Editor’s note: WyoFile is pleased to present the second installment of our special project: “The Pete Simpson Forum.” Pete Simpson, a lifelong Wyoming resident who has been active in civic matters, has teamed up with WyoFile to initiate a conversation about what it means to live, work and play in Wyoming and how people from a wide spectrum can engage in respectful discussions about how our state can best deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. The forum will be to invite people with different backgrounds to write about a particular topic. WyoFile will publish a pair of columns each month. Pete Simpson will not provide an introduction for this month’s columns, but WyoFile will ask for his response to these pieces at a later date.
Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s Political IdentityBy Julia Stuble September 10, 2013
I cannot write about Wyoming’s political identity without feeling slightly uneasy. Though we often understand identity as a static definition about our very essence, I believe identities are fluid and constantly adapting to changing circumstances. I base this discussion of Wyoming’s political identity on the premise that identity is something we create—and find the building blocks for constructing a shared political identity in the stories we tell about being from Wyoming.
An effort to capture a sense of Wyoming’s political identity assumes there is something shared among the wonderfully committed and diverse citizens of our state. I write with full awareness of the danger in generalizing and romanticizing what might be shared among our citizens.
But even while feeling uneasy, I feel there must be something shared that can be carefully delineated: if we do not have some things in common, why is there such a feeling of delight and comfort when we come across another Wyoming license plate in a far away state? We wave vigorously and start up a conversation, feeling that in comparison to the place we find ourselves, we have more in common than not.
Paraphrasing Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner once wrote, “You don’t know who you are until you know where you are.” I would suggest a slightly different sentiment: you don’t know who you are until you know where you are from. This difference is important because knowing where we are from is not a factual exercise, but one based on stories. Can you choose where you come from? Is your place of belonging where you were born, or where you have spent the most formative years of your life? Is it the place you are right now or the place you imagine yourself being—the place from which you base your own understanding of yourself?
I was born in Rock Springs, graduated high school in Green River, feel most at home at a small cabin 40 miles north of Pinedale, and happily live in Lander. Trying to quantify or factually decide which of these places I’m from is a futile exercise. I understand myself based on my experiences in all of these places, but most significantly, the home place outside of Pinedale. That’s the place where I derive my stories about who I am and why I am that way.
For those of us who commit to Wyoming and choose to stay, some version of this is probably shared. Many of us have connections to all sorts of places that can help define our belonging: either a birthplace or the first place we put down roots in the state, a current or past home, a favorite hunting camp, Fourth of July camping and boating spot, the place we go to get away, the place we dream about. It is our attachment to these places that can point to something shared in our individual identities and, thus, in any sense of shared Wyoming identity.
Our geography helps to bind us. Many of our shared experiences derive from similar attachments to diverse places: a favorite hunting camp is not essentially different from a favorite backpacking campsite. We express our individuality and perhaps our differences through the activities we do in those places, but find our commonalities by what we seek from them: solitude, perhaps, or time with family; watching wildlife; staring up at the stars or into a campfire; getting away from the stresses of urban and professional lives; waking up to the sound of a stick cracking in the dark; feeling utterly confident that campfire coffee beats all other brews, hands down.
We have other shared experiences based on our geography. We have all driven huge distances, often alone, through open spaces and blizzards—crossing our state for work or family. We have found ourselves on a rutted dirt road with a flat tire, and maybe even embraced it as only adding to the adventure. At some point, we share a love and hate relationship with the length of seasons, the alternately harsh and lovely weather, the wind both scathing and embracing.
We have all scuffed our metaphorical boots while talking to neighbors—eyeing both the storm clouds and the firewood supply—and found that despite our different bumper stickers, the conversation was congenial. Neighbors need not deal with presidential politics when weed spraying needs to be discussed. Our shared quality of life and economics are directly tied to the geography created by the significant federal government presence in the state, the concentrations of extractable natural resources, the spaces of aridity and islands of moisture, the places where we can “get away”: traits that characterize the West in general, according to geographers William Wyckoff and Larry Dilsaver.
It is this geography and our history with it that dictates our curious and dynamic relationship between distance and intimacy. The cliché that Wyoming is a small town with long streets captures the possibility that we can interact as neighbors—civilly, cooperatively—even if it means driving for five or more hours to meet. This shared geography has shaped us, not as the mythic rugged individuals we so celebrate and romanticize, but as a community at once intimate and distant—a community that can collaborate because we recognize some common experiences that shape our identities regardless of our different positions.
Every day is a choice to stick in Wyoming (we all know there are easier places to live!). That stickiness means we have all chosen to belong in Wyoming; it should start conversations. I hope our commitment to a place we use differently, but understand through similar and essential ways, should sustain those conversations between neighbors. As neighbors, we can work cooperatively to better the place where we have all chosen to stick. It will be through these efforts that we allow for the creation of a vibrant and beautifully complicated Wyoming political identity.— Julia Stuble works on public land campaigns for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. She holds an undergraduate and graduate degree from the University of Wyoming and a graduate degree from Prescott College. She recently researched and wrote about Pinedale, community identity, and diverse responses to natural gas development. This column appears as part of WyoFile’s Pete Simpson Forum, a project to stimulate civil dialogue on issues that matter to Wyoming. Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters.
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