The Life of Air: A Meditation on Studying the Unseen

From the south-facing window of my third floor apartment, I sometimes see the sunrise. Not the sun, exactly, over the river which I know lies beyond sight just past the old Ford factory, a nondescript warehouse, and several high-rise dormitories. Nor do I see the open sky above the horizon. From my small window, I can occasionally make out sunlight streaming into the airy apartment. I know the sun rises by the changing light, not by witnessing it move through the sky.

My apartment window. Photo by author.

While most Americans live this way, moving in corridors that cut through urban fabric and traffic flows, it’s been difficult for me to get used to a narrow view of the sky. I knew it was unusual to be raised on a farm in the U.S. in the late twentieth century, but I didn’t realize how profoundly a rural upbringing shaped my relationship to open space.

Yet, it does not take a rural-urban move—or vice versa—to recognize the many ways in which animals are shaped by their surroundings. Environmental historians have spent more than four decades working to challenge the nature/culture binary and have produced a vibrant array of scholarship examining how humans both shape and are shaped by the environment.[1] While many of these histories explore commodities and resource management, others probe the life of plants, the history of animals, Native American history, natural disasters, and agricultural history.

My own work explores the skies under which I grew up, unaware at the time of their importance. Until I left the Rocky Mountains, I took the region’s environmental, cultural, and geographical qualities for granted. Now as I develop my scholarship on the North American West, I wonder if I wasn’t paying attention or if the local history I learned in grade school bored me with oversimplified myths of frontier life and vigilante justice. A scholastic engagement with the region has affirmed my suspicion—there’s something distinct about those skies and whatever it is might just tell us more about ourselves.

Western skies are important in Native American traditions in the intermountain West and non-Native settlers took note of the distinct quality of the air when they arrived. The mountain air, believed to offer healing properties, appealed to consumptives in the nineteenth century and artists were drawn by the nature of the light. Boosters promoting settlement used imagery of open landscapes and the region held great promise for development, providing the United States an internal colony of natural resources which fueled industrialization.[2] To understand the role western landscapes have played in American history requires a serious consideration of the Western sky, both as perceived by humans and as a historical actor in its own right.

Montana skies. Photo by author.

Yet, historicizing air raises methodological questions and theoretical concerns. After all, how does one study something ineffable? First, it has to be made visible. Scholars working on air matters have produced studies of weather patterns, London’s infamous fog, and the mistral wind.[3]  Political approaches have probed air pollution, regulation, and environmental justice.[4] In the realm of technology, the history of aviation examines how airways transformed the landscape. Atmospheric impacts of contrails and emissions have generated concern, while airway zoning complicates notions of sovereignty, illustrating the complexity of turning skies into territory.[5] On the ground, urban growth fuels debates over commercializing air and a growing body of scientific studies draw attention to the adverse impacts of light pollution on animals’ migration patterns, not to mention its threat to the science of astronomy.[6]

If a methodological challenge is to make air visible, a theoretical issue arises with historicizing a phenomenon that is both environmental and cultural.[7] Several sophisticated studies of landscape representations produced by nineteenth century land surveys demonstrate how the visual presentation of the West promoted exploitation and settlement.[8] In the twentieth century, the prevalence of open space and big skies in the visual culture of the region confirmed the assumption that the West was characterized by clean air, a partial truth eliding environmental injustices caused by extractive industries. While many communities in the rural West continue to lack the light and noise pollution of urban areas, the region also hosts an inordinate number of brownfields and superfund sites. One of the earliest battles for smoke abatement occurred in Montana at the turn of the century, nuclear testing fallout has gravely impacted communities throughout Nevada since the 1950s, and by the late twentieth century Idaho, home to fewer than two million inhabitants, was top-ranking in air pollution nationwide.[9]

The West remains a region that is home to sublime landscapes, substantial stretches of rural space, and a prevalence of public land. Such aspects are valued by visitors and residents as unique and worthy of protection; yet the imagery of big skies and clean air tells a partial tale. Beneath impressive skies that inspire a feeling of open space, toxic landscapes and environmental inequities also shape the place. To understand how the distinct quality of air created by Western geography and meteorology has shaped human encounters with and perceptions of the intermountain West demands that we question inherited notions of wilderness. Western skies are distinct and worthy of study, yet I would like to suggest that the value of this inquiry lies as much in its aspiration to reconsider the relationship between human and sky as in its ability to tell a missing part of the American story.

While I miss the open skies and the feel of that mountain air, I recognize how uncritically aestheticizing the environment can perpetuate human relations with other life that are out of balance and harmful. Environmental scholars have rightly warned of the barrier that relegating wilderness to someplace “out there,” beyond daily life and found only in pristine landscapes poses to the creation of an ecologically balanced society.[10] Such a warning suggests the importance of reconsidering the gap between humans and other life, as well as the kinds of environments worthy of our attention. Should we need a reminder of our own relationship to the environment we move through and rely upon, pausing to remember the air we breathe is a simple, but powerful, place to start.


[1] Sarah T. Phillips, “Environmental History” in American History Now (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2007).

[3] William B. Meyer, Americans and Their Weather (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[4] David Stradling, Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers, and Air Quality in America, 1881–1951 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Scott Hamilton Dewey, Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945-1970 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2000); David E. Camacho, Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles: Race, Class and the Environment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 1998).

[5] Stuart Banner,. Who Owns the Sky?: The Struggle to Control Airspace from the Wright Brothers On (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[6] Josiane Meier, Ute Hasenöhrl, Katharina Krause, and Merle Pottharst, Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014); Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

[7] While this is the very dichotomy challenged by environmental history, useful studies of perception and sight which are of interest to the history of Western skies remain outside the comfortable purview of environmental history in visual culture and art history.

[8] Joni Louise Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1992); Robin Kelsey, Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850-1890 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007); Albert Boise, MAGISTERIAL GAZE (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1991).

[9] Donald MacMillan and William Lang. Smoke Wars (Pb): Anaconda Copper, Montana Air Pollution, and the Courts, 1890-1924 (Helena, Mont: Montana Historical Society Press, 2000); Sarah Alisabeth Fox, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2014).

[10] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); William Cronon, Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995).

*Featured image credit: Landscape in Montana, photo by author.