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What I’m reading: conservation, place, class, identity

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland (2016) / Miriam Horn

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) / J. D. Vance

Shepherds of Coyote Rocks: Public Lands, Private Herds and the Natural World (2012) / Cat Urbigkit (Challenge book: Mount TBR #1)

Reading these three books, in this order, at this time in history and my own life, was very powerful for me. This is right in the center of my geek. Rural socioeconomic, class, and identity issues, their intersections with regional politics and conservation and sustainable development, through the lens of the lived experience of individuals.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis in 2008 – on rural identity construction and storytelling in economic development – while living in Walsenburg, Colorado, a ranching and rural support community of about 6500 halfway between Denver and Albuquerque. My literary heroes at that time were (and still are) people who wrote in place, who lived what they wrote: Terry Tempest Williams, Ed Abbey, Stanley Crawford, Wendell Berry, Ellen Meloy. And that’s what I wanted to do, too: to practice place-based short-form narrative nonfiction as a radical and transformative public art practice.

I was too timid. What came out of that work – some really good writing came out of that time, but most of it – was that I withheld my most passionate, most critical, most intimate writing in deference to the people who I thought would read it, and because I withheld, the work was never really worth putting out into the world. And after a few years of falling back and observing and learning some more (a lot more) I started writing fiction instead. I’ve spent coming up on two years writing fiction about Western Slope farmers and small-town dynamics, one of those books set during the Great Depression. I’ve studied these topics closely with a lot of passion for a long time.

I was excited about Rancher Farmer Fisherman from the minute it hit the “upcoming books” list at work, but I had a lot of stuff checked out that needed to be returned first and so it sat on my TBR pile for about a month and a half. I finally got to it right after the new year.

This is so important to understand. There has been so much framing, so much perception of the conservation movement as at war with food producers in this country. So much of the 20th century history of agriculture has been a history of emerging techniques, technologies, and business models subverting, subsuming, and subjugating working producers, forcing them into models of ever-increasing production that are not sustainable (or forcing them into competition with those models) and the overarching result has been a loss in farming jobs, a loss in farm biodiversity and land health, a loss in agricultural infrastructure robustness, a loss in access to fresh and varied food for urban people. But there has been a sea change in the last ten years. We’re still operating on the ideas of the Green Revolution, but the reality of what’s happening on the ground, if you talk to farmers, if you look at what’s actually happening, is the mainstreaming of local food movements and holistic range management and fair trade and Gulf Wild. There is so much research and innovation in agriculture right now, and so much of it is innovation toward sustainability, and this is so important.

Our civilization, quite simply, depends on our food supply. No one understands that more intimately than the people who produce our food. No one wants to succeed at keeping the land healthy and producing more than they do. If agricultural practices do not support that, we have to ask ourselves: what forces within the economic system are driving farmers into self-sabotaging models of practice, and what can we as citizens and consumers do to support moving the whole agricultural system back toward a sustainable model? To answer that question, we have to listen to farmers. We have to stop treating them as unthinking and interchangeable cogs in a giant machine, which, in a nutshell, is what’s been wrong with the whole damned system the whole time.

And that’s just what Horn does. She takes five case studies – a Montana cattle rancher, a Kansas wheat farmer, a Memphis-and-New Orleans shipping company CEO, a Venice, Lousiana advocate and community organizer for Vietnamese shrimpers, and a Florida-and-Louisiana-based Gulf fisherman – and she listens and conveys their concerns, their struggles, the hard work that they have done to make their own practices more sustainable, how national agriculture policy shapes their work and how they’ve participated in the process of shaping that policy, and what they wish the people who buy their products better understood about the food supply. She lets the lived experience and economic reality shape the narrative. She doesn’t prescribe; she lets the text speak for itself. It’s a thing of beauty.

I have lots of old-school Western thoughts and belief systems, fiscally and socially. But so much of the time people shove into one or the other pigeonhole: ‘Well, I want to be with them so I got to oppose conservation.’ But should you be all preservationist or all developer? You going to sue every grazing or timber permit, designate everything wilderness? Or maybe you’re for leaving no stone unturned for oil and gas? Are those really the only two options? The best we can do? Some folks, I think, would just rather fight than win…

– Dusty Crary, Montana cattle rancher

This book made me cry. It made me shout out in triumph. It prompted lively conversation at bus stops and at the circulation desk. I pushed this book into people’s hands. If there is one book published this decade about the American food supply that people who do not know anything about agroeconomics should read, this is it.


And coming straight off of that, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy, which got a huge amount of visibility immediately after Election Day as the political left collectively wrung its hands and cried out, “how did this happen?” and immediately began to blame poor rural people. Written by a slightly-right-of-center, Yale-educated, Ohio-native self-identified hillbilly of Kentucky Appalachian descent with great sympathy and sensitivity to Appalachian culture but in a way crafted to be accessible to urban liberals, it is – a lot of reviewers have said – timely, important, compassionate.

I had a lot of predictably conflicted feelings about it. The author draws a lot of broader conclusions from his very specific experience in a place and time shaped by historical forces that he doesn’t examine as closely as I wished he would. It’s not a scholarly work, it’s a memoir, but as an ethnographer I wish for a certain amount of scholarly rigor in memoir that’s just not here. And the conclusions that he does draw are deeply grounded in the Payne Framework, which is just so deeply problematic and damaging on so many levels. There’s a reason for that: he is a product of the Payne Framework, which is class indoctrination.

So am I, to some extent, and I know that, and I resist it. I’ve fought tooth and nail to move into economic stability and resilience while maintaining my working class identity. I wrote on Facebook a week after the election (in the comments thread after I shared this article),

And yet… I left, I got an education, I built a very middle-class-passing life for myself. I did exactly what progressivism says I should do, and look at how far my almost-master’s-degreed ass has come. Am I a class traitor? I try not to be, but, well, here I am.

So I get it. I really do. I sympathize deeply with Vance’s sense of displacement – no longer belonging to the world he came from, never quite belonging in the class he’s immigrated into. I sympathize with the previous generations whose stories he relays, who also left one place and never quite found another place. I think we need to talk about the socioeconomics of displacement and what displacement does to children and communities, and I think we need to talk more about sustainable culture in a mobile and connected world. I think a compassionate society is about creating pathways out of poverty but is also about allowing people to be poor with dignity and agency, and valuing work in varied ways, some of which have to do more with social currency than with hard currency.

I’m sad and angry that people who have bought into the Payne Framework – suburban middle-class white people, largely first-generation-middle-class people who are by middle-class measures objectively better off than their parents – see themselves as so disenfranchised, and that the most vulnerable poor rural working people are being blamed for the results of that class backlash. I think we have to ask ourselves again: what forces within the economic system are driving rural people into self-sabotaging suburban flight, and what can we as citizens and consumers do to support moving the whole urban-rural cycle back toward sustainable, diverse, robust, and connected communities both urban and rural? I don’t have answers.


Shepherds of Coyote Rocks was just the antidote I needed for the despair I felt finishing Hillbilly Elegy. This book is a diary of Cat Urbigkit’s first season as a full-time shepherd, living with her nomadic thousand-head herd on a Federal leasehold in Wyoming. From lambing through the summer to culling, she describes her battles with predators, the work of her pack of devoted and diligent herd protection dogs, her precious few hours with her husband and grown son, weather, wildlife, the changing seasons, and she threads all through it a world history of transhumance, public land lease practices in the Western US, the push and pull of wildlife conservation and range-based agriculture today and historically, the 20th century shift away from indigenous herd management practices and the 21st century trend back toward studying those practices to create a new postmodern paradigm of sustainable range management, all in language that is has a spare poetry and refreshing forthrightness to it. She wears her politics on her sleeve and makes no apologies – she loves herding culture, wherever in the world and in whatever form it takes, she loves the nomadic lifestyle, she deeply believes in the ecological and social soundness of it, and she fights like hell against public policy that constrains it. She loves her animals and her land and she’s chosen a life that will always be economically marginal, always one bad season away from disaster. She talks about how nursing orphan lambs may cost more than they’re worth and she nurses them anyway. She reminds me of the kind of writer I wanted to be, and makes me think I still can be.

Bulgaria uses transhumance grazing in the highlands to maintain mountain meadows for the conservation of species that prefer open areas. The imperial eagle, lesser kestrel, and Saker falcon are all highly dependent on the existence of open, well-grazed habitats. Since restoring a transhumance program in the Kotel Mountain area, Bulgarian officials have documented the return of three species of birds to the region: lesser grey shrike, woodchat shrike, and the long-legged buzzard. These steppe-dwelling species are now breeding in the region for the first time in more than fifty years.

* * * *

The days and weeks pass, and I’m stunned to realize it’s August. […] Driving around the pasture one evening, Jim and I look up on a ridge to see a large golden eagle perched in the middle of the sheep herd. the scene nearly made my heart stop. I reasoned with myself to be calm, but it took an effort. It’s one thing to observe an eagle hunting adjacent to the sheep – it’s another thing entirely to find that eagle amid the herd. The sun was setting, and the sheep had been grazing across a high ridge, heading to its bedding ground. Our sentinel golden eagle sat serenely in one spot, as the herd grazed close in and around it. When we flushed the eagle, it took to a nearby hillside, where another smaller eagle was also perched. The eagles stayed nearby as the sheep grazed.

Our ewes weigh about two hundred pounds, and our resident eagle looked enormous as it sat atop the sagebrush among them, yet we know it probably only weighs about ten pounds. A coyote pup approaching this herd would make a quick and easy meal for the raptor. But something tells me it is no threat to my lambs. Only time will tell if I have made a grave error in judgment. […]

 

 

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Published in intersections sense of place writing

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