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Whither the West: A Chat with Bill Kittredge

Author William Kittredge Credit: Photo: www.opb.org

Writer William Kittredge knows where — and what — the American West has been. He’s less sure about where it’s headed. Still, the celebrated author of essays, short stories and a new novel is clear about this much: The myths that powered the American West of his childhood no longer fit or work today. And spent myths, like spent fuel, can be dangerous.  

Bill Kittredge knows the old stories, the myths. He’s lived them. Born in 1932, Kittredge was raised on the vast MC Ranch in the Warner Valley of South Central Oregon. As an adult he ran the ranch until his early 30’s.

At this week’s “Fishtrap: A Gathering of Writers” in Oregon’s Wallowa County, Kittredge read from a memoir in progress, recalling the world of his childhood and youth. He concluded his evening reading with these provocative words: “Everybody was enacting some version of myth.”

When I sat down with Kittredge in a shady spot alongside the Wallowa River the following afternoon, I asked him about his remark: What were those myths of the American West that he and others had enacted?

“Conqueror. That we were bringing order to the world. Hell, I thought I was doing God’s work,” said Kittredge as he recalled his years on the ranch. “God left a mess, we made it great. That’s what we thought.”

But by 1965, at age 33, Kittredge had begun to doubt that he and his fellow ranchers were doing “God’s work.” What happened? “I read Silent Spring," he says. "Rachel Carson’s great book described what was going on in Tulelake, California. We were doing the same damn things in the Warner Valley.” Things like draining wetlands, destroying habitat, using highly toxic chemicals indiscriminately.

What’s stunning, in hindsight, is how quickly these new ways of ranching had become the norm in the post-war years.

“Out where I grew up,” said Kittredge, “the nineteenth century lasted until the end of World War II. It was still a ‘horseback world.’ At the MC, we ran 150 matched teams, workhorses. We employed 75 men to run and take care of those teams, raising grain and feed and cattle. And we ran three cookhouses, with all the people that took to feed everyone. It was a lot of jobs.”

In the post-war years, it all changed, seemingly overnight.

“In 1946, we got tractors," he continues. "Pretty soon the MC had seventeen John Deere tractors, which took 17 men to run.”

The change, from a "horseback world" to a mechanized one was sudden, and the consequences for the environment were devastating. But in America’s great post-war era of power and prosperity, few noticed these consequences.

“By the time we were done, there wasn’t a songbird left in the Warner Valley," lamented Kittredge. "In the Kalamath Valley the bird population, once over 10 million, is under four million.” 

As a five-year-old boy Kittredge had what he calls “a classic recognition experience.” Out in a field on the ranch one spring morning at 5:30 he witnessed “thousands and thousands and thousands of water birds flying over. It was an absolutely transcendent moment. It was when I knew this world is sacred. It took me thirty years to act on it.”

Big Sky Country, Credit: gmark1/Flickr

When he did act it was to leave ranching for good. He enrolled in the famed Iowa Writers Workshop to hone a craft he had largely been working at in secret. In the years that followed, Kittredge wrote a lot about the environment, and he taught writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. In 1997 he retired from the University where he had been Regents Professor of English and Creative Writing for 29 years.

“So how do you see the west now,” I asked?

“People in these small towns are very frightened." he replied. "All these things beyond their control. They know change is coming, but they want to hold onto what they’ve got. People are tucking the world in around them. It's become a hideout for the wealthy, for the middle class too.”

In his 2007 collection of essays, The Next Rodeo, Kittredge asked: “Who are we becoming in our West? Where are we going?”

He notes that while the nation persists in thinking of the West as predominately rural, 80% of the region’s 60 million people (based on 2006 Census numbers) actually live in cities. Nevertheless, the West “still tends to name itself in terms of an antique mythos: the Western," he says. "The West flows with cultures, but none of its foundation stories are widely persuasive, not to speak of functional.

“The most insistent western dreams center on finding a homeland and/or cornucopia. Upper middle-class retirees sell a house in Orange County for a million bucks. They replace it in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana for $250,000 and anticipate living unto death on that windfall. Many (not all, of course) aren’t interested in paying taxes to support infrastructure like schools and highways. They’ve bought their way into paradise and want to be left alone to enjoy it.”

Those not among the wealthy new arrivals, the locals who live in once-but-no-longer-thriving small towns and on remaining ranches, feel marginalized, he says. They “often feel that they have been dealt out of the culture, economically and psychically, that they are increasingly inconsequential: 'We work, and city people are having their payday.’”

“But," says Kittredge, "we have to change. We just have to.”

He notes the recent decisions by Germany to turn away from both nuclear and coal-based energy as inspirational examples. “They saw what had to be done and just did it," he marvels. "Seventy-five percent of Germans in favor of it.”

I tell Kittredge that now he sounds like Rossie, the central character in his recent novel The Willow Field. Rossie grew up in the same horseback world, earning his manhood by driving horse herds from Nevada to Alberta. Later, as a prosperous rancher, Rossie is persuaded to run for Governor of Montana.

What candidate Rossie Benasco tells Montana voters isn’t exactly what they expect to hear, at least from one of their own. He says they have to let go of the old world, the world based on a ruthless, extractive economy. When he is shot and wounded while campaigning, Rossie gets the message: If the world in which he came of age is gone, the next one isn’t here yet. Or at least people aren’t ready to let go of the familiar in order to embrace the unknown.

Over the years, Bill Kittredge too hasn't told his readers what they might have expected to hear from a son of old west. While he loves the stories of that earlier time, and the myths, Kittredge has had to face the truth.

Even as the old stories and myths live on, what is happening in the West today is different and often ominous.

 

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