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for people who care about the West

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 [email protected].