Hannah Plowright: A journalist’s poetic objectivity

We rolled into Augusta beaten by a day of steep hills and fierce, unrelenting headwinds. I was the last person to arrive and I found the crew sprawled on the corner of Main Street and Highway 287. I joined them dejectedly. I’d later describe the depths of my exhaustion as wanting to “punch God in the face.” The self-proclaimed “wildest one-day rodeo” also happened to be in town that weekend. Cowboys and cowgirls rode their horses up and down the street, decked out in boots and bedazzled jeans, drunk with excitement for the festivities. And here we were, grimy bikers here to talk about energy issues, probably the last thing on their minds. But not Hal Herring’s.

Hal pulled up in a Subaru like a knight on a white horse. “Are you the biking group. Do you have a place to crash?” Matt had just come back from where we’d been planning to camp, at an RV park, which, like everything else in town, was inundated with rodeo revelers. Hal graciously offered up his backyard, and for the next two days, in-depth discussions ensued about multifaceted energy issues, globally and on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Hal is freelance journalist who covers the environment and outdoors, and has a very diplomatic style. I find this refreshing. Take his article “The Rocky Mountain Front Blues” in High Country News, for example. Published last summer, he addresses the politics and implications of oil and gas exploration and drilling outside Augusta. It could bring more economic activity to the small town, supporting its school and small businesses. The geology — and potential profitability — is nowhere near that of the Williston Basin in North Dakota and eastern Montana, but still, Hal’s wary of a boom and inevitable bust, and impacts to a landscape that’s often the subject of, and inspires, his writing.

But Hal also sympathizes with drilling advocates. He’s deeply engaged with his community, allowing him to understand its complexities and his neighbors’ nuanced points of view. A lot of journalists travel to get a story and leave again, never fully understanding important dynamics at play on a given issue. Hal has lived in Augusta for 10 years. He’s worked on the ambulance and volunteers his time at the library and on Forest Service projects. He may oppose oil drilling but he listens to everyone and explains their reasoning with poetic objectivity.

I also really appreciated Hal’s in-depth knowledge and passion that he brings to his writing. He told us as we were chatting around our make-shift kitchen that he used to work in a coal mine. This adds a depth of experience to his beliefs, developed independently to the ideology that surrounds him. I admire this, because it must be really difficult to take a hard stance on such contentious issues. But it gives his work more credibility. Putting that knowledge and passion in writing gives him a potent mix with which to affect many, many people.

– Hannah Plowright

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