Patricia Limerick, well-known historian of the American West, gave a talk at the community center in the town of Burns, Oregon, one evening not long ago with her heart slightly in her throat. Limerick belongs to the small category of historians who are occasionally recognized on the street, and she gives talks all the time. What made this one different was that Burns is the county seat of Harney County, home of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the site, last year, of a six-week takeover by armed protesters, who demanded that the federal government return the land—though to whom was not exactly clear. One of the occupiers was killed in the standoff. Limerick knew that her audience, about seventy-five county residents, included both supporters and opponents of the protest. The mood in the room seemed congenial, not tense, but she couldn’t be sure. A local man had told her about a past confrontation between the two sides in which many had likely carried firearms. He said he thought that if someone had dropped a book people might have started shooting.

Limerick wore a black Western-tailored shirt embroidered with turquoise and purple flowers, and a black skirt. Her hair is straight, parted on the left, and two feet long. When she was twenty, she happened to appear on a CBS news special having to do with a history project she put together in college, at the University of California Santa Cruz, that attempted to build bridges between students and senior citizens. When the interviewer asked about her ambition in life, she said, “To save the world.” She was a hippie then, and is not much less of one now, forty-plus years later. The University of Colorado’s Center of the American West, of which Limerick is the faculty director, has an official motto: “Turning hindsight into foresight.” She believes that history, skillfully applied and deeply understood, can save the world.

“So I started out my talk with a story,” Limerick told an amateur historian who had breakfast with her a few days after she returned to Boulder, where she lives. “I had a reason for choosing this story, but as I went along I couldn’t imagine what I had been thinking. The story is this: In a small Western town one afternoon, the local folks are sitting in the saloon when they notice a stranger who comes in and sits in a corner. The stranger doesn’t say anything. Suddenly, into the saloon comes a wild cowboy with a big cowboy hat and boots and spurs, and the wild cowboy starts knocking people’s hats off and spilling people’s drinks and kicking their chairs out from under them. The cowboy is raising all this havoc, and the people in the saloon are stunned, and suddenly the quiet stranger stands up and goes over to the cowboy and says, ‘Mister, I’m giving you five minutes to pack up and get out of town.’ And the cowboy looks at him and gets his gear and packs it on his horse and rides out of town! So the townsfolk come over to the stranger and they thank him, and they say, ‘Stranger, if you don’t mind, we do have one question. What would you have done if the cowboy hadn’t left town in five minutes?’ The stranger thinks and then he says, ‘Well, I believe I would have extended the time.’ ”

The audience members, who had wondered where she was going with this—they knew about strangers, like the Feds who were in Burns during the occupation—laughed at the punch line. Both sides joined in. “I was so delighted and relieved at that laugh,” Limerick said. “I talk to people I disagree with politically more often than anybody I know, and I’ve discovered that sometimes we find the same things funny. So then I told the folks in Burns that, whatever side they were on, the conflict between local wisdom and outsider expertise has been going on over land use throughout human history, and they’re at the absolute center of something very important for the country and the world. I think they were glad to hear that. And, as for getting along with one another, I put in a big plug for hypocrisy. We don’t have to be honest with each other all the time.”

During her stay, she said, she also visited the wildlife refuge, which has been returned to federal control, and she stood at the foot of the bird-watching tower and thought how nice it was that it didn’t have snipers in it anymore. “I know federal staff people, naturalists and so on, who are sometimes afraid they’ll get shot just for doing their job,” she said. “When the park rangers and other employees of the refuge came back to work, some of the citizens of Burns had a potluck supper to welcome them. Somehow, when I think of that it makes me cry.”