The sounds of silence, Eastern style


I once read about a lock-tender who spent his life accompanied by the sound of rushing water going over the lock’s dam. Then, the dam was taken down, ending a lifetime of constant background noise, which, although perhaps a pleasant-enough sound, was still, well, constant. His greatest surprise was finally being able to hear the birds.

I now understand his perspective. A year ago, we moved from Idaho to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the oversized apostrophe of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Our decision generated a lot of jaw-dropping, incredulous stares from our friends and endless questions of “Why?”

As we adjusted to our new home, it became clear that something was missing, but its absence was actually pleasing. Frankly, the West is consumed with noisy fights, mostly over land and resources. Now, we don’t hear it anymore. Like that lock-tender, the sound had become a constant context to our lives, and now, away from it, we, too, can finally hear the birds.

Westerners, listen to yourselves!  You’re each a part of a Tower of Babel -- a discordant group arguing about sage grouse, water, fish, power, wilderness, old growth, bighorn sheep, forest health, wolves, mining, ATVs, wild horses, grazing, energy, Indians … the list is endless, the fighting never-ending.

Moreover, Westerners seem born to battle or at least driven to claim a predictable position by their profession or politics.  You’re born or become a rancher, a logger, wildlife biologist, Democrat, Republican, environmentalist, Indian, miner, recreationist or an agency manager. Each occupation or identity comes with a clear expectation of your behavior and opinions when it comes to any given issue. Your friends and social life are defined accordingly. Public lands may be great, but it seems their current biggest public value is to provide a large, conveniently located arena for a public brawl.  At least you’re brawling in a pretty place.

During my years in Idaho, I did my share of fighting.  Some of the conflicts were productive, like the one that inspired the rewrite of Idaho’s implementation of the Clean Water Act, a law that is still on the books and reportedly serving all interests well.

Other fights, in retrospect, were rather ridiculous, fighting over whether roadless land should be available for logging, for example. Now, there is very little left of the timber industry and an equally small amount of new wilderness designated in forested lands. Seems like kind of a wasted effort at this point. Other disagreements were gut wrenching, as we tried, for example, to find a solution to potential contacts between bighorn and domestic sheep that might carry disease. In the course of that fight, my wife’s family lost about half their forested sheep range.  The truly hard part was trying to explain “why” to the newly unemployed Peruvian herders, none of whom had ever even seen a bighorn sheep.

Our new Eastern friends are certainly curious about why we chose Maryland over Idaho, but our explanation seems to strike them as more boring than thought-provoking. To folks here, national forests are often confused with parks like Yellowstone or someplace similar that they’ve perhaps visited on vacation. Federal land-management agencies are largely unheard of, and locals don’t wring their hands over how many sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake. They’d rather discuss the Orioles’ game or the latest fishing reports. Frankly, Scarlett, they don’t give a damn — or a dam.

Sure, there are fights. Once, an environmental group sued a farmer here over alleged runoff from a pile of chicken manure; the environmentalists lost miserably. But fights here seem to lack the increasingly mean-spirited tone of some of those currently in the West. In contrast, the liberal state of Maryland was so embarrassed over the manure lawsuit that the Legislature offered to pay the farmer’s legal bills, and the University of Maryland set up extension courses to help the agricultural community cope with legal challenges. Imagine the fight that would have caused in the West.

Call me jaded or simply burnt-out; both are probably true. But after 30 years, in which much of my job was fighting for the timber industry while my wife fought to maintain a ranching livelihood, we came to realize that we had become mere gladiators, albeit without the physique for the task. Fighting had become the job. In a perverse sense, we had to leave the open spaces of the West to finally gain some peace and quiet. Besides sharing his first name, I find myself in sympathy with Chief Joseph’s poignantly expressed desire: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever.”

So, here we sit on a small arm of the Bay, content to fish and to start contributing to society in a more constructive way.  For now, we can hear the silence and the birds -- and both are golden.

Joe Hinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He directed the Idaho Forest Industry Council for 15 years and recently retired as a natural resource consultant. He and his wife, Margaret, a third-generation rancher, now live near Salisbury, Maryland.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Shell Howard
Shell Howard
Jan 07, 2014 04:33 PM
 I wonder what it will take to start a conversation instead of an argument?
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 07, 2014 05:04 PM
Might as well post the entirety Chief Joseph’s 1877 surrender speech:

    “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

And here’s some additional context from PBS:

    Chief Joseph’s fame did him little good. Although he had surrendered with the understanding that he would be allowed to return home, Joseph and his people were instead taken first to eastern Kansas and then to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where many of them died of epidemic diseases. Although he was allowed to visit Washington, D.C., in 1879 to plead his case to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, it was not until 1885 that Joseph and the other refugees were returned to the Pacific Northwest. Even then, half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Percé reservation in northern Washington, separated from the rest of their people in Idaho and their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.

    In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, he died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor “of a broken heart.”

Ironically, when I just now ‘googled’ “Idaho Forest Industry Council” the first item that popped up was this 1983 article from the Spokesman Review featuring quotes from IFIC Director Joe Hinson and titled “Idaho Forest Industry Council Attacks Wilderness Plans.”

Ronald Smith
Ronald Smith Subscriber
Jan 07, 2014 05:35 PM
Another oh poor me rancher. We must fight to save what little is left! Especially when it comes to bighorns vs wooly maggots!
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Jan 07, 2014 07:24 PM
     This article’s anecdotal description of a salient feature of our propaganda system is worth noting. Distracting people with mindless amusements keeps them away from more important matters, as is the case with the author’s new neighbors. Consequently, most of the public is unaware that they are owners of a large public domain, and hence, they are uninvolved. Were it otherwise, public land and wildlife policy wouldn’t be controlled by so few.
     Easterners should be fighting over land-use issues and environmental policy, both at home and in the “West.”
     It’s also noteworthy that eastern agriculture is also subsidized in various ways.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Jan 08, 2014 07:44 AM
I might conjecture that the fights on the east coast and midwest are not that vocal because that part of the country was paved or plowed over long before people settled out west. And the land recovers quicker after alteration. People tend to be more urbanized in the east, and the natural world is not in their face nearly as much. Environmental fights still occur, but it's not such a part of everyday life as it is in some places out west.
petula kunnemann
petula kunnemann
Jan 14, 2014 05:18 AM
That's great you moved where there is less fighting and now you can enjoy the sounds of birds, I too would like that. I too want to enjoy what was left to me & my family and to do that you must hand over what was left not only for me & my family but all native families. That is what this fight is about its about treating people the way you want to be treated and to give them what is theirs
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 04:42 PM
Joe; what will you do when your fish are gone, and the birds sing no more, is nothing worth fighting for, or do we just give up and assume it is all going to disappear?
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 06:28 PM
Change does not come easy.For years a few have profited from our public lands.To the detriment of other uses, or nature. You mention forest lands, i assume all public lands.On a personal level, your wife loosing her grazing rights, she did not own the land, just as a private lease holder could of cancelled the lease. It seems that public land users have a entitlement attitude, that public lands are theirs. This is where change seems to be hard, but must happen.Our public lands are for multiple use. And not just for one persons use and personal benefit. It should be a privilege and not a right , be it cattle, sheep, timber cutting, or mineral extraction. This activity should not negatively effect other species or uses, or be for exclusive use.I am glad i live in a country that has public land, some country"s have none, the UK, call me a socialist if you want, it would be a diminished world if all lands were private, and all had no trespassing signs.As the world gets smaller, and the population bigger, and people want more, there will be less for everything else, in our system we can not tell people what to do on their land, but we better start telling them what to do, or not do, on our lands, our public lands that belong to all of us, not just a few who profit from them.
Cindy Salo
Cindy Salo Subscriber
Jan 26, 2014 03:53 PM
I love helping other researchers with their projects: no saw-whet owls in the mist nets? No problem, I’m fine just sitting here chatting. When a friend mentions a spouse's habits and the word “divorce” in the same sentence, I still see the partner’s quirky eccentricity. Others’ troubles just don’t, well, trouble us as much as our own do.

I agree with Joe; it’s a relief to get away from our problems. Stepping away can give us a new perspective on our lives.

Seeing others’ points of view is far harder. For the thorniest issues, this is easier for kids than adults. Palestinian and Israeli kids bond at summer camp over soccer and music their parents don’t like. My high school in Minneapolis exchanged students with a small town in northern Minnesota. I was enchanted by the main street theater and the surrounding lakes, farms, and livestock. I was astonished that my host sister not only knew every kid in her class; she knew every kid in the school!

I’ve been talking about urban/rural student swaps in Idaho for years. I’ll go on talking until people hear me.

Blake Osborn
Blake Osborn Subscriber
Jan 26, 2014 08:55 PM
Joe, I enjoyed this article, and perspective very much. I think it is worth noting the problems plaguing the western political, social, cultural fights.

I grew up out here, with generations of family members before me, to an environmental leaning mother and a conservative leaning father. I am always astonished at the overlap between the two "competing sides" for control over the rights/privileges the western states have.

In my experience, the nastiest fighters, the heaviest punchers, the most brutish bullies have evolved that way from the lack of understanding and experience with the resource they are fighting for. Like they say, there is no zealot like a convert, and that has certainly been true for many of the transplanted "fighters". People move here with a lack of understanding as to the scale of interconnectedness that all natural resource based decision have. Not to exempt us locals, often this clash brings up defense mechanisms that have every bit as much sting. In order to know something well enough to fight, it must be a deeper understanding, and more than a visceral "feeling" that many fights begin with.

I often feel very defensive and angry with ignorant agendas that show a blatant lack of knowledge about the resources involved, both directly and indirectly. Though I wish it would stop, I can't turn my back on the place that my family has lived, and loved, for hundreds of years. It's hard to keep the peace out here, I agree, but when I need peace, there's nowhere else I can get it than here.
Jon Schwedler
Jon Schwedler
Feb 07, 2014 01:10 PM
Speaking as a native Marylander who has since has moved West, please consider the sounds you aren't hearing, Joe. The Chesapeake was once called "a great protein factory", so productive that islands in the middle of the Bay maintained their Elizabethan speech, so economically insulated by the bounty of the Bay were they-- those folks simply didn't need to bother adjusting to the culture of the "Western Shore" (the side with the Potomac). Today these same island communities are whithered, made extinct in my lifetime by the same greedy self-interest tragedy of commons that stresses Western landscapes today. Ask the oystermen; tell me where the skipjacks still ply. Blue crabs, rockfish, and menhaden are the wolves, elk, and sheep of your new landscape.

It is probably true there is more civility on the Eastern Shore, but it is hard won. Part of it is resignation and sadness over the loss; part of it is realizing what happens when you think you are your own island. In short, you sink. That applies to sheepherders as much as to watermen, and all of us in our country are so much the poorer.

Speaking of sinking, some of those same Chesapeake islands may actually do just that, thanks to the naysayers of climate change from your part of the country.
Margaret Bortko
Margaret Bortko
Feb 07, 2014 05:50 PM
Perhaps you have simply aged into quiet matter you have lived. I am from a small town in Montana and attempted to live on the Eastern Shore last year. I followed my love as he followed his career as he was not able to make it as a boat builder in the Rockies. I felt smothered there. I could not find reprieve in the was all private. I could not drink the was toxic. The corn fields were GMO. The chicken farms clouded the humid air with the stench of over-crowded corporate urine and manure...These birds were slaughtered slowly, 60,000 at a time with a lethal foam filling their airways.They were Tyson and Perdue chickens, reaching market weight in 6 weeks.The history of Delmarva is ripe with civil rights and the Underground Railroad.Harriet Tubman became my new heroine. The banks of the rivers are destroyed by an invasive rodent from South
America called the nutria. I saw no birds at the Blackwater
 Wildlife Refuge. In Montana, I see eagles and ospreys, elk, deer, antelope and coyote from my porch. I watch the Milky Way spill over my roof. Living in Maryland became torture for me...I was so removed from wild-ness. I missed my mountains, clear lakes and rushing rivers. I have decided to come
home to peace and quiet. At my mature age, I no longer fightfor a cause, but choose to live quietly for one. Enjoy the east coast. If you were able to leave the west so easily, it was never in your soul.