The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico


a John Hope Franklin Center Book

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Book Pages: 408 Illustrations: 36 illustrations Published: December 2006

Author: Kosek, Jake

American Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Geography

Through lively, engaging narrative, Understories demonstrates how volatile politics of race, class, and nation animate the notoriously violent struggles over forests in the southwestern United States. Rather than reproduce traditional understandings of nature and environment, Jake Kosek shifts the focus toward material and symbolic “natures,” seemingly unchangeable essences central to formations of race, class, and nation that are being remade not just through conflicts over resources but also through everyday practices by Chicano activists, white environmentalists, and state officials as well as nuclear scientists, heroin addicts, and health workers. Drawing on two years of ethnographic fieldwork and extensive archival research, he shows how these contentious natures are integral both to environmental politics and the formation of racialized citizens, politicized landscapes, and modern regimes of rule.

Kosek traces the histories of forest extraction and labor exploitation in northern New Mexico, where Hispano residents have forged passionate attachments to place. He describes how their sentiments of dispossession emerged through land tenure systems and federal management programs that remade forest landscapes as exclusionary sites of national and racial purity. Fusing fine-grained ethnography with insights gleaned from cultural studies and science studies, Kosek shows how the nationally beloved Smokey the Bear became a symbol of white racist colonialism for many Hispanos in the region, while Los Alamos National Laboratory, at once revered and reviled, remade regional ecologies and economies. Understories offers an innovative vision of environmental politics, one that challenges scholars as well as activists to radically rework their understandings of relations between nature, justice, and identity.


Understories is a remarkable first book by a scholar of unquestionable integrity and intelligence. It deserves to be widely read and vigorously debated.” — Paul Hirt, Pacific Historical Review

“[Understories] is sobering, disturbing, well-researched (the outcome of almost two full years of ethnographic research) and well-written, and worth the read for anyone interested in the material and semiotic politics of forests, nature and everyday life. . . . Understories is a confident and very competent history of the present. Kosek’s sensitivity to collective memory as a political device and to social theory as an explanatory tool is, perhaps, his greatest asset in this book.” — Andrew Baldwin, Journal of Historical Geography

“[I]n this well-written narrative, Kosek illustrates how deliberations about the future of mountain forests are tied to Hispanic racial politics in surprising and significant ways.” — John Herron, Journal of American Ethnic History

“[Kosek] probes the roots of forest management in the United States as well as the roots of the politics of race and difference in environmental conflicts in contemporary northern New Mexico. In so doing he presents many important insights and artful performances. . . . Kosek makes an important contribution in putting the mutual constitution of race, nation, and nature front and center in the dialogue on forging a more just and sustainable society.” — Carl Wilmsen, Society & Natural Resources

“[S]ome deep, penetrating, and incisive analyses, grounded in excellent knowledge of literatures and histories.” — E. N. Anderson, Human Ecology

“Jake Kosek has delivered a critical, compelling analysis of an enormous topic. . . . This smart and well-written book is the best and most important volume on New Mexico ever written by a geographer. It is the first critical political ecology of New Mexico.” — David Correia, Antipode

“Kosek breaks down artificial demarcations, real and imagined, that scholars use to separate natural renderings of physical space from more complex and inclusive human ecology. Using a rich collection of oral interviews, Kosek provides a compelling narrative with crafty metaphors, ironic juxtapositions, and contemporary vignettes to illuminate larger issues, such as the formation and embedded meaning of a national forest service, the limits of mainstream environmental preservation movements, and the subtext of national icons. . . . I highly recommend Kosek’s book for courses in environmental studies, critical social theory, and New Mexico history.” — Kenneth Orona, New Mexico Historical Review

“Kosek offers an important cultural reading of environmental politics, showing how differing constructions of nature and identity have produced northern New Mexico’s forest disputes. His analysis of Forest Service governance, the power at the center of the disputes, is unusually perceptive and deserves a wide audience.” — Ruth M. Alexander, American Quarterly

“Kosek’s writing is engaging and draws skillfully on conversations, ethnographic observations, and archival research. His approach bridges disciplinary boundaries between anthropology, history, American culture studies, and political ecology. His work on cultural politics and memory will be of interest to the interdisciplinary field of memory studies. Practicing environmentalists and social justice advocates will benefit from the book’s critical and even-handed consideration of these forestry disputes in the American Southwest.” — Emily McKee, Comparative Studies in Society and History

"[A] beautifully written monograph on forest politics in northern New Mexico. . . . [H]is central message that nature, race, and nation are historically inseparable is a refreshing insight relating to this particular area." — Laura M. Rival, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Understories is a critically important book. Jake Kosek’s arguments are original, necessary, and rarely heard; his deep tying together of race and nature is almost entirely absent from the current scholarly literature.” — Hugh Raffles, author of In Amazonia: A Natural History

“In this stunning account of the forest wars of New Mexico, Jake Kosek forces us to reconsider the underlying racial politics of the environmental movement’s self-righteous claims to ‘stewardship’ over the natural resources that sustain indigenous communities. If you want to understand the deep roots of the rising anger, not just of the Hispanos in the Española Valley, but of marginalized blue-collar people everywhere in the West, this powerful and honest book, with its unique synthesis of theory and passion, is the place to begin.” — Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums and Buda’s Wagon

“This theoretically and methodologically innovative study of how environmental politics shape and are shaped by race, class, and nationalism in the Southwest will make an important contribution to environmental anthropology and history as well as to border studies for years to come. An exciting book, it is also highly readable and can be used in advanced undergraduate as well as graduate-level courses.” — Ana Maria Alonso, author of Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico’s Northern Frontier


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jake Kosek is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. He is a coeditor of Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction 1

1. The Cultural Politics of Memory and Longing 30

2. Sovereign Natures 62

3. Passionate Attachments and the Nature of Belonging 103

4. Racial Degradation and Environmental Anxieties 142

5. “Smokey Bear is a White Racist Pig” 183

6. Nuclear Natures: In the Shadows of the City on a Hill 228

Conclusion: On Piñon and Politics 276

Notes 289

Works Cited 345

Index 371
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, 2007 John Hope Franklin Award, American Studies Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3847-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3832-1
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