by Micki Panttaja, performed Friday, Nov. 8, at Headwaters XIII
The play is set in “Slippery Rock Valley, a small western community with vast natural beauty, resources and heritage.” The time is the present.
- H. D. Quinn, a third-generation rancher in Slippery Rock Valley, whose family has over the years accumulated a large but still somewhat marginal ranch, with a large amount of summer grazing land leased from the Bureau of Land Management. Much of the story revolves around Quinn's efforts to comply with BLM regulations to maintain his leases.
- Cela Quinn, H.D.'s wife, whose heritage is Native American. In addition to being a ranch wife, she cooks in the local cafe, where her locally famous "specials" often feature her use of native plants for seasoning – knowledge that comes from her Indian side.
- Harv Griffin, owner and proprietor of "Harv's In & Out," the local cafe, bar, gas station, package liquor store, video rental, et cetera. Harv – who is also a County Commissioner – is beginning to branch out into rafting expeditions and other emerging recreational opportunities in the valley.
- Denise Farrel, the new range manager for the Bureau of Land Management, a woman with a mandate to "leave the range in better condition than she found it," and an institutionally engendered caution against getting involved in local concerns.
- Carson Powell, a plant expert (probably a biologist with a Western diploma) who is also an active environmentalist, associated with a national group called the Conservation Club.
- Wiley Dagget, H.D.'s hired hand, a serious cowboy whose own family lost their ranch when Wiley was young.
- The Plant – a "weed" that H.D. found growing in a new seeding on the his leased BLM land, a "weed" to H.D., but to Carson and the Farrel, maybe an endangered western "lost plant."
The main body of the play is a series of scenes with that very human group of people living in Slippery Rock Valley; between those scenes are shorter episodes with characters either archetypal or stereotypical, or both – representations of public-land managers, public-land users (loggers, ranchers, recreationists, etc.), environmentalists, and others more representative of groups than individuals.
If the story were to be summarized in a nutshell, it could probably be called a story of how large forces in a “cultural environment” impinge on and affect people trying to live and make livings as a local community. Just as every human group must adapt to the challenges and opportunities of its natural environment (basic geography, climate, “disasters,” etc.), by creating a community that protects against the challenges and exploits the opportunities, a modern community in a “global economy” has to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of its cultural environment as well – the laws, institutions, “market forces,” et cetera that the community cannot change to suit itself, and therefore must adapt to.
The “larger forces” at work in the cultural environment surrounding Slippery Rock Valley are:
- a global commodity economy that establishes cattle prices independently of the ranchers who produce the cattle,
- federal agencies managing the majority of the land by standards and goals set elsewhere that shift with every major political change,
- a national environmentalist movement that likes neither cows on the land nor the alternative (exurban sprawl),
- a tourism potential that is laden with as many good and bad impacts as a spring storm, and
- the valley's own history and heritage of good and bad practices that goes back to Indian times.
The individual actors in the play are trying to figure out how to work together as a community in the face of those forces.
The play opens with a legend told by an Indian, of a chief whose wife has died. He is inconsolable until Ta-vwoats, a great spirit, comes to tell him she is in a happier place. The spirit takes him to that beautiful place to show him, through a great gorge, but makes him promise that he will tell no one of that beautiful place, concerned that “through discontent with this world, they would desire to go to that beautiful place.” But the word gets out and, despite the resultant wrath of the gods, people go there anyway because “heaven is too beautiful and nobody listens.”
The first scene (after an episode of sound bites from archetypes and stereotypes) finds H.D. Quinn, a third-generation rancher in the valley (Ladder Creek Ranch), out on his public-land lease, checking a piece of land he has reseeded. He has discovered three things: one, that some of his cattle have gotten through a broken fence and need to be put back in the proper pasture; two, that some “college kid environmentalists” have painted a well (pump?) he has installed on his leased land to bring up water for the cattle, suggesting that he make his other “projects” on the public lands look that good; and three, that there is a strange “weed” growing in the area he has reseeded with some native “Indian” grass species. He is talking on his cell phone to his hired hand, to organize getting the cattle back in the right pasture.
The next scene is in Quinn's kitchen back at the ranch. His wife – an Indian – is on the phone to the BLM agent (a woman, Denise Farrel) who is informing her that some of their cattle aren't where they should be. Quinn arrives, and takes over the phone. He alternates between talking to the agent and his wife, who pulls the piece of “weed” out of his shirt pocket. He asks her what it is, and the agent picks up on that side conversation, and asks him to bring the “weed” by the office, to see what it is, since neither Quinn nor his wife recognizes it. He agrees to do so, as well as to get his cattle back where they belong, in return for no fine from the agent.
The next scene is in the BLM office, where Range Manager Farrel asks her office assistant (a guy who is literally counting the 1200-some days till his retirement) about Quinn. This scene establishes the federal land-management policy (sometimes more honored in its breach) of not letting their agents stay in one position long enough to “get cozy with the natives.” Farrel expresses the stress of being head of an office that has been given “five FIRST priorities,” while the Assistant tries to caution her to not push people and they will cooperate.
Following an interlude in which representatives from the Forest Service, BLM and Park Service offer sound bites about the impossibility of their situations, the scene moves to Harv Griffin's “cafe, bar, off-sale liquor, video store place.” Quinn's hired hand, Wiley Dagget, is drinking a pop; Harv Griffin himself passes through, on his way to take some tourists on a float trip. Griffin is also a County Commissioner.
Quinn arrives. Harv asks him where the Indian pictographs are, so he can show them to his tourists, but Quinn declines to tell him, saying that the Indians – his wife among them – don't want a lot of tourists knowing about them. There is also a lot of banter about the difficulty of making a living in the valley.
BLM agent Farrel comes in. Meets Quinn. Quinn and Wiley make noise about heading right out to round up the cattle that are in the wrong BLM acreage. Farrel reminds him of the plant he'd found, and Quinn pulls another piece of it out of his shirt pocket and gives it to her. All three of them try to convince her it is some kind of invasive species, but she takes it with her to check it out. Harv brings up the dread possibility that it might be some kind of endangered plant, and reminds them that “environmental groups have been trying to lock up the Slippery rock Valley for a while” – because of “Slippery Rock's unique geological formation and possible habitat of the fuzzy butted chub.” After more of that kind of scare-talk, Quinn and Wiley leave to round up the loose cattle.
An interlude follows with environmentalists and loggers and other land-users talking past each other. The scene then shifts to the BLM office, where the long-time Office Assistant and short-time range agent discuss the local situation – the lack of trust of the BLM, and the extent to which the agent is caught between a need to create local trust and implement national priorities.
That agent takes out the “weed” sample and asks the Assistant to send it to their plant specialist, who is “a guy up north.”
An interlude follows with an Old Timer and a Town Leader discussing how newcomers are changing the valley.
The next scene is out on the range where Quinn and Wiley are fixing the fence. It turns out in conversation that Wiley was from a ranching family that had to sell out; he doesn't see how he can afford to stay in a place where he knows he will never be able to make enough of a living doing what he likes – cowboying – to raise a family and buy a home.
The scene shifts back to the BLM agent's office. She is on the phone to the “plant guy,” who is interested enough in the plant to make a trip down to see it on the range.
An interlude follows, with a Forest Service ranger, a Timber Executive and a Citizen talking past each other.
The drama goes back to Griffin's cafe-store. Quinn's wife Cela is tending the counter, and talking with a customer, who turns out to be the plant guy, Carson. Quinn comes in, and shortly behind him, BLM agent Farrel comes in. They are talking about the meeting today with the plant guy – not aware that he is in the cafe. Harv Griffin comes in apoplectic, with the same picture of the “weed” that had been scanned and sent to the plant guy; Harv had found it on the website of an environmentalist organization whose acronym is C.R.A.P. Harv's worst nightmares are coming true.
The BLM agent leaves and goes back to the office for a short visit, where she learns that the plant person has arrived and the Assistant had sent him to the cafe.
Back at the cafe, Carson the plant guy finally introduces himself, and he and Quinn leave to look at the plant where it is growing (taking Quinn's truck rather than Carson's car, which has a “Conservancy Club” sticker in the window. “I don't want to get shot,” Quinn says.)
Following an interlude with a National Park Service ranger and some Citizens, the scene shifts to Quinn's BLM allotment, where he and Carson discuss the plant in particular – which Carson can't identify – and the political environment in general. Quinn asks whether it would be better for him if the unknown plant were a sign of land stress or a sign of land recovery from overuse. Carson tells him probably neither would help him in his desire to maintain the status quo with his lease. “I know I'm screwed no matter what I do,” says Quinn. “The land needs a rest,” says Carson.
The following scene is three interwoven phone conversations: BLM agent Farrel talking to her superior, Quinn talking to the Farm Bureau, and Carson talking to the director of the Conservancy Club. They each try to suggest the possibility of “collaboration, negotiation, and cooperation” at the local level, but each in his or her conservation gets discouraged from that for “larger” reasons.
In the following scene, Quinn is being cut out and flipped off by his own neighbors, for appearing to be cooperating with the BLM on what might be a politically dangerous “weed.” He is angry about that, but in conversation over it with Cela, his wife, he shows some biases of his own against people who are “not locals.”
Following an interlude with a Wildlife Manager, a County Commissioner and an Environmentalist, the scene switches back to the BLM office. Carson and Farrel discuss the plant, and Carson's meeting with Quinn on the land. Farrel is less excited by a fight over the plant than Carson is – leading the Office Assistant to grudgingly acknowledge that he's “beginning to like her.”
In the scene that follows, Cela has taken Quinn to a cave, where she shows him some ancient Indian drawings on the walls. There, they find a drawing that is just like Quinn's “weed,” indicating that the plant may be one of the “lost plants” of the West that Carson had mentioned.
The final scene is in Harv Griffin's cafe-store. A couple of tourists are there waiting for service when Harv burst in and locks the door; it appears that there are reporters outside wanting information about the plant story.
Quinn and Cela arrive, knock at the door and persuade Harv to let them in. Cela quickly takes care of the tourists, who are looking for help finding some Indian writings on a map they were given in a museum. Cela tells them the map is wrong, and sends them off on a wildgoose chase.
Carson and Farrel enter soon after, and they all realize that they are caught up a difficult situation that is bound to deteriorate if they don't do something constructive. Farrel agrees to go look at “what's been done before in this sort of situation,” but Quinn stops her with the question, “What if there is no situation like this?” When Farrel says the BLM is “kinda funny about setting any kind of new precedents at the local level,” Harv reminds her that she'd earlier said that “the government wants local solutions.” “Yes,” says Farrel, "but they don't want locals coming up with them.” Nonetheless, there is the sense that the people there want to try to work out something on the local level.... And that's where the play ends.