JL: A place to start would be before the beginning: your family, going back as far as you can remember.
SU: That’s a good place to begin. I have said—I never quite defined it in my mind—that I thought I was fortunate because, in a sense, I was born on the frontier or at least on the last edge of the frontier in this little community. I think it has given me in my life a very wide range of experience. The community is St. Johns, Ariz., settled by my grandfather when he was a young man. My father was born there. I was born there. I was a child in that small community. I was a teenager. I rarely left, and this is really the best place to grow up, I believe, for a child, in the small community where everybody knows everybody else. The most important thing, though, in terms of my upbringing, other than my parents and the devotion that they gave to their children, was the fact that you learned to live that kind of frontier lifestyle. I was a Depression kid as a teenager. The Depression had such a small impact on half the people in the country—the people who were living on farms and ranches and small towns and middle-size towns, you know, 30-, 40-, 50,000 people, particularly if you were living in the country and your family was producing a lot of its food. What’s more basic than that? You’re almost back to the Old Testament in some ways.
In fact, my environment socially was a Mormon community, where the people had lived in that community 40 years. People were accustomed to working together, as you have to do in a small community, of putting the community first. That’s a theme, Jack, in my last book, as you know—The Forgotten Pioneers. I went back into my life to sort of form the framework of that.
JL: Could you talk a bit about how your grandfather, your grandparents, any recollections you might have, getting to St. Johns in the first place?
SU: My grandparents were all Mormon pioneers, and they were sent south by Brigham Young. It was pretty tough country in southern Utah in the 1850s, 1860s and later. Juanita Brooks, who wrote that wonderful book about the Mountain Meadow Massacre and about my great-grandfather, John B. Lee, she said it was kind of a Siberia. I think I know what she meant because once the Mormons got started in Salt Lake City, they had a theater, they were strong on music, they had all kinds of cultural things that began to develop and were encouraged. Brigham Young and the Mormons had a devotion to culture, to music and other things.
These people that were sent south, you’re going out on the edge of the frontier and you’ve got to start settlement. You’ve got to learn how to build a house from scratch. And they’re living and working with horses. That’s where my life overlapped with those people because as a young kid my father had about a 60-80 acre farm. We raised alfalfa. That was the one money crop. We could sell hay to dairies in Winslow, Gallup and other places. So I grew up working with horses and riding horses. I was even a little cowboy when I was 11, 12 years old, back in the Depression days. My dad had a part interest in a ranch, and I’d go out there for a month or six weeks and live with cowboys. So I had these kinds of basic experiences, which are inevitably transmitted into values.
JL: When you were a boy and you were working on the farm, could you give a sense of what your daily chores might be? I know that chores are a big thing for people who live on ranches and farms.
SU: Well, chores, even in a community like St. Johns, you know, everybody had something to do. That made your ties with your family very important. I, as the oldest boy—you were the one that milked the cow. You raised pigs. You had to feed the pigs. You had to take care of the animals, and you were the gardener. You had the experience of planting a garden and picking the tomatoes and corn and everything.
And that was, I think, a wonderful experience. I’m thinking of an essay, Jack, and one of the things I’d like to say is that I wonder with all of this population growth in the world, with all of this inrush to cities, because in that process you’re cutting people off from the land, and whether that isn’t a great historic mistake. I may, if I have time, write an essay or something on that thesis. But with us, you knew where food came from. You helped produce it. You helped the man my father hired every year to slaughter the pig. You saw beef cattle killed. You didn’t have refrigerators. You hung it on the north side of the house in the winter and this was your bacon and your meat. That’s rather basic living. It’s the way people lived in different parts of the world, and some of them are still living that way, of course, in the primitive parts of the world. Now we say that that’s primitive, but it’s basic. That’s my feeling.
JL: The essay that you hope to write, it seems to me that the sort of existence that you were born into and grew up in greatly shapes a balanced point of view with regard to the presence of a natural habitat, whereas those who are born and grow up in cities are missing a huge chance at a perspective. I know this has shaped your thinking a lot.
SU: Jack, you’ve expressed what I’m trying to say almost as well as I could. But there’s more than your relationship with nature, with the natural world, with producing part of your own food, with the intimacy that you have. When I became Secretary of Interior, suddenly I had 55,000 employees working under me and 17, 18 different agencies, mostly dealing with resources, of course. The Native people, most of them in 1960, were living the way I’m talking about, and that gave me an understanding of those people. But you grow up in a community of that size and you know part of the human comedy and the human tragedy, and you develop as a child a relationship with adults that’s very important. Because most people will say, well, their parents were important. My parents were very important, but I had other relations. I had an uncle that I worked with in the fields, who was a very wonderful, practical, blunt sort of a man. I had relationships with other people, so that I knew what a functioning community was, and I think some people are robbed of that experience.
We have Little League, and in large and small cities we have all of these activities people get involved in. With this kind of a community where I was born, that was it. We’re 60 miles from any other community, so you know all kinds of things. We used to go to court. My father was the judge when I was kid 13, 14 years old, and we watched the court proceedings. Then we had a little court of our own. I think I was responsible for setting it up. We also had a theater. We wrote plays and things. We had to make society function, and if the community had little primitive theatrical productions, we imitated it as kids. When they had the rodeo, I had a kids’ rodeo. My sister can tell you all about that. I think that experience of community helped me instinctively understand people and treat people in a respectful way because I was a not a great administrator as Secretary of Interior in terms of the budget and a lot of things, but I had learned how, and maybe my Mormon missionary experience adds a little bit to this, too, to deal with people in a leadership role. You don’t learn a hell of a lot as a congressman, I can tell you, in terms of what I’m talking about of being administrator and running a large department. But I had a feel and a respect for people that was enormously helpful.
My real religious feelings, with a Mormon underlay, you might say, are ecumenical. I see good in all religions. I’ve come to appreciate the Spanish people, the Catholic people who came in here early. I have an enormous appreciation of their history and what they did coming into this wilderness, as it were, before Plymouth Rock. The first European settlement in what’s now the United States of America was not in Virginia, not in Massachusetts; it was here in the Río Grande Valley, where I live now.
I have an empathy for Native Americans and their struggles, their desire to determine their own life and to carry their values because they had values, and I liked the fact that so many of the religious values of Native people are related to land and the landscape and a worship of the land.
Bioregional documentarian Jack Loeffler and his daughter Celestia Loeffler’s recent book is Thinking Like a Watershed. www.loreoftheland.org