Keene Short is a writer and baker in Spokane, Washington. His work has appeared in jmww, Bridge Eight, Blood Orange Review, and elsewhere. In this post, we feature an essay of his, “Jeremiad,” along with an interview our Nonfiction Editor, Paress Chappell, conducted with Keene about the piece.
I wake up before dawn to drive to a small airport in Cascade, Idaho, in time for the one flight by bush plane into a research station in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I am the only passenger on the bumpy flight, the plane full of faded yellow and orange upholstery and a few remaining patches of brown shag carpeting. After the plane takes off and whirs over the Idaho wilderness, I look out at the tiny crystal lakes in the rocky ledges and drops below. The pilot flies close enough to some of the slopes that I can see the frost on the trees and the waves in the alpine lakes. There are so many unmapped, tiny lakes, as blue as veins.
I am here for a short fellowship to write about climate change, history, and public land use, but I find myself mostly thinking mostly in religious terms. My parents and teachers framed the public lands system in the US for me as a model of an environmental utopia, an iteration of the commons shared co-equally among all humans and non-human animals. A paradise on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, easy and teleological.
The one book I bring with me to the River of No Return is a copy of my father’s dissertation, Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands, which he expanded into a book and published in a limited run in 1989, predating my older brother by a year. It’s been on my shelf for a long time, but I only committed to reading it while spending a week writing in the same public lands my father would have studied.
The plane lands bumpily in a long stretch of grass next to a tributary of the Salmon River called Big Creek. The pilot pulls a lever repeatedly to start the brakes, and the plane finally stops just short of the research station’s only human inhabitants waiting in the cold to greet us: Pete, the manager, his 9-year-old daughter, and five college students staying the in the fall for a semester’s worth of credits. The sun is still behind the mountains, and the air will be cold all morning, they tell me.
I settle into the situation: No phone service and only a few hours of internet slower than dial-up during the day when the sun hits the station’s row of solar panels. There is one electrical outlet in my cabin, which I use to charge my laptop, also only when the sun hits the solar panels. There is no heat, and I’m not permitted to use the fireplace this late in the dry season.
I write a few paragraphs in my cabin, then wander up the grass landing strip. I follow a deer into the brush who lets me get startlingly close in a shady trail next to the landing strip, munching on this and that, looking up at me with an unreadable expression.
Outside my cabin is a grassy field that ends at the row of solar panels. The river separates the field from the blond-grey mountainside, crisscrossed with ponderosa pines. The research station, with so few humans living so far off the grid, feels like the setting of a post-apocalyptic novel. This shared, off-the-radar community blends technological limits and twentieth-century agricultural methods to sustain itself, as if after some war or disease or atomic fallout. Maybe there are shades of utopia as well. Everything here is an extreme, and everyone here takes these extremes for granted. The cabin’s solitude, the river’s noise.
My father breaks the old guard conservation movement into two sects: “the mystics, such as John Muir, who considered wilderness preservation to be an ‘act and obligation of worship,’ and the more pragmatic utilitarians, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.” Both sects drew upon white settler colonialism, dividing the land according to what they wanted, a religious project of reorganizing stolen land rather than preserving it.
When I hike upstream in the early afternoon sun, I’m struck most by the burned trees that still loom over the trail from a series of wildfires. I pass three in a row on the trailside. I want to pick at them, strip off bits of charcoal, see how deep the damage goes. I want to see if there are still tree rings, what they might look like deep inside. I think of toasted marshmallows allowed to let burn to a crisp on an open fire, turning to ash on the outside but gooey on the inside. In the burned trees, will there be untouched streaks of sandy orange and sandal? Or will it be gnarled and drooping, the innards melted, disorganizing the lifespan of these ponderosa up until the fire? I want to peek inside and see proof of life. Does that make me a mystic?
When I return, I peruse the library in the other half of my cabin, filled with taxidermized rodents and hawks caught in competition above the shelves. Most of the books are standard ecocritical texts from the last four decades. A lot of Terry Tempest Williams, a lot of Scott Slovic. A lot of Barry Lopez and Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson. There are few novels and even fewer books of poetry. For inspiration, I snatch the Ecocriticism Reader and the library’s copy of the Bible.
When I finally sit down to write after a quick meal the sun is far below the mountain, and a bird flies into the window. I am in denial about the meaning of that awful low smack until I see the creature on the cabin deck. The bird’s chest and eyes move in equally violent rhythm.
I don’t want a bird to die on my watch, and I don’t know how to help. I go to find Pete, but he is nowhere to be found. When I return, the bird is still there, but as I climb the steps, he hobbles onto his feet, his talons tight between the wood of the deck. He looks around, not cocking his head but unsure, rocking a little bit. The bird is in shock, I think, feeling my own heart speed up. The little body is in shock.
I don’t know the species. His feathers are black with a white underbelly and chest. The creature is small, so so small. I go back inside to get a plate of water, spilling it on the way out again. The cabin door makes a short squeaking noise, a barely audible chipper. When I place the plate in front of him, the bird seems to jump and his eyes open much wider. I nudge the water closer, leaning in a little. The bird shakes a bit, then takes flight, giving one small squeak on his way out. I lift the plate, dump the water into a nearby flower pot, and go back inside, my hands shaking. I wonder if an omen is still an omen when the omen flies away again.
I read in the Book of Amos: “’But I gave you empty stomachs in all your cities and lack of bread in all your towns, yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord. ‘And furthermore, I withheld the rain from you while there were still three months until harvest. Then I would send rain on one city and on another city I would not send rain; one part would be rained on, while the part not rained on would dry. So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water, but would not be satisfied; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.’ I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and sent locusts to destroy your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.”
Mystics used to emphasize the land, air, and water in their prophesying, denouncing tribal kings for their iniquities with threats of very real earthly punishments attributed to God. The land gives and the land takes away. The prophets knew what they were doing when they warned of impending drought and famine and disease, when they warned of refugee crises and wars and political collapse, a central part of their rhetoric.
Frank Church himself, a former US Democratic Senator for Idaho, is more difficult to place. He ran in the presidential primary election of 1976 as a progressive environmentalist, though he only won a few primaries in Western states like Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska before withdrawing when it became clear that the more moderate Jimmy Carter had sealed the nomination. My dad tells me that he volunteered with the radical environmentalist Church campaign as a college student, helping to put up posters for Frank Church with the Idaho Young Democrats. He always tells me this same story about the candidate:
Frank Church came to Rupert, Idaho, my dad’s hometown an hour from Pocatello. He hung out after giving a campaign speech at the town’s high school and my dad stuck around too, asked a few more questions as Church waited for a friend to pick him up. I imagine him in a trench-coat, smoking a cigarette, talking shop with a college student version of my dad.
Forty years later, when I was a graduate student in Nebraska, it felt like a big deal when Bernie Sanders came to Lincoln, the state capital. Thousands of students skipped classes to wait six hours in line to hear him speak, waiting to pass through metal detectors and have their bags checked on the way in. A large crowd for a college town. I wonder if Frank Church drew a large crowd for a small rural town. I’ve been to Rupert so many times. It’s a community of farmers and immigrants, not the place a presidential candidate visits even in primary season, a small, isolated town that has only become smaller and more isolated.
I hike upstream along the river with my camera, along the dusty trails rising and falling, narrowing closer to the thrashing edge of the rapids and into the quiet grassy hills away from the river, its churning locomotion. Past the rapids and a set of caves I worry will be filled with bears, I cross a bridge, maneuvering myself between the looming post-burn charcoal pillars and the emergent stubble of regrowth.
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is on stolen and occupied Shoshone-Bannock and Nimiipuu land. The US began imposing restrictions on land usage first with the establishment of the Idaho Primitive Area in 1930, then the Wilderness Act of 1964, and finally the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980, which Frank Church successfully sponsored.
The land is useful today for scientific research, especially for the stability of the Salmon River in a changing climate, but the original purposes were more sentimental. According to the legislation, congress finds that “certain wildlands in central Idaho lying within the water shed of the Salmon River—the famous ‘River of No Return’—constitute the largest block of primitive and undeveloped land in the conterminous United States and are of immense national significance.” Through an act of congress, Frank Church was able to create a legally designated block of wilderness for its immense national significance. This is an act of mysticism, a gesture toward environmental utopianism.
The Taylor Ranch has regulations to prevent overuse of resources, and it functions as something close to communal living. I share the kitchen and outhouse. We clean up the spaces and items we use. The regular inhabitants work in the garden, the farm, or with the water and solar rigs. In exchange for restraint, the land is renewable for another year. White Americans are new to this longstanding concept, and we’re still very bad at it. A bush plane flies in twice a week to bring supplies and relieve us of our garbage.
A list of Pete’s commandments hang above the door to the kitchen and dining cabin, the common cabin, written on butcher paper in blue marker, emphasizing personal responsibility, solitude, and companionship. While cooking my morning oatmeal next to someone else boiling water for tea, the gas ovens go out, and the regulars jump to change the propane tanks, instinctively volunteering to maneuver the gigantic beige metal cannister as tall as I am to a storage place while hauling in another equally large cannister.
For a while, I wonder if this is the kind of shared collaboration Hardt and Negri suggest is necessary to reestablish the commons, “produced socially, through communication and cooperation, by a multitude of singularities.” Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, though, points out that Hardt and Negri’s limited idolization of the commons perpetuates settler colonialism by conveniently ignoring the Indigenous people whose land would then be shared in common by the colonists’ descendants. Even if proposed in good faith, the federal public lands system enacts a version of this erasure. Utopia for some is dystopia for the rest.
I imagine someone like the prophet Amos visiting this place. I picture him quickly turning bored, running his hands through his long hair and getting itchy with cabin fever, biting his nails, pacing the library and looking out the window at the deer in the field, walking up to the windows in their grazing, wondering about the nervous, shaking creature they see inside.
The Sagebrush Rebellion, consisting of libertarian western landowners fed up with the environmental policies of the 1970s, plays a key role in my father’s analysis. White landowners, generations removed from the government-subsidized colonization of the 1800s, rebelled against the conservation policies that figures like Frank Church helped to enact. The environmentalist response to the Sagebrush Rebels’ theatrical protests was a carefully designed, science-driven counter-insurgency that “often employed research data in making their claims, in which environmentalists abandoned ‘their own brand of symbolism (invoking the founding fathers, for example) in favor of evidence.’”
Is this a pattern? The New Right, coalescing around Reagan, appropriated the environmentalist left’s strategies of symbolic rhetoric, and so conservationists shifted from mysticism to pragmatism. What strikes me is that ways of justifying land use, one way or another, are grounded in mythology more than history or sustainability. My father points out that both camps reached as far back as the Puritans, who “saw in the American frontier a ‘chosen nation in progress—a New Israel whose constituency was as numerous, potentially, as the entire people of God, and potentially as vast as America,” for a model of relating to the land.
As I read this, I start to feel self-aware. I wonder how radical my dad used to be. I wonder about the Idaho Conservation League, the ecoterrorists he used to research, maybe even hung out with. I wonder, and then I worry. I’ve never known either of my parents to be radicals except in past lives, before they were teachers and back when they were students. I worry what the furnace of academia can do to people, about credentials, publications, tenure, administration with a corner office overlooking campus protests, above the fray, above where battle lines are drawn.
Maybe the question for me is not between mysticism and pragmatism, but rather a more pressing iteration of the same dichotomy: Am I an activist or an academic? Will I make the practical decisions my parents made and simply study the rhetoric of environmental movements, or will I participate in those movements at the frontlines? Will climate change give me a choice?
I decide to hike the mountain today. The further up the trail I trudge, the more silent the wilderness becomes. The fabric of this place is deceptive. I wait for animals, anticipate them, turn my head and stop to listen, nervous each time I pass a thick ensemble of trees that I might encounter a bear. For the longest time, I see nothing but the odd grasshopper.
My imagination wanders. I wonder what I could become in twenty years isolated here. There could be fires and floods to wash me out. I imagine myself alone like in so many post-apocalyptic stories, wandering long lost paths and making my way laboriously north. I look at a burned tree standing over a storm-grey hillside which surely hides a thousand spiders and a dozen snakes, and I step forward. Crickets bounce away from me on the trail with each step I take, moving out of my way like I’m a boat parting the waves.
At the highest point overlooking the river, there is a graveyard of trees in a green slope of shrubbery and grass, their shadows like fingers pointing east in the afternoon. My body is weary up here, and my face and limbs are hot. It is quiet I’m alone and ambivalent. I sit on a log surrounded by trees, living and dead, and listen to the wind, the birds, waiting for something to find me, but nothing does. I contemplate myself, the place, the geography and how it’s organized strategically into cartography, which, this far into the mountains, is hard to see from my vantage. I could die up here and nobody would know. A bear could find me, or I could trip and spiral down a sharp edge. Rattlesnakes, falling trees, dehydration.
As Jennifer Ladino puts it, “Contemplation is shaped by narrative, of course. Narratives provide us with details to mull over, but there’s an affective dimension to contemplation as well.” She has also come to the Frank Church to teach and study, and I think about that narrative, as well as the story of what my life is or could become given a wrong turn. She favors constructive, life-affirming emotional responses to ambivalence: “Compassion needs words, stories, reflection,” which geographic places (as narratives) can encourage. The prophets relied on stories of apocalypse, as environmentalists do today. Places of injustice tell stories of injustice. What about this place inspires hope? I mull over the seconds in which I feel grateful.
One story my grandmother recently told me: Teaching is my destiny. My mother teaches, and my grandmother taught, and her mother taught too. I’m a fourth-generation teacher. She was in high school during the Second World War, and she was required to tutor her mother’s male students to ensure they passed the minimum requirements so they could join the army and fight overseas. When she should have been studying for her own calculus tests, she instead taught algebra to future Marines, and the next day, exhausted, she failed her calculus exam.
I hike back down the mountain, hungry and running low on water. I poke around a short way upriver before returning to the cabin, and there on the trail a herd of bighorn sheep encounters me. They drink from the river as I make my way around the bend. One sheep stands in the middle of the trail and stares me down. I stop. We are directly in each other’s way. The sheep could charge, and I would have to stumble down a rocky slope into the river or trip uphill into a fallen, blackened tree, the charcoal rubbing into the cuts I would make on my palms. But the animal looks to the side, indifferent. The rest of the herd ambles uphill on the trail behind the sheep. I wait until they give me permission to move forward.
“More significant, however, was the loss of two allies, Senators Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. The two New Right regulars cosponsored legislation to ‘bar all oil and gas exploration in their state’s wilderness areas.’ Why would two conservative, western politicians turn their backs on [the New Right]? ‘Constituent pressure,’ responded a Simpson aid. ‘They [Wallop and Simpson] are quite aware that a great many people in Wyoming want those wilderness areas left as they are.’ One week later, Senator Henry Jackson of Washington announced that fifty-one senators had agreed to co-sponsor legislation to prevent oil and gas drilling on millions of acres of national wilderness” (Short 65).
I wake up early and try to write a few more words, but my fingers are too cold and the bush plane is arriving anyway. It only took one week to acclimate to the situation, or so I tell myself as I stuff my lightened backpacks into the plane and climb into the passenger seat.
The pilot picks up two hunters in another station, landing on another long stretch of grass. There are a few donkeys, cabins, a stream. The hunters have much more than I do, and I’m glad when they place their firearms in the plane aiming away from the seat I’m sitting in. But I know Idaho hunters, as friends and family. They’re not stupid enough to put a loaded firearm in a vehicle (as some suburban gunowners I know have done). They also have a garbage bag of soda cans and single-use plastic, better to take home than leave out here. I notice they have no animals, no deer carcass or pile of coyote skins.
The plane lands in Cascade, and the hunters exit first, their stuff piled onto my stuff, their import pressing mine into the corner. I sit in my car in the airport parking lot for a long time scrolling through news feeds while storm clouds move over the hills before I drive north past red and orange leaves in the trees and small towns advertising pumpkin pie, espressos, free wi-fi. I pass church signs advertising Sunday service, visions of hope and despair intertwined together. Apparently we are sinners but we are also saints.
I want to stop in one of these many Idaho small towns. I want to walk into a roadside diner and order a cup of black coffee and a slice of pie and linger in the early autumn chill and listen to the old-timers in the corner talk about how warm it’s been these last few years, how dry last year was. But I don’t. I never do. Instead, I drive a few miles over the speed limit through each town like I’m a lost insect.
Paress Chappell: What were your goals as you were writing this piece?
Keene Short: This piece began as the daily journal entries I wrote when I went to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in 2018. That year, I kept a daybook, which was inspired by Brian Blanchfield. Originally, I wanted to record my experiences in the Frank as meticulously as possible, every hike and animal and conservation practice, to get an understanding for what a place is like after a specific type of conservation policy is enacted. Most of that journaling has been scrapped (the original draft I had was 25 pages, including a lot of quotes from the books I read at the time). I kept the original structure and focused on observations about climate change and conservation and rhetoric—I focused on a few recurring ideas and concerns I had.
PC: How has writing in different forms like fiction and poetry affected your nonfiction writing?
KS: Writing nonfiction for me often feels like solving a puzzle, and poetry and fiction (for me at least) require a different kind of creativity. They’re more constructive, more like creating puzzles for other people to solve. As a reader, at least, I like fiction and poetry that gives me an opportunity to think. In nonfiction, the pleasure so often comes from watching someone else’s thinking, from seeing someone else work through their own experiences or a complex set of ideas. This might be a false dichotomy between the genres, of course. I know they’re more nuanced than I’m presenting them. Where I find the pleasure in reading often differs from where I find pleasure in writing, and I think those moments are surprising enough to make me rethink my writing.
The inventiveness I try for when writing fiction or poetry can often bleed into nonfiction, when I face a problem of dots I can’t connect to make a cohesive essay. When I’m stuck in nonfiction, I might start to move from idea to idea through associative leaps or a more narrative structure or a scene. My most creative works of nonfiction have borrowed from the generic conceits of fiction or poetry, through things like extended metaphor, persona, or even fiction. I use these craft techniques to get around difficult problems I encounter in nonfiction, especially when it comes to subject matter.
PC: In “Jeremiad” you mention a dissertation written by your father about public lands. How did your father influence your view on the environment and public lands?
KS: My dad—both my parents—introduced me to environmentalism early in my childhood. Environmental destruction was one of my earliest fears, and one that has lasted with me and grown, as I’m sure is true of many people. My dad in particular had a range of academic and pragmatic environmental authors on his shelf, including some activists.
I took my father’s dissertation to the River of No Return because it seemed like an ideal place to read it. It had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I wanted to finally sit down and read it. The Frank is an excellent example of the strengths and limits of twentieth century land conservation policies like those advanced by Senator Frank Church himself, as a project of preservation but with a limited scope of the beneficiaries of that preservation. I wanted to think through the problems and arrive at a better understanding of what I can do now, today, in the midst of environmental catastrophe. But I also found myself wondering how effective academic approaches can be as climate disaster is already here. My dad embedded himself in academia, and I found myself wondering if he left anything behind in that decision, if I would likewise have to leave something behind if I chose to follow that same path or try another route toward environmental justice.
From my parents, I inherited a broad range of ideas about nature, but I never really knew what to do about them. Maybe this is what I mean when I separate academics from activists. In my own experience, it’s easy to write an academic paper about the need for climate action, but too often this becomes an ending point rather than a starting point, and academics can fly home self-congratulatory that they’ve contributed to solving the climate crisis by artistically or rhetorically articulating the urgency of the problem. It’s a divide between theory and praxis. One needs the other, but theorists who don’t engage in praxis, I think, are taking the easy way out. It’s no longer enough to study the forces that are destroying our planet. What matters now, and has mattered for a long time, is recognizing that the people killing our planet have names and addresses and stock portfolios. I’m not at all trying to indict academics of the past. What I want is for academics to start taking action now, before it’s too late.
PC: How has growing up in Flagstaff shaped your view on the environment?
KS: Flagstaff is a niche, fun, weird, and also very touristy town, and I think its contradictions made me prickly when it comes to the environment. It’s a beautiful town that white settlers built on stolen land (like every beautiful place in this country). I directly benefit from the compartmentalization of land into large public recreational sectors (for hiking, biking, birdwatching) but I know that this compartmentalization comes at a cost, and produces a distinctly artificial definition of nature as one that can be framed for an audience. For years, it’s had a housing crisis, and it’s the only place in Arizona that can sustain a ski resort, which is only possible now through the use of artificial snow, which has its own environmental and cultural concerns that the ski resort has chosen to disregard for profit. I miss Flagstaff dearly and I’m mad that its leaders have leaned into its worst tendencies, emphasizing tourism and privatized student housing over community-centered events and affordable housing for residents. The people who make Flagstaff a lovely town, the artists and activists and teachers who live there and taught me to care about the world, are not the people who have the power to make these decisions, and I think that realization has equipped me for understanding climate change as a conflict rooted in power disparity, in class struggle to be specific. National leaders at COP26 who are most vocal about the urgency of climate change are from countries that contribute the least to the greenhouse gas emissions but are already bearing the worst effects of climate change. Meanwhile, the biggest emitters (such as the US) hesitate to implement necessary changes. This is the same power dynamic in Flagstaff. And, like Flagstaff, what I want is partly to reconcile the past, but changing the future is significantly more important to me.
To learn more, visit Keene’s website. Thank you for sharing, Keene!