Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book 226: Chosen Country



"But his abiding concern was with the same thing preoccupying the townspeople at the meeting in Burns, a desperate and totally genuine love for an idea of a communally minded and free-living western way of life that corporate agriculture and federal regulations were supposedly squeezing out of existence. I don't think you have to idealize this sort of thing, support the Bundys, or believe in a glossy magical cowboy past to take this kind of love seriously."

Dates read: April 17-20, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I never thought about public lands before I moved to the West. Michigan has some National Forest land, a National Lakeshore. But I'd never even heard of the Bureau of Land Management, and wouldn't have been able to tell you what it did before I moved to Nevada and starting working in politics. I guess I would have figured most states were like Michigan, if I'd bothered to think about it at all. Turns out that the federal government owns and administrates upwards of 80% of the land in Nevada! In the West, I think one of the only things as controversial as water rights is the issue of federal ownership of land.

The first controversy over federal land I followed after I moved to Nevada was the Bunkerville situation, orchestrated by a Clark County rancher, Cliven Bundy, and his sons Ammon and Ryan. Not too long after that incident, Ammon and Ryan led the takeover of Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge. It's still mind-boggling to me that a group of armed men occupied federal government property and this was only sometimes referred to as terrorism and only ended in one death. I try to imagine what might have happened had those men not been white and it doesn't seem likely that a protracted stand-off would end with no loss of life beyond one man who tried to break a roadblock. Reporter James Pogue was in and around the Refuge during its occupation, and turned his experience with it into a book: Chosen Country.

Pogue half-heartedly tries to tie the Malhuer episode to the greater scope of the dying out of the "traditional" ranching culture of the West and the long-standing libertarian streak of the people here, their sense of independence and alienation from a bureaucracy so far away. I say half-heartedly not because the connection is tenuous, but because it's poorly explored. There's a rich history here, but Pogue only glances over it, completely leaving out incidents like Ruby Ridge (which aren't tied into the lands dispute, but definitely inform the prickly relationship between people who live in the rural areas and the federal government), so that he can spend more time talking about the relationships he built with the men who occupied the refuge and the things he did with them. In this choice, I really feel like he fails his readers, who I imagine are mostly picking up this book out of curiosity about the larger movement and Malhuer's place within it.

Pogue also stumbles in his organization of the book. Perhaps if I'd been reading a hard copy rather than an e-book, it might have been easier to flip back and forth and have a better sense of who he was talking about when, but Pogue tends to introduce a person (and there's a fairly large cast of them) and then go on to never again place them in context. For some of the more prominent people, like the Bundy brothers and LaVoy Finecum (who was ultimately killed), that's probably not necessary, but I kept forgetting who everyone was and their relationships (if any) to each other. He also jumbles his timelines quite a bit between Malhuer, Bunkerville, and a smaller incident he highlights involving a dispute over a mining claim. He's constantly ping-ponging back and forth in time and place without re-orienting his reader and it's confusing.

I know that's a lot of negativity, but I didn't hate the book. I mostly was disappointed in it...Pogue is talented at his work and paints a captivating portrait of Ammon Bundy in particular, as well as Finecum. His reporting for Vice about these events is very worth reading, and I can understand why he was able to pitch a book on the strength of it. I don't regret having read it, but I wish it had undergone more vigorous editing and done a better job of illuminating the environment in which the takeover took place. Instead we get stories about how Pogue understands why people value public lands so much after he takes a bunch of drugs while he camps in BLM land. Instead of reading this book, I'd recommend finding his original articles, which cover much the same territory without feeling like a padded-out term paper.

One year ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

Three years ago, I was reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

Four years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

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