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A big hole in NW diversity

Goats graze on a ridge at the edge of Zumwalt Prairie in Eastern Oregon's Wallowas. Credit: RV Taylor/The Nature Conservancy

After all these years, it is still somehow an unnexpected miracle, a rich soul-feeding surprise. “Summer Fishtrap: A Gathering of Writers” held its 27th year gathering in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon last week. This year’s theme, inspired by a poem of the late William Stafford, was, “What the River Says: The Art of Listening in a Turbulent World.”

During the day at Fishtrap writers take part in classes and workshops. In the evening, the faculty read from their work. After dinner we walk the half-mile from our cabin to the Methodist Camp, the site of Fishtrap, to take in the evening readings which are open for the public.

As the sun set in pinks and reds over Joseph Mountain, and the heat of day gave way to the cooler evening, we listened to such wonderful writers as Teresa Jordan, Kim Stafford, Luis Alberto Urrea, Kim Barnes and Naomi Shihab Nye. Past years have included David James Duncan, Cheryl Strayed, William Kittredge and more.

Similar to many other events and organizations these days, it seems there’s an effort at Fishtrap to encourage racial and ethnic diversity among the participants and the faculty.

In particular, I noticed this year how often we were reminded of the mixed parentage of various writers. Keynoter Naomi Shihab Nye was “born to a Palestinian father and American mother.” Slam poet Anis Mojgani’s “father was Persian and his mother African-American.” Luis Alberto Urea, was “born in Tijuana, Mexico, to an American mother and a Mexican father.”

Such information can be useful. It provides perspective on the work of poets and novelists who explore the intersections of culture as well as questions of identity. But it also felt, at least at times, like a self-conscious effort to establish Fishtrap’s diversity bonafides.

Is that a problem? It becomes a problem when racial/ethnic diversity eclipses or is substituted for diversity of thought, political leaning and philosophy. As lovely as Fishtrap is, there is a way in which it feels as if it is an incursion from liberal or progressive Portland or Seattle, San Francisco or Missoula. There’s racial and ethnic diversity, but in other respects Fishtrap feels like a bubble, a safe haven for progressives amid the more conservative culture of Eastern Oregon.

I experience something similar to this in the denomination in which I am an ordained minister, The United Church of Christ. We, too, work hard at racial/ethnic diversity, as well as diversity of gender and sexual orientation. In church leadership and in the lineup of speakers at events such as our General Synod or regional assemblies we strive for diversity … to a point.

Although the United Church of Christ is heavily Caucasian in overall membership, we work to forward African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans into public roles, along men and women who are gay or lesbian. That’s good as far as it goes.

But often it seems to go no further. That is, the more visible diversity of race and ethnicity is encouraged, but not so with diversity of thought or theology, politics or philosophy. There we tend toward a liberal or progressive uniformity.

This seems to me a dilemma or challenge for many groups and in many settings these days. While a visible diversity is prized, there may be less welcome or tolerance for people of different views on the issues of the day, whether they be abortion or gun control, legalization of marijuana or charter schools. We risk, and this is certainly true for both sides of political spectrum, dwelling in enclaves of limited, even pseudo diversity. Many colors, but not so many thoughts.

Can our longing for diversity be expanded beyond the categories of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, to include thought, philosophy, politics and economics?

One of the very best books about Oregon’s rural Wallowa County, where Fishtrap takes place and where my family has its roots and a summer cabin, is Marcy Houle’s The Prairie Keepers: Secrets of the Zumwalt. Houle is a Portland-based wildlife biologist, who as young woman came to live in Wallowa County in order to study one of its most-intriguing landscapes, the Zumwalt Prairie.

The Zumwalt is the largest remaining native, short-grass prairie in North America. At the tail-end of the Palouse, it has never known the bite of the plow. Native grasses sway in the breeze as hawks and falcons float in the skies looking for ubiquitous Belding’s Squirrels (a.k.a. Prairie Dogs). Ranchers graze cattle on the Zumwalt while large herds of elk find a home there as well.

When Houle began her study, a debate over the Zumwalt and its future was heating up. Should it be declared “off-limits” to ranchers and placed under the public management of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife? Should it even become a national park? What about the property rights of the ranchers who owned land on the Zumwalt? Conservationists ranged against private landowners. It seemed that only one side could win in this stand-off. Houle wanted to know who should get custody of the Zumwalt.

What she found, somewhat to her surprise, was that the ranchers who ran cattle on the Zumwalt were also good stewards of the land. They kept their cattle off the Zumwalt until the native grasses had a chance to annually re-seed. Meanwhile, the raptors did their job of keeping the soil-burrowing rodent population in check. Health was a delicate balance of many forces and factors. What was working to preserve the Zumwalt was neither government takeover nor unchecked use by private land owners. It was a balance, not an either/or.

In recent years, The Nature Conservancy has increased its holdings on the Zumwalt, in order to protect it. But the Conservancy, too, has worked with the ranchers and learned from them. At points in the year the Conservancy opens its holdings for grazing as well as elk hunting.

Somewhat to her surprise, Houle developed a great appreciation and affection for the ranchers of the Zumwalt — as they did for her. What she discovered was that the key to the future of the fragile prairie lay not with one side or the other of the polarized debate, but with both. Diversity in thought and philosophy, in politics and economics was not a liability but a strength.

Somehow it seems that diversity of politics and philosophy has become more difficult to tolerate, even as racial and ethnic diversity is more celebrated. But here too, it ought to be not an either/or, but a both/and. The Art of Listening in a Turbulent World (that 2014 Fishtrap theme) includes listening across our polarized divides of politics and philosophy.

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