Tiny flakes of snow fall like rain and logging trucks glide through highway slush fully laden for the mills. I can hear the tires from my second-story home-office that overlooks a frozen pond and State Highway 95 in northern Idaho. I’m adjusting to a lack of sunlight and have all my overhead lights and desk lamp blazing as if it were night in an unlit cabin. Winter seems contained, like living in a snow-globe.
We don’t hibernate out west, though; work continues. Loggers bundle up and writers stoke wood-stoves. Commerce chains up trucks and melts snow on rails to haul cargo containers, grain, lumber, oil and coal. Mills stockpile logs and ranchers prepare for spring calving that will undoubtedly coincide with spring blizzards. Some businesses shut down after the holidays not to open until the return of summer vacationers, fall hunters and holiday skiers. The ski resorts are lively as ghost towns come to life with the magic of 129 inches of snow so far.
Frozen, yet tensions are heated. Once again, the west is in rebellion.
No matter what you read or hear in the news, understand the issue is ongoing, complex and firmly rooted in a power struggle over the west’s commerce based on natural resources. There is no way to simplify or even fully explain what is going on 8 hours southeast of my winter snow-globe. I’m a story-teller who looks for stories to understand why grown men now stand in an Oregon marsh, armed with guns, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms. What does this mean? As I fix spaghetti for dinner, thoughts as fleeting as the passing snowplow lights swirl in my mind.
Rebellions, even full-scale wars, find justification in controlling natural resources.
The west has always been susceptible — rich in gold, silver, water, open land — these are the precious commodities at the root of power and control. Often the struggles come down to federal regulations versus states rights. But it can be more personal than that. Often, it’s a family’s way of living –ranching, logging, fishing, farming — that can fall victim to rigid mandates issued in Washington, D.C. and upheld by federal agents without regard to livelihoods and traditions of generations.
Disputes, tension and struggle for control of land and resource use has led to the Sagebrush Rebellion, a series of small-scale stand-offs between small communities standing up to big government. Yet, as Guy Pence, a harassed Nevada forest ranger, once said in an interview, “The western United States, we’re having a hard time growing up.”
During the 1861 frenzy of silver mining in eastern California, along the Nevada border, Jacob Marklee built a toll-bridge. He was shot in a land dispute. Where his cabin once stood, I grew up in the house next door.
In 1981 I rode my horse 22 miles, crossing the flooded river that once flowed beneath Marklee’s toll-bridge. I was pushing hundreds of cow and calf pairs with an outfit of cowboys from a local ranch. It was a right of passage. I earned a beer for my efforts and can still feel the pride I felt in doing the job as a young teen. Cattle herds grazed public land for multiple generations. Much land is now shut down to ranchers.
1989 and my father is threatened with fines on his logging operation. He’s earned a strange reputation as a logging tree-hugger; a logger who understands the forests as deeply as a sage and believes the US Forest Service is doing more harm than good. He implements innovative ways to stave the encroaching beetle kill, but one hard-lined forest ranger is sticking to the rulebook and frustrating my father’s well-intended efforts. My father calls him a sawed-off blanety-blank, pushes him and tells him not to come back to his logging operation.
In 1995 a pipe bomb is found outside forest ranger Guy Pence’s office in Carson City, Nevada. Several month later, a second pipe bomb explodes beneath Pence’s family van, blowing out the front window of his home and terrifying his wife and daughters. He’s relocated to Idaho for his family’s safety. My father becomes a suspect in the FBI investigation that remains unresolved.
In 1902 the US government moves forward with a project in north-western Nevada to irrigate 400,000 acres, using Sierra Nevada watershed that has dumped into a desert sink for tens of thousands of years. The director of the survey team is my husband’s great grand uncle. He tells his sister and her husband about the project and the Mills family becomes one of the first owners of Newlands Project water rights. My husband grew up on the irrigated land founded by his great-grandparents where his father built a jersey dairy among sandblows and sagebrush. The river that starts in my hometown ends in my husband’s hometown.
In 1992 my sister-in-law and her husband faced an unprecedented court battle to maintain their Newland Project water rights. The Wolf Ranch depends upon these rights and public land grazing for their cattle operation. They continue to struggle against laws that ignore their interests and growing public opinion that misunderstands how ranchers live and work.
These are just a few of my own personal stories that intersect with the Sagebrush Rebellion. My husband and I moved away from our western ranching and logging roots because we became the generation that could no longer make a living at it. The Wolf’s dug in and barely hang on. The Mills Farm was subdivided. Then we lost our house. While not part of the western woes, I can tell you first hand that laws do not apply equally. In the struggle for control, whether it be a banking market or natural resources, the powerful win. I’m a determined individual, the result of the western culture, and I fought for my home and found no aid.
I can understand frustration. I can understand fighting for what’s right. I understand my imperfect western culture.
But don’t for a minute think the Bundy’s represent the western way. They are an example of exploiters. It is the Hammonds I feel for; the community of Burns I worry over. My father could have easily been a Hammond. After all, it was Guy Pence he once threatened. It concerns me that laws can be misused. It concerns me that our government can imprison and then re-imprison people for the same crime. It concerns me that land management decisions are made by those who do not make a livelihood from those lands. It concerns me that a bullying force can call themselves a militia and speak for those who don’t want them to hijack their valid concerns.
Power and control. Rebellion.
What a mess as the temperatures plummet and my spaghetti sauce now fills the house with robust aroma. I’m still trying to sort out what this means. The media circus and court of public opinion is in full force. I avoid both. I have so many diverse friends and family, I wonder if it is possible to gather under one flag, yet we all claim to be American. So full of contradictions. Ironies, even. Notice that I only included my stories. The Paiute and Washo have theirs; the Californios, too. I ponder all the immigrant groups that came here to the New World, and still seek out American asylum today.
I think of the actions of those who influenced me growing up. My Apache third-grade teacher, my super-jock seventh-grade teacher, the Washo grandfather of a friend, the rancher who hired me at age 12, the local newspaper editor who published my cliff-hanger series at age 13, the housebound old-timers who shared their stories that inspired me, the authors I read, the help I had in breaking cycles.
A growth mindset does not come naturally, I think. It’s modeled and encouraged. I requires more than thinking and growing. It takes action.
Cobb McCanles leaves no written or oral explanation as to why he left North Carolina as rebellion tensions mounted. But his father does. James McCanles wrote:
For rebellion in the wildest form,
Death and destruction spread,
Like a terrific midnight storm,
Burst o’er our helpless heads;
Then wasting grief our country prest,
And safety sought with toil,
For rebel gangs our land oppressed,
And murdered for the spoil.
Cobb took the action of one who was not of a fixed mindset. He sought something new, different, better. His father leaves us with words to ponder regarding the violence of rebellion. Yet, in a way, the action required to do something different is often a rebellion against the fixed way of doing things. How does rebellion become violent? Is it an escalation or is the battle over power and control not truly a rebellion? I don’t believe standing in a wildlife marsh with a gun is a rebellion. I believe listening to the stories of others and giving voice to rural communities is.
Perhaps little story-rebellions from marginalized communities around the globe can teach us to better appreciate one another’s struggles. But how do we stand up to the powers that be? How do we take control of our lives and livelihoods without becoming what we struggle against?
January 6, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a rebellion. Is it one a character fights for or is it one another suppresses? Explore what makes a rebellion, pros or cons. Use past or current rebellions as inspiration or make up one of your own.
Respond by January 12, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Family Division by Charli Mills
I fell in love with your mother among wildflowers …
Cobb read the letter to Mary by light of an oil lamp while the children slept.
“Go on,” she said.
“You know, Da, poetics. Not much else.” Cobb set the parchment aside.
“Cobb McCanles I may not know my letters, but I know it doesn’t look like one of his poems. What does he say?”
Cobb shook his head. “Da wants to come west finally, leave his beloved North Carolina.”
“It can’t be that bad?”
Cobb tightened his jaw. “Your brothers were among the rebels who burned him out.”