Zane Grey, Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon

On a whim recently, I pulled from my vast to-be-read mound Zane Grey's long-ago novel Ken Ward in the Jungle, and since I kind of enjoyed the experience, I decided it was time to revisit his memoir non-fiction novel book Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon. Even with its very odd title, this book has always had real personal meaning for me, even though my copy has been in a box for most of the last 25 years, and even though it turns out that I'd lost track of just about the entire plot.

Chief among the things I'd forgotten was the novel's affecting introduction, in which Grey dedicated Roping Lions "To the Boy Scouts of America and Readers of This Book." These days I teach and research at the intersection of literature and environment, so I'm a little embarrassed that I'd so completely forgotten Grey's activist intent:
Every boy has a heritage. It is outdoor America. Our open country, that is to say, our uncultivated lands, forests, preserves, feeding and nesting swamps, are threatened by the march of so-called progress and commercialism. What is needed is two million Boy Scouts to save some of our green, fragrant, untrammeled land for the boys to come. (p.v)
That word "untrammeled" jumped out at me, especially in an American context, because of how the Wilderness Act (1964) defines "wilderness" in section 2(c): "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Of course Grey was writing many years before the framers of the Wilderness Act, but it's still a striking coincidence. (More here on untrammeled etc.)

The gist of the novel is that in 1908, Grey travelled to Powell's Plateau in the Grand Canyon in order to rope cougars, with legendary plainsman Buffalo Jones, James Simpson Emmett (simply "Emett" in the book, not specifying it as a first or a last name), Jim Owens, and an unnamed Navajo man referred to only as "Navvy." The book never explains the motivation behind their collective quest to rope mountain lions; maybe they were trying to translate catch-and-release fishing into a hunting context, maybe they were collecting live specimens, who knows. Whatever the rationale, things go badly more often than they go well (as with every story about hunting, hiking, or camping). The five men survive almost unscathed, but things go very wrong indeed, and in consequence all of them go through some form of transformation in the end -- though Grey doesn't follow up on the permanence of the transformation, except by implication through the voice of his introduction.

A contemporary nature-lover, animal-lover, or environmentalist will be appalled by elements of this book, completely appalled by them. (And the representation of Navvy, too, will appal many readers, but that's a story for someone else to tell.) The men had needed to bring food for their hounds, and in consequence they'd "packed between three and four hundred pounds of wild-horse meat, which had been cut into small pieces and strong on the branches of a scrub oak near camp" (p.35). Several lions die, often ignobly in protracted deaths, often without much apology. While Grey gives us an impressive precursor to Aldo Leopold's oft-mentioned experience at seeing life fade away from the eyes of a wolf he had shot, but with a mountain lion here, the deaths will seem inadequately atoned for.

But Grey presents himself in Roping Lions as deeply, deeply respectful of untrammeled nature. There are some ways in which the environmentalist icon John Muir was less Thoreauvian and less of a Transcendentalist than was the hunter and pulp writer Zane Grey. While his relation to the Grand Canyon and its lions was intensely ego-driven, he reveals himself to have been overwhelmed by the experience even through his workaday description of the assorted tasks and horrors that faced the four men. The other four men were to some extent already grounded in the West, but Grey shows us here several ways in which he comes to recognize the peculiar potency and allure of wilderness in western North America (or "eastern North America," as we say from the West Coast).

As Douglas Coupland put it in his problematic but under-appreciated story collection Life After God, "As long as there is wilderness, I know there is a larger part of myself that I can always visit, vast tracts of territory, lying dormant, craving exploration and providing sanctity" (p.344). Yes, yes, quite right, you should doubt the line that wilderness itself craves exploration, and you should object to the ego's subjugation of the world to the ego's self-discovery, but  you know what? Powerful stuff anyway. You can surrender to it even while doubting, and you should read Zane Grey's Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon. Of course you'll regret it, but there are worse ways to spend an evening, no?


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