If At First You Don’t Secede….

I sincerely believe that the break-up of the American West into smaller states is desirable and inevitable. I realize that probably seems outlandish, but then, unless you live here, you are an outlander and can’t be expected to understand.

Although it is acceptable, even fashionable these days, to talk about the break-up of the Soviet Union in terms of the dissolution of the old Russian Empire, to speak about same process occurring here in the United States is seen as eccentric if not—alas!—treasonable.

It’s too bad that we don’t have the language for this kind of discussion, because the problems are real enough and the approach is straightforward and reasonable. But the vocabulary just isn’t there and so the notion seems silly because of the language it’s couched in. You run the risk of either falling into crackpot secessionism or hopelessly abstract pedantry. It is terribly difficult to speak of redressing the very real problems of a particular area through geopolitical realignment without seeming, well, provincial in your outlook.

With the growth of communications technology and the increasing interweaving of large scale economic, political and environmental concerns we’ve heard a great deal about a developing global community. Yet, for all its intellectual appeal, the Global Village can not be lived in like a real town.

People care about what they can see with their own eyes and understand in their hearts. The world we walk through and work in is our real world. Beyond that daily experienced world we can have no effective allegiance, we can do no useful work, because we can only harm whatever we touch but don’t understand.

My ancestors had a word, heimat, which expressed it as well as it could be expressed. It’s usually translated as “homeland”, the nearest English equivalent, but it means much more than just a location.

It includes not only the place but the land itself, the people who live there and their ways of doing things. It includes the great cycles of the seasons, the weather, the animals wild and domestic, the towns and the houses in those towns and the people who live in them and their kinships and traditions, all the long list of relationships we find in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 which begins, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” It is a concept which is all encompassing in terms of time and ecology and culture but limited to a particular place.

Due to a series of calamities beginning in November 1793 my family has spent 200 years in a generations long search for heimat. Through all these migrations it has been the changing times which forced us to move more than the place. Good land is surely enough for anybody but the shifting of politics with the resultant wars and famines and economic troubles made the good places dangerous. In each case the changes did not come from within the place and in response to the local needs but from elsewhere—Paris, Vienna, Moscow, and Washington DC—and to serve outside needs.

The history of my own family then, is the history of the destruction of our heimaten by political, economic and cultural forces which see our homes in terms of their own needs and not in terms of our needs.

Of course, we’re speaking here about imperialism. But that’s a worn out, nearly meaningless, word, the sort of cliche that’s sure to keep whatever you have to say from being taken seriously. It is better to simply call it what it is: the destructive exploitation of groups of people and the places where they live by more powerful outside groups.

My heimat is the Umpqua Valleys, part of the State of Jefferson, that mythical (since you won’t find it on any map) but very real (since I and my neighbors actually live here) mountainous region consisting of the Klamath, Rogue and Umpqua basins and their associated coastal streams.

Politically, you can define it as the twelve counties of Douglas, Coos, Curry, Josephine, Jackson and Klamath in southwestern Oregon and Modoc, Siskiyou, Del Norte, Shasta, Trinity and Humboldt in northwestern California.

It’s an area roughly the size of Wales or Brittany with a population of some 700,000 people and it is arguably the wealthiest region of the west coast in terms of natural resources such as timber, fish, gold and other minerals. It is also arguably the most poverty stricken, the Appalachia of the west coast.

People here understand clearly that the region, which is culturally and physically a whole, suffers from having been divided by an arbitrary line, Latitude 42 degrees North, back in 1850.

In the headlong rush of Manifest Destiny the terra incognita of the west was carved up into huge blocks based on sextant readings rather than landscape. The eastern United States had a 160 year period of settlement, plenty of time to appreciate the differences between natural regions.

Take a look at a map of the United States and you’ll find the right hand side crowded with little places with jagged boundaries. We have counties here that are larger than most of the New England states. By contrast, the American West, that “trackless waste” on the left, is an exercise in Euclidean geometry, reflecting the ignorance of policy makers far removed from the land who treated it as if it were as undifferentiated as the ocean, to which they, in fact, often compared it.

But real differences based on the physical lay of the land exist and have always existed and will continue to exist despite legislative ignorance. They are immediately apparent to anyone with eyes to see.

As early as 1852, the people of my region understood the consequences of this false line and petitioned the government in Sacramento for the creation of the State of Shasta. It died in committee, of course, so they tried again in 1853, asking for the State of Klamath. In 1854, they gathered in Jacksonville, Oregon Territory to try to form the State of Jackson. The advent of the Civil War brought on new efforts, this time to secede not only from Oregon and California but from the Union as well.

If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. In the 1890’s a movement toward a State of Jefferson began. By 1941 the movement had gained enough support that the region formally seceded from the States of California and Oregon.

On Thursday, December 4, 1941, Judge John Childs of Crescent City was elected governor of Jefferson at a meeting held in Yreka. The new state adopted a great seal depicting a symbolic double cross on a gold pan. Roadblocks were set up and pamphlets were handed out to motorists welcoming them to “the Forty-ninth State”. Three days later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On Monday, December 8th, Judge Childs declared war on Oregon, California and Japan and then dissolved the new government.

In the mid 1980’s a coalition of Greens, no-nukers, anarcho-syndicalists, organic farmers, New Age neo-pagans, eco-feminists and sociology professors began to put forth a theory called bioregionalism. The notion  (which despite the unwieldy name was quite simple) was to bring a host of single issue groups together by focusing on the effects of all their many concerns on a particular place.

Under the socio-political rubrics of “deep ecology”, “sustainability”, “reinhabitation”, “holistic approaches”, and “decentralization” the coalition reinvented the wheel and, dubbing our home valleys The Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion, called for the establishment of a leftist utopia. The movement never caught on outside of the counterculture though, perhaps because of their failure to include the region’s conservative majority in their definition of “us”.

It’s too bad that the bioregionalists aren’t much of a force around here anymore. In many ways, despite their hopelessly abstract rhetoric, the underlying principles they hold are really worth considering.

It takes a good long while for an essentially European culture to adapt to the American West. Particular places have particular needs and we ignore local conditions only at great risk to our ability to survive. We need more than just a healthy national (or worse yet, global) economy and culture. We need thriving local ones as well.

The State of Jefferson is an idea which refuses to die. The region is still secessionist in outlook. The name lives on in businesses such as the Jefferson Bank, and National Public Radio affiliate network Jefferson Public Radio of Ashland, Oregon. From time to time editorials supporting or opposing the notion appear in local papers.

The idea lives on because, like the Kurds, we are a people without sovereignty and we suffer, culturally, politically and economically, from the lack of control over our own destiny.

The legislative decisions which affect our lives are never made here. They are made in Salem and Sacramento and Washington DC, where we are not heard because our voice is drowned out by the more numerous and more powerful urban flatlanders to the north and south and the east.

As a region, we have no balance of trade deficit with foreign nations because we are overwhelmingly net exporters of raw materials. We generate millions of dollars more in taxes and other government revenues than we receive. Our land base is almost entirely controlled by federal and state governments and multinational corporations. It is not much of an exaggeration to compare the region to a third world country.

The economic life of our communities is dominated by corporations whose headquarters are elsewhere. The capital generated by outside interests operating here flows out of the region at a much greater rate than their local investments and helps fuel the stock exchanges and real estate markets of Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Yet our per capita income and employment levels are significantly lower than state and national averages and our emergency food use and infant mortality rates are higher.

We live under two different sets of state laws though we are one people. A few months before the onset of the Reagan error “trickle down” recession of the early 1980’s, the Oregon legislature passed a welfare reform act denying benefits to two-parent families. This experiment in conservative social engineering forced some 300 southern Oregon families to cross the border into northern California where, though the unemployment rates were just as high, they were eligible for assistance.

Thomas Jefferson clearly understood that E pluribus unum was not just an end but an equation, for the one is really many. Here in the State of Jefferson, where, despite the pressures, the rural-centered ideal of Jeffersonian Democracy is not an antique notion but our way of life, that way is in danger of dying out, suffocating under the press of outside concerns which ignore our own needs.

Is political and cultural diversity a threat to the Union? Only when it is frustrated and ignored. I prefer to think of it as a source of strength. Of course, Oregon and California would be poorer without us, but we would be richer without them. The United States would be richer too if our voice was given equal weight to theirs.

History: Left Bank #5, Borders and Boundaries, Hillsboro OR, 1993; Jefferson Monthly, Ashland OR, 1997.


One thought on “If At First You Don’t Secede….

  1. I agree that this area is kind of a surreal vortex of beauty and brokenness. It’s too bad more of the congress,mayors,governors,etc.,have not grown up like many of us have-in these beautiful wilds that we call home. Maybe they would be more interested in saving it,cherishing it,than destroying it….?

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