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Betsy Quammen’s new book ‘American Zion’ examines how West being torn asunder



CREDIT: David J Swift


Editor’s note: see below for a March 25 Facebook live event featuring Betsy and David Quammen

Pick apart almost any contentious issue reflecting the so-called “urban-rural” divide in isolated corners of the American West and invariably it boils down to a couple common denominators.

Changes are happening so fast that local residents feel their once-reliable compass points for interpreting the world are vanishing; humans left unsettled, anxious and alienated; young people fleeing communities of their upbringing in search of better economic opportunities; old people left behind feeling the deep heartache of that loss which manifests as a sense of abandonment.

On top of it, the economics of globalization have only yoked working-class rural Americans with greater levels of indebtedness.

These are the underlying foundations of social unrest and yet they get masked by other things. The tendency is to find outside entities to blame or scapegoat. It could be the government, or a certain political party, or environmentalists, immigrants or virtually any kind of other human being unlike “us.”

The truth is that we have a profound psychological need to find another group at fault for our own suffering. We do this in order to explain away the reasons why transformation is changing our culture, traditions, identities and memories. Yet even after we point the finger, it doesn’t make reality go away.

In a nutshell, these are some of the underlying themes that newly-minted Bozeman author Betsy Gaines Quammen explores in her fascinating debut book, “American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West.”

Quammen takes readers deep into the mindset that sparked the now-notorious Bundy-related standoff at their cattle ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, and the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. She explores the convergence of radical Mormonism and the catalysts of the modern Sagebrush Rebellion.

Apart from natural resource interests wanting to exploit more public land for profit, there are other influences driving the Trump Administration’s move to undermine the conservation legacy of Theodore Roosevelt and shrink back the size of national monuments in Utah. In “American Zion,” Quammen offers both a disquieting rhyme and reason.

Here I must disclose a bias in the writing of this review. The author has been a longtime neighbor. For a few years I was enthralled by conversations we had on the street in front of our homes as she worked on achieving her Ph.D. in environmental history from Montana State University. The topic: Mormon settlement and public land conflicts.

“American Zion” is the fruit of Quammen’s exhaustive research and it is delivered with a page-turning narrative. One thing readers might not know: During her fact-gathering process of talking with a diverse range of people, Quammen was treated to a strange twist of fate. She chatted with the Bundys at their kitchen table in Bunkerville months before they became iconic figures of rebellion.

Are they heroes, villains or symbols of something else far more insidious?

As noted at the top of this column, rural Americans everywhere are struggling. There is a lot of pain and hurt out there. “American Zion” reveals how the Bundy movement has opportunistically preyed upon fear to conceal an ulterior motive.

Their agenda is not about abetting freedom, liberty and democracy; quite the opposite, Quammen notes.  With whacky reasoning they have set out to subvert the legitimacy of government itself and its ability to steward public lands that belong to all citizens.

Turning logic and reason on their heads, the Bundys have perpetuated a new version of history that commenced when their kinfolk came into the West, ironically dismissing the rights of indigenous people who were there first. It also rationalizes a distorted interpretation of Christianity in which the Golden Rule—treat others as you would want to be treated—creates a new trope of victimhood.

“The Bundys … have defied and rejected these principles—Golden Rule, land ethic, stewardship, or conservation—in their fight to possess and use American public land,” Quammen writes. “They have insisted upon being anarchic atop fragile landscapes harboring vulnerable species, and they have done it in a most anti-social way. They have bullied the public and federal agencies, broken laws and brought guns to their fight. And they have browbeat those who haven’t fully embraced their level of lawlessness.”

Quammen draws upon insights she gleaned to illuminate why the threats to public lands of the American West are very real. If such radicalism and its hidden motives are not confronted, or if they are allowed to metastasize, it will be our civil society and the rule of law that suffers most, she warns.

Rural people more than ever need our empathy and our ears but even that will not stop the only constant in life, which is unrelenting change. President Ronald Reagan once said, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave.”

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.

Wednesday, March 25 at 6 p.m. – Virtual book discussion with Betsy Gaines Quammen and David Quammen on pandemics and misinformation.

The Country Bookshelf is hosting a Facebook Live event for a discussion with conservationist and historian Betsy Gaines Quammen and her husband, science journalist David Quammen. The duo will discuss Betsy’s new book, “American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God and Public Lands in the West,” and what it reveals about misinformation and distrust of science. David will add his expertise on disease outbreaks that jump from animal hosts to humans, such as COVID-19.

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