Only By Blood and Suffering

Anthony McCann, Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff

Bloomsbury, 448pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781635571202

reviewed by Louis Amis

It began with a spectacular victory. In April 2014 several hundred protestors gathered in a desert wash between two highway overpasses near the town of Bunkerville, Nevada, and found that they were able to exert their will directly upon the United States government. They confronted a team of federal agents from the Department of the Interior, who were rounding up a herd of unlicensed cattle, and forced them to retreat.

Both sides were heavily armed, but the agents were outnumbered. The protestors were also wielding heavy symbolism. Some were dressed in camouflage and Velcro, others in Stetsons and boots and riding actual horses. They appeared as Army men and Wild West cowboys – iconic representations of the honest, patriotic salt of the earth. Both looks, by reference to the conflicts of history and Hollywood movies, aligned with white identity politics, and seemed to act as an extra layer of protection from government violence. The symbolism also acted powerfully on the national viewing audience. Victory released among the protestors and their admirers an enormous wave of ‘sovereign feelings’, as Anthony McCann writes in Shadowlands, his bold, impressionistic chronicle of the strange events set in motion on that day.

The protestors dressed as Army men belonged to embarrassingly hobbyistic ‘Patriot’ militia groups, and on their own would have likely met some kind of defeat in the standoff. The cowboys were more authentic and possessed a stronger aura. Principal among them were members of the Bundy family, a clan of Mormon ranchers whose patriarch, Cliven (now 74), owned the recovered cattle. Cliven was a ‘Sagebrush Rebel’; he’d been feuding with the government for decades over the permission – or, as he saw it, his right – to graze his cows freely on publicly owned land, where access had been restricted to protect the habitat of the threatened desert tortoise. During the Obama years, exaggerated rage against government ‘tyranny’ had re-entered the mainstream of conservative opinion. Sagebrush Rebellion, a form of militant anti-environmentalism, was a vintage line ready to come back into style. Very few people in right-wing activist circles knew anything about the obsolescent practice of running semi-feral cattle across lonely, arid wastelands. But they revered it in the abstract, and assumed it was still essential in some way – if not to the economy, then to the American soul. The Bundys even spoke in a pious, dreamy 19th-century register, without the aggression of polarised TV news or social media. These weren’t just men in cowboy costumes: they were a cowboy costume, one that a whole movement could try on and strut around in, spurs jangling.

Cliven sat the next phase out – having got his cows back, he ‘went to ranching’, in the Bundy vernacular. (He also went to giving inadvertently inflammatory press interviews, but stayed rooted like a cactus to his Bunkerville homestead.) It was Ammon Bundy, the most charismatic of Cliven’s 14 children, who was thinking big, dreaming and praying restlessly, and doing it all out loud and online. This is where McCann, a California-based poet, began his reporter’s journey. He had a long-standing aesthetic and philosophical interest in several subjects relevant to the story, one of these being the ‘shadowland’ of user-generated video, which became ‘the true medium of the loose coterie of co-feeling that is the Bundy Revolution’. ‘I love long, boring videos,’ McCann confesses at one point. He conjures the highlights of this vast body of material in a way that invites his readers to log on and immerse themselves.

Ammon Bundy, in fact, owned a trucking maintenance business and no longer worked with his father. But he could still claim the mantle convincingly. Viral video of a preliminary confrontation – in which he was seen hollering imprecations, scuffling with a government German shepherd and being tasered twice – had first brought the militia and other protestors to the family’s side. Ammon was just slightly less of an anachronism, that much better at communicating with the 21st-century public. There was also his face, of which McCann rightly makes a big deal: ‘There is an earnestness and openness of expression and care to Ammon’s face,’ he writes, ‘that is uncommon to men of the American right wing.’ Between hat-brim and cuddly beard, Ammon’s blue eyes slant downward at the outsides, giving him a permanent attitude of soft entreaty.

The landscape of the Intermountain West is also of primary interest to McCann. He and the Bundys live on different sides of the Mojave Desert, where ‘[i]f you spend enough time . . . [t]he imaginariness of human societies and institutions becomes palpable as they all vanish. It’s a sweet and cool feeling, like a slow cloud passing over land.’ Shadowlands is written with an almost off-hand lyricism, but it is McCann’s associative approach, his willingness to be guided by metaphor and imagery, that really proves it a poet’s book. His digressions – into history, weird videos, even his own daydreams – gallop on an open range. Often they are not analytically helpful, at least not directly. But McCann is coining a prose style, one that feels very much of the American West in the broader, contemporary cultural sense: expansive, experimental, empathetic, informal, quirky, meditative. The book addresses all the established narratives concerning the conservative grassroots in the Trump era, yet seems to float free from them. It’s a sweet and cool feeling, for the reader.

With ‘windswept clouds, dragging their blots of shade alongside him over the golden buttes,’ Ammon moved on from Bunkerville, ‘sealed in his holy bubble of urge’. In late 2015 he came to the town of Burns, in sparsely populated Harney County, Oregon, a different, more varied landscape, ‘from the whispering pines into the wide-open silence of the sage . . . from sun-crisped juniper into the fecund muck and fragrant plant life of riparian canyons.’ It is a point of local pride that Harney County contains the spot in the continental US that is furthest from an interstate highway. The Hammonds, a Sagebrush Rebel ranching family there, were facing prison time after their own long-running dispute with federal land managers.

Ammon surveyed all this, and he saw that it was good. He addressed a town gathering, bringing to his ‘part willful, part inadvertent’ misinterpretations of the Constitution and American history all ‘the affective power of religious revival’. (‘Hot, salty tears spill down his face as the big-hearted rancher’s son conjures once more the Battle of Bunkerville,’ McCann writes of the YouTube footage.) Ammon then put out the call online: ‘Come to Harney County and participate in this wonderful thing that the Lord is about to accomplish.’

That was the green light for more militia to ‘deploy’, along with other seekers and pilgrims of remarkably various kinds. Needing a headquarters, the group bundled into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a nearby federal government bird sanctuary that was dormant for the snow-covered winter. Feelings and vague symbolism had brought them together, but the outcome would now depend on the strength of their political ideas – essentially, of Ammon’s ideas, now backed up by his sterner and bookish older brother Ryan, whose own face, disfigured from a childhood accident in which a vehicle drove over his head, also projected gravitas and humanity. The Hammonds, for their part, disavowed the action. Ryan and his friend Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum were the only working cattlemen among the occupiers, and Finicum, an intense man who ‘liked to dress the part – down to the revolver and the fringed and silver-studded leather chaps’, became another leader. Finicum had even written a novel, a post-apocalyptic Western titled Only By Blood and Suffering. Eventually, he also became the whole escapade’s single fatality.

There were some problems with the ideas. The Bundys justified their universal prescription – the federal government has no right to own the People’s land – with an ornate, pseudo-legal framework. But it had all developed out of a narrow religious mandate, relating to local privileges. Cliven Bundy did not think that everyone should be able to graze cattle on the public lands near his ranch; he simply thought that he and his descendants should. Legally, he claimed a grandfathered exemption contingent on ties of Mormon plural marriage. More fundamentally, he believed himself a representative of a chosen people in a promised land. (Interviews with the family in the podcast Bundyville, by Leah Sottile, suggest that the Bundys had begun to see themselves personally reflected in certain messianic apocrypha of the Mormon faith.) Meanwhile, the Mormon Church immediately condemned the Malheur occupation.

McCann explains how Ammon’s parochialism left him oblivious to a defining feature of modern American reality: the supremacy of multinational corporations. He was waging a Manichean struggle between ‘the People and oppressed producers, like his dad’, and ‘the bureaucrats of the wicked, overreaching federal government’. But if federal public lands were returned to local control, they would likely be absorbed by large private interests: ‘It was federal power – for all its flaws – that had helped keep that land available up till now for use by the ranchers.’ The occupation’s ‘air of mass suicide’ permeated right down to its economic platform.

‘Sometimes it seemed the true pull of the Bundy revolution was that it offered … an escape to the preindustrial past,’ McCann writes, ‘a dream flight from the prospect of a lifetime of unsatisfying, unrewarding work in the ever-more-automated urban sprawl.’ Some of the occupiers had arrived without knowing anything about the Bundys, and many would eventually tell McCann that the sense of community was the most meaningful aspect of their time at the refuge. But the reigning political doctrine did not include the idea of community for its own sake, or of sharing anything much beyond ‘the bosom of [each] family . . . in its armed redoubt’. Finicum, it seemed to McCann, ‘didn’t even believe in the existence of society in the conventional sense,’ obsessing instead over ‘the plight, agency, and heroism of the lone entity he sometimes referred to as the One’. ‘We have come here to work,’ Finicum told the assembled media. ‘We haven’t come here to sit as children and stamp our feets [sic] and demand that certain things are met.’ According to Ammon, they were ‘going to get to work unwinding the unconstitutional land transactions’ and returning the land to its ‘rightful owners’. For the next six weeks, they busily engaged in what ‘increasingly seemed like formal parodies of a workday’.

It was the mention of ‘rightful owners’ that initiated the moral demise of the occupation, in a process that McCann places at the heart of his book. ‘We know they didn’t mean us,’ said Charlotte Roderique, the chair of the council of the Wadatika, a tribe of Burns Paiute Indians, at a press conference held nearby. ‘We know they meant themselves,’ she said with a smile. The Paiute had been violently removed from the area in the late 19th century, but returned in small numbers over the years, finally securing federal recognition in 1968. From their perspective, the Bundy occupation was ‘a kind of ceremonial land-grab, a historical re-enactment of white settlement,’ McCann writes.

‘I really don’t know anything about that,’ Ammon said, when asked about the tribe’s claims to the land. ‘I would like to see them be free from the federal government as well.’ For his part, Finicum had grown up on the edge of a tribal reservation, and imagined for himself a great affinity with Native people. ‘Up into the last few hours of his life,’ writes McCann, he ‘would be trying, and failing, to bring the Wadatika to his side.’ In one of his many YouTube-borne overtures, Finicum rummages through some Native artefacts being stored at the refuge. ‘I’m reaching out to the Paiute people in as sincerest [sic] manner as I can,’ he announces in the video. The artefacts were stored in ‘rat-infested’ cardboard boxes. ‘To me, I don’t think it’s acceptable,’ Finicum says. But according to Wadatika belief the items should never have been removed from the ground at all, and Finicum was profaning them with his irreverent touch. Some of the tribe’s members, speaking to McCann later, attribute Finicum’s death to his meddling in that storage room.

Movies about the Old West sometimes end in snowscapes, as the noble outlaws are pushed northward by pursuing foes. It’s an especially good backdrop for a lone protagonist’s final appointment with destiny, which is how it was for LaVoy Finicum, in an event filmed both from within the vehicle he was driving and by an FBI surveillance aircraft. The leaders of the occupation were travelling in convoy to parlay with a nearby sheriff when they were intercepted on a desolate woodland road. McCann notices that Finicum, unforgettably, turns up the volume to better absorb the mawkish pop song playing on his radio, as he dares the agents to kill him. Then we see him from above, stumbling through the snow, apparently reaching twice towards his holster but twice pulling back from drawing the pistol – as though his passion surged and flickered in the final struggle to become the cowboy, the One, an emblem of tormented will-to-action etched against the virgin landscape. A crowd came out to the spot to mourn him in the following days: McCann saw them, waving ‘Ranchers’ Lives Matter’ signs, ‘likely not ranchers or cowboys, but they were rural folk, and almost all of them were white. They looked terribly hungry to me in the pines.’

With the rest of the inner circle in custody, the occupation fizzled in tragicomic fashion. But then came another spectacular victory: the Bundys walked free from two federal trials, in Oregon and Nevada, which McCann observed first-hand. It was due in part to prosecutorial incompetence, stemming from what was revealed to have been a heavy-handed, vindictive, and occasionally lawless enforcement campaign against the family. But the Bundys also saved themselves once more – not with their nebulous, solipsistic arguments, but with their exorbitant powers of symbolism and the sentiments and distant cultural memories they evoked. ‘I want you to picture in your minds,’ began Ryan Bundy, addressing the jury in Las Vegas,

all the beauty of the land: the fresh air, sunsets and sunrises, the brush. You’re on a horse in front of the cattle. Place yourself there. Feel the freedom… That is how I was raised, playing in the river. We were called river-rats. That is where my life began and, I hope, ends.

By then, it was already 2017. Army men and Wild West cowboys had been seen standing shoulder to shoulder frequently, at political rallies across the country. And Trump’s first appointment to lead the Department of the Interior, the Bundys’ great nemesis, was Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, had begun his first day of work by riding a horse slowly along the National Mall in Washington DC, wearing a cowboy hat. Cliven Bundy’s cows are still grazing in Bunkerville, without a permit.
Louis Amis is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. His work has appeared recently in the TLS, the New Statesman, the Los Angeles Review of Books and Litro, and is collected at