By Sam Killmeyer
In her debut short story collection, Site Fidelity, author Claire Boyles explores the beautiful and precarious nature of living in the American West. The tenacious characters that fill this collection fight for their land and livelihoods, despite the obstacles of climate change and capitalism.
Boyles is a former sustainable farmer, something that influences her work and that we discussed at length in our interview. She is also very interested in the boom and bust cycle of extraction industries like fracking, and how they affect communities.
My favorite story, “Sister Agnes Mary in the Spring of 2021,” features a seventy-four-year-old nun working to prevent a fracking well from being built next to the school connected to her church. After being unable to convince the priest to revoke the contract, she turns to direct action and eco-sabotage. The book is full of such memorable, rich, and feisty characters (primarily women) fighting for what they believe in, despite enormous obstacles.
The title, Site Fidelity comes from the opening story “Ledgers” and frames the themes running through the entire book. Site Fidelity is “an animal’s tendency to return to a previously occupied place” (NCBI). In “Ledgers,” the Gunnison sage grouse continue to return to their lek, even though it has been flooded by a new dam. They have such loyalty to that place that they cannot adapt and breed elsewhere, and the flock slowly dies out.
Just like the sage grouse, the central characters’ devotion to the land is so strong that they also cannot live without it. Even when it feels like they’re fighting alone – like Norah’s work to save the sage grouse on her family’s ranch; Sister Agnes Mary in her fight against the fracking project; or, later in the book, Leah’s attempt to create an open space with native plants in a flood plane – they never lose their devotion to place.
As I read this collection, I thought of 350 Colorado and climate activists across our state, working to build a just, green world. These stories immerse you in what feel like real, full lives, and when you close the book, you’re more hopeful because you’ve met these powerful characters. They could be so many people in our state, and together, with our fidelity to this land and each other, we will win.
Can you talk a little bit about the opening story in the collection, Ledgers, and the Gunnison sage grouse? What should people know about sage grouse? What brought you to write about them?
They’re just really charismatic birds for one. I mean, when you see them do their mating dance – and you can see it online – they’re just they’re goofy and earnest and ridiculous. They used to be everywhere, and now greater sage grouse and Gunnison sage grouse populations are very threatened because their habitats are being degraded or destroyed by human development.
But the other cool thing about sage grouse is that they’re not listed as endangered, even though they possibly should be. They’ve been kept off the endangered species list because there’s been an incredible amount of cooperation in the community between ranchers and environmentalists and government agencies and all the interested parties. I think that kind of cooperation will have to be applied to resource management throughout the American West.
I don’t see any way through without people agreeing to change so that the forced changes are not as terrible as they would otherwise be. (Learn more here)
The great recession plays a big part in your book. Many of the conflicts revolve around money and the lack of financial stability. Can you talk about navigating the recession as a sustainable farmer?
In 2007, we leased some land in Loveland and did a very small flower operation. We weren’t thinking about food as much. But very quickly within the first year that we bought our farm, we realized that’s really what we wanted to do. It just felt like the best use of the resources that we had in terms of land and water and in terms of what an ethical life would be.
The recession really hurt us because originally when we started our farm, we weren’t growing food. We did not have access to a lot of the USDA type loans that were available for food producers and then the value of our land dropped so far that we really lost access to any kind of credit in our very first year, which is an incredibly difficult situation for farmers to be in, and we could never recover from that.
So yeah, financially it just didn’t work out for us, but the years that we spent farming, the life of it, was so rewarding and fulfilling and wonderful. The pride of that is really something I have always carried with me.
I learned a lot about Colorado history through your book, especially the molasses spill in Loveland – that was one of my favorite parts. What Colorado-specific things did you find in your research for these stories that other people should know about?
I thought the molasses flood was fascinating. One thing I became really interested in while I was writing the stories for Site Fidelity, especially after our farm failed, was how much we have been made to define ourselves against capitalism.
It’s just these cycles of boom and bust in all these extraction industries. So whether it’s agriculture or mining or fracking, I became really interested in those patterns and in how they had manifested in my local community of Loveland and Greeley.
The sugar beets felt like a really huge example. The molasses flood is tied to the downfall of the sugar beet industry. And looking at history through a more local lens and looking for patterns helped me explain what was happening to us in the recession and our relationship to work. How we could work so hard and not be able to sustain ourselves.
The executives of the Great Western Sugar Company did just fine but this whole community nearly shut down multiple times when the company was struggling, you know? And then they left a mess that the community had to clean up.
Stopping fracking or fossil fuel production is often framed as “save the environment” or “lose jobs/hurt the economy,” and I think your two stories “Sister Agnes Mary in the Spring of 2021” and “Man Camp” do a good job of complicating that. Can you talk about what it was like to write from these different perspectives and your choice to put them back-to-back when you ordered the collection?
Jobs that are not consistent, no matter how well they pay, are not good jobs. That’s not helpful, and it’s not good for a community. It’s not a sustainable way to live for humans and it’s not a sustainable way to live for communities and it’s not sustainable for the environment. Even in “Man Camp,” Joe knows it’s not permanent. That’s why I started that story there where they knew it was gonna bust and they knew it’s gonna go away and they have to think about what happens next, right?
And I think what Sister says, that really came from my heart, when Sister says to the priest like they shouldn’t have to poison their families in order to feed them.
That’s how I feel about fracking. We can’t continue. We shouldn’t continue to do it. We shouldn’t have to poison our families in order to feed them. That’s ridiculous.
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