When I moved to Wyoming from my home state of North Carolina, I was stuck by the massive scale of the American West. Everything was bigger, harsher, more intense–the mountains, the weather, the flora and fauna. I wanted to learn about all of it, but like the landscape itself, these concepts seemed too big and broad to wrap my head around easily.
I decided to reduce the scale of what I was attempting to understand. Instead of diving into “the history of the West,” I’d read a biography about a specific explorer. Rather than trying to understand “the ecology of grasslands,” I’d read grazing plans for a specific ranch. Instead of studying “wildlife biology,” I’d read a profile of one species.
By zooming in from the large-scale to the relatively small, my average-at-best brain was able to begin comprehending the mind-blowingly complex concept of “the West”–its history, ecology, and modern-day challenges.
Below are a few books that explore a wide range of topics at different levels of scale– from the vastness of the universe all the way down to the very personal challenges of a young man from Wyoming. By examining the micro to better understand the macro (or vice versa), I hope a few of these books help open your eyes to new ideas.
by Bill Bryson
If there’s one author with the ambition and talent to tell the story of “everything,” it’s the great Bill Bryson. Using his renowned wit and endless curiosity, Bryson helps non-astrophysicists begin to grasp the vastness and scale of the massive universe we call home. Whenever I’m in need of a dose of humility, I refer back to Chapter Three’s easy-to-understand description of the scale of our solar system– nothing curbs the ego like a healthy sense of insignificance.
by Jim Howell
If you’re a supporter of Ranchlands, then you’re most likely a proponent of healthy, large-scale grasslands. In this book, Howell takes the reader from a wide, historical scale down to a ranch-specific scale, offering insights and lessons from his career stewarding grasslands. Whether describing the epoch-level history of the West’s charismatic megafauna or a specific grazing strategy for his family’s high-mountain ranch, Howell drives home the vital importance of blades of grass and their collective, critical role in our planet’s health.
by Antonia Malchik
You don’t have to be a news addict to know that we’re mired in a number of societal-scale crises– obesity, declining mental health, erosion of community, and more. Finding a solution for these massive problems can certainly seem overwhelming. Enter Malchik, who zooms in and focuses on the simple, primal act of walking–humans’ specialty for the past six million years–and how a recommitment to bipedal movement may well hold the answers to many of society’s woes. Part anthropological study, part modern-day societal critique, A Walking Life will change the way you think about everything from sidewalks to interstate highways.
by Mark Kurlansky
I know, I know, a book all about codfish sounds suspicious, but this is one of my all-time favorites. Kurlansky tells the surprisingly fascinating history of this coldwater fish, but not just from an ecological perspective. This single species of fish played a major role in everything from Vikings’ first trip across the Atlantic to fueling the European economy in the 14th century; from the settlement of the New World to today’s battles for healthy ocean ecosystems. A perfect illustration of the vast interconnectedness between micro and macro.
by Alexandra Fuller
Another example of zooming in to the smallest scale to understand a much larger-scale issue, Alexandra Fuller’s poignant, heartbreaking tale of Colton Bryant shines a spotlight on the plight of a portion of the West’s modern-day working class. Born and raised on the plains of Wyoming, Colton was an energetic, charismatic young man with endless potential– potential that was tragically never realized. By understanding the personal tragedy of Colton Bryant, I now have a better understanding of the swath of socio-economic challenges facing certain sectors of hard-working folks throughout the mountain West.
Join Ed Roberson at the Zapata Ranch next year for for five days of adventure and education inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s well-known commitment to living “the Strenuous Life.”