To Speak of Common Places

An Oral History of Oregon’s Public Lands

Hayley Brazier, Stephanie LeMenager, Marsha Weisiger

In this presentation, the Center for Environmental Futures team discusses their oral history project, To Speak of Common Places. Center co-directors Stephanie LeMenager and Marsha Weisiger have been traveling around Oregon since September 2017, asking Oregonians to talk about how they understand and experience Oregon’s public lands. As they collect this narrative data, the Center is learning how ranchers, farmers, federal and state land managers, environmentalists, Indigenous communities, and others use and appreciate public lands, how they think those lands should be managed, how changes in climate affect those lands, and how they envision the future of our public lands.

24 replies on “To Speak of Common Places”

Thanks for this fascinating presentation! I was really interested to hear your team describe aspen trees as “performing a storytelling role,” while also saying that oral histories can be difficult to “make into narratives.” To what degree are your roles similar when you’re narrating for/with the trees versus for/with the people you interview? Are there disciplinary differences that have come up regarding what narration or narrative means? Would it make sense to think about co-authoring stories with either the arborglyphs and/or the interview subjects, or even about polyvocal narratives?

Thanks Jennifer for these great questions! Narrating the meaning of an aspen and its arborglyph is like working with any artifact or object of material culture. We explicate and interpret its many layers of meaning: its literal message and design; its materiality; its purpose and intended audience; its physical context in the landscape (not only the visual scene and the scale but also the sounds, the smells, and the feeling of temperature, wind, and weather); its political and economic meanings; its expressions of class, ethnicity, nationality, and gender; its relationship to power; its affect, and so forth. As to the oral histories, you ask a great question.They sometimes offer stories, but they are also raw information, with no narrative structure. We shape them into narratives by looking for patterns across the interviews and then crafting stories that use the oral histories as illustrations of those patterns, while also revealing the particularism of each person’s experience. Doing this is a big responsibility that requires taking care not to distort another person’s viewpoint and not to ignore outlier stories. A good narrative must account for those experiences that fall outside the majority experience; indeed they can often be the most revealing.

Thanks for this presentation. I’m interested in what’s guiding your thinking about the way the “Bringing our stories together” will take shape? What kinds of experiences do you hope will be possible in those places and gatherings?

Thank you for such a great presentation! I am curious to know more about the archive of arborglyphs, as well as if there are descendent communities in relation to the glyphs today. I am also wondering if you could say a little about how intercommoning applies or relates to “multi-use” policy. Thank you for a inspiring talk!!!

Thanks, Laura. I’d love to hear more about your own experiences in this regard–and very much enjoyed the conversation that developed out of your presentation.
Marsha has organized community conversations about wolf conservation in New Mexico and has more experience than I do–and probably more to say at this point.
My own hopes (at this point) include that these conversations support communities becoming more visible to themselves than they sometimes are, especially where media stereotyping and caricature have been prevalent. For example, in Harney County, where the Bundy occupation took place, we talked with a diverse set of individuals. Interestingly, all wanted to see continuing federal management of the public lands–even though many had complaints, concerns, etc, about that management. Most were pragmatic, environmentally knowledgeable, and invested in some notion of a common good, as they defined it. Few felt that they had been seen or heard, some felt quite isolated. So, as I said, one goal is simply to support communities in staging themselves *for themselves,* to be visible to and for each other. On a somewhat similar note, I’d hope that we as UO scholars (profs and students) make clear by showing up to these conversations and listening that we recognize the importance of local knowledges. Another common concern among interviewees was what is meant by expertise and/or knowledge, who is imagined to possess it and who is willing to listen to whom. What is a public university, if not one that is engaged with diverse publics that it serves? Rarely does it seem that way, except in the classroom (ideally, at the best moments)–we hope that classrooms can be in many kinds of places, not just the brick and mortar U.

Thanks for this question, Laura. I’ve conducted a prototype of my own vision for these gatherings in a symposium I organized in New Mexico about the contentious issue of reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf onto public lands. Following that model, we would invite representatives of the different kinds of land users (for example ranchers, loggers, recreationists) in the particular community, public lands managers, environmental activists of various stripes, and Indigenous communities to share their experiences, along with humanities scholars and natural scientists to help frame a larger context. In New Mexico, this helped make a wide array of community members visible to each other and to the broader community and, in a moderated setting, find common ground. But in many of the communities we’ve been working in for this project, the communities have already developed frameworks for this very type of conversation, quite successfully. We will work cooperatively with them as we set these up. Since we intend to hold these forums in the various communities we’ve been working with, I hope we can bring UO undergraduates into the audience. These communities appreciate knowing that the academic community is listening to them and learning from them. (Stephanie LeMenager’s posting captures my thoughts on our observations quite well.)

Thanks for a fantastic presentation! My question is about the use of these stories beyond this immediate project. How can these oral histories, and the “stories” of the arboglyphs, feed other projects that study environmental change in the region? I’m struck by the headline on the last slide: “From Data, Stories.” What about the other progression: from stories, data?

I’m curious about that other progression, Erin–and would love to know more about how that works at Confluence Lab. Marsha and I don’t necessarily aim to produce data, although we notice patterns, yes, among the oral histories. Those patterns can be illustrative. Yet outliers, too, remain valuable and important. If we are generating data I’d say it is a kind of data that resists the abstractions typically associated with data!

I thought using the graffiti on the aspen trees was a really innovative way to get some “oral” history data of a different sort. Martha mentioned that these sources are disappearing (age & climate change) so their stories need to be collected. What I wondered is if you have considered collecting the history deeper than the bark: the data that one could get some tree ring samples. This would be an even deeper way of seeing the intertwined histories of the Basque herders and the trees.

The discussion of the arboglyphs and the history of Basque migration to the western U.S. raised a kindred question for me: how do you conceptualize the different stories that different arboreal archives—a kind of occasional, informal data—hold and convey? I’m thinking about tree markings left by couples, flags left by surveyors or conservation biologists, etc.

Allison, you raise an interesting question. We hadn’t really thought beyond the arborglyph, both because it’s distinctive and because there is so other little record of this historically important ethnic group. But it’s true that the forests of the Wallowas and the Malheur forest, neither of which we’ve spent much time in, would bear surveyors marks, bore holes, valentines, and all kinds of animal markings beyond the human. I’ve been looking at the meanings of graffiti along certain Southwestern rivers for a different project, but I hadn’t really thought about that for our project. As we begin crafting the stories for our book, I’ll keep this in mind. Thanks.

Fascinating idea re: tree ring samples! One of our 2020-21 CEF dissertation fellows, Tianna Bruno, is taking tree ring data to help create a history of environmental injustice in Texas…perhaps we should ask her for guidance!!

Hi Dolly, That’s a really stimulating question. Our focus is on the twentieth century and the oral histories, and since the arrival of the Basques was only 100 years ago, I’m not exactly sure that tree ring data would be helpful. Then again, it would perhaps help us get at the fire history of the area and tell us something about Paiute land use going farther back, so that’s food for thought. I’m familiar with dendro data only in the southwestern U.S. and am not sure where to find that record for this region. But I’ll ask around. And, of course, my favorite Leopold essay is “The Good Oak,” and I can see an opportunity to perhaps tell the regional story of “The Good Aspen” as a way of narrating environmental and social change in the area.

The wealth of oral history data you are gathering must be immense (maybe even overwhelming?). I’d love to hear more about the process of moving from hundreds of hours of recordings to producing transcripts, identifying keywords, tagging up the transcripts, creating metadata (with OHMS or other), identifying stories, and then writing and visualizing them?
I was struck by Stephanie’s comment at the end of the recording, while talking about intercommoning, that the stories would not be “narrated by us.” Who will narrate them? How will the collecting and gathering work be integrated into the narration of the stories?

Thanks, Bethany. Just to clarify. My comment “not narrated by us” refers only to our design plan for the interactive website. We will narrate the book, and self-consciously so, to the extent that we’ll be as forthcoming as possible about our own aspirations and hopes for public lands. The website on the other hand will be designed by us–so of course yes, there’s an element of our choosing/not choosing there. But we will ask interviewees to pick out one of a small sample of video or audio clips for inclusion. The experience of the site, we hope, will be one of the user discovering their own frames, pieced together from a variety of highlighted locations, speakers, and images.

Bethany, You’re right that the hours and hours and transcripts (a task we’ve thankfully handed over to professionals) can be overwhelming. But my last book was based on eight file drawers of documents, so I’ve learned how to manage large volumes of primary sources. (This may point to a disciplinary difference.) My own process, generally, is to read over all the interviews in a given area, noting patterns and great quotes. These are searchable, and I think our transcriptionists (who generally transcribe court documents) send us an index for each interview, if I recall correctly. But I also typically use a database (Scrivner) to help me keep track of the various stories, which I’ll probably do as I begin to write. As Stephanie says, we will shape the narrative structure of the book, but we also hope to let our interviewees speak for themselves so that much of the text is in their words. (Lots of quotations are outside my comfort zone, but we want this to be their story, ultimately, because those we’ve interviewed often feel that outsiders have presumed to speak for them, and we want to give them the opportunity to be heard.)

It’s inspiring to learn how your fieldwork and the To Speak of Common Places project has taken off over the past couple of years. How do you think about your practices in relationships to participant observation in ethnography, on the one hand, and embedded or documentary journalism on the other? I found myself thinking, in particular, of Meera Subramanian’s series for _Inside Climate_ “Finding Middle Ground”:

Thank you so much for this fascinating talk! I have a question w/r/t Stephanie’s comments at the end, about oral histories as difficult kinds of data, and the ways that narratives and data of these lands are in fact quite vast and diverse. How do you approach organizing the data into an archive? What are strategies for creating metadata that can help make sense of the diverse data?

Patricia, thanks for the question. I hope my answer to the post by Bethany helps to address it.

Thanks for this, Hayley, Stephanie and Marsha. I’m curious about the tensions and resonances between the terms “public” and “common” both of which you use in describing the project. Are public lands and common places the same for you and did either of these terms seem to have greater resonance for your interlocutors in talking about the lands and places of Eastern Oregon? Did you get the sense that either or both terms might be understood differently by different communities?

Meg, this is a great philosophical question. We started with the idea of the commons, which is bedrock both to the Indigenous people of Oregon and to the colonial settlement of America. We sometimes use the words interchangeably, but I think “public lands” is more of a legal and administrative designation and the commons captures something much broader. We want to get at both ideas, and we also do get a sense that both of those terms are understood differently by different communities. (I appreciate you bringing this issue up–I’ll try to remember to hang onto that.) At the same time, we feel that the idea of the “public” is a key concept within the republic and at the core of our democracy, a notion that we are pondering with this project. In Eastern Oregon, “public lands” is the term most frequently used, both in the sense of public vs. private, but also in the sense that the public lands are a commons and at the heart of the idea of community. Thanks for this provocative question.

I just think this is such a beautiful project. I don’t have a new question to add but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the presentation 🙂