Against the Odds is a powerful firsthand account of life in rural America that offers a broad, probing look at the environmental tensions surrounding the collapse of many of our rural resource communities. Read more on Amazon…
People talk a lot about working across differences. But sometimes, in some situations, I wonder if they’ve really tried it. Because most don’t say the three things that really can’t go unsaid. First, it’s so, so hard. Second, it can be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. Third, hard comes first and reward comes later, if it even does come. Reward isn’t guaranteed, and it’s that very uncertainty that prevents so many from trying.
This past year, however, a Montana logger, a native New Yorker associate professor and I put our money where our mouth is. We worked across differences in one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of my professional life to date. We wrote a book together. Our differences took backseat, and our common goal of progress for rural America and for a healing of the divide that so painfully separates Americans today took front. And, astonishingly, it worked. We wrote Against the Odds: A Path Forward for Rural America.
The book is, as my coauthor Nicole J Olynk Widmar wrote, “a unique collaboration that is, you could say, an annotated life story around the experiences of Bruce Vincent.” Bruce Vincent is our beloved Montana logger, and his remarkable and challenging life truly personifies the environmental tensions surrounding the collapse of so many of our rural resource communities.
I never thought I would learn so much about logging. And I never thought I would learn so much about how other Americans in our vast, vast country live. Who can say who gained the most from this experience? Because I, for one, will never look at our political or social debates in the same way again. And it’s my sincere wish that others may feel the same way after reading it.
When Bruce was a child, living in his self-proclaimed ‘tiny home before there were shows about tiny homes’ in Montana, his school principal told his parents he was too smart to be a logger like his dad. That one conversation changed everything for him and his family. He was set apart from a family heritage society had deemed not ‘good enough’ for a smart son. He was tortured by the thought of leaving a life he loved. But dutifully he moved away, went to college and got a job. Until he and his wife, fed up with their ill-suited life, shucked all social expectations and moved their family back to Libby, Montana.
Expecting to settle into a hard but rewarding life in logging, Bruce’s family and community were rocked by a growing antagonism towards their industry. Soon, he was thrust into the forefront of a national debate in which loggers were denigrated for destroying the environment. Dubbed the Timber Wars, the conflict raged from the late 80s through the 90s, while Bruce was front and center, working himself to exhaustion to preserve their heritage and strive towards good forest management. As the logging contracts dried up, he could only watch in agony as his family’s business closed and his community began to fall apart.
Bruce and his fellow loggers had become Public Enemy No. 1 and their livelihoods were being eradicated. Yet Americans continued to enjoy their wood furniture and products. Only now, timber imports were on the rise and our national forests were exploding into flames from a massive fuel overload that management and controlled logging could have mitigated.
But instead of folding, he and his team confronted the harsh reality. They did the hardest work yet – they looked in the mirror. What had they been doing wrong? What can we do to work towards real, meaningful progress?
That really is the question. What can we do to facilitate meaningful progress? We are staring a nation in the face that is sick, torn apart by anger, suspicion and mistrust of one another. Consumed by resentment and frustration, we dig our feet into our position and continue to see it as a battle of ‘us versus them.’ But, we all lose when we approach it in this way. I’m not saying it’s easy, remember the first rule of working across differences (It’s hard!). But the alternative is to continue on as we are. This is chilling to consider.
I truly hope you give this book a shot. It is through stories that we learn, and through the sharing of our stories that we help others understand us. We don’t have to achieve consensus to facilitate progress, but we must hear one another. If a person is just another tally on a spreadsheet of ‘impacted others,’ we easily fail to appreciate the ramifications of lost livelihoods, broken communities or a mismanaged cause. The power of a story lies in its ability to humanize and lend insight into someone else’s reality. Be warmed by the perseverance of Bruce and his family, yet also consider your own ability to move the needle and facilitate progress.