Western Historian Patricia Limerick Visits Harney County

Patty talks in Burns -Houson pic.jpg

A year or so ago, as we were contemplating ways we might place the Malheur Refuge occupation into a broader historical context, we realized the best person to help us do that would be Dr. Patricia Nelson Limerick, renowned historian of the American West, and the director and co-founder of the Center of the American West at the U. of Colorado, Boulder. Patty has described how the yearning for a simplified Old West has often distracted us from the harsher realities of conquest, conflict, and failed enterprise that have comingled with a valid appreciation for great natural bounty and robust economic opportunity. The West is full of paradox, and, as we’ve been learning, so have viewpoints surrounding the events that deeply shook Harney County in early 2016 and beyond.

We invited Patty to join us in Harney County for a few days in March of 2017, to give a community talk after visiting with area residents and seeing some of our countryside. We titled the event, Dry Years, Wet Years, Tradition and Change, providing a common thread of experience for most living in the region. We were delighted to see more than 75 audience members enjoying Patty’s informative, energetic, and often quite humorous presentation. The occupation, although a year earlier, left lingering and raw emotions for many, but Patty elegantly provided a look at the bigger picture in a way that could help heal, rather than divide.

With Refuge, we’ve filmed scenes and interviews with dozens of people, many of whose  ideas about land, identity, and our role in Western life diverge markedly… we’ve chosen to give voice to those with whom we don’t agree, as well as with those with whom we do. Patty, in a wonderful New Yorker article about her visit to Burns, notes, “I talk to people I disagree with politically more often than anybody I know, and I’ve discovered that sometimes we find the same things funny.” We couldn’t agree more! 

Patty recalls, “I told the folks in Burns that, whatever side they were on, the conflict between local wisdom and outsider expertise has been going on over land use throughout human history, and they’re at the absolute center of something very important for the country and the world.” But the moment that garnered the heartiest applause and laughter was around her point that, “As for getting along with one another, I put in a big plug for hypocrisy. We don’t have to be honest with each other all the time.” For us, this wonderful image suggests a cultivation of the art of restraint, the ability to listen generously, and the willingness to ponder notions we’d normally find repugnant. We might learn something new, and we might even concoct a better way to live together in these turbulent social and political times. Our task, with Refuge, is to amplify this idea and to inspire increased engagement in these issues. We heartily thank Patty for her contribution to Refuge, and we encourage you to read the New Yorker article here.

Richard Wilhelm1 Comment