When Neighbors Become Strangers…by Bianca Dumas

From The 2004 Zephyr Archives

EDITOR’S NOTE & REQUEST: BIanca Dumas of helper, Utah submitted this essay to The Zephyr back in 2004. It has always been one of my favorites and we’re happy to re-post it. Her observations are even more relevant in 2016 than they were more than a decade ago.

But I’ve been able to find new contact information for Ms. Dumas. If anyone knows Bianca, could you ask her to contact The Zephyr? We’d like to publish more of her commentaries…JS

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Such history as my family has is the history of its life here. All that any of us may know of ourselves is to be known in relation to this place.

– Wendell Berry

I used to live in Wayne County, southern Utah, because cliffs of red Wingate sandstone form an enormous barricade between Thousand Lakes Mountain and Capitol Reef National Park. I used to live there so I could watch Capitol Dome and the other thousand-foot bulges of Navajo sandstone collect a dusting of May snow. I used to live there because I could camp at 11,600-foot Bluebell Knoll, the highest point on Boulder Mountain, and because at the mountain’s foot are the Bicknell Bottoms, a lush marsh where mallards and sandhill cranes scavenge the Fremont River for food.

I used to live in Wayne County for the beauty of the place, but at the end of my three years there, I quit stopping at Larb Hollow and Hogan’s Pass, scenic turnouts that provide a view of five thousand square miles of mostly uninhabited desert, all the way to the LaSal mountain range. In a flash I realized I had become greedy. Every time I stopped to gaze at the colored desert my eyes tried to sop it up, all for myself. The day I quit trying to make the land mine and mine only I realized that even a place as beautiful as Wayne County could stand one less stranger looking at it with an agenda.

Hanksville, UT. Wayne County. Poor Boy Motel. 1975.

Hanksville, UT. Wayne County. Poor Boy Motel. 1975.

With only 2,400 people in a county of that many square miles, Wayne County natives feel firmly rooted in place. Towns are small and scattered, so everyone is Wayne County, and that is how people locate themselves in conversation, even among other Utahns. Wayne County is home in the utmost sense to most of these people – descendants of Mormon handcart pioneers who pushed gigantic wooden wheelbarrows across 1,300 miles of plains from Nauvoo, Missouri, to the Utah territory. In 1875, Hugh McClellan and his family tried to subdue the rocky red-dust fields for ranching, and from these first settlers grew a breed as tough and stark as the desert itself. The last family to buy a bailer was still gathering hay with an elevator behind a horse-pulled wagon in 1970, the kids alternately driving the team and tromping hay in the wagon. And other kids eight or ten years old tended sheep camp on Boulder Mountain by themselves, staying out among bears and elk.

I wanted to fit in among the locals, and had many friends, but I couldn’t fool myself. I come from a different clan, Utahns a hundred and twenty miles north in Carbon County. We are descended from Italian, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, and Slovenian immigrants, and have relatively few Mormons among us. I’m proud of my people, of my own county, and I had to go home.

Here in Carbon County, my son represents the fifth generation of my family. My cousins – Pinarelli, Andreini, Scavo, Vea, Marasco, and Pero – all live within five miles of the coal mines and farms our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers helped create. We have one and only one other town on all the earth that is ours: San Giovanni en Fiore, in the mountains of Calabria, Italy. A parallel branch of the family lives there to this day, descendants of one brother who did not come west.

Helper, UT. Early 50s. Photo by Herb Ringer.

Helper, UT. Early 50s. Photo by Herb Ringer.

Few Americans today have such a profound experience of home, a generations-old place they must return to. Those of us who have that experience want our children to have it as well. We want to offer them lives in hometowns that are still connected to history, tradition, and land. We want our children to feel, always, that of all the places in the world, they belong here the most.

Outsiders are slowly resettling Wayne County, like most of Southern Utah, because it is beautiful. The new group of settlers reveres Wayne County’s landscape, but often treats natives of the place with spite. Locals are labeled “hicks” and “rednecks.” Bumper stickers proclaim a desire to “Protect Wild Utah” as wilderness when that would deliver a powerful blow to local business and recreation. This is the culture of the New West, that is, the culture of Boulder and Santa Fe. The original culture of Wayne County is at risk of disappearing.

Folks who move to rural towns too often think that the very life of the rural place – the lives of the farmers, ranchers, loggers, and coal miners – is backward, even wrong. Writer Wendell Berry experienced this prejudice when he left a teaching position at New York University to return home to Kentucky. “There was the assumption,” he writes, “that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural places…is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because it is unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.”

With the resettlement of the west and the devaluation of the rural person, I fear that the land we grew up on will be closed to our children, and that our children’s rural heritage will be treated as something savage, something they must leave behind. The west, as happened when white men first came to this continent, will be ready for resettlement by people who believe they know better than we do how to live on land with which we are intimate.

Capitol Reef 1974

Capitol Reef 1974

We rural westerners are intimate with the land, but do not call ourselves environmentalists. We view the environmental movement as a hostile takeover, an elitist approach to improve upon a west full of rednecks. We are afraid of the movement and, understandably, hateful toward it.

But we are lying to and marginalizing ourselves if we don’t promote rural people as environmentalists in some sense. The environmental movement is well funded, media-fed, and internationally popular. Its holds the place of religion among its believers and is as rooted in the present human consciousness as was the doctrine of Manifest Destiny or the fever of the Industrial Revolution. We as the people opposed to its idealistic principles seem, in the larger community, heretical and dangerous.

Embracing our part of the environmental movement might change the way the world perceives us and the way it perceives conservation. We have to end our stand as the enemy and make ourselves known as individuals. We have to open a dialogue with the people who move into our towns. Our organizations have to get organized, communicate professionally and eloquently, and get our personal stories of loss, struggle, and love for the land into the media. Knowing that our goal is to preserve a threatened culture and safeguard land and tradition as essential parts of our humanity and our natural environment might diminish popular support for the no-compromise stand of the environmental protection groups.

Our unique viewpoint should be our plea: we have a sense of balance. We don’t want to save the wilderness at the cost of the people who helped raise us. We don’t want to save the human heritage at the cost of the places we love best. So we are compelled to think deeply, to consider everything in our plans. And, because we are the offspring of the places themselves, we want to create or maintain economic opportunities and a sense of rural pride so our children can enjoy life here in the future.

The place I know best is not beautiful. Few tourists come to gaze at our Mancos shale, sagebrush, and snakebroom. The mountains are a dull gray, flecked with the most subtle yellows and greens. It is a landscape I learned to love because most of my memories were created in its folds.

Helper is vital to me because it is the seat of everything I know and everything I can learn about myself. I need this place. I say this on behalf of every family member who lives here. And I say the same thing on behalf of the families of Wayne County: Behunin and Blackburn, Chappell, Ellett, Brown, Brian, Torgersen and Torgerson. They need their place, too.

Bianca Dumas lives and writes in Helper, Utah.

Click Here to Read More of Bianca’s Experiences Around Capitol Reef National Park.



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