Lander Talk: Have Chair, Will Sell

Lander – I called Habitat for Humanity the other day about an old house in Riverton which was being offered virtually free to anyone who would move it. After 15 years of swearing I was about to start building a cabin in the country, maybe I could sneak this old building onto my land under cover of night.

The landowner needed it out of the way so he could expand his business. Erin Shirley, of Habitat, didn’t want to see the house torn down – it was a beat up but stylish 1930s bungalow with a porch and a hipped roof. But months of advertising around Riverton had gotten little response, and the wrecking ball was about to swing.

Then she sent an email to “Lander-Talk”, an internet list-serve that originated in Riverton’s neighbor-town about 25 miles to the west. (A list-serve is essentially an internet mailing list – you send something to it, and it gets distributed to a group with common interests that has signed on to receive emails.) That’s what prompted me to call Habitat about the house. So, apparently, and suddenly, did a lot of other folks.

“Now I’ve got a bunch of people to call back,” Erin said when I got through on her busy phone. “It’s unbelievable. I wish Riverton had something like the Lander list.”

And what an eclectic list it is. Last week, there were notices about planning a community garden on an empty city lot (right behind my house!); a request for encyclopedias to send to Tanzania; a gun rack needing a new owner (like a free old house, something I was looking for – but it was pine, not my type); open mike night at the Folklore Café; a dog socialization class (a fix for my daughter’s crazy puppy); locally grown spinach for sale; and a woman from Washington state looking for some new friends to sail with her on a 26-foot boat down to Mexico (tempting…this list can get you in trouble).

Like the internet itself, Lander-Talk seemed simply to have materialized from galaxy dust. But in fact it began at the National Outdoor Leadership School, which had gotten on the email bandwagon early – way back in 1992 – by setting up lists for communication among employees at its various branches. When messages on those lists began straying outside the realm of work – someone needing a house-sitter, or selling a climbing rope – NOLS started Lander Talk. In 2001, they decided to open it up to the community. Now there are 466 subscribers, and growing.

It doesn’t provide NOLS any big benefit – they don’t promote their school on it – but it doesn’t cost much either. A little bandwidth, and about 30 minutes of manager Bill Hastings’ time per week. The list is unmoderated, which means that no one edits or censors what goes out on it. So far, no problems with that.

But Lander-Talk is something more than an electronic bulletin board – it’s a town having a new form of conversation with itself, a conversation which may be more revealing of a community in flux than any stories written up in a conventional newspaper or broadcast on local radio. And it’s part of a larger, international story, too: about an economic earthquake that has shaken an industry – well, my industry, the media – to its roots. With astonishing rapidity, staples of our nation’s political, informational and cultural life – that newspaper with your morning coffee, the evening television news with your martini – are as passé as a Lincoln Continental.

Of all the “old” media, newspapers seem to be the least adaptable to the internet age, though they are frantically repackaging their newsgathering staples onto websites, decorated with video and animation. Yet they seem doomed by the thing some of us love best of all – that heft of wood pulp that lands on your doorstep every morning. Newsprint is inky-dirty and expensive, especially when the competition needs only some cheap and inexhaustible bandwidth. Circulation is dropping, display ads are diminishing at about 10 percent annually nationally, and classified ads – the place you might once have looked for a cheap old house in Riverton – are dropping fastest of all. Standard & Poor’s keeps chopping the credit ratings of newspapers’ parent companies. The Economist predicts that over the next few decades half the newspapers in what it calls “the rich world” will fold. Every week the ranks of reporters are depleted by “buy-outs”, often accompanied by tearstained eulogies for the newsroom (these are writers, after all).

Television must reinvent itself, too, if it’s to survive. A television station used to be as valuable as a liquor license, and popular network programs were so pervasive that Ed Sullivan had more sway in defining national character than Dwight Eisenhower. But the television screen has been shattered by cable and satellite into a thousand shards of niche channels – and soon cable and satellite will give way to the internet, as you and I create our own TV series in our backyards and run them on YouTube. As ratings decline, network news staffs wither.

There is reason to be concerned about the decline in trained reporters’ ranks – particularly the loss of investigative reporting – but it’s also fascinating to watch the evolution of the instant informational smorgasbord that is the internet. And despite extraordinary exceptions like Google, E-Bay, and Craig’s List, the money-making class hasn’t figured out how to harness it yet.

Craig’s List is essentially a bottomless, borderless classified ad section, and it gets a large share of blame for newspapers’ troubles. Though it’s now international in scope, its genius is its local focus – a simple formula that helps visitors find the goods, services, events, or friends on the streets where they live.

That’s what Lander Talk does, too. But it is much more than a classified section, for a number of reasons: first, almost unconsciously, it reveals and builds an alternative social network, linking people who want to paint, or do yoga, or watch a movie, with like-minded neighbors they may never have met; second, it crosses the boundaries of social cliques that in many towns separate the oldtimers from the newcomers, the sushi eaters from the steak chompers, the feline-fancier from the canine-cozy; third, it reveals, and maybe enhances, a new community emerging, with worldviews that might have remained under wraps in most Wyoming towns, interests that would never fit in a newspaper display ad, like barter without cash, or flat-out giveaways, or a community garden idea that happens simply because…well, because, wouldn’t it be nice?

Yes…but not to everyone. As Karl Sutton – also the Lander-Talk fresh spinach salesman – and other community garden promoters discovered, there are still plenty of old school folks who don’t buy into some of the ideas emerging on Lander’s alternative internet universe. Some of them live right next door to the proposed garden (which is plotted on land owned by the city), and they’re used to running their dogs and riding their four-wheelers there.

Lander Community GardenPhoto: Kevin Bergstrom

My dogs are out there doing some fertilizing too, but nevertheless, I see the garden as a welcome addition, a “local food” effort to be more self-sustaining and inclusive. And I like that it has composted in the enjoyable, communal babble of Lander-Talk. But as Edmund Burke would have posted on the list-serve: “Every prudent act is founded on compromise and barter.” So we’ll grill each other over backyard grills, and raise our voices at city council meetings – the “new” community will get to know the “old,” and progress will be made in the stuttering, push-pull way of small towns.

In time, I think, the town that seems to be taking shape in Lander-Talk will infect the rest of us, and we’ll change without knowing exactly where the spinach came from.

It’s quite different from the evolution that Sam Western described in his piece about Sheridan, a town which he and others link to Lander as among “Wyoming’s more pleasant places.” The Sheridan transformation he described – from an energy and ag economy to an arts-centered community – is driven from the top by leaders with money and education.

Lander’s transformation – if that’s what it is – comes from the bottom, or, at least, from the happy, unharbored chaos you find in Lander-Talk. The genesis of that list, NOLS’ Don Webber pointed out, simply happened, without a master plan to guide it. It has a life of its own now, and Don opens the posts, like me, with expectant curiosity. There are always surprises, but he sums it up with a note of wonder in his voice: “It seems there’s a new feeling in town, a new approach to life and community in Lander.”

And Karl Sutton’s spinach, if you were hoping to get some, sold out the first day it was offered.
Get Lander-Talk! Lander-Talk@lists.nols.edu

Geoffrey O'Gara

Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC and serves on WyoFile's board of directors. His column, Weed Draw, is named for a remote...