Pope Francis meets ranchers in the West

February 24, 2016

Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes, edited by Susan Charnley, Thomas E. Sheridan, and Gary P. Nabhan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Stitching the WestTwo recent events in Oregon highlight one of the most complex aspects of public affairs in the American West: the use of public lands so that the people and communities that are most closely related and the land itself will be healthy and productive now and into the distant future.

The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by a self-declared militia headed by sons of Cliven Bundy is the more widely publicized of these events. At the center of this debate is the struggle between ranchers who demand unlimited control of grazing rights and a governmental agency that sets limits on how the land is used and charges fees for that use.

Legal action by Linn County Oregon against the State of Oregon is the second event. The county claims that the state has mismanaged Oregon Forest Trust Land and as a result has failed to live up to contracts that provide funds to support basic services such as schools. At issue is whether the state must allow logging to go on forever or if it also has “a duty to protect clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and other values held closely by Oregonians” (Kristena Hansen).

As an urban dwell in the Pacific Northwest, I have always been inclined favorably toward parks and wilderness areas controlled by governmental and environmental agencies and against the Bundys, logging companies, and other extractive users of the West. I have rarely given much thought to the complex issues involved.

That is why Stitching the West Back Together is such an important book. It can help people on all sides of these issues develop new and equitable ways of resolving the struggles over land use. The book itself is a collaborative project: Thirty-seven contributors including academics, ranchers, and environmentalists have contributed fourteen chapters, with extensive documentation, resulting in 343 pages of readable narrative. Among its major points, these stand out.

  1. It focuses attention on developing economically viable and environmentally responsible ways of using the natural resources of the West.
  2. It cuts across many of the traditional assumptions and practices and proposes effective ways for people and organizations that usually have fought one another to create new, collaborative ways of achieving their purposes.
  3. It provides a necessary foundation in theory, but consists primarily of case studies from all over the West where new ways of cooperating are now operational.
  4. It offers a vision of a new West in which “working landscapes,” wilderness areas, Native American reservations, and governmental agencies are interrelated in ways that can be continued indefinitely into the future.

One of the central ideas in this book carries the title “the radical center.” It was coined in the mid-1990s by Bill McDonald, a New Mexico rancher, “to describe an emerging consensus-based approach to land management challenges in the U.S. West.” Conflict had “balkanized the West and led to gridlock. Very little progress was made on projects that would provide long-term environmental or social benefits to the region. . . .The radical center movement challenged various orthodoxies of the mid-1990s, including the belief that conservation and ranching were part of a zero-sum game where one’s gains equaled another’s losses” (p. 83).

Earlier this season I read and reviewed Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home.” He offers a cogent critique of ways that humankind has abused the earth and are causing its decay and desolation. The Pope implores people to repent and change their ways so that nature can thrive once more and human communities can prosper.

Even readers who are convinced that the Pope is right still face the daunting task of figuring out what to do. As I work my way through Stitching the West Back Together, I have come to realize that this book is the logical sequel to the Encyclical, at least for people in the American West.

Stitching is not theological and it is largely non-ideological and apolitical. It focuses on goals similar to those that Pope Francis espouses: a healthy and happy natural world that supports healthy and happy human communities everywhere. Stitching proposes a methodology for actually achieving those goals.

The central term in the Encyclical is “integral ecology,” which is a vision that is capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis and clearly respects all of the human and social dimensions along with the health and fullness of every aspect of the world’s natural life.

It may be too late to use the methods of the vital center to solve the Malheur Refuge and Linn County conflicts, but maybe the ideas they contain can help us avoid similar conflicts in the future.

Bicycling Back to Bisbee

February 22, 2016

Again this year I’m bicycling back to Bisbee, Arizona. In celebration, I am reposting two blogs that were published another year when my winter bicycle vacation took me to this quaint little place.

Keith Watkins Historian

Going Back to Bisbee, by Richard Shelton (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992). This book won the 1992 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

SheltonAgain this year my bike ride in Southern Arizona was an intellectual journey disguised as vigorous physical activity. It provided the incentive for reading about the historical, religious, and geographical territory through which I was cycling on week two of PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp.

In an earlier blog (“A melancholy cyclist riding along the Santa Cruz River,” posted February 22, 2013) I reviewed a book, which I read before the trip, that interprets the history of the portion of the Sonoran Desert through which I would be cycling: The Lessening Stream, by environmental historian Michael F. Logan. This modest stream, scarcely 200 miles long, is one of the defining features of this year’s journey.

It is difficult to imagine how a book could differ…

View original post 713 more words

Cycling Florida’s Sea Islands

February 18, 2016
Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

A mid-winter sojourn on Amelia Island, Florida, had two purposes: a visit with Mike and Diane, my cycling son and his wife, and vigorous bicycling in preparation for two weeks of even harder cycling events in Arizona. Rainy days, low temperatures, and blustery wind limited the miles I could ride, but made it possible to delve into the geography, history, and culture of this unique little place.

Most of my coastal experience has been in Oregon, where beaches provide a narrow and contested interface of mountains and rocky headlands with the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, I faced a geographical challenge in order to understand the roadways that the north Florida seaboard offers cyclists.

Amelia Island is one of one of a string of small, sandy islands that front the Atlantic Ocean, beginning in South Carolina and extending down the Florida coast. Hilton Head and St. Simons Island are part of this chain. Thirteen miles long and less than four miles wide at its widest point, Amelia is less than half the acreage of Hilton Head. It is separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River, and from the Florida mainland by the Amelia River and Nassau Sound.

Immediately north of the St. Mary’s River is Cumberland Island and south of Nassau sound are Big Talbot, Little Talbot, and Ft. George’s Islands. Together with Amelia Island, they are sometimes called the Sea Islands. South of Ft. George’s Island, the St. John’s River, Florida’s longest waterway, reaches the Atlantic. It is part of an inland lagoon system made possible by the barrier islands which, as sea levels dropped long ago, “became an obstacle that prevented water from flowing east to the ocean” (St. John’s River Water Management District).

Amelia Island is long and narrow and one arterial highway, Florida’s coastal highway A1A, runs its full length. Only a few miles from its northern terminus, A1A crosses the Amelia River near the widest part of the island, travels north a short distance to the deep harbor and historic town of Fernandina Beach, and crosses over to the Atlantic. After hugging the beach for several miles, it angles inland and continues south, leaving Amelia on a bridge over Nassau Sound.

During Amelia Island’s earlier history, A1A provided access to communities that have long been important to African-Americans. Since World War II, expensive resorts and condominiums have become the most prominent features of this stretch of highway.

For ten miles on Amelia Island and another fifteen as it continues south over the three smaller Sea Islands, this highway provides delightful cycling: smooth surfaces, good bike lanes, and virtually no elevation gain or loss. Much of the highway travels through wooded, swampy countryside, with the ocean beaches out of sight.

Big Talbot Sign

Part of Amelia and virtually all of the lower islands are state parks, which makes the cycling even more pleasing, especially to an out-of-shape cyclist like me. Recreational cyclists prefer the off-road bike trail that parallels A1A much of this distance.

With Mike and by myself, I bicycled along this corridor several times, staying on the highway bike lanes, and became acquainted with some of the history of Amelia Island, especially that of American Beach, which for several generations was a nationally important haven for African Americans who were suffering under segregation laws and customs. In another blog, where I review An American Beach for African Americans by Marsha Dean Phelts, I have described this part of my cycling experience.

Cyclists cannot help but pay attention to the string of expensive resort and residential communities on Amelia. Not only have they encroached upon long-existing African American sections of the island, but they have brought large numbers of winter residents, vacationers, and permanent residents. The character of the island is changing.

My contact with this new population took place at the Starbucks a mile from my son’s home, south of Fernandina Beach and north of American Beach and the new resort communities. It is the one new-style coffee shop on the island that I have seen, and in the mornings when I and my computer spent time there, the people I met were mostly my age, white, and from places like Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. Like me, some of them value the New York Times and its “New York values,” but unlike me they seem to have little interest in the distinctive history of this part of the American South.

During my two weeks in the Sea Islands, I rode 275 miles at a pace that pushed my conditioning forward, thus fulfilling my needs as aggressive cylist. What pleases me even more is that a new part of America, previously unknown to me, has been revealed, so that my identity as contemplative cyclist is growing stronger, too. I’m sure that I’ll be back!

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island

“An American Beach for African Americans”

February 15, 2016

Reviewing An American Beach for African Americans, by Marsha Dean Phelts (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997)

AmericanBeachAmelia Island is the northeastern-most tip of Florida, separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River. From the earliest period of European activity, this thirteen-mile long barrier island experienced interaction, often serious conflict, between differing groups of people: Native American vs. European, Spanish explorers vs. English and French, slave owners vs. slaves, European Americans vs. African Americans, North vs. South, established families vs. vacationers

My interest in Amelia Island’s history developed during a two-week cycling and family vacation, and Marsha Dean Phelts’ book about a community on the southern part of the island became a source of information and insight.

Amelia Island’s sheltered, deep water port and its separation from but nearness to Florida’s mainland and the American South attracted seafarers of all kinds. Its commercial and residential activities were centered in the town of Fernandina Beach, at one time a center for the slave trade and a location for importing African slaves even after the practice had been outlawed by the United States.

Amelia was also a productive agricultural site. In 1796, Samuel Harrison applied for a land grant for property on the island that he had homesteaded, including a 700-acre site at the mouth of the Nassau River.

Despite President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves on Amelia Island did not gain freedom until the arrival of Union soldiers during the war. In 1865, Major General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which reserved land for the settlement of Negro communities. This order set apart the “islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, . . .for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States” (Phelts, p. 15).

Former slaves on the Harrison Plantation were able to acquire land and eke out a living by farming. They clustered in in a self-sufficient community named Franklin Town. This little community had its own school and a Methodist Church, which still is functioning.

Segregation laws during the Jim Crow era, allowed Black Americans on public beaches only as employees of whites, and they were not allowed to engage in recreational activities. Much of this was to change because of the vision and work of Abraham Lincoln Lewis (1865-1947) and his wife Mary Sammis, who was the great-granddaughter of another barrier island planter, the controversial Zephaniah Kingsley and his Senegalese wife Anna Jai.

With six other men at the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville, he founded the Afro-American Industrial and Benefit Association (later renamed the Afro-American Insurance Company). The company and its staff prospered, and Lewis decided to establish a community at the beach where African-Americans could come with freedom and without humiliation.

He and his colleagues settled on Amelia Island. It was reasonably close to Jacksonville, land could be acquired, and they could develop it according to principles that they chose for themselves rather than those dictated by the dominant, white society. They acquired a tract of land, with 1,000 feet of beach frontage, and in 1935 established American Beach.

Lewis and his colleagues and friends built houses and the community prospered. American Beach became a haven and destination point for African Americans all over the country. Some of the nation’s most celebrated figures in business, education, religion, and the entertainment world came to American Beach during its years of greatest prominence.

The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 made it possible for African Americans to use all of the public beaches that formerly had been closed to them, which reduced some of the reasons for going to this haven. Immediately thereafter Hurricane Dora damaged many structures, again changing the dynamics of life in American Beach. In recent decades the encroachment of costly privately owned resort and condominium communities has also changed the social dynamics on this part of Amelia Island. Even so, American Beach continues to be a significant beacon for African-American history and life.

During her childhood Marsha Dean Phelts’ family vacationed here and in 1997, when she published her book, she lived in American  Beach. Her historical account is one of the book’s values, but equally interesting is her enthusiastic presentation of the human side of the experience, both the highs and the lows.

In the latter part of the book Phelts intertwines stories of American Beach families with their favorite recipes. ”Daddy Charlie’s Jamaican Con Pollo, with chicken, shrimp, ham, and boiled blue crabs, I could imagine eating, but not Super Bowl Pork Pot, with its twenty-nine pounds of of small pig ears, hog maws, pig tails and pig feet.

When she published this book, Phelts was a school librarian and a librarian in the Genealogical Department of the Jacksonville Public Library. Two decades have passed since then, but this is one of the best guides to Amelia Island’s history and continuing importance.

Jonathan Edwards and twentieth-century neuroscience according to Marilynne Robinson

February 9, 2016

RobinsonIn 1959 when I arrived in Berkeley to study church history at Pacific School of Religion, I was familiar with and distressed by Jonathan Edwards’ revivalist sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Early in my studies, I read more of Edwards’ writings and developed a new appreciation for his contributions to American theological and philosophical thought.

Fortunately for students, Yale University Press was then publishing the definitive edition of his entire body of writings. The entire series, which reached a total of 58 large volumes, can still be purchased. Amazon offers a kindle version of this long shelf of books for $1.99, and includes a free Kindle app.

As a doctoral student, I bought two volumes at the discounted price of $6.50 per book and read both of them with considerable care and appreciation. Further encouragement to think well of Edwards came from the biography written by distinguished Harvard professor Perry Miller whose multi-volume masterpiece, The New England Mind, had already shaped a generation of American historians and intellectuals. His biography, Jonathan Edwards, was not easy to read, but it proved beyond a doubt to me that Edwards deserved serious attention despite the sermon that often was used to ridicule him.

The Amazon reviewer says that Miller’s study of Edwards “as a writer and an artist is regarded as one of the great studies of ‘the life of the mind.’ He challenges readers to understand Edwards as an intellectual who, living in his own time and place, wrestled with issues relevant to the modern world.”

My history with Edwards, has come to mind because of Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Givenness,” which helps to explain the title of her book in which it appears, The Givenness of Things. She begins her essay with the statement that she had been reading Edwards’ theology, especially A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. This was the same book that had transformed my appreciation of Edwards 55 years ago.

This book, Robinson explains, rescued her from the positivism of contemporary neuroscientists that she found more constraining than the doctrines of original sin and predestination in the Calvinist tradition that Edwards represented.

Robinson describes Edwards as a pragmatist because he accepted “the givenness of things.” She perceives a direct line leading to the philosophical ideas developed by William James and states this similarity in one of her characteristically long sentences:

James’ “posture of objectivity, scrupulous because it is tentative, different as it is from Edwards’ intensely scriptural and theological approach, makes the same assertion Edwards makes, which is that a kind of experience felt as religious and mediated through the emotions does sometimes have formidable and highly characteristic effects on personality and behavior that are available to observation” (p. 73).

Robinson gives a name, “the mysteries of consciousness,” to this aspect of human life. She refers to it as “higher order thinking,” which describes aspects of what we think and do that “are shaped and triggered by culture and personal history” (78). Edwards referred to them as “affections,” and listed them as “joy, love, hope, desire, delight, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal, as well as fear and dread.” He showed from Scripture that the are an “intrinsic part in the experiences of faith” (p. 73).

Modern neuroscientists, Robinson explains, study the processes in the human brain that can be examined by devices and procedures they have mastered. They can display the neurological synapses in the brain that are triggered both in humans and in other primates when they encounter something fearful such as a lion on the loose.

At this point, neuroscientists assert that there is nothing beyond these neurological processes, nothing in human culture and experience that also generates the wide range of response and behavior that we regularly experience in ordinary human life. Their already agreed-upon criteria of what is real require that they reject any evidence that does not agree with these conditions.

Using materials from the Bible and from contemporary human experience, Robinson counters by asserting that factors denied by neuroscientists are in fact true and trustworthy.

“Love, however elusive, however protean, however fragmentary, seems to have something like an objective existence. It can be observed as well as tested. Perhaps it is better to say, language reflects a consensus of subjectivities. We seldom agree in our loves, we vary wildly in our ability to acknowledge and express them, we may find that they focus more readily on cats and dogs than on justice and mercy, neighbors and strangers. And yet, for all that, we do know what love is, and joy, gratitude, compassion, sorrow, and fear as well” (p. 79).

Her final plea is that any explanation of reality we use must include “the most basic knowledge we now have of the cosmos.” As she points out at the beginning of the essay, that knowledge comes from what theologian Jonathan Edwards called “the religious affections.”

It’s time to reread A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections!


A new way of life in the American West

February 2, 2016

Introducing The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West, revised and updated, by Charles Wilkinson (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1999).

WilkinsonDuring this winter’s bicycle travels in the Desert Southwest, my contemplations are being shaped by two books, both of which explore the same topic: finding new ways to live in the western regions of the United States. The challenge facing the nation, and especially those of us living in the West, can be summarized briefly.

  • Despite its vast size and wealth of natural resources, this part of the continent is fragile and easily degraded.
  • Long-standing policies and practices have exploited the natural wealth of the region and degraded the landscape and its fragile balance of flora, fauna, and waterways.
  • The human population already exceeds some estimates as to the maximum capabilities that this region can support; and the manufactured infrastructure, especially the harnessing of waterways and irrigation of fields, seems irreversible.
  • People continue to migrate to this part of the country and the environmental pressure continues to build.

So what do we do? The two books traveling with me as I bicycle in the desert provide differing, though compatible, answers to this question.

The longer and more complex—Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)—is a collection of essays that were prepared for a working conference of twenty ranchers, environmental activists, and conservation biologists whose purpose was to find a way to set aside old differences and craft a new vision for the West.

I came across this volume a year ago in a splendid little bookstore in Bisbee, Arizona, but have pushed it aside because other work seemed more pressing. Now that I am returning to the Southwest for my annual winter visitation, it is time to read the book.

The foreword is written by Charles F. Wilkinson, a name I did not recognize when I bought the book. In late September, however, I took a brief break from normal duties by driving through the Columbia River Gorge, another part of the West where the challenges are especially evident. In the bookstore of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in The Dalles, Oregon, I bought a copy of the revised and updated edition of a book of essays written by Wilkinson: The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West).

The book jacket identifies the author as “the Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado in Boulder [and] author of several books including Crossing the Next Meridian and Fire on the Plateau.”

After graduating from law school in 1966, Wilkinson practiced with private firms in Phoenix and San Francisco and then served as staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder. In 1975 he became a member of the law faculty at the University of Oregon and later moved to his current position at the University of Colorado.

The first edition of The Eagle Bird was published in 1991. Wilkinson’s goal was to discuss critical western issues in a way that would be accessible to laypeople who might not have the background in western history and the law to avail themselves of the technical literature that was available.

When he revised the book a decade later, he was surprised to realize how much these issues had changed in such a short period of time. I suspect that changes have continued during the decade and a half since this revision was published. Wilkinson’s current point of view can be inferred from a paragraph in his forward to Stitching the West Back Together, which was published in 2014.

“The heart of this fresh and ambitious book is that when you talk long enough and listen enough, and dare to open up your mind enough, you realize that most people and sides are making ethical and moral arguments that deserve high respect. Yes: achieving a vibrant community economic footing is a worthy—and moral—objective. Likewise, embedding communities in healthy, lasting landscapes is a moral imperative” (p. ix).

Later in the foreword, he notes that ideas about life in the West “need to be lived, not just asserted. Employing them must be practical and workable.”

Wilkinson’s essays in The Eagle Bird are valuable to westerners for several reasons. He is thoroughly acquainted with legislation and court cases that deal with the issues of life in western United States. He is also well acquainted with a large body of literature discussing conservationist and environmental issues. Much of his work has been with and on behalf of Native American communities in the West. He is a lucid writer and, has published many articles and fourteen books (according to the bibliographical sketch in Stitching).

Perhaps most important is the fact that I generally agree with his point of view. This is the primary reason for taking this book with me as as I bike and blog my way through the Desert Southwest this winter. Charles Wilkinson will help me understand what I see going on all around me.