Fences, Bats, and a Troubled Commons

2016-05-17 -Lighthawk -Braided stream, MNWR -DSC_0261.jpg

We’re a bit late posting a nod to National Public Lands Day, September 22nd…but we note this 50-state, multi-partner volunteerism effort, with 100,000 pitching in to enhance the health of our shared national heritage. Connecting with and helping protect our commons, across diverse viewpoints and interests, is a powerful instrument of democracy, in our view. This year’s focus was “resilience and restoration,” concepts that could be applied not only to public land stewardship, but also toward the necessary healing of a civil society at risk. Restoration along streams, for instance, reduces channelization—where banks force water to rush in deep grooves. A healthier stream meanders, slowing the water and encouraging nutrients to be more widely distributed and absorbed for the benefit of all who use it.

In light of staggering polarization on the national political scene, a couple of radio interviews have just caught our attention (thank goodness for NPR!). One features novelist Barbara Kingsolver talking about her new book, Unsheltered; and one hosts Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse (R), discussing his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal. We’ve read numerous articles and essays examining today’s social and political ruptures; these just happen to be two of the most recent.

Is it coincidence we’ve added one from each “side” of the political fray? Does listening to more than one perspective necessarily neuter one’s point of view? Is there a case for exploring opposing sides of an argument, or does any coverage risk “giving a platform to the wrong side?” Can we find a way to understand a person or group or ideology… even while still disagreeing with them, and why should we?

Kingsolver, whose acclaimed work includes Animal DreamsThe Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible lives in Appalachia, traveling to New York for work. “I move between red states and blue states, between rural and urban—between these two cultures that are so divided that they've really stopped talking to each other. They only talk about each other.” She adds, “And I'm the bat. You know…that's neither mammal nor bird. I have to fly between these cultures and see what I can render for the reader in terms of interest and in terms of sympathy.” Well, bats are pretty demonstrably mammals…but we get the point. Plus, they’re kind of seasonally appropriate.

We, too, are dually placed, and have been for nearly three decades. As proud “bi-locales,” (a moniker kindly bestowed by our good friend Terry Keim,) we alternately inhabit Portland, on the “Westside” of Oregon, and Harney County, on its “Eastside,” moving between very different physical and occasionally distinctly different philosophical spaces. Kingsolver says the role of art is to explore “…what's just outside our daily experience, to try to broaden people's vision a little bit…and to create empathy for the theoretical stranger...to put all these people in one household, see how all of them tick.”

When we film people holding opposing positions, we often detect some common strands. In our experience producing Refuge, we’ve found that people on opposite sides of the ideological fence (barbed wire or wood) become inflamed with a sense of scarcity and an abiding fear of loss—they assign these emotions to different things, but with the mutual result being a heightened distrust in “the other” …and even a loss of trust of basic institutions.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s Them: Why We Hate Each Other - And How To Heal reveals some of the same observations (although he fails to include a Halloween-themed animal, quite sadly.) Sasse criticizes a hyper-partisan reality, where “both parties spend most of their time trying to explain why the other party is even worse than it is” and notes data showing that around 40% of our population now believes the opposing political party to one’s own is not just wrong, but “evil.”

He blames aspects of the digital revolution, claiming it erodes a basic rootedness in our physical communities, in favor of more lockstep loyalties—the echo chambers we know too well. While communities of interest do offer an essential connectivity not found otherwise (#metoo, #blacklivesmatter, etc.), Sasse suggests our digital habit has also led to loneliness and disassociation, “undermining our habits of being anchored in a place.”

Refuge is about this sense of place; people rooted in a place, and a community in crisis. In our first two films exploring this theme, we remained somewhat at arm’s length to the immediate threats we observed. With Refuge, our experience is more personal, challenging us to relate an intimate story, but one that also demands perspective. In the aftermath of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur refuge, many Harney County residents anguished that the community simply may not heal—positions had become channelized, not just from the occupation itself, but by a blistering social media landscape paired with unprecedented socio-political national divide. Leery of unintentionally deepening wounds through this film, we still need to advocate for listening openly, through discomfort and even anger, in protecting our social commons.

Terry Tempest Williams talks about the need to honor divergent voices, to “vow not to hide in the old habits of rigid certainties, but abide in the big mysteries which surround us.” Film and story have the intrinsic knack of unfolding complex ideas through an appreciation of mystery and the delicious discomfort of the unknown. Our challenge to ourselves, and to Refuge’s viewers—a way to take direct action—is to practice deep and quiet listening, nimble curiosity, and vivid imagination…while remaining in place with the stranger, the other, one of them. The result could be a kind of transformation—not to where our values are diluted, but where they’re fortified through the consideration of opposing ideas, and a search to connect somehow with the whole household.

Over the nearly three years since the occupation, we’ve seen civility largely return to our community—through the small, daily acts that restore reserves and rebuild trust. Collaboration between long-time adversaries—ranchers, conservationists, and others—through the High Desert Partnership and other enduring efforts thrives, due to the laying down of long and steady groundwork, deep listening, and reaching for solutions to common goals. Because of this intentional work, the channelized stream meanders, a bit more.