Quality of Life 

The world according to Dick Manning

Thanksgiving day, Sleeman Gulch, just past mile-marker 31 on U.S. Highway 12. Snow covers the tops of the mountains, but not the valley. The couple makes their way toward neighbors for the feast. She carries chairs. He brings the roast. This is seven years ago, maybe eight, maybe more. If his walk was the same then as it is now, it was economical, led by the shoulders, as though plowing against a high wind. Across the mountain, the neighbor has cut back some trees. The view is open. Through the clearing, the man with the roast sees a herd of elk. He has an unfilled cow tag at home, and it is the last weekend of hunting season. He does not hesitate to change his plans, doesn’t hesitate to decide to sidestep the holiday in favor of work, probably not even to lean into the roast and inhale deeply. He says, quickly, “‘I gotta go, I gotta go, I gotta go,’” remembers his wife. She laughs in the retelling. He returns to the house, puts on his hunting vest, grabs his gun, his backpack. She makes her way to the neighbors alone, where the last of the garden bounties are spread, where the turkey is cooking. She recollects, in deadpan, her explanation for arriving at Thanksgiving dinner without her husband: “I say, ‘Dick has gone hunting.’”

Richard Manning—hunter, writer, woodworker, music maker—works. Since 1989, Manning, 53, has worked at a freelance career. His latest book, Against the Grain, was released in February 2004. He’s written seven. In the books, he pursues and he proselytizes living lightly. He charges the rest of the world to live with a sense of awareness, to protect wild places, to forgo Jell-O in favor of home-grown tomatoes. He is passionately idealistic. His standards, at times, are unrealistic. He takes the moral high ground—though he can’t himself always hold it. If he was a purist, he says, he wouldn’t drink coffee. Alas, he’s an addict.

Manning and his wife just moved into town, after living for a decade in a house they built with their own hands near Lolo. He wrote about building the home in A Good House, the quest to make a home that would leave as small a footprint as possible on the land. But the commute eventually became oppressive, as did the distance from community, and now Missoula is home. From a house beneath Mount Jumbo, Manning will continue to pursue quality. He’ll be the voice of living well and living with a sense of self-awareness even as his friends gasp at the house he bought and shake their heads at the money he spends on guitars. After 15 years of pushing and prodding and exposing society’s hypocrisies, he gives no sign that he is letting up. In his endless pursuit of quality, a value with which he believes society has lost touch, Manning’s capacity for both physical and mental labor seems infinite.

He’s fast—“30-inch story in 30 minutes,” says friend and former coworker Michael Moore, in newspaperese. He’s smart—he carries around this astonishingly big brain in his head, says his wife, Tracy Stone-Manning, and Stanford University, which granted him the John S. Knight Fellowship in 1994–1995, agrees. He insists on quality, whether it’s garlic (homegrown), furniture (homemade), guitars (Brazilian Rosewood, he says, the holy grail of guitars), or a chisel, and budget be damned. He’s lousy at personal relationships (friends say; he agrees), but the nieces, nephews, grandkids melt him. He derives pleasure from making intellectual mischief, for turning traditional assumptions topsy-turvy. In “The Oil We Eat,” a feature in last month’s Harper’s magazine, he traces the energy costs of agriculture all the way back to the oil wells in Iraq; even self-righteous vegetarians participate in the food/oil equation. He loves the wild—he hunts, rides rivers, backpacks the Bob—but his favorite wilderness is “the chaos” of Manhattan. India does wild well, too. He saw a man there once, naked, painted blue, pulling a cart, end of story. Integrity drives him. At one time, that trait cost him a career. He has an insatiable hunger for information, for answers. Whether it’s a broken guitar or world poverty or brake pads, he works at the fixes. Before he wrote books, Manning was a newspaper man, including four years at the Missoulian. Before his newspaper career, he worked anything. At 13, he drove a tractor on a dairy farm. At 14, he cut meat. He’s shoveled clay; delivered beer kegs—150 pounds, two flights; served as a deckhand on Great Lake freighters; been a mechanic for Chevrolet and Volkswagen; and owned a gas station—his first business venture. That was all up until 1975. (For the record, he is not convinced he makes an interesting subject.)

Then in the ’70s in Alpena, Mich., he says he conned the local radio station into giving him a job.

He started beating the local paper to stories.

Consistently, he says.

“So they hired me.”

His newspaper career swung from reporter to editor and back again. He turned briefly to editing, he says, to assuage his painful shyness, but somewhere along the way, at least on a professional level, the timidity must have burned off. A friend and former co-worker, Patricia Sullivan, recalls reporter Manning’s fights with editors during his Missoulian days. “In the newsroom,” she says, “he wouldn’t hesitate to tell the editors if he thought they were not playing to the highest journalistic rules.” Sometimes he was right, she says, and sometimes he wasn’t. Moore, who sat near Manning, says he learned a lot listening to Manning “pummel” and “cajole” over the phone. Then, after four years and a months-long investigative piece on the timber industry, editors asked him to turn away from the environmental beat. His first book, Last Stand, describes his last days as a daily reporter and the corporate interests weaving through both the timber industry and the newspaper. In response to the paper’s offer to cover a different beat, as told in Last Stand, Manning counter-offered with two weeks notice. That very day, he and the paper parted ways. “[Manning] owns himself,” says Fred Reed, his friend, former neighbor, and former UM sociology professor. “There’s something different about folks who have had that opportunity to confront somebody who was willing to pay their price and made the decision that, ‘No, I ain’t for sale.’” Says Sullivan, “The staff had greater ambitions for the paper than the paper itself had, the publisher and the owners had.”

Thus the freelance career was launched. Last Stand was published in 1991. A Good House was published in 1993. Grassland, which chronicles native prairie and human interference, came in 1995. The theme of human impact on wild and natural places reappears in One Round River, about the Blackfoot River, which The New York Times named a notable book of 1998. In his most recent two books—Food’s Frontier and Against the Grain—Manning discusses agriculture. Corporate greed—and how it infiltrates and impacts society from the breakfast table to the newsroom—wends its way through much of his work.

“If you survive as a writer, then things get better 10 years down the road, five years down the road,” says Manning. “I didn’t make that up. I just had other people tell me that.” In fact, one outdoor writer told him, “Five years from now, you’ll be able to buy a better bottle of wine.” At one point, Manning hardly had the nickels to buy boxed wine. Sullivan remembers when the couple was building the house in Lolo. “They were so broke that we friends were bringing over big casseroles,” she says. Friends worried, she says. “They were both losing weight rapidly.”

Of the better wine, says Manning, “I figured that that would happen, and even if it wouldn’t, I was going to act as if it would. I might as well.”

It did.

Light pours into his new house from many windows. He sits behind a desk that he himself built. The top is white oak—“real durable”; legs and base are fir he hand-peeled and wood leftover from the house he and his wife built. His desk is busy with tools. Traditional tools—like the chisel whose image opens each chapter of A Good House—Manning calls fetishes of the working class. On his desk lie his writing tools: tins of book darts; a handful of narrow reporter notebooks; a cell phone; a PowerBook—been an Apple guy since 1978, when he bought a IIE; a lamp, from which hangs a garter (Stone-Manning says she wore it on her wedding day and Manning hiked the Bob with it hanging from his pack); books. On the wall, a blueprint for a 1926 guitar and watercolors of his wife and her red hair and an Indian silk with Krishna.

Manning is calm. Eyes blue, two shades darker than glacier. He is supposed to be gruff and arrogant and aloof. He sports the short beard of gruff, but that is all. He holds reading glasses in his hands, sometimes, and sometimes he pulls on the temple ends.

He says he is present in his books, including his latest, Against the Grain, already his most successful book so far. In New York and Los Angeles they’re buying it up. He negotiates payments in advance, so sales are financially incidental. He calls himself a provocateur, and this side of Manning is evident in the book. He challenges traditional ideas of agriculture. He shows how agriculture is used as a tool of oppression. He exposes a myth—that producing mass quantities of food is the answer to famine. Even China, he writes, “that long-standing agricultural society, has never been without famine.” The book, subtitled “How agriculture has hijacked civilization,” turns the textbook history of farming on its head. “The assumption,” reads the book, “is that nomads and hunter-gatherers…knew a good thing when they saw it and so simply adopted the farming technology.” Then, the thump on the head: “In other words, a bunch of guys who spent their time running around the woods, hunting and fishing and trading meat for sex, one day saw someone hoeing weeds and said to themselves, ‘What a fine idea! Let’s do that instead.’” The humor is on the surface, but there’s also reprimand—we bought in so quickly—and an unstated imperative: Be more accountable. Manning brings us nose to nose with the idea that people are no longer in touch with food. People eat what corporations and the government need them to eat, in whatever form the corporation can create. All consumers are culprits. One scene in the book describes Manning sitting in a chain restaurant digesting the aftermath of an interview with a bigwig named Andreas at Archer Daniels Midland, an interview Manning describes as a failure. The failure made Manning angry. He wanted real answers.

“The thing is,” he writes, “I want it all. I want to unroll that social landscape from the Rockies to the Ohio River Valley, the dream of hard work and honesty it was, and the oligarchy it is now. I want to replay every blank fat face staring at every blank plate in this place and say, ‘Mr. Andreas, how did we get like this?’”

There’s “a certain amount of anger in that book,” says his editor, Rebecca Saletan. Rather than dilute the anger, she helped him support it, she says. In fact, she’s attracted to the bomb-throwing side of Manning. “I was not put off by the passion in the book,” she says. “I think that is one of its strengths.”

Stone-Manning uses a metaphor to describe Manning. “It’s like pulling a thread on a sweater. Some people just leave the thread,” she says. “And Dick just pulls it until he comes to the very end of the thread.” In building his agriculture argument, Manning discusses processed foods, and the many manifestations of corn. Why Jell-O, he asks in the book: “Jell-O is a tasteless blob of reconstituted cow’s hooves artificially colored, sweetened and flavored, served in its most revered form with lumps of corn syrup called marshmallows.” He pulls. At the end of the thread, he finds that the setting of Jell-O required a refrigerator, an indication of financial success for the Midwestern farmer. Bringing a Jell-O dish to a gathering was a declaration of solvency, status. It’s also another corporate invention—it’s not food. We slurp it down and in so doing, support the system.

Manning is as passionate, dedicated and disciplined about his hobbies—music, wood-working—as he is about work. “[Manning],” says Moore, “does not have an abundance of musical talent.” He’s allowed to say this kind of thing—In A Good House, Manning writes, “Michael and I are often mistaken for brothers, even by each other.” But he sticks to it, says Moore, and “through sheer force of will,” he plays. Once, says Manning, the guitar was a discipline. He learned to play as an adult. “Now, it’s become a practice.” In the sense that some practice Buddhism, he says, or that runners run. “It’s just something I do everyday. And I do play every day. It wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.” Just over a year ago, Manning took up a second instrument, the banjo. Though Moore says Manning is “klutzy” with the guitar, he acknowledges that Manning’s banjo sounds pretty good.

Greg Boyd sells vintage and other acoustic instruments out of his house on Knowles and over the Internet, and every other day, he says, he sees Manning in the shop. Of the exceptionally well-made guitars, says Boyd, “[Manning] can’t live without them, he has to at least temporarily own them.” Ask his wife, says Moore, how many new guitars Manning has come home with. She’ll say, “Di-ick,” says Moore. Stone-Manning says her husband will bring a new guitar home. He’ll place it on the couch. Admire it. Play it. “He’s clearly deeply taken. To the point where he’ll spend money we don’t have to spend,” she says. “Can I get mad at that? For about a nanosecond.”

Twice now, he and Stone-Manning have traveled to the Winter Grass festival in Tacoma, Wash., to help out Boyd and crew. Boyd loves to watch Manning at work, matching guitars and their various histories and stories with the people he knows will most appreciate them. Manning loves the festival, too. “It’s the only place I’ve ever been where everybody’s guard is let down. You’ve got several thousand people there and there’s none of this usual social distance stuff going on. People are real open.” He loves the visual irony. “They take over the Sheraton hotel,” he says of the festival folk. “Here’s this marble-tiled hotel that looks like it ought to be chock full of businessmen, and I’m sure it is every day, but now it’s full of bluegrass people from one end to the other.” He pauses. “It’s kind of like what Sheratons ought to look like.” This year, Manning sold a guitar to Bryan Sutton, who was honored in 2000 as the “Guitar Player of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Manning himself owns two Brazilian Rosewood guitars, with a little help from Greg Boyd. In the 1830s when Martin first started building guitars, they made them out of Brazilian Rosewood, he explains. “In 1969, they ran out of rosewood, essentially. Because we used it for things like furniture, and paneling in houses.” The Brazilian government banned its export—it was endangered. The wood became rare. One of Manning’s treasures is a 1926 Martin 00-21. “It was a basketcase and I spent about 3 years putting it all back together.”

The guitar, he says, is now completely back to life. Boyd sold him his second Rosewood guitar with a story.

“Greg is great at this. He knows what you’re a sucker for,” says Manning. “That’s his job. He’s like a fisherman, throws that fly out there.”

The story Manning heard is this. The rosewood trees were cut high, and after the Brazilian export ban, the 4-foot stumps were left. One man figured out that the stumpwood was every bit as good for guitars as the trunk itself. He got a contract to pull the stumps. “If you’ve written about the scarcity of wood and logging and all that stuff,” says Manning, “that’s my story right there.” The stumps showed a distinctive grain. He ordered the second rosewood guitar because in the red waves he saw his wife’s hair.

Stone-Manning says that her husband’s story is incomplete without mention of Josh, his son, who will be 30 this year. Friends say that at one point, the father-son relationship was tenuous, that Manning was hard on the boy. Manning says little. “I think as he grew up he needed some advice from me. And he sought that out and listened,” says Manning. “I guess I was ready to talk.” He says he’s appalled that his son wants to be a writer—“I tell him that.” But, he says, his son will have material. Josh is in Iraq. Manning received an email from him saying a man in his unit was killed. On the same day that he read the email, Manning saw the video from Falluja: four people killed and brutally dismembered after they burned. Today is not the day to ask about the relationship that may once have been fragile.

In the introduction to One Round River, Manning briefly relates one of his own familial war stories, including the time the father released his hold on the raft and the current took the raft and 8-year-old son in tow. Manning was sure he had killed his son. But it isn’t the day to ask about the raft escaping him.

For Manning, personal relationships don’t come as easily as writing. He is more comfortable with ideas, he says. In a gathering, he’s the observer in the corner. “Dick’s strength is not human companionship,” says Moore. Moore says he learned how to be a better reporter from Manning, but some things he didn’t learn. Like when a source needs a hand held. “He’s rougher than that,” says Moore. But Moore says Manning “goes goo-goo” with the grandkids.

Manning says he knows he’s disagreeable.

And the goo-goo bit?

Manning looks away, fist to mouth. He averts his eyes because the truth is in them, not in his words. “I despise the little fuckers,” he says.

In the end, Manning is an idealist. In the work he produces, the standards for living lightly are high at minimum. So the work creates detractors, too. “There’s a lot of writers in this town that think [Manning] is arrogant and self-righteous and pig-headed,” says Moore.

He means bull-headed, says Manning, not pig-headed.

And, says Manning, he’d be disappointed if he didn’t have detractors.

Like others in his field, he says, alcohol and depression are part of the story. Depression waxes and wanes. Manning prefers the archaic term, “melancholia.” He’s learned to manage it, learned the cycle, knows that the lows are temporary. He rejects meds now in deference to authenticity. “It’s part of who I am, it’s part of the human condition.”

The future will bring more books—bombs to be hurled into the mainstream. Manning believes the country is close to civil war, that the religious right has started a train it does not have the will or wherewithal to control. One of Manning’s next projects will be a discussion of the evolution of Appalachian music. No one, he says, created Appalachian music. It evolved. He’ll use the parallel to wheedle creationists. He’ll even use some of their own music, he says.

Teaching, too, may be in his sights. “He’s really good at it,” says Stone-Manning, who has sat in on his lectures. “He’s good at it because he expects the students in the room to come along with him. He challenges them and expects them to take the challenge.” Reed occasionally asked Manning to lecture and lead class when he was teaching sociology at the UM.

“He will tell you everything he knows, whether it supports his case or not,” says Reed. Then, “Students don’t get a sense that they’re being hustled.”

For his part, Manning feels like he almost has a responsibility to teach at this point, to share what he has learned. He recalls one student at Stanford University who changed her course of study after reading Manning’s Food’s Frontier—that, he says, was worth 20 years of work.

It is when Manning discusses his toughest interviews that he finally gives a more personal glimpse. For Food’s Frontier, he traveled to 13 countries in 12 months looking at each country’s agricultural systems. In the developing world, Africa, or India, Manning would ask to be taken to the farmers. He’d be taken to the villages. Inevitably, he would encounter hospitality amidst destitution.

In the book, he describes a moment in India after visiting a farm, remembering the farmers’ and children’s “nobody-is-home stares that look out from the world’s most dehumanized level of poverty.”

From behind his desk, Manning explains. “What is so damned difficult about that in the end is not that moment in the interview. I have never met anything but a decent human in those situations. Wonderful people, that you just can’t believe the human spirit survives the way it does.”

Manning’s frustration lies in his responsibility to tell the story well to the developed world, having seen the bodies in the street and the children die.

“You come away deeply moved by something like that,” says Manning. Manning may have been raised with a work ethic, work may be tightly woven into his DNA. But this, finally, is a better explanation for why he works. Of course he hurls bombs. Of course the humor runs black.

Of all the books, it is One Round River that locals mention when they talk about Manning. The language, says his friend Reed, is lyrical, it’s poetry, it’s King Jamesian. “There’s an Old Testament prophet inside of Dick Manning,” he says. And carefully, he adds, “I don’t think he would like that characterization.” Nonetheless, says Reed, read the last half of One Round River. “You can hear the Old Testament prophet shouting from the background.”


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