A CONVERSATION WITH BILL KITTREDGE
This award-winning essayist, fiction writer and teacher is regarded
as one of the leading voices of contemporary Western literature.
© 1998 By Lee Juillerat
When William Kittredge decided to write about environmental problems
created by ranchers, he based his writings on first-hand experiences.
"At one point I wanted to write about the West and the mistakes
that were being made and the best example I could use was myself
and my family and the mistakes we had made," explains Kittredge,
who was raised in southeastern Oregon on the once-mighty MC Ranch.
"Because of that I got a reputation of being hard on my family
and being hard on ranch people in general."
We're sitting in a Missoula, Mont., cafe waiting for lunch.
He left Oregon and moved here more than 30 years ago to create
a new life as a college professor and writer. Kittredge, who turns
66 in mid-August, is an award-winning essayist, fiction writer,
teacher and autobiographical author who is regarded as one of
the leading voices of contemporary western literature. He is respected
by many, but not necessarily by ranchers and agri-businessmen
because his writings are not kind about land use practices.
In two of his books, "Hole In The Sky" and "Owning It All,"
he is often critical of his family, himself and damage created
by what he believes was irresponsible ranching and farming. "We
thought we were doing God's work out there," he says of life on
the MC. "We found out that some of that 'big' ag doesn't work."
Kittredge comes from a pedigreed ranching background. He's
the grandson of the legendary Oscar Kittredge, who put together
the MC. He earned a degree in general agriculture from Oregon
State University. But he left the ranch in 1967 and, after studying
three terms at the University of Oregon, transferred to the University
of lowa's Writer's Workshop in 1968. A year later he launched
a successful writing career that includes several books and articles
in prestigious magazines.
Kittredge spent 30 years as a professor of English and creative
writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. He retired last
spring. "Glad of it, too. Rode that horse too long," he explains.
"I taught fiction and wrote fiction for a long time. About 15
years ago I eased into teaching nonfiction and started writing
autobiographical whatever it is people are doing in the West.
And now I've got enough to keep me busy the next two or three
Keeping busy includes a nonfiction book tentatively titled,
"Reimagining Desire." It's about "rethinking what we want, what
is progress. Is a larger gross national product really progress?"
The book will have a global focus, but Kittredge believes it
neatly connects with a book scheduled in 1999 about water problems
in the Klamath Basin, which covers a large chunk of Southern Oregon
and far Northern California. Kittredge has been researching the
book for more than a year.
"The Klamath Basin has all the classical western problems,
all the way from Indian water rights to salmon to various endangered
species to traditional agriculture. You've got the works there.
That's why it's such a good story for me to write about.
"From my point of view, you can actually write a useful book
that defines issues the best you can and casts some light on it;
casts some light inside the decision-making process. That's bound
to be useful, whether it's useful in a good or a bad way."
With a conciliatory tone that might surprise his severest critics,
Kittredge is outspokenly optimistic about resolving the watershed
disputes while also preserving the region's agricultural-based
economy. "I'm quite positive about what's going on down there.
I don't think anybody's acting out of maliciousness. They're all
addressing the issues and they're getting them solved one by one
Kittredge, like the teacher he is, eagerly lays out his theory.
"The working concept really evolved out of John Wesley Powell,
this whole notion that political entities in the West ought to
be organized on watershed boundaries. Never more true than in
the Klamath Basin, I think."
He believes problems would be much more easily solvable if
they were organized on watershed boundaries. "What you see now
is all these people at cross purposes all brought together in
an irretrievable, irreducible way by water concerns. All these
people, from traditional ag farmers to the [Klamath] Tribe to
the ONRC [Oregon Natural Resources Council] to whoever else, have
got to find a way to get along with each other," he says. "They've
got to figure out some way to preserve the economy and still take
care of the place. You've got to take care of the people; you've
got to take care of the place. A lot of environmentalists don't
put much emphasis on taking care of the economy or the people."
Kittredge says that it's the old-time traditional agriculturalists,
not the younger guys, who "tend to get into an adversarial stance
where no retreat is possible."
Between bites, Kittredge nibbles at more controversial themes.
"There are a lot of things that have been publicly endorsed
that are going to probably have to be changed, like certain types
of agriculture. We're going to have to do something about pesticides,
fertilizers, all the chemicals. There are other ways to farm.
Start looking into it instead of just saying no."
Kittredge emphasizes that westerners always want simple solutions
even though there aren't any. "Everybody's frustrated and complaining.
It's a complicated, difficult solution. It will take a lot of
arguing out, a lot of boring meetings. Everything's going to change,
and then it's all going to have to be done all over again."
He's absorbed in his argument, eager to illuminate his thoughts.
"People have only been farming the Klamath Basin basically for
50 or 60 years and they're only now confronting this whole phase
of territorial disputes. You see areas like Europe and the Far
East where they had the same kind of troubles a thousand or more
years ago. They worked them out, solved the problems so long ago
they don't even remember solving them. Instead of thinking, 'How
can we get things our own way?' people need to start thinking
about how we can make a community work so that everybody can live
in it and so that it can support everybody in a way that doesn't
ruin the place."
Whatever his misgivings on his family's role in "ruining" the
Warner Valley, Kittredge speaks fondly of his upbringing and his
sense of place. "It's absolutely fundamental to me," he says of
the lingering influences of being raised on the Eastern Oregon
ranch. "All that upbringing-it's the basis for everybody. It's
who you are."
* * *
Lee Juillerat lives in Klamath Falls, Ore.