Film on Mongolia, E. Oregon explores effect of modern age on rural lifestyle

Filmmaker Cody Sheehy said this scene of a traditional "ger," otherwise known as a yurt, next to a parked backhoe "illustrates the transition our world is making from ancient, sustainble production systems to more modern, non-renewable resource dependant production." Photo by Cody Sheehy

As a ranch kid growing up near Wallowa, Cody Sheehy's horizons already extended far beyond the scenic confines of the Wallowa Mountains. From age 6 to 9 he lived with his family in the Republic of China in a region called Inner Mongolia. He has returned to that part of the world more than once through the years with his father, Dennis Sheehy, an international range specialist as well as a cattle rancher.

At age 23 Sheehy has just produced a half-hour documentary titled "Losing Touch," filmed in both Outer Mongolia and Wallowa County. The film examines the impact of the modern political and economic environment on Mongolian herders and their Eastern Oregon counterparts a world away, as they struggle to maintain a generations-old way of life. The main sponsor of the film is Dennis Sheehy's International Center for Advancement of Pastoral Systems, commonly known as ICAPS.

The documentary was shown for the first time in the OK Theatre in Enterprise Dec. 30 . Though no other showings are yet scheduled, the film is available for viewing, and Sheehy hopes that in the future urban audiences will be exposed to its message.

"It's weighted a little in favor of Eastern Oregon, but almost half is from Mongolia," said Cody Sheehy, who identifies his father as his main consultant and narrator. "It was his idea."

The younger Sheehy graduated from Portland State University with a degree in science in June, and spent two weeks on his own with a video camera supplied by Wallowa Resources, an Enterprise-based nonprofit organization, filming in Mongolia.

Though it wasn't a main focus in college, "it's something I really enjoy doing," Sheehy said of filmmaking. In fact, taking part in a program in Montana involving making scientific films is one of his future options. Others include enlisting in the U.S. Navy or attending graduate school in oceanography at Oregon State University.

"I love the ocean, too," said Sheehy, who recently spent two months sailing alone from Monterey, Calif., to Portland in a 17-foot boat. He also made a film of that adventure and admitted he had plans to sneak it in at the "Losing Changes" showing Monday night. The working title of the film of his ocean adventure is "A Boat Named Hero Sailing the West Coast."

One of Cody Sheehy's early adventures included the time he was six in 1986 and was the subject of a massive overnight search in the Wallowa Mountains after wandering away from a family picnic. He was found after walking 20 miles, headed for his grandmother's house in Wallowa.

At that time Cody's father was in Mongolia, working as a grasslands expert with the Chinese government, shortly before the family joined him there.

Dennis Sheehy himself was the subject of an award-winning documentary based on the family's sojourn in China's Inner Mongolia in the 1980s, when Dennis Sheehy began his life's mission trying to help establish sustainable range practices while preserving the pastoral way of life.

Titled "Cowboy in Mongolia," the film was aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting, received a gold medal award at the 1989 Houston International Film Festival and was the winner of the 1990 Science in Society Journalism Award.

"The Cowboy" tells the compelling story of Sheehy, a Vietnam veteran who became deeply interested in China while recovering from a serious wound suffered during the war. He learned the Chinese language, studied rangeland, managed, and returned with his family in 1985 to win the trust of traditional Mongols and help herders learn sustainable range practices.

Today Dennis Sheehy continues his battle against the degradation of rangeland in a part of the world where the economic marketplace is rapidly making the ancient pastoral way of life almost a thing of the past. "They have been herders for a thousand years," said Sheehy, marveling at the longevity of a way of life that is becoming extinct.

He has traveled to China, Mongolia and, most recently, the Tibetan plateaus, several times a year for the past two decades, working as an acknowledged sustainable agriculture range expert on numerous range rehabilitation projects through such organizations as the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, the United Nations and the World Bank

He has become very pessimistic about chances that the Mongolian herdsmen will survive the modern age much longer. "Things are changing fast," he said. Still Sheehy keeps trying, and is now involved in a project on the Tibetan plateau he has some hopes of being successful. "Their resources are in fairly good condition," he said.

Sheehy said the best example he can think of urban influence on an ancient way of life occurred during a visit to the yurt home of a guide in Mongolia in the Gobi Desert in 1997. "He had us over to his place, and about 4 p.m. cranked up his generator, turned on his television set (he had a satellite dish), and all the neighbors came over. Do you know what they were watching. MTV!" he said, shaking his head.

Cody Sheehy said that one objective of his film is to educate the urban viewer about the rural way of life, to give those living in cities a whole new perspective about agriculture and environment.

Among Wallowa County representatives included in "Losing Changes" are ranchers Jack McClaran and Skye Krebs, Yosts Ranches and Wallowa Resources.

"The main focus of my film is how expanding world populations and urban policies affect traditional rural lifestyles in a negative way," said Cody Sheehy. "Large industrial agriculture produces a lot of food, but at the expense of the rancher, the family, the community and the environment."

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