Orion Blog

A Deeply Imperfect Democracy

If I’m here, how come I’m here? Who is not here so that I can be here? And if we are here because some form of violence is taking place, how can we address the experiences that are relevant not only to the world in which we live, but to the world that we want to create?”

Cristina Rivera Garza, Winter 2020

Orion vehemently condemns the seditious terrorism and violent expression of white supremacy that was incited by President Trump and perpetrated by his supporters on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Black and brown voters made Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s path to the White House possible, and the attempt to derail the certification of their win was a deliberate and transparent effort to strip those citizens of the power of their vote. The tepid response of law enforcement, particularly when compared to the predatory treatment of peaceful protestors of color throughout and before 2020, is a cartoonishly obvious illustration of how white privilege works.

White supremacy in America is not a defined set of obviously abhorrent behaviors or human rights violations—it is a continuum in time and culture, and all Americans live within its dimensions. What happened on Wednesday is a point on that continuum, preceded by extermination of this continent’s Indigenous people; the kidnap, torture, and murder of Africans for chattel slavery; and the permeation of racist beliefs and behavior throughout the development of America’s identity as a nation over 400 years. This identity includes ideas about American landscape and ecology, and thus the literature that describes them. Orion, as a steward of that genre, is committed to taking proactive responsibility for where we fall on that continuum, and to helping bend its shape toward justice.

Our democracy is deeply imperfect. Possibly so imperfect that “democracy” is a misnomer. Even if we are not surprised by what happened this week—and we shouldn’t be—we can and should be shocked. And we must transform that shock into a deeper commitment to justice and decency, and to active reparations for the harm not just of the last four years, but the last 400. 

— Madeline Miller, Strategic Director

Foreword: The Most Radical Thing You Can Do

The following excerpt is the foreword by Gretel Ehrlich for Orion’s most recent book, The Most Radical Thing You Can Do: The Best Political Essays from Orion Magazine. Today, we celebrate the publication date of Ehrlich’s new book, Unsolaced (Pantheon).

 

THE SUBTITLE OF Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s novel Heaven and Hell is We Are Nearly Darkness. These days we are feeling that way too, as if caught in a riptide taking us farther and farther out to sea as night falls. Darkness surrounds us. We ingest it, flail at it, try to push it away as we navigate an out-of-control pandemic, a perverted and structurally corrupt presidency, and a global climate emergency that, if unchecked, will destroy us all.

These fine essays, written over the last twenty years, touch on all-too-familiar themes of racism, exclusion, and ecosystem abuse and destruction. Our country has genocide, slavery, and land theft in its otherwise virtuous veins, and now in the tarnished unfolding of the Anthropocene, we are living in an age of consequences. It has become clear that we have confused “having” with “being.”

Twenty years ago, most did not know or care that Arctic sea ice had already entered what scientists call “a rotten ice regime.” The entire fabric of the Greenland ice sheet, Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier, and Thwaites Glacier had been coming apart. Earth’s natural air conditioner has become dysfunctional as snowfields, sea ice, ice sheets, and mountain glaciers melt, unable to reflect solar heat back into space. Earth’s mortal fever keeps rising.

Few noticed that a third of the planet had been desertifying, that as more and more land degraded, rainfall could no longer infiltrate the soil. And who was keeping track of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that had risen from 300 parts per million (ppm) to 417 ppm, a level deemed risky for the continued survival of living beings? Too few had grasped that human callowness and carelessness would force temperatures up and up until rivers dried, seas rose, forests and grasslands burned, and crops failed.

Twenty years ago, we could not have imagined a global pandemic would be intentionally allowed to get out of hand in our own country, that our president and his obsequious followers would behave so negligently as to be the equivalent of a death squad, exchanging the lives of citizens for economic and political gain. Who could have imagined that in a last grasp at reelection, Trump’s private militia would be plying the streets of our cities, reminding me of Francisco Franco’s limpieza social—“a cleaning of society”— and finally showing us that this would-be dictator had moved up a notch to become a dictator in the making, though in this too he will probably fail.

Twenty years ago, we could not have imagined that we would become totally isolated from the rest of the world, unable to cross any border, hated and unsavory pariahs welcome in no other country.

 

Nights, we go outside to look for the comet Neowise, perhaps because it appears to be a fixed point of light, an emblem of hope, and for a moment we take a deep breath . . . ahhhh . . . though we know its seeming motionlessness is illusory. Hope can become a fixation, a destination toward which we travel. Same too with feelings of hopelessness when we dive into inward darkness, lose our way, and refuse to come out. Yet those who came thousands of years ago knew that the individual and the cosmos are connected, and from the beginning are nothing but one.

There’s a hurricane watch as I write these words, reminding me that groundlessness is the name of the game, and as things shift and whirl and glass windows bow inward, we can still find a spinal alignment with things as they are. The track between hope and hopelessness is whatever is under our feet at the moment.

We are smaller than we think we are. The Inuit hunter I traveled with for years said, “You have to be modest in front of the weather.” He never took his eyes off the whole picture, the entire context of nature. Whenever we do, we quickly become the endangered species we forgot to save.

We long for the “polis,” for a societal hub designed by and for people instead of by and for carmakers who remade towns and cities only for the automobile. We long to interact, cook, laugh, drink, walk, swim, read, work together; to collaborate, grow food, manage land and animals with a humble reverence, and live with a sense of fun and creativity. We long for a civil society, for our basic needs to be attended, for robust education—however it plays out, even in this pandemic: no excuses. We have all the tools and know-how to solve all human problems and make things happen. We no longer have to be victims of circumstances.

In these essays, racism is touched upon by Glenis Redmond and her memories of the Gullah people, their language and lifeways on the southeast coast of our country. Robin Wall Kimmerer refers to the deep cultural and physical losses of Indian removals, when her own people, the Potawatomi, were forced from Wisconsin to Kansas, then to Oklahoma, leaving behind language, traditional ecological knowledge, and an ability to survive. “Some years a feast, most years a famine,” she writes. Barbara Kingsolver asks who and what is the enemy, and what creates change? She writes that we have “a careless way of sauntering across the earth and breaking open its treasures, a terrible dependency on sucking out the world’s best juices for ourselves.”

Our prescribed inalienable rights have been converted from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of profit, the extraction of oil, gas, gold, copper, nickel, tantalum, and cobalt, as well as the making of urban sprawl, the ghettoization of cities, and the industrialization of growing food with plows, chemicals, and cheap undervalued human labor. We submit Earth to machine violence. We submit humans to unequal treatment. Our caste systems are built into banking, city planning, and unsound agricultural policies. We are the serial destroyers of the whole.

No one asked us if this is how we wanted our world to be.

Wendell Berry writes: “We are destroying our country—I mean our country itself, our land. . . This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.” We can make changes. We can just go out and do it.

 

A world comes apart; a whole season gives way and crumbles. Time during COVID-19 folds in on itself, a friend said. We avidly reread Camus’s brilliant novel La Peste (The Plague), written in a village where Huguenot residents hid Jews during World War II and sent them out of harm’s way to Switzerland. La Peste is not only a chronicle of bubonic plague but also an allegorical attack on the moral cowardice of collaborators during the Nazi occupation of France. We must take heed.

We reach for Dante and read of his adventures as he is guided into hell. On the way, Dante noticed a “soothsayer” with his head on backward. Was the fortuneteller looking away in denial, or was he like a Native American contrary dancer trying to stir things up and cut through habitual behavior? Sometime in my twenty-three years of travels by dogsled in Greenland, an Inuit politician said to me: “We are walking backward into the future. We have to turn around.”

Tonight, someone pulls on the moon’s slim handle, and by morning a dome of heat drops down and will not give way. The perturbation of Earth’s systems bears human fingerprints. We have been crawling all over and, like lice, biting her fragile skin.

All summer the Siberian taiga and tundra fires have smoldered. Fire and ice. Heaven and hell. We are almost darkness. At the 2015 Paris climate conference, AKU-MATU, an Iñupiaq poet from Alaska, sang out: “I am an ancestor of the future. Why is it so hot here?”

We need to make our minds bigger. Not vanish in darkness. Recently, astronomers discovered the “South Pole Wall” that stretches 1.4 billion light-years across the southernmost part of the sky, described by French scientist Daniel Pomarède as “the cosmic web, enormous strands of hydrogen gas in which galaxies are strung like pearls.” We have to wear those vast pearls around our necks, and inside our minds. We have to have the guts to stop pimping the planet.

Restoration ecologists, soil doctors, regenerative agriculturalists, pastoralists, farmers, and ranchers around the world have been doing just that. They are calling attention to their urgent work of large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands and of the livelihoods of its inhabitants. Perennial grasses sequester as much or more carbon than forests, holding it in their root systems belowground, so that even if there is a fire, no carbon is released. The EverGreening Alliance calls it “greening up to cool down,” and together with Savory Global Hubs, they aim to capture from the atmosphere and restore to the land twenty billion tons of CO2 annually by the year 2050.

Sentience and sunderance. Those two words have been on my mind. To know, to lose, to learn anew, to lose it all, to begin again. We are by turns euphoric and wistful, furious and enervated, despairing, suicidal, and dare I say the word, hopeful? What has been lacking is the political and societal will. Not the way. Mid-pandemic, we rejoiced at the sight of animals reentering our towns and fields as if to say that we humans have been in the way all this time.

When Barbara Kingsolver writes about a lost boy found in a cave, embraced and held safely by a bear, we want to believe it. We want to feel that bear hug. Perhaps the jolt of death all around will wake us up, provoke a new all-inclusive sensibility. The Way has always been right here, under our feet, and with self-discipline and new eyes, we might be lucky enough to experience what Wendell Berry called “coming into the peace of wild things.” O

 

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Thank You, Barry: Margaret Atwood

I FIRST MET BARRY LOPEZ decades ago, on a trip to Alaska with my partner, Graeme Gibson. “Welcome to Alaska,” people said, “where the women are men and the men are animals.” It might have been a joke, but there was some truth to it, and a truth that was somewhat familiar to me. I grew up in the north and Alaska is the north. Tough women.

But if you’re going to be an animal, it matters which animal. It’s one thing to be a weasel, another to be a wolf. If you pick wolf, you most likely have Barry to thank. Loyal to their pack, smart, resourceful, survival-oriented, and good-looking as well: what’s not to like? Well, there’s being slaughtered from helicopters. That doesn’t happen to weasels. There is that.

We were already great fans of Barry’s work. Of Wolves and Men (1978) was a breakthrough, as was Arctic Dreams (1986). To meet Barry was to feel we were entering a sphere where a language was spoken that had been fading away—the language of our inseparable connection with the natural world—yet here was a speaker who was renewing it. Barry was a prophet in the wilderness, not that he would have called it a wilderness. A lonely speaker then—he must often have wondered whether anyone was truly listening—he is an essential speaker now. Though many of his contemporaries in the seventies and eighties may not, by and large, have understood the urgency of his message, the young people of such worldwide movements as Extinction Rebellion grasp it very well. Every breath we inhale comes from Nature; kill it and we kill ourselves. The oceans are the lungs of the planet, and the northern oceans are the key to that system, a system that has made Earth a Goldilocks planet for eons.

Now that the man-made Sixth Great Extinction is upon us and the Arctic is melting, the centrality of Barry’s writing is self-evident. We lose our connection with the matrix that sustains us at our peril, and that peril is approaching faster than once anticipated. Let us hope that Barry Lopez will not prove to be a singer of the loved and the lost. The loved “blue marble,” the loved wild—if they are irreparably lost, so will we be. Reading Barry’s work—rereading it—is to remind ourselves how very great—and how immeasurably stupid—that loss would be.

Thank you, Barry.

 

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Thank you, Barry Lopez

“Barry, forty years ago you taught me that all stories are about relationship: who I am to all creatures where I am . . . who I am to who you are . . . who we are to who we will become. So goes, now and always, my story with you.” — Kim Stafford

 

WE ARE HEARTBROKEN to learn that Orion friend, contributing editor, mentor, and guide Barry Lopez died on December 25.

Between 1984 and 2018, Barry wrote twenty-five stories for Orion, as well as the foreword to Earthly Love: Stories of Intimacy and Devotion, our anthology of love stories published earlier this year. In 2007 he edited our anthology The Future of Nature, a “best of” from the magazine’s first quarter century. He advised us on many projects over the years, ranging from editorial principles to fundraising endeavors. That Orion has remained free of advertising can be largely credited to him and his faith in the kind of storytelling that requires privacy and trust between writers and readers. Dozens of Orion staff members have shared meals, walks, and long phone calls with Barry.

But Barry’s influence runs deeper than all of that. His thinking on landscape and depiction have broadly influenced environmentalism and environmental literature in indelible ways for nearly fifty years. In his guidance of Orion, Barry was steadfast in his belief that love for humanity—despite our mind-numbing capacity for destruction—is inextricable from love for nature. His charge to this magazine was to cultivate our community’s capacity for that love with stories: stories that would enchant, challenge, captivate, mesmerize, trouble, inspire, and renew; stories that would revivify the moral universe. Barry believed that the work of the writer or storyteller is to remind people of what they believe and how they want to conduct themselves in the world. “Storytelling,” he said, “is the best protection we have against forgetting.”

We send our deepest condolences to Barry’s family and to the global community of writers, readers, and lovers of nature who mourn his passing. See a selection of his work with Orion below.

  The foreword to Earthly Love, republished online by LitHub earlier this year.
  Gross Domestic Product, 2016
  The Leadership Imperative, 2007
  The Naturalist, 2001
  A keynote at the Fire & Grit conference, 1999
  An interview with Bill Moyers on PBS that we love, 2010
  Poet Deborah Miranda’s response to the Earthly Love foreword, 2020

Twenty-Five Authors Pay Tribute to William Kittredge’s Passing

William Kittredge
August 14, 1932 – December 4, 2020

 
NOVELIST. Essayist. Teacher. Mentor. Dean of western literature. Raconteur. Critic. Filmmaker. Legend. Monolith. Friend.

When Bill Kittredge died on December 4, word passed quickly among his many friends in the nature writing community, especially in his beloved West. Bill arrived at the University of Montana in 1969, and helped create the “Paris of the West” by joining a writing community that included Richard Hugo, Jim Welch, and Annick Smith, who would become Bill’s longtime partner. Bill’s ability to teach and encourage others would jump-start dozens of beginning writers who studied with him, including Andrew Sean Greer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for his novel Less.

Some of the adulation directed at this powerful teacher and writer has been compiled here by author Janisse Ray, who studied with Bill from 1995 to 1997, and remained a lifelong friend, and Phil Condon, former chair of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, and director of the William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer program.

 

Bill Kittredge’s 1999 Keynote Speech at Orion’s Fire & Grit Conference.

 

Janisse Ray

I arrived at the University of Montana just as Bill was retiring, 1995, and I consider it a stroke of incredible luck that I got to study with him. He brought to class a great love of story, a deep working knowledge of the process of writing, an insatiable appetite for reading, and powerful affiliations with other writers. What I learned from him was transformative and would forever change the narrative arc of my life, a life which I have enjoyed and am enjoying; a life where dreams have come true; a life where I have been able to pursue my deepest longings and to watch at least some of them materialize. Bill set me on my path. I am forever grateful that he read my feeble attempt at a first book and handed it back to me, staggeringly crippled as it was, with hope in his voice. As he did with so many writers, he found something to praise. The debt I owe him is unmeasurable.

 

Gary Ferguson

Besides long being inspired by his writing, early on I was moved by the strong, and at the same time profoundly graceful, level of respect he brought to his relationships with the world at large. He was rock, and he was feathers. And in the end, he was a guiding star that led me into both the inner and outer landscapes of home. I offer endless thanks, my friend. 

 

Dee McNamer

He wasn’t afraid to care about things.

 

Sharman Apt Russell

Bill was my teacher when I was an MFA student in Missoula in 1978 to 1980. I was so young. He modeled a life in which writing was at the center. He was also kind. Both aspects of his teaching became part of who I am as a writer and writing teacher. I’ll always be grateful. I can still hear now, after so many years, his voice and that sudden deep laugh.

 

Scott Slovic

For years before I actually met Bill, I was aware of him because of his extraordinary early essay collection Owning It All. The title essay from that collection, in particular, was very important to me, and especially the section where he’s talking about “mythology.” He argues that “A mythology can be understood as a story that contains a set of implicit instructions from a society to its members, telling them what is valuable and how to conduct themselves if they are to preserve the things they value.” He went on to bitterly criticize the teaching of mythology currently active in the American West as “a racist, sexist, imperialist mythology of conquest,” and to argue that “we are struggling to revise our dominant mythology and to find a new story to inhabit.” The idea of exposing the ongoing story of conquest and finding a more just and sustainable new story is, I think, one of Bill’s most important contributions to environmental literature and to our lives in the American West and beyond.

 

Amanda Eyre Ward

Since the day I left Missoula with my MFA in 1997, I have heard Bill’s voice. He was, after all, the one who said to me, leaning against the wall outside his office, “You want to be a writer, Amanda? Move to where your best friend is, get some dumb job to pay the electricity, and write.”

I wanted to be a writer. I wanted it so much. And I wanted it, I think, because of Bill. He showed us the sheer joy of spending our hours talking about sentences. Bill conveyed to us the vital importance of being a writer. From his teaching, I grew to believe it was the most important job in the world.

I hear Bill at least a dozen times a day, critiquing kindly, pushing me to get to the heart of my stories. So much of his wisdom has stuck with me, including the time I handed him the tenth draft of a story I desperately wanted to fix. It was called “Three Who Would Not Marry Maurice.”

“Listen,” said Bill, of that story, “this is an OK story. Hear me? It’s fine. It’s never going to be great. Move on. Stop kicking a dead horse.”

Inside his office, after reading my disastrous attempt at a first novel, he grabbed a yellow pad and drew how the book could be beautiful. With his red pen, he sketched circles, a three-act structure, action and grace. “You see it?” he said.

I didn’t, but now I stare at that yellow page, framed above my desk, every damn day.

Bill somehow saw what your work could be, which is the greatest gift.

“Hey,” he said to me, late one night after workshop at Charlie B’s, “Ward? You’re going to make it.” I am the child of a dad who’d never spoken to me this way. These words, in particular, saved my life.

 

Bryce Andrews

When I first came here, eastbound toward the West, Hole in the Sky rode shotgun. The book traveled with me as I worked my way from ranch to ranch, and now it is so worn that the middle pages fall out. 

Ever since I’ve been in this beautiful, difficult, compromised, inimitable landscape, Bill Kittredge’s words have been ringing in my ears. I’ve argued and agreed with him. I’ve appreciated the conviction, precision, and craft of his writing. I’ve aspired to the clarity of his vision. 

Through his work, Bill has long been one of the good ghosts who haunt this place. That his stories will endure is some consolation, but I wish I could have known him as a man, as well as a masterful writer. 

This much is certain: when I stop alone and listen to the wild, fragile vastness we call the West, his words will keep me company. When I stand in a field, wondering if I should plow, Bill Kittredge’s good hard questions will be on my mind.

 

Chris Dombrowski

I was a sophomore in college, moored in Michigan and pining for a West I’d yet to set eyes on, when I came across Bill’s books in the school library. I stacked them up like a row of Lombardy poplars and relished each word. But one line left its brand on me like no other. Some context: he was talking about how the making of art, even surpassing art, doesn’t give the artist an excuse to behave badly in the non-art-making portions of their life; he admitted that his own suspect behavior had led him to this discovery. “No one act undoes another,” he wrote, and I paraphrase. “Every act stands on its own.” Throttled me all the way to Missoula, that line did. And I sit here tonight, twenty-some years later, typing just a few blocks from his house, full of gratitude for his lasting work and beautiful spirit, humbled that I got to spend some time with him, let alone teach as the Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. In the words of his dear Rossie Benasco, I miss you already, Bill, “like a blanket.”

 

Lois Welch

He needs to be celebrated for the way he encouraged the western voice and writing about Montana at a time when it wasn’t the most popular thing to do. He was committed to demolishing the myth that kind of kept this strength and beauty of the West from being evident.

 

Rick Bass
 

The West. The West. How will we hold the West?

 

Terry Tempest Williams

Our dear friend and fellow writer in the West has passed away. His voice, his tough and tender presence—I loved him so much. He was not only a great writer, but a great teacher at the University of Montana. I remember calling him up one day and asking him how to write an essay (I had just submitted an essay to the Georgia Review and they sent it back saying “What you have written is not an essay.”) Bill’s response — after he talked about Montaigne and how an essay is “an attempt” or “could be a series of examples or stories exploring or interrogating a particular idea”—he paused and said in his booming voice, “Terry, an essay can be whatever you goddamn want it to be!” Best advice ever. I really adored him. Many nights shared telling stories, gossiping, talking about the truth of our lives, books read, questions asked, and always laughing. He was smart and wise with common sense. It was a very rich time in the 1990s and 2000s. We all traveled a lot together in those days. His book Hole in the Sky (1992) is a beauty. I could go on and on. He and his partner Annick Smith edited the classic anthology of Montana literature, The Last Best Place. They made us all proud to be westerners—and we all shared a deep commitment to protecting wild lands and wild lives. Bless you, dear Bill, you taught us all well. Here’s a glass raised to our river trip down the Grand Canyon, to days shared in eastern Oregon, Alaska, Walden Pond, Missoula, Pack Creek Ranch, et al. And to you, a life well lived and stories well told of how one can change one’s life and still hold on to one’s roots in the land that raised you. Heartfelt embraces to Annick and their families and this beloved community of friends.

 

William deBuys

I feel as though western American literature has lost its Jefferson Memorial or some other monument of gleaming magnificence. In my personal pantheon, there was nobody else remotely like Bill. For starters, I never heard anyone talk about the process of writing with his clarity and depth. He painted writing as a steep climb up an equal-opportunity mountain. Adults only. Put on your boots and let’s go. I never took a class with him, but I loved that there was no coddling in what he said but no discouragement either. Few get the balance right. He did. And even more important, he inspired. I always left his presence looking for pen and paper. He never seemed to doubt (though I bet he actually did) that good writing was a high calling. He made people like me believe that it was one of the highest. And that helped a lot when the inevitable dark times came. I will never forget him.

 

Kim Todd

Bill’s magic as a teacher was that every time I left class, I always wanted to go immediately home to write. It’s a spell I have been trying to figure out how to cast ever since, but I suspect it had to do with deep generosity and appreciation for beauty and decency on the page and off. It was a privilege to be his student.

 

Dr. M Jackson
 

Bill Kittredge’s writing brought the West alive to me.

 

Phil Condon

I first heard Bill on NPR, reading from Owning It All the year it came out, his deep voice like an echo across the whole Warner Valley he described. Later that same year I was in his MFA class in Missoula, soaking in his wisdom and humor, which always felt inextricable. One night that fall, in a downtown bar, he gave me an editor’s name to try with a story, and that was the beginning of 20 years of his encouragement and help. Now, in twenty years of my own teaching, I’ve tried to live up to him. 

 

Robert Michael Pyle

What a true treat it was to travel, teach, read, walk, watch, and now and then bend an elbow with Bill, in so many places. It was one of the great honors and delights of my life to be a Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. But maybe the best was when he and I together founded Project HeavyHawk at Klamath Lake! We never did achieve lift speed. Maybe we’re getting there now. “Out, away to the world with hope”—Hole in the Sky. 

 

Rebecca Solnit

No one ever modeled more elegantly than Bill Kittredge how you could recognize your own complicity and still reach for your own idealism and celebrate your deep love of place. That and the sheer beauty of so much he’s written—a beauty that lies in depth of thought as well as grace of prose—has made him one of the West’s great writers, in my eyes.

 

Kevin Canty
 

The world is a little smaller today.

 

Bill McDorman

I was lucky enough to attend the University of Montana in the days of Annick Smith, Richard Hugo, James Welch and, of course, William Kittredge. William’s memoir, Hole in the Sky, is maybe the most painful and honest piece of writing I have encountered.

 

Doug Peacock

Ed Abbey and I met Bill at the same moment at a bar in West Glacier. It was grizzly bear time and only Ed failed to see a single “alleged” grizzly though I dragged him up to the Grizzly Hilton. Bill hiked up to Huckleberry Lookout where we watched the lunar eclipse. My kids spent a lot of time at Bill and Annick’s place up the Blackfoot. Billy wrote up this story for Outside—it was a long time ago. How I miss them both.

 

Andrew Sean Greer

Bill Kittredge, beloved teacher of generations of graduate students (like myself) at the University of Montana, died recently in Missoula. Not only was he one of the preeminent western writers in America, defining a particular moment and place with his anthology The Last Best Place, he was a personal supporter of mine. It is hard to take our minds back to 1994 in Missoula, Montana. But imagine that moment when the state legislature was considering adding all homosexuals to the “sex offender” list, and I, as a grad student, was told not to reveal my sexual orientation to my students and had my car vandalized with the word FAG scratched into the hood. That time. And now imagine a rancher raised in rural southern Oregon, weary of decades of teaching graduate students, with only a few years left before his retirement. He asked me to come to his office hours. He took out a story I had brought to workshop (“Come Live With Me and Be My Love” in my first collection, How It Was for Me) about a gay man and a lesbian in the 1960s who get married as covers for one another. He gave me a long baseball metaphor I did not understand about a famous left-handed pitcher who was forced to pitch with his right hand, I believe, but insisted on pitching with his left (some reader will know). I had written experimental fiction until this story. And Bill said, “Pitch with your left.” He meant: this is what you’re good at; do this. He meant: write with emotion, not cleverness. And I have done that ever since. He sent the story to his friend Richard Ford, who was editing Ploughshares magazine, and a few weeks later I came home to my tiny cold apartment (whose bathroom could only be reached through the closet) and saw a message on my answering machine (yes, an answering machine). “This is Richard Ford, and I want to publish your story.” It is hard to describe what hearing those words meant to me. And what it meant to me for a nearly retired rancher to see, in a gay man telling gay stories at that awful time, something worth finding the energy to pursue, to support, all the way to ensuring my publication for the first time. Miss you, Bill.

 

Gary Nabhan

Bill Kittredge will remain among the giants of fiction and nonfiction writing in American West, up there with McCarthy, Hugo, Welch, Silko, McGuane, Austin, Ehrlich, Cather, and Harrison in our pantheon of poetic voices from rural America’s scrappy, roughed-up, and wildly imaginative towns and ranches. But anyone who conversed, traveled, ate, or drank with Bill no doubt remembers his unswerving warmth, hilarious humor, poignant commentaries, and deep commitment to make life in the boonies more memorable, compassionate, morally fierce, and ultimately, culturally richer. He gifted us a New Story for the West, one most of us are still trying to live up to, and in. In the last three decades of his life, he also took on the voice of a prophet and sage, as stunning in his place-based pronouncements as Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, Charles Wilkinson, Terry Williams, John Nichols, Annick Smith or Winona LaDuke. He made you feel deeply comfortable, but he also challenged us to think beyond the horizon of our own messy lives to forge a West that would be more inclusive, reflective, and refreshing. The twinkle in his merry eyes will never die, but will arch over us like a meteor of hope.

 

Pattiann Rogers

I first became acquainted with Bill Kittredge during my two teaching residencies at the University of Montana and by travelling with him and others on reading tours and at summer conferences.  I was always impressed by his readings, his strong vernacular, and his rapport with students and audiences.  I admired the marvelous authenticity in his writing and his presentations, his bold perspectives, his unique background.  Bill Kittredge’s strong and steady devotion to teaching and writing was an essential element of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana for many years and a gift to literary and creative writers and readers across the country. 

 

Scott Russell Sanders

Bill Kittredge had the courage to renounce the Western myths he’d learned while growing up, and the decency not to scorn the people from whom he’d learned them. The myths were as old as the European invasion of the continent—the belief that land exists to be owned and exploited, that among all living beings only humans have moral value, that manhood is defined by a code of violence. Bill knew better, and generously conveyed that knowledge through his writing and teaching and personal presence.

 

Florence Williams

When I first came to Missoula, I was such a straight journalist. Bill taught me, among other things, that it was okay to have a distinct voice, and for that voice to declare emotion. Without vulnerability, don’t bother. I remember he once said, “If it doesn’t make your palms sweat, it isn’t worth it.” Bill had been something of a cowboy, but it was easy to forget that by the time I knew him. He was playing golf and living in a townhouse. But he sent me a note once about being hospitalized from polio as a little kid. “Horror scene,” he wrote. Kids in iron lungs all around. But I was in a bed beside a window that looked out on a great lawn roaming with peacocks. Mysteriously, according to my mother, I got better. The doctors didn’t seem to know why but they released me and not many months later I was riding around on a pinto mare named Lulu.” It was Classic Bill! Great details, a lot of heart, and a little bit of mystery. O