Compassionate listening, fierce conversation

  • Michael Johnston with students from his Mapleton Innovative School of the Arts.

    Meredith Ogilby
  • Doug Peacock, defender of wilderness and critic of man, from Voices of the American West.

    Meredith Ogilby

Voices of the American West
Corinne Platt and Meredith Ogilby; foreword by
William Kittredge
280 pages, hardcover: $29.95.
Fulcrum Publishing, 2009.


A chance conversation at a conference in 2004 launched photographer Meredith Ogilby and writer Corinne Platt on an ambitious journey. They resolved to photograph and speak with 49 "heavy lifters" from across the West, people of passion, vision and action.

The result is Voices of the American West. The interviewees include people like innovative school principal Michael Johnston of Denver, local-foods proponent Gary Nabhan of Flagstaff, Ariz., and outdoor recreation businessman Yvon Chouinard of Jackson, Wyo., founder of Patagonia. Each interview is in the subject's own words and runs to three or four pages. Such a format can easily become trite, and at times the reader might wish for a clearer understanding of the roots of these Westerners' passions, which range from cultural heritage to energy extraction to the basic task of making a living. Still, these pieces offer much to chew on, particularly for Western readers interested in creating a sustained relationship with this rough landscape.

Some faces and voices are familiar: Patty Limerick and Charles Wilkinson from the University of Colorado, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (recently deceased), and Vietnam veteran Doug Peacock, inspiration for Ed Abbey's character Hayduke and a fierce fighter on behalf of wild places and creatures. Others are less known but equally interesting, such as bilingual newspaper publisher Luis Polar of Glenwood Springs, Colo., and Steve Henke, a public-lands manager in Farmington, N.M. Occasionally, the voices are fractious, particularly in regards to livestock grazing. And nonagenarian river runner Katie Lee provides hoots, both visual and verbal.

Terms of engagement recur -- and also a sense of hope. Writer Terry Tempest Williams talks about fear of the abstract "Other" -- a fear that she believes can be overcome by embracing community. "When you're in a relationship, there's engagement, and I believe engagement ultimately opens our hearts," she says. Former Forest Service supervisor Gloria Flora talks about having a toad named after her. "If each of us had a species named after us, we'd be much more thoughtful in how we treat the natural world." Energy analyst Randy Udall outlines the global challenges, but declares that "unless you have a mechanism for addressing them at the local level, then it's all just navel-gazing." And Las Vegas water maven Patricia Mulroy warns us, "Never get between a senior citizen and his weekly car wash. That is not a safe place to be."

Williams, from her home near Moab, Utah, neatly summarizes the goal, mostly realized, of this book. "I think we can be compassionate in our listening and we can also be fierce in what we ask for," she writes. "For me, it's always about conversations."

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