusion of having domesticated a vast and limitless environment, of having recreated the myth of life on the Frontier by the setting up of walls, gates and fences. The relationship between belonging, identity, and territoriality here seem inseparable.

14When looking at the history of land use, one finds philosophical justifications and foundations for the various attempts to form communal identities through shared space in Locke's theory of private property, a theory built on the premise that the appropriation of nature can only be achieved through its transformation. In other words, the privatization of space necessarily entails its alteration. The study of land use in America shows that land was seen as an economic resource to be used for profit and sustenance. The initial popular view of the territory was that of vast, empty, or underexploited space. At the outset of the building of colonial America, Native Americans were seen as not using the land to its full potential. Therefore, efforts from the settlers to take territory away from them were considered acceptable, and even encouraged. Locke asserted that people were entitled to own land by using it. Jefferson, who was a follower of Locke’s philosophy of natural rights, which he used in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, praised the virtues of a simple rural life and believed that private property and agrarianism gave people political and economic freedom. Hence, the notion of private ownership became entrenched within American culture.

15In order to firmly establish the privatization of hitherto vast uncharted tracts of lands, new land-use methods were used that drastically defaced the rural landscape. Fences were put up that created boundaries and roads were built that sliced up the countryside. Enclosures ended the traditional rights of communal access for the poor to work on the land to secure their own means of subsistence. This process became fundamental to the rise of capitalism. John Locke defended the use of enclosures as he regarded them as effective ways of maximizing economic productivity:

[H]e that encloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniences of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common. (Locke 139)

16Inhabiting the land and working on it not only entail the presence of individuals but also involve the building of physical infrastructures on it. A place is then transformed and developed according to one’s immediate needs. The privatization and hence transformation of the land for one’s sustenance may, according to Locke, confer the individual with property rights. Land can also be altered for the common good, whether on a local or statewide scale, to generate the building of communities through a collective venture. Land ownership then becomes communal. America’s vast uncharted spaces were, according to Locke, worthless territories that could only be improved by settling and working on them. Progress was linked to industrial and commercial needs and, therefore, to the irreversible transformation of nature.

17Rick Bass's position is diametrically opposed to Locke's notion of progress that focuses on industry and agriculture. One’s view on land use and improvement may entail its destruction for another. To Bass, the preservation of the last virgin and unspoiled territories in America becomes the battle for one’s ontological subsistence. The protection of these natural shrines anchors man in a world that still makes sense and with which one feels a deep connection.

The wilderness has helped provide models for increasing the boundaries of [our] own imagination­, the mysterious connection between body and mind. […] Where is the wilderness going? What happens to us when it is gone? Are we richer, when this happens, are we more secure? Will we know more joy, more peace? (Bass 1996, 65; 170)

18Therefore, the construction of one’s own identity, according to Rick Bass, requires an approach that is seemingly totally different as self-discovery, according to him, entails a direct confrontation with the landscape, an intimate union between man and nature, which can only come to life if it is not polluted and disturbed by the traps of modern technology. A native of Texas and a biologist by trade, Rick Bass decided to devote himself to writing at the end of the 1980s and looked for an environment conducive to artistic creation. In 1987, he and his wife Elizabeth moved to the Yaak Valley, in northwestern Montana, which they discovered by chance, on the advice of an estate agent in Whitefish:

We went in to see a realtor … and he began telling us about a wild, magical valley up on the Canadian line over near Idaho. Yaak, he said, wasn't really a town–there was no electricity, no phones, no paved roads–but a handful of people lived there year round, sprinkled back in the woods and along the Yaak River … Heading northwest, we drove without seeing any sign of human life–deeper and deeper into the last and largest spot of unroaded green on our highway map … There was nothing but a mercantile and a saloon, one building on either side of the street … and still no sign of life, no people. It was as if they had all been massacred, I thought happily. We knew immediately that this was where we wanted to live, where we had always wanted to live. We had never felt such magic. (Bass 1991, 3-5)

Whereas the road creates a complex network of planned spaces and anchors them under the weight of asphalt, it disfigures and tears apart the Bassian landscape. Excessive logging mutilates nature and encourages Bass to go to war against deforestation, which defaces the Yaak Valley. His first two books about Montana, Winter published in 1991, and The Book of Yaak, published in 1996, cry out for the preservation of the wilderness. The writer is one with the landscape which he inhabits, defends and whose very soul he wants to save.

19Here is his declaration of intent: "What do I want? What do I want? I want the last few roadless areas in this still-wild valley to remain that way […] It’s possible art could protect the last roadless areas of Yaak Valley" (Bass 1996, xiv-10). It creates a gap into unspoiled nature. It was at the end of the American road, a few miles from the Canadian border, that Rick Bass chose to settle.

It was early September and I was driving, literally, to the last road in the United States, a gravel-and-dirt road that paralleled the Canadian border, up in Montana's Purcell Mountains. It was like going into battle, or falling in love, or waking from a wonderful dream, or falling into one. (Bass 1991, 7)

Bassian territory begins where the road ends. It is not bounded by a tangle or network of roads but is framed by Idaho, the Canadian border, the mountain range and the shape of the valley itself which is sunken and remote.

20According to Bass, winter further isolates his territory and grounds him more in it. Under the weight of snow, the only road leading to the valley is erased from the Bassian map: The lovely thing about the road to Libby–the road to the big city–is that, so I'm told, it's often impassable in winter."Our valley can become marooned, snowbound" (Bass 1991, 28). In winter, landscape disappears and is forgotten. Snow obliterates the limits and boundaries of our surroundings, as indicated by Gaston Bachelard: La neige néantise le monde extérieur."In the outside world, snow covers all tracks, blurs the road, muffles every sound, conceals all colors. As a result of this universal whiteness, we feel a form of cosmic negation in action" (Bachelard 53). Snow, according to Bass, abolishes all boundaries, blurs the lines of the landscape but it also strengthens the feeling of belonging to a community. Snow that sticks to his boots or that falls on the roof of his cabin has an anchoring power. The weight of snow fixes him in time and place:

It's going to be strange falling asleep tonight, knowing that snow is landing on the roof. It's here. We’re here. Nobody's leaving … We stamp snow from our boots exactly the same way the locals do. It makes me feel good to do it, makes me feel rooted. (Bass 1991, 84-90)

21Snowmelt, in the spring, breaks the isolation, threatens the cohesion of the community through the intrusion of the outside world. It makes the valley accessible and therefore vulnerable again:

We want it to be cold, we want the snow, desire the isolation, desolation, insulation, silence. It's why we're up here, it's why everybody's up here. […] It makes us feel safe, this isolation, but with the snow melting and the roads passable again–accessible to any damn tourist who wants to visit, any old pilgrim–it makes us feel exposed. (Bass 1991, 99)

22The Book of Yaak, published five years after Winter, is a much less contemplative book in which Rick Bass adopts the tone of the pamphleteer, denouncing the ravages of excessive deforestation in northwestern America and, in particular, in the Yaak Valley. Forest roads that are built for the transportation of timber irrevocably lacerate and disfigure the landscape that the author is trying to preserve. However, while denouncing the drastic cuts performed in these last wild areas of Montana, the author is also aware that his pen traces a path that can be equally devastating. Writing about the Yaak and educating the readers about the dangers it incurs is also running the risk of exposing this valley nestled in a bosky bower that the author is trying to preserve:

It frightens the hell out of me to be focusing on the Yaak–drawing attention to it. But it is so very much at the edge–so heavily fragmented, by the twelve hundred miles of roads, and the giant clearcuts–that if I do not draw attention to it, it will surely be lost […] There is still a symphony, still a harmony: barely. (Bass 1996, 74)

23Bassian space actually turns into an enclosed territory that is jealously guarded despite the conscious betrayal made possible by the author’s pen. The lack of roads in the Yaak makes it an almost inviolable, impenetrable place. It is a remote valley where even electricity and telephone services are often lacking. The Yaak’s ways are and must remain impenetrable, according to Bass. Thus the spirit of the place can be preserved. Bassian space is bounded and closed–"we need that notion of an edge in both our imaginations and the real world" (Bass 1996, 65)–and also dotted with landmarks, focal points that anchor the place in which man can locate and orient himself. The hamlet of Yaak is reduced to its simplest expression under Bass’s pen and comprises a saloon, the Dirty Shame Saloon, a general store, a church (which is also used as a community center and a polling station) and two telephone booths.

[The Yaak Valley] is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church … but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God–the scent, feel, sight, taste and sound of God–forever fresh upon it. One place, untouched by us. The wilderness. The harbor, from which we came. Home. (Bass 1996, 112)

24The act of laying down roots, of inhabiting a place, becomes a religious act: the secular world becomes sacred ground which is organized around a center, a core. This area which becomes our own sacred place is opposed to profane space, which is uninterrupted and "amorphous". According to historian of religion Mircea Eliade, this manifestation of the divine, which he calls hierophany, orients and grounds man within sacred space, which is distinct from the outside world that remains formless and chaotic:

For religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others ... There is a sacred space, and hence a strong significant space; there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure and consistency, amorphous … For religious man, this spatial non-homogeneity finds expression in the experience of an opposition between space that is sacred–the only real and really existing space–and all other space, the formless expanse surrounding it.

When the sacred manifests itself in any hierophany, there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also revelation of an absolute reality, opposed to the non-reality of the vast surrounding expanse. The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world. In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center. (Eliade 20-21)

25The theme of the organization or the structuring of space around a focal point, a core, was also addressed by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: "Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly" (Thoreau 75).12

26Therefore, a place only exists by the presence of man within it. Inhabiting a place entails the foundation of a twofold identity: that of the place we choose to live in and our own. A simple object, by its mere presence in the landscape, seems to rearrange, reorganize the environment.. It becomes its focal point, its core.

27In a poem by Wallace Stevens called "Anecdote of the Jar", the jar, with its geometrical forms and symmetrical lines, brings in some permanence, some balance in an otherwise formless space. The object, which is a pole of stability, anchors space when it is laid on the ground:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee. (Stevens 76)

Formless space becomes a place, a territory when we provide it with a core and limits. It is a portion of space built around an individual or communal core. Place, then, is territorial space, produced space in the sense that it is seen as an extension of our own being or, as Heidegger puts it, Dasein in which space takes on an ontological dimension: an expression of who we are. Therefore, we see that the need to defend our intimate environment does not only mean protecting it from potential external threat but also and above all, preserving our own identity.

28Just as gated communities stand for safe, bounded places, and represent an identity-building or identity-preserving environment, Bassian space also has its limits, both geographic and symbolic and, as such, creates a territorial intimacy with its resident.

In this vast and infinite American landscape, man feels the existential need to place himself at the core of his own domesticated environment.La recherche d'une cohérence passe par la découverte d'un centre, d'un point névralgique qui est au cœur d'un espace intériorisé, sacré et ordonné. The search for coherence in our surroundings involves the building of a core, a focal point which is at the heart of an internalized and sacred space.

29The gate and the wall of a gated community, just as Rick Bass’s cabin, the mountain range, the Yaak river, and the forest in the valley mark the limits beyond which the world is no longer defined, or at least, is foreign to us.

30In A Thousand Plateaus, published in 1980, Deleuze and Guattari write: “What is mine is first of all my distance; I possess only distances. Don't anybody touch me, I growl if anyone enters my territory, I put up placards” (Deleuze & Guattari 352).

Therefore, when space is devoid of margins, borders, contours and fixed landmarks, we territorialize it, we put up placards, by creating distances between the core of our own self and the limits of our personal and intimate universe. Rick Bass’s works can thus be read as an act of identity building, not only in the defense of his home and habitat but also in putting down in words the very existence of this valley, which is a territory of self-redefinition.

31The creation of gated communities in the West as well as Rick Bass’s vehement discourse for the defense and protection of the Yaak Valley both have social, political, and even ontological ramifications. Both are indeed retrenchment attempts from an environment that one deems as fragmented, alien and hostile. Whether man-made or natural, these self-contained enclaves represent areas of salvation and rejuvenation, "place[s] to run to when things go wrong, when the whole rest of the world goes up in conflagration" (Bass 1996, 149).

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Bibliography

Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space [1958], Maria Jolas trans., Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Bass, Rick, Winter (Notes from Montana), New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

-----, The Book of Yaak, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Deleuze, Gilles, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus [1980], Brian Massumi trans., London: The Athlone Press, 2000.

Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion [1957], Willard R. Trask trans., San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Locke, John, Second Treatise of Government [1689], New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Navez-Bouchanine, Françoise, La fragmentation en question. Des villes entre fragmentation spatiale et fragmentation sociale ? Paris : L’Harmattan, 2002.

Stevens, Wallace, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York: Knopf, 1954.

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden [1854], New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Pascal Bardet, « From Gated Communities to the Yaak Valley: Identity and Territoriality in Montana », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 257-266.

Electronic reference

Pascal Bardet, « From Gated Communities to the Yaak Valley: Identity and Territoriality in Montana », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 14 April 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/505 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.505

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About the author

Pascal Bardet

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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