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Montana Festival of the Book: Approaching the West through literature

This panel was full of insights, as might be expected from a group of writers of this caliber. It included David McCumber (pulitzer-prize winning journalist whose most recent book focuses on the asbestos trouble in Libby: An Air that Kills), Mark Spragg (Where Rivers Change Direction and An Unfinished Life), Annick Smith (In This We are Native and Homestead), Gary Ferguson (The Great Divide and Hawk’s Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of the Yellowstone, Peter Bowen (the Tumbler: a Montana mystery featuring Gabriel Du Pre), and Rick Ardinger (publisher of Limberlost Press).

And yet, I was reminded of what Jeff Gruber told me when I talked to him in Libby late last summer. He had curtailed some of his civic engagement in dealing with land use issues because it didn’t seem useful going to meetings and hearing people wearily taking the same old positions and wearily defending them.  “I’m waiting for someone to bring a new idea or a new way of approaching it,” he said.

I think I know what he means. When you are young enough to be hearing some arguments for the first time, it’s easy to get a heady sense that something is happening. That something is going to change. Ah, youth! But if you follow public debates long enough, the positions taken by various people can start to seem too predictable. Here we go again. It seems little changes because of meetings, except in times of serious crisis, when things are going to change one way or the other, regardless of what people want. Maybe it’s why we have serioius crises.

At one point Annick said, “It’s heartbreaking to live in a place that is so threatened.” She was talking about her home on the Blackfoot but also of Montana in general. She was talking about new attempts to use cyanide to mine gold.

Yes, there’s heartbreak here. And as long as the question is whether we want or need more gold at the cost of threatening Montana’s landscape, the answer is simple. Indeed, Montanans already gave their answer by passing I-137 in 1998. Our answer is “no.”

Since 1998, the Colorado company that wants to mine the Blackfoot has not proposed or said anything very persuasive to me.  Certainly, the people of Montana had a right to ban cyanide heap-leach open-pit gold mining, which they did. The company then sued the state, claiming the ban was a “takings” case depriving them of their property.  But the company had no property rights. They simply had a State mining lease without a permit. Having once defeated this company, people such as Annick are right to feel heartache at seeing this outfit using its money to run over the people of Montana.

But environmental controversies don’t separate cleanly from other issues. I let my memberships in environmental organizations lapse years ago, because so many people who would conserve our landscapes also take other positions which I don’t want to support. For example, one of the people on the panel in Missoula mentioned that “there are too many people on the planet.” I distrust those who define the existence of others, especially the poor, as the problem. Though generally such people are nice enough and seem to mean no harm, I believe they need to be opposed or harm will come, though it may take a couple generations.

A love of nature is entangled in many modern minds with a dislike of all those people, especially poor people, who are making a mess of things. One of the panelists encouraged people to read What’s the Matter with Kansas, a controversial book by Thomas Frank that argues, in essence, that people in middle America tend to be stupid, as seen by their refusal to elect Democrats.

Frank’s evidence for this is that many Republicans in red states aren’t making all that much money. It’s a materialist argument, and for him it’s clear that people who don’t see the superiority of the left are either looney or stupid. They don’t see their own best interests. Frank assumes that the purpose of government is to enrich people, and he seemed never to consider that all those people in Kansas, and Montana, might think the purpose of government lay elsewhere.

I’ts possible, I suppose, that the masses who live in America’s interior are simply dumb. But another possibility is that they see and respond to things that Thomas Frank and our panelists don’t see. I don’t think I’ve ever voted for a candidate who focused on how the government would enrich me under his or her plan. Someone who sounded more like James Madison would be more likely to get my vote.  For me, environmental movements need to rely on building majority consensus, as was done in the case of cyanide mining. That is best done through hard work and honesty and an unfeigned interest in other people. Unfortunately, environmental groups have so often relied on ugly street politics to stymie or intimidate legitimate government and on court decisions that undermine consensual government that such tactics have become part of the culture. For me, the threats to self-government tend to be more dire than the threats to the land, though both are real enough.

Annick also noted that we “are getting a landed gentry” as ranchers retire and their land is sold to wealthy people from outside Montana. She added, wistfully, that this might at least lead to the land being protected. And so this is one possibility for Montana’ future: a beautiful land, void of people.

But the Montana I would like to live in is a place with both a beautiful landscape and a vibrant society. Lots of people figuring out how to live well with abundant wildlife populations and clear air and pure water--people who want to help the poor of the world, mostly through education and freedom, and don’t dream that they might be eradicated. I find more heartbreak in contemplating the poor of the world than I do in contemplating the fate of the Blackfoot. I doubt we can protect the earth without finding ways to help the poor. But when it comes to what might really work for the poor, I find it a general rule that environmentalists have very bad answers. So I link arms with them and walk as far as I can, but it tends not to be far enough.

A couple of the speakers cut against the general gloom. Peter’s viewpoint is partly the live-and-let-live that I was taught growing up in Montana and partly the eternal amusement of rustics at the clumsiness of dudes and slickers. Peter has been fishing Montana rivers since 1955, and he isn’t threatened by all the new people on the river. They tumble down the river in $12,000 drift boats, bouncing into rocks and banks. “It’s like going deer hunting with a brass band.” But where is the problem?

“They come. They get their insect bites. They go. They don’t bother me all that much.” Listening to Peter’s comments was great fun. He promoted a sort of cheerfulness that is quite useful. In a pinch, a poor guy might turn to him for help.

But it was Gary Ferguson from Red Lodge who I found most useful. He suggested a way to frame the “problem” that brings hope and hope’s first cousin, real work to do. Rather than thinking we’re going to have to choose between land and people in a heartbreaking world where more people inevitably mean degradation of the land, he suggested that Montana might create a literature that attracts to this place the kind of people who will care for it.

That’s the best answer we will ever have. It’s the education project, which is to say it’s the fundamental human project. We need to build a majority that is wise. As daunting as that is, I see no good alternative to it.

We need to learn and teach the ways of a world worth building. The best Montana isn’t one we hopelessly try to hold as it inevitably slips away. If we think so, we misunderstand our plight. The best Montana isn’t the past, which we cannot hold. The best Montana is the one that’s coming.

I bought his new book ”The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Ferguson said he has moved from writing “about the tracks we leave in nature to writing about the tracks nature leaves in us.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/03 at 11:27 PM






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