Why Environmentalists Make Me Cuss

Greens need to tell more stories, not pass more laws

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I live near a small town, about 300 people. In that town is a café that has one good-sized, well-lit dining room. Around the edges are tables for two and four with silk flowers in vases or seasonal holiday decorations. And right in the middle of that room is a big long table, long enough that it needs three of those little racks that hold the napkins and the ketchup and the salt and pepper. There are never any flowers on it.

When you walk into this room for the first time, something tells you that there is a politics attached to this table. Less clear even to locals is what the actual rules are as far as who sits there and who doesn’t. But at the very least, people know that it is possible to be unwelcome at this table and that being either unwelcome or welcome is something that gets earned.

A common trait of those who sit at this table is that they have been unable to discover any redeeming qualities in what we like to call the “goddamn environmentalists.” You almost never hear just “environmentalist.” It’s always “goddamn environmentalists” or sometimes “motherfucking environmentalists” or even “goddamn motherfucking environmental hippie sons of bitches.” The café’s owner has a cuss bucket she puts on the table every time talk turns to environmentalism. She claims that, at 25 cents a word, she can buy a week’s cigarettes with a morning’s proceeds.

Myself, I’m kind of an odd bird in that I happen to agree with environmentalists that the planet is getting screwed as a result of our collective obsession with greed and convenience. I speak up as often as I can without wearing out my welcome at the table, but I should also say that I think my neighbors are entitled to the hostility they feel toward environmentalists. In fact, I would probably have to say that I feel pretty much the same degree of hostility. Increasingly, I’m having a lot of trouble saying “environmentalist” without putting “goddamn” in front of it.

“Hey, Mike, how the hell you been?” says Alden. Alden is 90 years old and about as much a part of the decor of that café as the pie case and the milkshake machine. When I walked in he had just torn too much off the side of his packet of Sweet’n Low and was trying to spill at least most of it into his cup of coffee.

“Oh, all right I guess. It’s slicker than snot out there this morning.”

“You shipping cattle?” he asks, lifting his cup with both hands.

“Yessir. Brought a bunch of cull cows just down here to the Klamath yard. I don’t mind telling you, the calves I don’t mind sending, but there were some cows in that bunch I’ve had for a hell of a long time.”

“Don’t tell me you finally sent that old bitch Swinger?”

Carol waved her hand from back in the kitchen and yelled, “Biscuits?”

“Yes, ma’am, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Alden was still waiting, although I could see he could already tell. “I guess that would be a hard one to load up.”

I pulled my napkin out from under my silverware. “Well, she’s gone now.”

“She come up open?”

“Yessir. First time in 14 years she hasn’t come up bred. Hell of a calf every damn year, too.”

Alden fiddled with his cup, tilting it enough to let the waitress know it was empty. I was looking down at my biscuits, but I could feel him looking at me, trying to figure how I felt about shipping Swinger.

Swinger got her name from the way she behaved in a device called a squeeze chute, which is used to restrain cattle for close-up work. I’ve never met a cow that actually liked to be in a squeeze chute, which makes sense considering that what happens there generally involves some form of discomfort for the cow in question. But I think Swinger, if she didn’t actually like it, at least recognized that it was one of the few opportunities a cow gets to get back at the guy with the hat.

Cows remember the chute. Most will hesitate, maybe bawl once or twice, and then reluctantly step in. Swinger, on the other hand, walked firmly and confidently into place, stopping with her head right where it belongs. When I stepped to the front of the chute, she would pivot her head toward me and snort in a way that reminded me of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park when they hear the kids whimpering in the corner. She shook and twisted her head ever so slightly, snorting lightly, like she was doing her warm-ups. When I moved in, pressing my knee against the side of her head and wrapping my arm around her neck, she went suddenly calm and limp, lowering her head as low as it would go.

You only fall for this once. The first time I had her in the chute, I had noticed how the older cowboys had all crept up from their posts to watch. Swinger went limp and lowered her head. I bent over with the balling gun, which I had planned on sliding down her throat with a dose of wormer, and the next thing I knew I was bouncing off a wall about six feet away, already feeling the broken nose.

I wanted to kill Swinger. I wanted to go get a gun, shoot her between the eyes, cut her into pieces, cook her in a pan, and eat her. It’s the ultimate greenhorn’s solace: No matter how unruly the animal gets, no matter how miserable it makes your life, we always know who eats who in the end. I say greenhorn because any real cowboy knows that someday some ungulate will be grazing grass built from his bones. The old-timers who had stopped to watch seemed to be both amused and mildly annoyed by my fury, and they turned back toward their posts as I cussed and kicked and made excuses.

Quite some time later I came to a dead halt when I remembered that, as I had been picking myself and my pride up off the ground, Swinger had stood calmly while one of the old-timers slid the balling gun down her throat. Somehow, over the years before I showed up, these men and that cow had worked a deal that they weren’t letting me in on. It was a strange sensation. I didn’t really resent the men, since their deliberate abuse is a tradition both ancient and, ultimately, practical. I think what I resented was how obvious it suddenly was that my status as a human being did not necessarily guarantee me a spot above this cow on the social ladder. And I resented the cow, for Pete’s sake, a cow who I liked to think lived and died per my wishes. But I haven’t been able to avoid calling what I felt that day jealousy. There was just no way around it: She knew the rules, and I didn’t. She was one of them, and I wasn’t.

I know it’s just a cow, and I know I’m just a farmer. But I think that what we’re talking about here points us toward a dilemma that American environmentalism has never quite had the nerve to confront, a set of questions it has always been afraid to answer:

What exactly is it that causes a human being to “respect” nature?

More important, how does a community of human beings, bound together by story, blood, and lifestyle, get to the point where it feeds and clothes and houses itself in a way that doesn’t defeat the purpose?

What exactly is “respect,” anyway, and how is it different from mere idolatry or fetishism?

And what exactly are “communities,” and how are they different from mere nations or market segments?

Finally, how can we live so that we experience our dependence on the nonhuman world as a matter of plain “thusness”—as just a run-of-the-mill, everyday, stinky, ecstatic, painful, beautiful, and depressing reality instead of the perfumy and saccharine pabulum oozing from our calendars and coffee-table books?

Now, I realize that many environmentalists have been willing to at least ask these questions. But all too many of us have stopped at the asking simply because the answers are just too disturbing, too threatening to all we hold dear, too corrosive to the revered institutions of American Environmentalism.

I need to distinguish the kind of environmental zealotry that is litigious, large-scale, and institutionalized from environmentalism that is collaborative, small-scale, and organic to particular communities and landscapes. Part of what I’m trying to argue here is that the first kind is starting to be more trouble than it’s worth, and that the second kind deserves a lot more attention and energy. While I’m willing to acknowledge that there is an important role for large-scale environmentalism, it seems to me the time has come for environmentalists to get crystal clear about what that role is, and to figure out what situations call for an approach that is more site-specific, more tolerant, less brutal.

For about six years now, the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) has maintained a field office here in our part of Oregon, and over those years they have established a reputation as “uncompromising” (read: obnoxious and confrontational) defenders of the basin’s nonhuman resources. The ONRC is a good example of old-style litigate-and-legislate organizations that are having trouble adapting to a world in which the most important and durable environmental advocacy is being done small-scale, at the nuts-and-bolts level of local communities.

The ONRC recently announced the Oregon Wild campaign. The public outreach segment of this campaign is the Adopt a Wilderness program, whereby individual supporters become “parents of place” by helping assess, map, interpret, monitor, and advocate for particular tracts of land. The ultimate goal is to protect Oregon’s remaining wild lands by transferring them to federal ownership under the Wilderness Act.

The emphasis on individuals committing to particular places sounds nice, and I am sure it has inspired many to get their checkbooks out. But it seems to me that the Oregon Wild program is rooted more in the institutionalized separation of humans and nature than in an acknowledgment of interconnectedness and interdependence. How else could the ONRC see a solution to the problem of mankind’s alienation from nature in the bureaucratic designation of wilderness areas? How else could they see the systematic exclusion of human communities from certain landscapes as the only way to foster respect for those landscapes?

They are able to come to these conclusions because, frankly, they live in cities and suburbs, where the suppression of wildness is so basic that even members of the ONRC don’t notice how thoroughly it influences them. Whether or not they like to think so, they have bracketed off their own lifestyles—relentless wonderlands of technological artifice and corporate insinuation—as the norm. They resign themselves to the fact that their own “places” are industrial sacrifice areas, beyond hope. They recognize that the human animal needs a closer connection with nature than urban life provides, so they resolve to make sure there is some wilderness out there somewhere.

I suppose it is possible to love a federally designated wilderness area, but as seems clear from the Adopt a Wilderness program, it will be the protective love of a parent for a child. Or it will be a kind of puppy love that focuses on the simple pleasures, rather than a living, breathing, grown-up love, which reminds us that, as Gary Snyder put it, “there is no death that is not somebody’s food and no life that is not somebody’s death.”

A year after Swinger sent me flying, I was calving the herd out by myself. Every new calf gets a round of shots and is weighed, tagged, and tattooed, all while a furiously protective mother cow breathes down your neck. But after surviving a few hundred such encounters, you grow comfortable with the fact that the cow is almost always more scared of you than you are of her.

On that bitterly cold February morning as I approached, Swinger walked quickly away from her calf, which is what most cows do for the same reason that killdeers act like their wings are broken. I figured I had better get it done before she realized I was not fooled and started back.

I had left the four-wheeler running, so I didn’t hear the hoofbeats until just before she hit me. Instead of throwing me this time, she took advantage of the fact that this particular spot was a jagged and rock-hard cheese grater of deep hoofprints in frozen mud. She pushed me over into and then under the four-wheeler, where I stayed until she went back to her calf. To this day I have dark scars on my forearms where mud got ground up under the skin.

It was stage two of my initiation.

She was showing me the rules—not how to learn, but that learning as I understood it really didn’t apply here. It wasn’t a matter of her knowing something and then one way or another passing it on to me. It wasn’t about her being better than me or me being better than her or either one of us being a subset or a function of the other. It was about a spontaneous, visceral detachment from anything that wasn’t right here and right now. An unsaid and mutual surrender to the Land and its demands. From each, to each other, to both our bones underground. A slow-growing focus on something that wasn’t me and wasn’t her but was both of us—really more than both since it was both and then whatever we had between us, too. She would die and so would I: to someday feed what’s coming.

As I crawled out from under the four-wheeler, my dog walked up low, apologizing for having let it happen, and I said to him, “Don’t worry about it, dog. That there is one hell of a mother cow.”

The first people to start talking like environmentalists had figured out that we, as a nation, were far too obsessed with ourselves as individuals, so much so that we had come to believe that we did not have to balance our desire for material wealth with respect for the natural systems that originally produced that wealth.

These people were trying to find some way to get human beings to think more about the nonhuman world, to consider that world in our decision making in a way that we previously had not, or at least not since the start of the industrial revolution. But what is it, exactly, that could bind us to nature in such a way that nature ends up with greater respect? How can we build mutual obligations that are so deep, so integral, so organic that it no longer makes sense to make the distinction between humans and nonhumans?

The almost-universal approach of American environmentalists has been to get passed laws that establish more centralized control over resources they feel are endangered, or that bring the power of the state to bear upon those who are not behaving as environmentalists think they ought.

Most environmentalists, I’m guessing, would like to think that their efforts to pass regulatory laws, to designate wilderness areas, to establish wildlife refuges and otherwise transfer land and resources into government ownership have all been geared toward overcoming the problems caused by our heritage of excluding the nonhuman world from moral consideration. But if we take a good, honest look at where most of environmentalism is today, it seems clear that we have been unduly preoccupied with “getting it in writing,” and that we have been unwilling or unable to let go of the one artifact of the industrial revolution that made nature morally invisible to us in the first place: the written law. There is another way, much harder to talk about, for people to feel morally obligated to nature: I’ll call it empathy.

Empathy is not sympathy and it’s not pity. It is not the same as goodwill. We feel empathy for others when we get inside their heads or hearts. We encounter empathy by way of metaphor. It’s about identification based on similarity. It can be material similarity, like the facial features of brothers, but it can also be a function of experience, like the feeling of brotherhood between lifelong friends. It is a source of irresistible moral obligations. But unlike written laws or contracts, these bonds are at home in the heart; they have not been spoken or written out onto a table somewhere and turned into a document. They must be lived, not enacted.

Empathy can be turned into words, even into writing, without being turned into law. We call these words stories, and the best ones are allowed to change over time. They are an ongoing, open-ended negotiation. These stories, if they are allowed to work, become the boat we’re all floating in. I don’t mean “all” as in “all humanity.” But all of us who live in this place, this particular, tangible, seeable, knowable, lovable place. The place you can walk across.

Environmentalists need to tell more stories, not pass more laws. And they need to listen more closely to the stories of those they hope to change, and to realize that people who are forced to change don’t stay changed any longer than they have to. People can, and will, change themselves by the stories they tell, and by the subtle changes they make to stories they have inherited. We will not replace their stories. We have no business replacing their stories. We should show our manners and be grateful to have a place around their fire, and a turn to speak.

It was raining hard again this year, this day as we sat having coffee at the café. Not since ’64, the old-timers said, had they seen the Lost River this high. We joked about plowing with motorboats. A local real estate agent came in with some clients, a family from California who had had it with the city. The agent always sat his clients at the big table, which bothered most of us since his specialty was subdividing farm ground. Whenever he would leave, someone would joke about running out the money changers. When he heard us talking about Swinger, he asked me to tell about the time the water was high at Harpold.

Harpold Dam is this pretty-good-sized check dam down at the tail end of the irrigation district. I’ve got a little pasture down next to it where I keep a few animals, and this year Swinger was down there. A mass of tree limbs and trash and such had built up against the pilings, and it was raising the river even higher. Some folks upstream were starting to worry about flooding.

Two local men, middle-aged and overweight, floated out to the dam in a boat, trying to dislodge the debris. One of them leaned too far over the side of the boat, and over it tipped. I happened to be down at my barn and I heard their partner on the shore yelling for help. Both men went under long enough that we started wondering if we were watching someone die, but then one of them climbed up out of the water onto the steel channel between two pilings. After he inched his way to a small flat spot on top of the piling, he yelled to the other guy, who was pinned between a piling and a big limb, part of his bleeding face just above water, his arms bloody and wrapped around the steel channel.

My neighbor, a team roper, happened to be driving by just then. He jumped out of his truck and slid down the bank with his rope in his hand. He waited for the guy to bob up some and threw his rope and caught him, first try. We all grabbed the rope and pulled with all we had but we couldn’t bust him loose.

We cussed not having a horse. Then I looked over at my bunch of cows, who had all come over to see what was going on. Swinger was right out in front. My neighbor, knowing Swinger, thought of it at the same time I did. We knotted another rope to the one we were pulling on. I got the dog to bring Swinger in close enough to throw at and my neighbor nailed her, first throw.

Swinger jumped and jerked and spun and then popped the man right up onto the shore. Someone jumped on the rope and cut it just before she tore him in half.

As I finished the story, I noticed that the father from California had stopped eating about halfway through. Then he remembered and began to butter his toast.

“And you said you sold this cow today?”

“Yessir.”

“Why?”

I never did really answer his question. I’m pretty sure the only answer I had would have been one he wouldn’t want to hear.

Some stories we save for our own folk, and for good reason. The best stories—living stories, working stories—don’t mean something to everyone, and I can’t think why they should. They are not part of the land: They are the land. Not any land, but this land right here. They are the faint trails in the underbrush. They are the stag-scratched tree bark. They are the cat piss in the cave. They are under our feet like groundwater. They are less portable than we’d like to believe, and they matter more than anything.

It was almost lunchtime when I finally left the cafe. The sun had come out strong. I went home and got on the horse and rode up into the hills. I just let the horse go where it would. The sun was warm on my face. I might have fallen asleep.

I thought of Swinger in the auction ring with everybody yelling and prodding. I thought of her climbing up the slick ramp into a livestock semi full of cows she’d never seen. I thought of her walking onto the kill floor and slumping down as she was shot or shocked unconscious. I thought of her getting cut across the throat, drained and skinned and hooked and hung.

I felt for her. I felt it for her. Not instead of her but what I imagined her to feel I felt as well. Not shame and not regret, not pain and not injustice, but an unthinkable knowing that this is what is asked of us, an unprayable faith that this is just what must happen, or else everything falls apart, everything spins away to nothing. This is where we find respect. This is how we’ll save things.

She will die for us.

I will die for you.

You will die for me.

Feeding what’s coming.

Mike Connelly writes and farms in Oregon. From(Summer 1999).