Coming home again 

'Angry' book defends the Blackfoot

Manning's life comes full circle with One Round River

Dick Manning's world is looking a good deal brighter than it did a decade ago. Then, dejected and unemployed after losing his beat covering environmental politics for the Missoulian, Manning went on a drinking binge that eventually led to a redemptive car ride with his future wife, traveling "up the moonlit highway that threads along the Blackfoot."

Now, with three books to his credit, Manning finds himself returning to the Blackfoot River and to Missoula this week for a reading of his fourth book, One Round River, which couches the history of the Blackfoot and the controversial plan for a new gold mine near Lincoln within the broader account of gold mining in the West.

"Actually, I started thinking about this book before the Seven Up Pete Joint Venture got involved," Manning told the Independent in a telephone interview this week. "I had done some reporting on the New World Mine in Cooke City and became intrigued by gold mining in general. I went on assignment for Audubon to Elko, Nevada, and was blown away by the level of destruction there, plus those holes looked an awful lot like the one in Butte."

An editor suggested that Manning channel his reporting into the narrative of a specific river, and from the opening paragraphs of Manning's introduction, the Blackfoot is an obvious choice.

"A river cannot be described, or rebuilt from its elemental facts, just as it cannot be imagined alive into images. It must be lived, and that is our problem. Every time I consider the terrible threat that looms, I keep coming back to specific events in my own life, memories, the details that tell a life what it values. Seminal events that made me who I am are strung all up and down this river. The elemental fact is these events are mostly why I value this river, but it is not enough that I do. The threat is such that we must all learn to know rivers."

Manning soon leaves behind his personal stories -- the afternoons spent investigating logging practices along the banks of the river, a day his son almost drowned in a swift spring current, a late afternoon raft trip miscalculated, resulting in a cold night huddled against rocks. The meat of his book is the history of railroading, logging and mining in Montana, a record he extends to the present with tales of land abuse by both the native-born and outsiders.

Recent immigrants from California come off particularly badly in Manning's account, which casts a critical eye toward the damage done by ranchettes and hobby horsemen. Manning, however, denies that he has engaged in California-bashing.

"I try not to be xenophobic, but to talk about the pressures of population," he says. "We have a sense in Montana that we can close the doors, locking the gate behind us and that's simply not true. When you consider that California is the same size as Montana with 34 million people, you get a rough idea of how population pressures can build, and that's going to add up to pressure on Montana. It's not a question that's going to be locally decided. It's an issue we all have to face."

Thus far, Manning's gotten good reviews from The New York Times Book Review and The Nation, and says he is personally pleased with his work as well.

"The review in the Times was quite interesting to me because they said it is an angry book," he says. "The surest way to write a bad book is to write an angry book, and I set out to do exactly that, knowing that writing this book was going to make me madder than hell.

"When I left the Missoulian, if I had tried to write this then, I would have failed, and to some extent my other books have had that shortcoming as well. But I think this book deals with the issue with balance, on a more mature level."

One Round River, Manning says, went to press just before Phelps Dodge announced its withdrawal from the Joint Venture's gold project, and so contains much of Phelps' track record, and little on the remaining partner, the Colorado-based Canyon Resources. While Manning says he'd like to revise the book eventually, the principle lessons remain intact.

"Everybody thinks it's a good sign that Phelps Dodge, the huge player, left -- that Canyon Resources won't have the capital or resources to pull this together," he says. "I don't think that's true. While Canyon is a relatively small player, the biggest part of mining is getting a permit. They don't have to turn a shovel of dirt to do that. Once they get the permit, they can sell or get a partner. But the first gold will be mined in Helena, not Lincoln.

"And the gold is always going to be there, so it's an environmental battle that we'll have to redo every generation."

Manning, who has been living in Astoria, Oregon -- "about 1,800 miles downriver" -- returns to Missoula this week to read from One Round River at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 12 at Fact and Fiction.

Missoula author Dick Manning reads from his new book, One Round River, at 7 p.m. on Thursday evening at Fact and Fiction. Photo by Tracy Stone Manning.

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