Have you ever contemplated the prospects of living a simpler, more self-sufficient, unencumbered life? Perhaps on a few acres of land with the nearest neighbor over the horizon, down a dirt road?
You could graze a few milk cows and make your own butter in a wooden churn, gather eggs from the chicken coop and wring the neck of a hen on Saturday for Sunday dinner. You get used to the stench of boiling feathers and the remnant pinfeathers on your drumstick.
A stream would irrigate your truck garden out back, as well as the fruit tree orchard and the hay field. The shelves of the root cellar would be stocked with Mason jars of canned fruits and vegetables.
Your leftovers and spoilage would slop the hogs so you can hang a couple of hams in the smokehouse.
You could graze a few beeves for market and slaughter. You’d compost the soil with the sweat of your brow. The hours would be long, the profits meager.
You’d merely have to worry about diverting more water than the government agents deem appropriate or letting a backfire burn onto public land or whether the government inspector catches you bartering an uninspected ham for a neighbor’s pure-bred rooster or letting your cattle wander onto public land without a permit.
Then you might find your lifestyle considerably altered.
In the 1840s transcendentalist philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau tried living such a nearly monastic life — as recounted in the book “Walden.” And he followed his conscience in refusing to pay the government agent’s poll tax, resulting in a night in jail — as recounted in the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” Thoreau asks in that essay. “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? …
“As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”
Thoreau’s commentaries are taught in public schools as enlightened examples of the value of individual conscience over the inexorable power of government.
When father and son Oregon ranchers were ordered to serve mandatory five-year prison sentences under an anti-terrorism law for the crime of letting fires set on their own private property accidentally spread and burn 140 acres of public land, it was clearly a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment — but they went quietly back to prison.
Sympathizers, however, occupied vacant buildings on a wildlife refuge for 41 days to call attention to the ranchers’ plight and are now also in jail for doing so. Ironically, because of the occupation, the feds had to call off a planned 4,000-acre controlled burn.
So far 19 people — several already charged in the Oregon occupation — have been indicted on various charges growing out of the standoff in Bunkerville when federal agents tried to confiscate Bundy ranch cattle two years ago. The press invariably mentions that Cliven Bundy owes $1 million in grazing fees, but never mentions that, if he had complied with the restrictions that came with such permits, he would have gone out of business 20 years ago.
The ranchers have been labeled scofflaws and welfare cowboys.
Those who practice civil disobedience — especially while heavily armed — do and should pay the consequences for endangering public safety, but real grievances should also be addressed and not eclipsed by the utter foolishness of a brash few.
A version of this column appeared a year ago in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.