Why Names in Nature Matter to Us All

March 07, 2024

This column and photo were published in more than 30 newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Charlotte Observer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Sacramento Bee, and many more.

By Matt Witt

While hiking in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Siskiyou County near California’s northern border, I came across several colorful birds that were zipping around at high speed to gobble up flying insects.

I stopped for a while to enjoy these pink and green creatures and see if I could photograph them as they darted out of oak trees to surprise their prey.

But when I returned home to identify these birds, I got an unwelcome surprise of my own.

I learned that they are called “Lewis’s woodpeckers,” paying homage to Meriwether Lewis, a slave owner who was best known for co-leading the Lewis and Clark expedition in the 1800s.

The expedition he led played a key role in opening for expropriation the lands of this continent’s Indigenous people, or “savages,” as Lewis referred to them.

The U.S. president “has become your only father,” he told the tribal leaders who the expedition encountered.

Wondering why a bird species would be named after such a person, I learned that Lewis claimed to have “discovered” these birds even though they were known to Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years and were here on earth long before that.

I wasn’t thrilled by this name. And, apparently, I wasn’t alone in my dismay.

In November, the American Ornithological Society announced that it will be changing the names of Lewis’s woodpeckers and all other birds currently named after people.

That includes 152 species in the U.S. and Canada.

The change comes in response to a coalition called Bird Names for Birds that includes the American Birding Association and many local birding groups.

“It is a questionable premise that species should be named after specific humans at all, as if bird species were possessions or trophies,” said the AOS committee that recommended the new policy.

The AOS said it will involve the public to generate creative new names that reflect a bird species’ looks, calls or habits.

The committee noted that a large number of bird names that honor individual people were coined in the 1800s to pay tribute to “soldier scientists” traveling with the U.S. Army during the appropriation of Indigenous and Mexican lands.

By contrast, Indigenous communities already living in the West named birds, animals, peaks, rivers or other natural features in order to communicate something about their characteristics — not after individual tribal leaders or members.

Perhaps other agencies and organizations responsible for official names of natural features will now adopt that approach and follow the AOS’ lead.

The colorful woodpeckers I saw that day not only can snatch flying insects out of the air, but in the fall they also break acorns into pieces that they store in holes or cracks in trees for retrieval in winter when food is scarce.

I look forward to seeing them again on a future hike when they will have a new name — perhaps one that reflects their extraordinary survival skills.


Unusual Coalition Unites for Clean Energy

March 07, 2024

Sitting Room OnlySitting Room OnlyPublic Hearing on Fracked Gas Pipeline

(This column syndicated by Writers on the Range was published in 28 newspapers in the West in April, 2022.)

By Matt Witt

Communities in the West can stand up to giant outside corporations if they want to win a renewable energy future, but it isn’t easy. They can do it only if they manage to agree about what they have in common.

That’s the lesson of a historic victory won by a rural Oregon coalition of ranchers and farmers, climate activists, Indigenous tribal leaders, and anglers and coastal residents.

The victory occurred in December, when a Canadian energy company called Pembina announced that it would halt plans to build a 230-mile pipeline crossing more than 400 waterways across rural southwestern Oregon. The pipeline was to carry fracked gas from the Rockies to a huge, proposed Coos Bay terminal on the West Coast, then on to Asia.

When the export project was first proposed years ago, the odds of stopping it appeared slim. Supporters included the state’s governor and its two U.S. senators – all Democrats – plus most of the Republican political establishment.

But community organizers didn’t give up.

“We were already seeing the disastrous effects of climate change throughout the West,” recalls Allie Rosenbluth, campaigns director of Rogue Climate, a grassroots group in southern Oregon. “The last thing we needed was another giant fossil-fuel project and another major fire hazard just to profit an outside corporation.”

As a group committed to organizing across political lines, Rogue Climate did systematic outreach to hundreds of landowners whose property would be affected, while also working with local environmental groups like Rogue Riverkeeper.

Many landowners were conservative ranchers and farmers, and they were angry about threats from the company: If they didn’t let the pipeline cross their land in return for a one-time payment, they were told the power of eminent domain would be invoked to impose it on them anyway. Congress granted this power to gas pipelines in 1947.

Over a seven-year period, the unlikely coalition that grew in strength turned out thousands of residents to public hearings and spurred more than 50,000 people to submit written comments to regulatory agencies. A delegation representing all parts of the coalition even held a sit-in in the governor’s office.

Seven rural landowners from across the political spectrum also published a column in the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian. It was blunt: “We are sick and tired of the pie-in-the-sky speculation by these for-profit corporations. We can’t build, we can’t plan, and we can’t sell if we choose because of the threat of eminent domain.” 

Don Gentry, chair of the Klamath Tribes, said that the pipeline would “unearth long-buried ancestors and pulverize sites of cultural importance,” also “strip “shade from streams and pollute them with sediment, harming fish central to the Klamath’s traditions and way of life.”

Bill McCaffree, a lifelong Republican and longtime president of the local electrical workers union in Coos Bay, publicly disagreed with construction union leaders who wanted the short-term work for their members. He also said that most workers would come from outside the area.

“Everyone who works in the building and construction trades wants to build things that benefit communities and don’t cause harm,” McCaffree said. “Since I was a kid, there have been jobs here in Coos County from fishing, clamming and oyster farming. What would happen to those jobs when the bay is disturbed by construction and operation of this export terminal?”

A better strategy for creating good, stable jobs, McCaffree said, would be investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy development. That is “creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy,” he said.

In the wake of this broad and organized resistance, state agencies finally announced that the project failed to qualify for necessary permits. That led Pembina to tell federal regulators it was dropping the project.

The coalition didn’t stop with its victory. Members of the coalition convinced the Oregon legislature last year to pass bills to transition Oregon to 100 percent clean energy by 2040, provide $50 million for community-based resilience and renewable energy projects outside of Portland, reduce energy rates, and appropriate $10 million for energy-efficient home repairs for low-income households. The Legislature also banned any new fracked gas power plants in Oregon.

“Most of us who live in small towns and rural areas all want the same things,” said Rogue Climate’s Executive Director Hannah Sohl. “Good jobs, a healthy climate, communities that work for everyone. Even when big corporations have other plans, we can accomplish a lot when we talk to each other and organize.”


Forgiveness

April 03, 2023

BobcatBobcatAbbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

This poem and bobcat photo were published April 3, 2023 by Piker Press.

Forgiveness

By Matt Witt

Forgiveness

of yourself or others

is the kind of cat

that shows up when it’s ready

and not when you call it.

 

If you feed it

and give it a

warm place to sleep

it will mostly stick around.

 

But now and then

it will disappear for a while,

and only come back

when and if it feels like it.


Building Strong Communities Should Be a Team Sport

September 15, 2022

My syndicated newspaper column talks about the human impact in my town and others as working people and farmers essentially have given heirs to the Walmart fortune and the chair of Starbucks a $4.6 billion "grant" to buy the Denver Broncos football team. What can we do about the fact that a few people have more wealth than they could ever use at the expense of so many people who are struggling without affordable housing, health care, education, child care or other basics?


They Say the War Is Over

July 15, 2022

"They Say the War Is Over" by Matt Witt is a nonfiction short story published in the literary and arts journal Cirque, Edition #24, Summer 2022. This "timely and dramatic personal account about race, class, and war" can be read free in PDF form at this link, or on pages 46-50 free in Cirque online.

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