For the last few months, I have been following the lead-up to the Malheur takeover and have paid particularly close attention to LaVoy Finicum, whom I have come to respect in a weird kind of way. I believe he is a man of principle, even though I believe his constitutional and legal principles are way off. I think he is a good man who speaks from his heart and certainly deserves my praise for acting on his convictions.
Edward Abbey is one of my favorite authors.
“The Monkey Wrench Gang” is about environmental activists who want to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam in order to restore the heart of the canyon country. While en route, they sabotage various facilities of environmental destruction while being on the run from Bishop Love, an LDS southern Utah County Commissioner with some issues. This book is generally credited with spawning the term, “eco-terrorist.”
When I moved west from Wisconsin — the land of Muir, Leopold, and Powell — I didn’t care one bit for ranchers and their cattle. I viewed them as self-righteous people who bellyached of how they were screwed by being allowed a heavily publicly subsidized way of life, including the hidden subsidy of environmental impact. I read “The Monkey Wrench Gang” first, and Abbey infected my thoughts. Turns out, I was self-righteous.
After college in the 1990s, I was lucky enough to to work at Capitol Reef National Park and even luckier to live in Teasdale, with the Mummy Cliffs at the base of Thousand Lake outside my bathroom window, and next to a 100-year-old rock house made by Franz Weber out of Wingate. I devoured local history books and began to meet and greet real cowboys and real ranchers, both big and small.
Keith Durfey was a big guy and owned the Notom Ranch, east of the Waterpocket Fold. A pious man with a smile always on his face, he was the park’s range specialist and part-time horse packer for dignitaries like members of Congress when they toured the park. He and I would have rangeland and local history discussions that affected me deeply. I liked that we could talk given our opposing views, and he changed the hatred I had in my heart.
When I left Capitol Reef, Keith gave me a wooden sign made from weathered barn board and backed with barbed wire to hang it. It depicted a large cowpie in the middle with the routed statement, “Better Cows than Condos.” I have carried that around with me for 20 years.
“Fire on the Mountain” is another Edward Abbey novel about an old rancher, his grandson, and their battles against the federal government, which wants to take their land. They live in New Mexico adjacent to an USAF facility that wants his land for a bombing range. The old fella is the last holdout, along with his grandson. Abbey describes the ranchers’ love of the land and how these values are being passed on to fewer generations as each year passes.
“Brave Cowboy” is a story of a principled 1950s cowboy struggling with the changes that society brings and was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas called “Lonely are the Brave.” The protagonist rides a horse instead of using a car and is eventually pursued by a local sheriff who sympathizes with the cowboy — and despises the violent response from his pursuing federal government peers. In the end … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has something to do with a truck carrying toilets.
In each of these books, Abbey creates characters and situations that portray the cowboy and small rancher as principled, inherently good people, and sometimes their causes are noble. Often they are just having trouble adjusting to the changes of modern society and the priorities amorphously set, and they push the boundaries of ethics and morality to do what they consider to be the right thing — and accepting the consequences.
These books changed my perspective on cowboys and small ranchers. Although I still believe cattle are a public-lands scourge, cowboys and small ranchers are not. These folks are impacted by changes in society and its priorities. It is a heritage and way of life that is disappearing, like that of a small midwestern farmer. Their plight is personal and real, hitting deeply into the fabric of their family’s history and future.
And in most cases, they are good, principled people who sometimes act desperately while trying to get by and do the right thing like everyone else.
So, after following LaVoy Finicum for months, I have come to the conclusion that he is worthy of the same depth of empathy, even though he has become a terrorist.
And I wonder what Edward Abbey would say.