Bill Kittredge and Judy Blunt share their experiences of telling the stories of the rural West during a panel discussion at Summer Fishtrap last weekend. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
Wallowa Lake — If the Whitman College students “hang around the Wallowa Valley like flies,” as one of their professors said, they are in good company.
Looking around a room full of Summer Fishtrap speakers and writers there are several familiar faces who return year after year to talk about their experiences managing the land and those who write its stories.
Saturday’s panel was moderated by Don Snow, a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. He was joined by writers Bill Kittredge and Judy Blunt and the executive director of Wallowa Resources, Nils Christofferson.
Snow said he used to publish a magazine in Montana called “Northern Lights.” He introduced panelist Bill Kittredge as the writer whose first submission set the publication’s tone.
Panelist Judy Blunt, who started out as a poet, also submitted an essay to Northern Lights — her first piece of prose eventually morphed into her book “Breaking Clean,” Snow said.
Finally, Snow introduced Christoffersen of Enterprise’s Wallowa Resources. Snow said he believes that the organization is “the leading community-based conservation group in a rural community of the West.”
The word community was repeated dozens of times in the short, hour and a half discussion entitled, “Leaving Broken Ground Behind.”
Blunt said she came to Missoula from the northeastern plains of Montana and “Couldn’t drive with stoplights and had no value to Missoula besides her ferocious stubbornness,” a trait from her hardscrabble life on the prairie. She said the “break” she describes in her memoir is from her “community, land-based sense of belonging and security.”
Kittredge, too, said he broke from the ranching and farming tradition of his family — a tradition he was expected to inherit. He quickly bored of ranching, but his work never left the ground. He said the changes of landscapes influence his writing. “Considering human impacts on landscapes and urging the reader to re-think...”
Kittredge said with changing landscapes there are changing attitudes. “A lot of people trying to figure out how to get along.” He said he’s seen great change on the high desert and the Klamath Basin in his lifetime where overgrazing has shifted to sustainable grazing and water rights are still being sorted out.
He said his own views of land management changed from his days on the range to the classrooms of Oregon State and beyond. In his years ranching, an attempt to save a crop with chemicals may have killed every songbird in the valley.
“I thought we were straightening up the mess God left behind and we were doing His work. It became obvious we were not doing God’s work.”
Christoffersen said he too saw changes in his suburban Washington, D.C., community in his lifetime. As a child he sledded on the hills of surrounding dairy farms. Later they ended up as the foundations for condominiums and strip malls.
“Since then, my life has taken me to work with farmers, ranchers and fishermen from Norway to Australia, Israel, Africa and the U.S.,” Christoffersen said.
When he returned from seven years in Africa, Christoffersen said he wanted to stay engaged in a similar way — empowering local leadership partnering with others for sustainable communities.
“Community leadership and vision are critical to our future. If we are constantly adapting, we can keep the vitality of that place,” Christoffersen said.
Blunt said not all communities of the West embrace change. She described her corner of the world as conservative and fundamental, both religiously and politically. “I see young people who are against everything and waiting for a battle and conservationists are an easy target.”
Blunt said she understood this sentiment when a visitor came to her home county and declared its people “expendable.”
“The land wasn’t meant to be ranched, it’s not profitable, but those people deserve respect,” Blunt said.
In contrast to the passer-by who wanted to preserve the land without human presence, Blunt said a conservationist who lived in her community made his place by playing the five-string banjo.
Christoffersen said, “More successful partnerships are brokered when the public knows what they are trying to achieve with creative thinking, not just self-righteous thinking.”
He said the people of rural America aren’t the only ones suffering, but so is the land. Despite the conflict, the community is investing in good things. “Wallowa Resources works with county government and other groups like Fishtrap to get a sense of where we want to go as a community.”
In the end, the panel and the audience discussed how story telling is the tie that binds — people sharing their experiences leads to more understanding, said one participant.
Another participant said the 38-year battle for water rights in the Klamath Basin wasn’t really about water. “The courtroom drama — the human drama, of the tribes, environmentalists, ranchers and farmers isn’t about water rights, it is a cultural war of people fighting about respect.”
Blunt said real issues deserve respect. “There is a necessity of listening before voicing an opinion.”
Kittredge said, “Story-telling helps us learn things like that — in every heritage all over the world.”
Christoffersen said he lives within the world he works and sees a great diversity of mind-set in rural Eastern Oregon.
“The hardest task in human history is to live on the land without spoiling it. I am motivated by the vision of Northeast Oregon -— making a living, doing good things on the land, and still keeping clean water and wildlife.”