Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

FEATURED: BARGAINING FOR EDEN by Stephen Trimble [Vol. 2, #12]

The Affection for a Place

A Review of
Bargaining for Eden:
The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America.
by Stephen Trimble.

By Brent Aldrich.


Bargaining for Eden:
The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America.
Stephen Trimble.

Hardcover: Univ. of Calif. Press, 2008.
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In Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America, Stephen Trimble narrates stories of land use in the western United States, through the varied desires of public and private, government or corporate or communal interests for the land. Focusing primarily on Snowbasin, the site of the downhill skiing events for the Salt Lake City Olympics, Trimble describes a history of local affection and privatized development of Mount Ogden in Utah, as well as several other conflicts of public and private land use, including Trimble’s new home in Wayne County, Utah.

            The story of Snowbasin begins in the 1930s with the Civilian Conservation Corps building a small ski run on the slope of Mount Ogden, which operated within the domain of the National Forest Service and remained an open and public part of the community up to the 1990s. The major player in the privatization and development of the mountain is one Earl Holding, owner of Sinclair Oil, Little America Hotels and Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, and Sun Valley Resort in Idaho; the bulk of Bargaining for Eden traces Holding’s complicated acquisition and development of Snowbasin. Along the way, all of the major players involved are introduced, including Dale Bosworth of the Forest Service, who recommends the initial negotiation for Mount Ogden and Snowbasin, which is quickly ignored; US Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the high level politicians consistently pulling through for private developers; and Margot Smelzer, a near lifelong resident of Huntsville, in the shadow of Mount Ogden.

            For Trimble, his involvement in the story of Snowbasin begins as a child on archeological trips with his parents, stopping along the way at Covey’s Little America hotel in Wyoming: “I made an emotional investment in Little America as a child, buying in to its story of survival, the romance of pioneering, the foothold in the wilderness, the intimate lonesomeness of Wyoming.

            I knew nothing then about the apprentice who managed the place for the Coveys, but I now know that he was named Earl Holding” (14).

            As Trimble navigates Holding’s developments beginning with Little America up to Snowbasin, he asks questions along the way about to what degree private desire and public interest overlap, and where dialogue between the two can be encouraged. Throughout, the question seems to be one of outsiders imposing private plans on local and communal land; it raises questions of a community’s investment in a given place, and how that local wisdom is best applied, in private and common spaces.

            Trimble’s most engaging writing reads like good journalism, with thorough investigation and balanced reporting given to all sides of a story; his own thoughts weaved into this reporting aren’t as clear as a Wendell Berry or John Hanson Mitchell, whose similar book Trespassing also considers private development of common land. The complications arise as Trimble himself is building a second home* on undeveloped land in rural Utah, and sees in his development many of the traits he has critiqued in Holding:


“we have become accomplices in the domestication of the open space of the West. I mourn the loss while I celebrate what I’ve gained – a home. Drawn by the thrill of living so close to wild country, with each step toward the creation of our home here I add a wrinkle to the social fabric, tweak the economy, and nudge the environmental balance of the mesa and its surrounding communities” (239-40).


            Trimble mostly narrates the story in terms of two typical at-odds interest groups, what writer Steve Talbott has named the “radical preservationists” and the “scientific managers;” Talbott suggests that both “regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot meaningfully participate…Both stances deprive us of any profound engagement” (Devices of the Soul, 38 — our review here). Trimble likewise acknowledges the critique that “we have set humans outside – and against – nature” (266), although the ramifications of this are only suggested at the very close of the book, in a brief “Credo: The People’s West.” This small section offers a number of helpful guidelines for engagement with the land, although coming at the end, it doesn’t seem to inform the rest of the book as much as if it came earlier.

            A voice of clarity that comes near the middle of the book is Father Charles Cummings, of the Trappist monastery in Huntsville: “Nature – with all of its seasonal variations, wildlife, vegetation, and physical aspects – assimilates the people. The rounded shapes of the hills that surround us envelop us with a tenderness and protectiveness, and unconsciously affect the people who live here, if they are open to it” (190). The affection for a place must be at the center of any dialogue on land use, lest the land be reduced to commodity; and the land can be best used by those who know it best: “[Lifelong locals] understand the land’s intimate cycles from decades and generations of living in place, a miracle of stability and identity” (281). Bargaining for Eden is the story of one such place, which could be read with many other particular places in mind.





*Try as I have to understand, the text doesn’t indicate whether Trimble intends to move out of his other house into this second one, or continue to inhabit two dwellings; in the case of the latter, it is more troubling to his overall argument.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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