Montana Nature Narratives (at the Missoula Book Festival)

“New York is about power and status. Seattle is about having stuff. But Montana is about the place you live.” —E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

Nature Writing Panel Discussion

The “nature narratives” panel at Fact & Fiction featured authors Russ Beck, Don Thomas and John Clayton. It was moderated by Read Trammel from UMs MFA writing program.

This was the first session I went to at the Book Festival, held on a gorgeous September Friday in downtown Missoula. By the time the day was over, I had come to distrust any author presuming to talk about “narrative” or “story.” Those venerable terms have apparently become cliches, intended to evoke “big ideas” and revolutionary thinking. Alas, few people up are up to such billing.

For a long time I participated in such events, supported by the hope that Montana could practice self-governance, using education and public conversations to fend off the stifling growth of ideology that had made so many places so unfree and so unbeautiful. Like every community in every time and place, Montana faces troubles that, if we are to survive in a state of civilization, we need to engage.

The three writers in this session all managed to be thoughtful and interesting, in the sense that they added a few fresh details to the old story of new money and new fashions displacing older money and older fashions. They spoke at Fact & Fiction, an independently-owned bookstore in downtown Missoula. The store hosted a series of presentations by authors published by The History Press—a national publishing company based in South Carolina that specializes in publishing local history for local audiences. The company has published about 2000 books since their startup in 2004, including several titles in Montana, including books by the three authors who participated in this panel discussion: John Clayton (Montana’s Enduring Frontier), Don Thomas (Montana: Peaks, Streams and Prairie) and Russ Beck (On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies: Essays and Dubious Advice).

The writers discussed an array of ideas, including the idea of writing in personal narrative. “The stories that stay with us are personal narratives,” said Beck. “If I’ve done my job, the complex processes in nature that have influenced my life and thinking in complex ways” are communicated to the audience in ways that reveal those complex interactions.

Clayton observed that “personal stories are a great way to connect people to science.” He noted that as a journalist, he’s always been reluctant to write about himself or to give personal opinions, since for him, writing is mainly about the narrative structure—the way a story and plot itself conveys the truth about things. But as he used his experiences to illustrate truths he had observed, he found that “Oh no! I’m expressing a lot of opinions.”

Thomas agreed. He uses his experience to communicate quite a lot of scientific and political knowledge. Much of the work of writing is knowing things, and putting that knowledge in service of others—but also of nature itself. “Wildlife needs constituents,” he said. He sounded what was probably the dominant theme in the session: in the West today, nature is facing many political and cultural threats.

All the writers gave illustrations of the ways the West has always been a difficult place to live. “Nothing is easy in the west.” He noted that we live in a very dry landscape but with Kentucky bluegrass lawns. “We’re doing a lot of things wrong,” he said, “which ends up being good for writing.”

One of Clayton’s goals as a writer is “tell stories that no one has heard before.” He said he’s been tempted to write about “Buffalo Bill and the Copper Kings” and other topics common among western writer, but that he’s more interested in finding bits of history that have been ignored. For example, in 1933, some men stole a train as a protest and headed east toward Washington, D.C. “At each stop along the way, they were greeted warmly by people.” It was an act of political protest, and “they were supported by the unemployed people.” Clayton said this was a surprisingly urban story, rather than the more typical story of country people and country issues.

All the writers commented on changes that are occurring in the West today—revisiting familiar talk about “the old west” and “the new west.” Clayton was skeptical that things were changing now much more than they always had. He suspected that all the talk about a “new west” of “microbreweries and espresso” might just be a symptom of the Baby Boomers’ fascination with themselves. He cited an article entitled “Old West and New” published in 1932, which was about the way a new kind of westerner was crowding out the original cowboys.

Thomas acknowledged that there was some truth to that, but he also argued that things were changing in important ways that writers needed to address because people needed to think about them. An astonishing number of ranches in Montana have sold for more than $10 million in recent years, he said. “Those ranches aren’t being bought by farmers or ranchers,” he said. They are being bought by “silicon valley money.” He said that big money is attacking Montana’s game laws and, specifically, stream access laws. The changes that are possible could have far-reaching effects on how we live in Montana. The “public trust doctrine” we are used to in Montana, that prevents people from owning the wildlife, “is unique to North America,” he said. The idea that wildlife can’t be owned but must be managed for the public has been rare in the context of world politics. “That doctrine is one of the reasons we have all this wildlife in Montana,” he said. “And some very rich people want all that to go away.”

Beck’s experience has been mainly in Utah, and he agreed that Montana has been blessed with stream access laws that have made Montana a world mecca for fly fishing. “It’s not like that in Utah,” he said. “We don’t have stream access laws there,” so people can fence off rivers and streams and deny the public access. “The best fishing in northern Utah,” he observed, “is in southern Idaho.”

Thomas did observe that interesting people are coming to the state, and some changes are welcome. “In Livingston, you used to have a choice of two topics for conversation,” he said. “You could discuss the weather or beef prices.” That is no longer the case.

But he was quite passionate that Montana is facing huge changes driven by big money, and Montanan’s would have to engage if they wanted to preserve some of what is best about living in Montana. He said there’s constant pressure to transfer public land to private ownership. The extractive companies—oil companies—want free of regulations on mining and drilling. Part of the strategy involves a two-step. First, federal land is transferred to state ownership. But after “one bad fire season, that’s over,” he said. The cost of managing the lands will create enormous pressure to sell it off to private owners. The state has already passed a nonbinding resolution to study the idea of privatizing state lands, he said.

These are real problems, to be sure. The hoary way of responding to them is to join the partisan fray, and, for most writers, that means to enlist in the army of one or more of the big corporate environmental associations to disparage oil companies, capitalism and private ownership. If that way of conceptualizing the problem seems stale and unfruitful to you, you might have gained little from this session, beyond new details in a very old story.

I was interested enough to buy books by two of the presenters. They’re on my desk right now, along with a couple dozen other books I’ve bought but not yet read. I’m not sure when or if a day will come when reading them seems the most pressing thing I could do right then. I’m doubtful, at the moment, that the literary crowd is going to lead Montana out of the desolation of modern ideology. Our most serious environmental threat today is that our narrative environment is becoming toxic. I wish I thought Montana’s literary gang was part of the solution.

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