Epiphanies on the range

  • Phil Brick


They are polite, eager, inquisitive. I can’t decide if they make me feel 20 years younger or exhausted. Every teacher should be so lucky.

I’m driving around the West with 21 students from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where I teach, and we’ve talked to ranchers and environmentalists, looked at forests that have been logged and some that were left alone, and seen forests under restoration. My job has been to force students to examine the foundations of their environmental commitments — their belief that intervening in nature can only endanger it, because nature knows best.

Why would I want to encourage students to critically examine their green faith? Aren’t I encouraging cynicism? These are good questions, and I lose sleep over them. But I see no alternative.

If the West is about anything, it’s irony, which tends to expose how unstable are the categories that we use to understand our world. At the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., a sign warns visitors that guns are not allowed. Forests may have to be burned to save them. Wilderness areas around Moab require extensive management to keep them from being overrun. People with the best of intentions often end up damaging what they care about most.

Many students have come to think about people in natural resource industries as the enemy. The logger is cast as a forest rapist, while the public-lands rancher always wears the black hat. But in the field, we meet tree farmers and ranchers who not only talk the green talk, they can show us the healthy ground where they walk. Some claim they can “out-environmental any environmentalist any day of the week.” Others ask only for better communication and more understanding among those with competing aims for our public lands.

These experiences make a powerful impression on students. Combined with extensive study in ecology, they show students that what we find on the ground is not untouched nature, but a nature that is complex and unpredictable, made even more so by a history of human-nature interactions that characterize all Western landscapes, no matter how empty they might appear.

All this can be confusing. One student writes, “How can I defend nature if we can’t say for sure what nature is supposed to look like? I get the irony thing, but where does this leave us?” My answer is simple: Unstable categories leave us in an ideal position for an epiphany, an “aha!” moment where it seems possible to re-imagine the world.

Irony is creativity’s best traveling companion. Earlier in the semester, we spent a morning with Doug McDaniel, a rancher in northeast Oregon who is spending tens of thousands of his dollars to restore meanders in the Wallowa River, which were straightened by the Army Corps in the 1950s as part of an effort to conserve farmland and water. Because meanders are essential habitat for migrating salmon, we wonder aloud how people back then could have been so shortsighted.

Doug tells us something that students will return to again and again: “Look, no one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gee, how can I screw this place up today?’ We didn’t know then what we know now. But casting blame isn’t going to bring back the fish. We have to roll up our sleeves and find ways we can work together.”

A few weeks later, we hear another message that ricochets through our semester-long discussions. It comes from Greg Neudecker, who came to Montana’s Blackfoot Valley as a wildlife official, certain that his expertise enabled him to tell people how to manage their property to restore streams.

“It wasn’t long,” Greg explains, “until I found myself running up against a wall. I learned that if you think you have all the answers so that you don’t feel you have to listen to anyone else, you are probably wrong.”

Perhaps all we need is a little less certainty and a little more humility.

As the sun sinks lower, many of our questions remain unresolved. We head for our camp just above the Santa Fe River, which (ironically) begins flowing at the Santa Fe Sewage Treatment Facility. After enchiladas from the Dutch oven, we gather in a circle to share and discuss our epiphanies.

Darkness and cold descend upon us, but they don’t seem to matter. Silence sometimes interrupts our lively discussions, and we pause to take in the wonder of the stars. We remain uncertain what this beautiful evening is telling us. But this does not diminish our love for it, nor can unanswered questions weaken our resolve to lead more deliberate lives.

Phil Brick teaches environmental politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and is the founder there of Semester in the West.

Jun 17, 2007 08:50 PM

after attending college and university for a little less than half my life i believe that we need more classes like this. i would love to have taken something like this.

Jun 21, 2007 03:05 PM

The article by Phil Brick, Epiphanies on the Range (HCN 6/11/07), is a good example of the reason I subscribe to HCN, and his attitude exemplifies what I respect most about Westerners: practicality, open-mindedness, reverence for the land, tolerance for others, and acceptance of irony. While much of your magazine is taken up with liberal environmentalist certainties and dogma it is refreshing to read such a thoughtful piece by a person who is comfortable with, or certainly cognizant of the possibility that we don’t have all the answers already.

I applaud his exposing students to the notion that some farmers and ranchers may be doing as much or more to enhance and preserve the environment than legions of the “environmentally pure”. Farmers and ranchers actually work in contact with the land every single day (with seldom a holiday) and are often very well attuned to the health of their surroundings. Many of these same “evil capitalists” make important contributions in the form of sweat and money, resulting in better condition of the land than when they found it. People in many walks of life whose work is reviled by the environmentally pure among us make important contributions to our overall well-being. We have to get used to the idea that things aren’t always black and white.

Phil Brick seems to be asking his students to live an intellectually honest life, to challenge authority or conventional wisdom, even if the authority is Environmentalism, and to become accustomed to the insecurity of a life where there are no easy answers. This should be one of the highest goals of a teacher, not the feeding (as practiced by many wild animals) of regurgitation into the open and uncritical mouths of the young. If a student can think for his/her self then that student has a chance of making new discoveries and finding solutions where none are obvious.

As to Brick’s concern that encouraging his students to critically examine their (green) faith could lead to cynicism, I say that is a risk that we have to accept if we want to lead intellectually clean and honest lives. Dogma, in any guise, is a saccharine but ultimately non-nourishing sustenance. Irony and uncertainty make us uncomfortable, but where in nature do we find a precedent for a life lived in comfort and security, free from challenge or inconvenience? Perhaps it’s the wonder and awe inspired by the natural world that’s the best salve for nerves rubbed raw by inconvenient truths or not enough certainty.

Rolling up our sleeves and working together will do far more to preserve and restore our environment than confrontations and lawsuits, and the feelings of cooperation leave a far better aftertaste than those of self-righteousness. I’d like to see fewer articles in HCN with the tone of abrasive certainty, and more that emphasize the spirit of acceptance and working together, as in “Epiphanies on the Range”.