Several years ago, I came across a letter that my dad sent to the editor of the Union Democrat newspaper in Sonora in 1968. As I was just over a year old, I didn't know about the letter at the time. His letter was sent in response to the assasination of Robert Kennedy in June 1968. My dad, a teacher in a rural school district in Northern California, advocated gun control in response to Kennedy's murder. I still stand in awe of my dad's courage in writing such a letter. I imagine his letter had ramifications for his career and for his relationships in his community - but he wrote it anyway. And so I must write this.
Times have changed, obviously (a letter to the editor seems almost quaint in light of the instant gratification of Facebook and Twitter). And yet I can't help but admire my dad's response as I consider my own feelings following the events in Charlottesville yesterday. And I can't help but remember my granddad (my dad's dad) who crawled into the tailgunner's turret of a B-29 based on Guam during World War 2. Much as my granddad fought the evil of his time (fascism), my dad fought the evil of his days (racism).
The violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday is reprehensible on all sides. That said, the white supremacists and Nazis that precipitated the violence must be held accountable. Had a person of color, or a Native American, or (God-forbid) a Muslim, driven a car into the crowd, we'd all be howling "terrorism." The fact that our government cannot (will not?) call the act of a white, Christian(?) young man terrorism frightens and angers me.
Perhaps a blog post isn't a particularly courageous act - it doesn't feel like much in light of this weekend's events. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to stake out my perspective on what happened on the other side of this continent yesterday. I feel compelled to call out racism and intolerance when I see it. I feel compelled to join my dad and my granddad in my own small way.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
I could never live somewhere that doesn’t have distinct seasons. I’ve enjoyed Hawaii and the Caribbean when I’ve visited, but the sameness of the seasons suggests that I wouldn’t enjoy living in those places. While some would argue that my part of the Sierra foothills doesn’t experience the seasonal extremes of places like the northern Rockies, Alaska, or the tip of South America, I do enjoy the distinct changes in light, weather and internal attitude that come with the changing of the seasons.
As I write this in mid August, I recognize that we’re still in the midst of summer. Even so, the changing light (and shortening days), the moderation of our sizzling July temperatures, and the fact that both of our daughters are (or will be soon) back in school confirms that we’ve started descending the backside of the calendar - autumn is just around the corner. At some point in the next several weeks, we’ll have a cool morning and a breezy, cool(ish) day that reminds me that fall really is approaching.
Autumn, for me, has always been a season of transition and juxtaposition. The cold nights and warm days of October transition to the stormy weather and colder nights of early December (we usually have our coldest mornings just after Thanksgiving, it seems). As we “fall” towards the closing of the year, I find myself taking stock of what I’ve accomplished over the last 10 months - agriculturally and otherwise. The lambs (most of them) are sold, so we know whether the year will be profitable (or not) in a financial sense.
This feeling of wrapping up, however, is contrasted by the new beginnings represented by the start of the school year. It’s further contrasted by our preparations for a new crop of lambs. In my childhood, school started after Labor Day; our youngest, Emma, started high school last Tuesday. Lara, our oldest, will start her second year of college at Montana State University at the end of this month. Also at the end of the month, we’ll move our ewes back to irrigated pasture and begin feeding them barley in preparation for turning the rams in with them in late September. While the shorter days, falling leaves, and sense of melancholy that autumn brings me, I always get excited about the new possibilities of a new school year and a new “sheep” year. In some respects, these contrasting emotions make autumn my favorite time of year - that and the knowledge that we’ll soon be past the 100-degree temperatures of summer!
Autumn, like every season, holds uncertainty for farmers and ranchers. As a shepherd who depends on grass, I enter every fall wondering when (if?) we’ll get a germinating rain that will get the grass growing. I wonder whether we’ll have an early cold spell that will put the new grass of autumn into early dormancy. As I grow older, I also recognize that the days seem to speed by ever more quickly - Lara’s four years of high school went by quickly; Emma’s are likely to seem even more brief. Even so, I always look forward to our annual descent towards autumn.
Thursday, August 10, 2017
A much longer post is percolating - having to do with daughters, dads, college experiences, and what it means (to me) to be a Westerner. As I stew on these themes, however, I wanted to share a few observations on the somewhat surreal experience of starting my afternoon in Bozeman, Montana, and ending it (at least till I board my next flight) in Los Angeles, California.
This was my third trip to Bozeman - in the last three years, I’ve taken our daughter Lara to visit Montana State University for the first time; our whole family delivered her to her freshman year last summer; this summer, I helped her get her car to Montana. This trip marked the first time that I’ve flown for either part of the journey; in years past, I’ve driven to and from Montana.
The drive to Bozeman (at least the way we do it) takes about 15 hours to cover the 900+ miles. While the drive is long, I enjoy the slowly changing western landscapes we drive through - from the granite and conifers of the Sierra to the sagebrush flats of central Nevada and the juniper-studded mountains of the northeastern part of the state. As we enter southern Idaho, the land (with the addition of center-pivot irrigation) transitions to more intensive agriculture. The Snake River plain of eastern Idaho, in turn, transitions to the timbered mountainsides and broad river valleys north of Ashton. Once we leave the depressingly touristy town of West Yellowstone, Montana, we enter a slice Yellowstone National Park and descend the Gallatin River into Bozeman. The length of the trip gives my mind (and my body) time to adjust to these changing aspects of the American West.
Flying, however, is another experience altogether. As my United flight climbed out of Belgrade, Montana, I watched the hay and grain fields of the Gallatin valley reach up to the steep slopes of the Bridger Mountains. Clouds (and this summer’s ever-present smoke) obscured most of the next hour of my flight, but I caught a glimpse of the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake as we turned southwest towards Southern California. About 40 minutes later, I snapped a cellphone photo of the canyon lands of the desert southwest. I have to say: seeing the interior West from 30,000 feet is not nearly as interesting as seeing it from ground level!
Our plane hit some minor turbulence as we flew flew over the mountains marking the eastern edge of the Los Angeles basin. As we approached LAX from the south, I saw the Pacific Ocean in the distance - the western edge of the American West. The packed freeways (even at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon) and expanse of concrete and rooftops stood out in stark contrast to the fields and mountains I saw when I left Bozeman several hours earlier. This is probably not a shock to anyone who reads this blog, but I far prefer fields and mountains to concrete and rooftops.
Technology (airplanes, computers, and such) have shortened the distances between communities and people. In many respects, this has been a plus - connectivity usually gives us greater empathy for others. But in some respects, these connections present a double-sided challenge for rural communities - and for the West in general. If I can get from Bozeman to Los Angeles in less than three hours, perhaps I’ll decide that a summer place in Montana and winter place somewhere warmer (like LA) is doable. Driving around Bozeman - and flying out of the Gallatin valley - revealed significant new suburban development; condominiums instead of crops. Concrete and rooftops permanently change the ecological and cultural attributes that (at least for me) make the west the West. Flying, rather than driving, underscores how quickly these transitions can happen