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Friday, April 26, 2019

Future of America -- For the Birds?

Before 6 a.m. in late April, southern Arizona’s outdoor air temperature is perfect: a refreshing predawn cool after the previous day’s blinding light and baking heat. There is no harsh wind, only the slightest of gentle breezes that barely stirs new leaves on honey mesquite, their sweet, light green like the world’s first leaves. A mockingbird near the cabin competes with rooster and peacocks across the road, far back from the highway, to call the sun up, and a cardinal joins eagerly in the morning chorus.

Sunrise has moved considerably south since December. In winter, it is a front-of-cabin thing, welcome for the light it brings to strike directly on windows and the warmth it gradually contributes to our indoor space. Post-equinox sunrise, by contrast, is best watched from behind the cabin and outdoors, and east-facing blinds remain closed. Bright light stripes windows, nonetheless, but our object now is not to add to indoor warmth but to keep it at a minimum. 

A green mantle spreads over the hills. A distant dove calls. Shadows grow long in the mountains as the sun rises in harsh magnificence. And now the cactus wren, Arizona’s state bird, launches into his rough-edged, repetitive “song,” somehow cheery without being in any way what one might call beautiful. Some birds give us beauty, others awe or smiles or even laughter, according to their effect on us.

I have been reading An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future, by Robert Kaplan, published in 1998, and was nearing the end this morning, having begun with Chapter 13 and after that skipping back and forth from section to section, finally going back to start at the beginning and then leapfrogging over sections read earlier to make my way through the final sections. This is not the way I usually read a book. The reason I approached this particular book in such an odd way is that my time in Arizona (for this year, anyway) is drawing to a close, and consequently my initial interest was in the part of the author’s travels that took him from Mexico to Tucson. Alas, no mention was made of Cochise County. Kaplan crossed the border at Nogales, from the state of Sonora into the Arizona county of Santa Cruz. 

But the book begins at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, coincidentally the place my father, one year long ago, did his annual summer officers’ training (Command and General Staff School, a requirement for keeping his rank in the Army Reserve) while my mother and sisters and I visited friends in Wisconsin. Kaplan calls Leavenworth “the last redoubt of the nation state,” which makes sense as one reads on. In fact, I found some justification for not reading his chapters in order, since the order of the chapters itself does not represent the temporal order of the author’s continuous travels. Rather, the organization of the book is thematic, intended to illustrate his gradually unfolding thesis about what the future may hold for our country, based on what he finds along the way.

I had to keep reminding myself that the book was written two decades ago. Where Kaplan sees strollers in an American city, for instance, and only one of them is speaking into a “cellular” phone, I should not expect the same scene today. Population numbers and demographic percentages would have to be revised now, also. Much of what he describes I have seen for myself, however, and so it is a familiar America — but I have never thought to anticipate the future he predicts, and so An Empire Wilderness gives me food for thought.  

In general, Kaplan foresees a diminished role for federal government and more local control, but in the form of “city-states” rather than cities and in cooperative geographical regions, with natural geographical boundaries, rather than exercised by state government. His example of Montana, a state where east and west have little in common, could be applied also to the Dakotas or to Michigan with its two peninsulas. (How much understanding for its place in the great scheme of things can Houghton expect from Lansing?) All of this I was taking in with a “Hmmm. We’ll see” attitude, alternately nodding and pausing, until the author threw in an idea that hit me like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face, such a shock it was -- . 

He writes that Canada, our neighbor to the north, is too large and unwieldy to hold together and is likely to break apart into separate regional pieces, Quebec joining Maine, British Columbia forming a region with the American Pacific Northwest, and so on. Two features of this idea were especially striking: one was that other people, some of them Canadians, apparently shared Kaplan’s view and did not find it alarming or even surprising; another was the inevitability they all saw in this imagined future. Kaplan does not write “if this were to happen” but that 
"…the character and timing of Canada’s dissolution will [my emphasis added] affect America’s own future in unpredictable ways."
As the United States also reverts to regionalism, why would the U.S. not also be expected to dissolve as a unified country? Because of our louder presence on the world stage and a more widespread and dispersed national population (without the enormous empty expanses of northern Canada)? The prediction, you see, is that while regionalism will be more and more important in the future of the United States, our federal government will continue its basic function of protection, while Canada’s future regionalism will mean that country completely disintegrates. 

Well, this idea makes me think about death! -- and why it is a negative though unavoidable prospect. Not only will it be the end of sense experience — no more sunrise! no more birdsong! — but also, when it comes to each of us, individually, it brings down the curtain on the play at large. What happens next? We don’t get to find out! No wonder literature and drama and film are so satisfying, where we get to see “THE END,” at least as as the writer and director conceived a conclusion, although we often wonder even so “What happened next”” in the lives of the characters. 

I did reach the end of An Empire Wilderness, however, and sooner than I expected, not having realized that remaining pages held not another chapter but a long selected bibliography preceding an index. And so the author envisions democracy slipping away, “silently replaced by the power of corporations and other great concentrations of wealth.” Ugh! Most of us see that scenario already underway. (For years I have shaken my head in bafflement over Americans who express fear of government interference in their lives and shrug indifferently at growing interference in their lives by commercial interests.) And yet, somehow, Kaplan holds out hope — hope for a global increase of human rights, backed by American military might, and the eventual emergence of an “authentic planetary civil society.” 

I wonder…. Does Kaplan’s scenario for the world’s future — diminishing importance, if not outright disintegration, of nation-states; increasing geographical regionalism; eventual global unity of values — contain its own impossible contradictions? What does the future hold for any little geographical region of the planet? For the arid American Southwest, the water-blessed Great Lakes states, old Rust Belt cities, gated enclaves of wealth in every state, family farms and ranches — our land, water, air, and all living things who share the earth with us?

Another morning dawns. The birds begin another day of concentration on staying alive and still find time to sing. We can do worse than to follow their example and take time to be grateful for another day of light and color and song before our time upon the stage is ended.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Sometimes (even in seasonal retirement) Nature Says, “Slow Down!”

There’s an old joke about death, to the effect that it’s Nature’s way of telling you to slow down. Our days are hardly hectic during seasonal retirement, but they do begin early for me, and they can often be tiring. I felt empathy for the mule deer on Sunday afternoon when they were taking shelter from sun and wind in the shade of the dry wash behind the cabin, gathering their strength for the summer’s work ahead of them. The challenges of winter lie behind us, the challenges of summer lie ahead!

Here in the high desert, I’m generally up at “first light” or before, and the cactus wren doesn’t begin singing (if you can call it that) until the sun is up. Like chickadees in northern Michigan, the cactus wren is a faithful companion through snow, rain, and sunshine. a year-round resident here in Dos Cabezas and the state bird of Arizona, a charming, cheerful neighbor even if his so-called singing “suggests someone cranking the motor on an older car, trying to get it started.” That description comes from Richard Cachor Taylor in his book, Birds of Southeastern Arizona, the same book in which he describes the canyon towhee, another little desert pal of mine, as “the most confiding towhee, often under cars, picnic tables, and farm machinery in rural areas.”

Last Saturday morning I finally took the plunge (at the eleventh hour, it's true) into local community service. A group of volunteers for the Willcox Historic Theatre and Arts group assembled at the Historic Palace Saloon, just a few doors down from the Historic Willcox Theatre, along what the Artist and I call “Old Town” Willcox, to clean up the old saloon in preparation for painting and renovation. Future Studio 128 events (we attended two lectures and a concert this year) will be held in the larger space when renovation is complete. I’d mentally committed myself to two hours, and that turned out to be about all I could handle: climbing up and down a ladder, standing on a ladder, scrubbing walls by reaching up over my head — all good cardiac exercise, right? Right!

We were back in Old Town that evening to see “The Mustang,” a film by actor-screenwriter-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who is now a member of my personal pantheon of heroes. I won’t say “The Mustang” is a perfect film. It is not flawless. But it attempts so much and achieves so much and does it so very, very powerfully that the Artist and I were nearly stunned when it finished. I'm not even going to begin to try to describe this movie. Just go see it!

And then, driving back out into the mountains on Hwy 186, suddenly a colossal light appeared on the horizon! What unthinkably huge vehicle — or UFO? — must be approaching from the distant east to cast such binding light into the sky? Then it broke over the mountain — and it was the moon, just past full but looking more enormous than any rising moon either of us could remembering seeing, and I’m sorry I couldn’t capture the experience with my camera but have only this very ordinary image to share, because the vision was overwhelming at the time.

What a day! Physical work, great movie, unforgettable moonrise! What next?

Well, our neighbor and my walking/hiking partner Therese and I had a plan for Easter Sunday. Neighbor Dan was bringing his family from Tucson, and his son and daughter always climbed the big hill (or small mountain, if you will) across the road to the cross planted on top years ago (or so the story goes) by an itinerant monk. Therese wasn’t sure where to find the beginning of the path up, so we wanted to join the young people. After our Echo Canyon Loop hike, I had serious doubts about my being able to reach the summit and said only that I would “see how far I can get.” Saturday had also been a very warm day, so I’d been thinking that 5:45 a.m. would be a good time to begin the ascent. But by 8 a.m. there was still no sign of Dan and his family. 

“I’m relieved!” the Artist said frankly. “I worried about it all night. You’re in pretty good shape for your age, but what if you fell and broke your hip? What would we do?” 

We agreed that shotgun and backhoe would be in order, should that catastrophe occur. Ha-ha. Therese and I were, I think, half-disappointed and half-relieved. 

Then the neighbor family arrived, and the athletic 30-year-old, by himself, sprinted up the mountain! He made the climb in 22 minutes! Look to the right and see the height of the climb relative to the houses below.

In the photo below, you can see the young man just to the left of the cross. Twenty-two minutes -- I could never have made it!

“He’s a running fool,” his dad said proudly later in the day, when he brought plates of Mexican fried chicken, potato salad, and beans over for for us for “a little snack to have later.” This was after we had brushed and clipped and bathed Sarah, always an exhausting project — which is why it’s not done more often.

Alas for an evening of bird-watching! Nature’s message to me was not as blunt as death, I’m happy to say, but came in the milder form of migraine. (Good thing I didn't attempt that hill climb, eh?) I ate a little chicken and beans and staggered off to bed, pulling the blankets over my head but leaving the rest of me out to catch the breeze through the window. When the Artist told me there were mule deer in the wash, I had to get up to see them, but I didn’t stay up long, and I backed out of a Monday morning walk plan, too. 

The sun is lovely, and light is life, but there are times when listening to Nature’s message and one’s own body is just common sense. We only have one week left here, and there’s no sense crashing and burning now. It’s going to be a busy summer back in Michigan….

Friday, April 19, 2019

It’s About Time: Kathleen Stocking Comes Home

From the Place of the 
Gathering Light:
Leelanau Pieces

by Kathleen Stocking
Even now that I’ve moved to a senior residential community in nearby Traverse City, I’m still from the place that has made me, that has informed my sense of the world, that taught me who I am, who I think I am, that has given me my ideas and my core self. - Kathleen Stocking, From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces
Kathleen Stocking’s first book of essays, Letters from the Leelanau, burst onto the northern Michigan scene in 1990, selling in numbers that took the University of Michigan Press completely by surprise. The first print run was only 500 copies, but then, noticed by and raved in the New York Times, the book quickly went on to become a classic and is still in print. 

When she came to my bookstore in Northport to do a reading from her third book, The Long Arc of the Universe, essays ranging from her Michigan life to experiences teaching in California prisons, a rich kids’ school in San Salvador, and Peace Corps teaching assignments in Thailand and Romania, part of my introduction to the audience assembled was — and I believe this to be true, if not for descendants of the Odawa and Ojibway peoples or third- and fourth-generation locals, surely for those of us who arrived only in the latter decades of the twentieth century — “If you haven’t read Kathleen Stocking, you don’t know Leelanau.” So it is a great gift she gives us with her new book, Gathering Light — another collection of essays focused on the Leelanau but informed by almost thirty additional years of observing nature, participating in community, reading voraciously, traveling bravely, and endlessly pondering life on earth, from our little Up North paradise as it evolved through time to our place in the universe.
Kathleen Stocking’s essays, while personal, are about much more than her own life, rich and overflowingly full as that life always has been and continues to be. Essays in the new book are divided into seasonal sections, and over and over we are reminded that our brief time is but the thinnest of glazes atop the rich layer cake (she uses the image in one section) of geologic time.
Geology is interesting psychologically because to approach it, at least for me, requires examination of the fabric of space-time and the physics of consciousness. 
Thoughts of geology inform her thought as deeply as does her awareness of wildflowers and the history of county families. Following a fragment of quoted conversation by a Suttons Bay geologist about Michigan eight hundred million years ago, for instance, she writes:
The whole mass of quivering geologic time lies in that downhome, tossed-off remark.
Quivering awareness, I say, in her response And yet, presented in nonspecialist, everyday language and images. She writes, the reader sees.

Consciousness of history is also intricately woven into Stocking’s accounts of walks and drives and conversations and memories recalled from childhood, and woven in so gracefully, so naturally, that it never interrupts her narrative. How long, in the sweep of geologic time, have human beings been on earth? In the space of human history, how long have white people been in Michigan? How many of us who call Leelanau home today are aware of early black pioneer families in what is now Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, and how many know that while whites and blacks were buried together in cemeteries around the county, for a long time Natives were buried outside the fences? Why is this knowledge important?
History, like lighthouses, helps position us so we can understand where we are, relative to where we were, and relative to where we might be heading. 
Stocking, like an old-time lighthouse keeper, keeps track of everything at once — boats, storms, lives, mechanical equipment — such that her questions and thoughts infect our own. And thank heaven they do! Whether writing about the relatively youthful movement of local community-supported agriculture, new, start-up wineries, talented young local musicians Ruby John and Jonah Powell, or her own childhood days in the woods with her father, timberman Pierce Stocking, she never lets a reader get so comfortable that the broader worldview is lost. “It’s about imagining the future,” she writes. “It’s about seeing one’s self as another.” The lighthouse keeper in Stocking asks us to navigate between our safe, precious home and places in the world where privilege is unknown, life not safe. 

Years ago another dear friend, a woman who follows sports in a way alien to me but with whom I have many other abiding interests and loves in common, wrote to me something about baseball that I’ve never forgotten. Maybe she was quoting someone else. I don’t remember. Somewhere in a trunk that old letter, carefully saved, awaits re-reading, but for now I can only paraphrase. Baseball, she wrote, is the only game where the object is not about annihilating the opposition but about coming home. 

In some ways, of course, we never leave home. We take it with us wherever we go. And wherever we go, the experiences that we have come back home with us when we return. This is particularly apparent in Kathleen Stocking’s life and work. From Letters from the Leelanau to Lake Country to The Long Arc of the Universe to From the Place of the Gathering Light, we have now the arc of a serious and important contribution to American literature, and while we can take a kind of regional pride in the fact that the contribution grew from Michigan soil, I hope our gratitude to the writer and recognition of her accomplishments will eclipse any credit we may want to give ourselves. Kathleen Stocking is a treasure. We are fortunate to have her among us.

One more note: As was indicated in the title of her previous book, somehow -- with all her knowledge of world history and hands-on experiences in parts of the world where life is truly dismal -- Kathleen Stocking manages to be optimistic about the future of mankind. She thinks we have it in us to work together to expand the realm of human rights and even reverse the ongoing degradation of the environment. Even if our generation (hers and mine) doesn't live to see it, she has faith in a more-than-possible good future for our descendants. So again I say -- what a gift we have in her work!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Regaining Balance

Poor little thing!
Boulverser is a French word meaning to disrupt, to confuse, but to me its meaning comes in more concrete images. Metaphors long ago buried in ordinary words, usually unnoticed when we speak a language learned in babyhood, are easier to see in a second language, where they stand out for us like pictures. Since boule is a ball, and verser is to pour or spill, I don’t see abstract confusion but a scene full of action, something like a bowling ball sending stout wooden pins every-which-way, many of the pins doing involuntary somersaults before coming to rest. The pins are knocked off their feet — that is, if I were to be thrown upside-down and sideways by a bowling ball, that’s how I’d feel — boulversée. Once in a while I am, anyway, metaphorically. It is a sense of disorientation, of “How can it be?” 

Many of us felt that way on Monday when we learned, each in our own way and time and place, that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. 

Those of us old enough to remember November 1963  can tell you exactly where we were when we learned that President Kennedy had been shot. In 2001 the event seared into consciousness was the planes flown into the World Trade Center. Looking back, those are memories, but in both cases, when we first heard the news, it didn’t fit at all. It wasn’t history then but a disruption of reality. It can’t be happening. It can’t be real. The first response was disbelief, resistant to evidence. Dazed disbelief. Then gut-wrenching fear and explosive grief. It can’t be happening. It can’t be real. Please, don’t let it be true!

Long, long ago, when I was a little girl, my beloved cat died, and I cried so hard and so long over the unthinkable loss that my parents thought I might have to be taken to the hospital. At last, my sobs giving way to heaving sighs, my mother thought to distract me from my grief by taking me for a little ride in the car. We drove to the drugstore down the highway from our neighborhood, and I remember my mother’s loving smile as she tried to tease me back to life by saying, “Why the sad face? You look as if you’d lost your best friend.” My mother was not a cruel, insensitive person. She was a good mother. Yet at that moment there was nothing she could have said better calculated to throw me back into paroxysms of tears and wailing. “I have!”

We were at the library on Monday, and I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw the first image of Notre Dame on fire. No, I thought, this must be someone’s idea of a sick joke. (That had been my first reaction in November of 1963 when a classmate told me, as we were taking our seats in English class, that the president had been shot.) I left Facebook and went to the news. It was true. No, it couldn’t be true. “Oh, no! “Oh, no!” I looked around me, but everyone in the library was going about their business in ordinary, everyday ways. 

Where was David? I looked in the video/newspaper area, the art book section, glanced into the sunroom. Not there. I went back to my screen but was soon on my feet again. Had he gone out to the car? No. On my third or fourth search mission I found him in the sunroom, around the corner from the door where I hadn’t seen him the first time. “Come with me.” And then we looked and read and watched together, both of us near-frozen with grief. 

He had a stack of movie videos for me to check out, so I had to go to the desk on our way out. “Are you all right?” the librarian asked. I managed to find words to say, briefly, “Notre Dame de Paris, the cathedral, is burning.” She checked out the movies for me and then said, “Have a great day!” I thought of my mother so many years before and knew the librarian meant no harm. And yet —

David called a friend, who seemed curiously unmoved by the news. “Was it very old?” he asked. 

Yet I know that the two of us were far from alone in our feelings, that all over the world others were with us in our disbelief and grief and fear and, finally, whispers of hope. The roof and spire were lost but much was saved. The world as we have known it is not ended.

So why such shock and grief? The fire was accidental, not the result of hate or violence, and no lives were lost, but had the building been utterly destroyed, as we feared for hours it might be, the loss would have been incalculable. The building represented and embodied centuries of faith, of history, of culture. It was part of individual memories the world over and part of the collective French, European, Western, and world memory, too. 

Living much of our 21st-century lives in the make-believe of fantasy games and films, virtual currency, identity algorithms, and instant gratification of various kinds, we can too easily lose sight of the fact of our own embodiment. Human beings evolved for life on earth, not on other planets. and our memories, too, attach in great part to physical objects, places, the whole of our embodied world. A face, a place, the feel of the stones or the wooden floor beneath our feet, a scent on the breeze, a certain angle of light striking just so, a taste on the tongue.

Only two weeks remain for us here in the high desert, beneath the twin peaks of Dos Cabezas. Already overwhelmed by the idea of packing up and heading once again cross-country, then boulversée by the news from Paris, I really, really needed Kathleen Stocking’s new book, From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces, a book of essays about the home to which we will soon return. I’ll write about that soon. For now, Kathleen’s essays and backyard birds, in addition to the more hopeful news about Notre Dame, are working together to put me back on my feet. Little things: a bee on a flower....

[Note: the goldfinch photo at the beginning of today's post is an old image from my files, a bird that flew into one of our Michigan porch windows. -- Coming back to correct this note: the bird at the top of the post is not a goldfinch but a yellow warbler. One of my neighbors here in Dos Cabezas corrected me when we ran into each other at the library in Willcox. She envied me for having seen a yellow warbler. "Yes," I said, "but it was dead!" Also, I didn't know what it was until she told me. Thanks, Dorothy!]

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Western Books, Boots, Blooms

"New" to me
You see above books purchased on a single day here in the Southwest. Not that I go this wild every day, mind you. Occasionally I come home without any additions to my ghost town library. On this particular day, except for the books of poetry, an old Nancy Drew, and an Alexander McCall Smith novel, Western themes predominate, as is often the case here. You can see books of memoirs, essays, horses in fiction and nonfiction, and a novel by Edward Abbey. That’s because reading, like walking and driving and eating regional food, is part of how I immerse myself in my surroundings, wherever I am. 

Freely (albeit sadly) admitting to anyone who asks that I have never had a horse of my own (the tragedy of it!), I can’t help looking at boots, either, and the other day Fate put a pair directly in my path, saying, “Take these home!” Definitely riding boots, don’t you think? It happens that they are more comfortable for walking than my other Western pair, the fancier boots probably intended for dancing, and either pair will do for public and social events, don’t you think?

The Artist says I am becoming a “modern person,” basing this on a paucity of evidence, one bit being that I recently downloaded a free plant identification app for my android phone. It hasn’t made me a part of the educational community using the app, since I don’t recall signing up for a password when I downloaded (and if I did, don’t remember what it was), so I cannot submit my findings to have them included in the database, and the whole thing doesn’t work as instantly as you might expect, either. It isn’t as if I click a photo and get an immediate and definite identification. For one elusive little specimen, I scrolled through many rows of suggested possibilities, finally referred to one of my print wildflower field guides, and then took what I had gleaned from those two sources to the Internet to find at last the undistinguished and easily overlooked little blossoms at my feet — a lengthy bit of detective work that allowed me at last to give a name to Phacelia arizonica. Now where did that photo go?

Linaria purpurea (common toadflax - above) was much easier. Quite honestly, though, you could be trampling all over these little flowers with your cowboy boots and never notice them, unless there are a couple thousand plants crowded together. You really have to care. Single specimens do not stand out in the larger landscape.

Up at 5:30 a.m. to meet a neighbor at 6:45 for a hike up to old mining ruins, I was ready to hit the hay early on Friday evening, falling asleep over my book while the Artist watched something on television. On Saturday evening, at the end of another day in the mountains we both sat down with books after supper. I wonder if you can guess which of the pictured books at the top of this post entertained me for two evenings in a row? You might be surprised.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A New Kind of Radicalism

Before sunrise
The ‘right’ answer is no longer understood as one that can’t go wrong but rather as one that everyone can agree is worth trying, given the knowledge available. ‘Adaptive management’ … stresses the importance of constantly reevaluating our knowledge and assumptions … based on the results of previous action.  
- Nathan F. Sayre, Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range

The ellipses I have inserted in the quote opening today’s post are not intended to slant the discussion but to broaden it. The quotation comes from a book that focuses on the Western range, and the approach of the Malpai Borderlands Group is ecological. Material omitted above is as follows: (1) “from which ecosystem management is derived” and (2) “about ecosystems.” I omitted that material because what I’m wondering is whether or not — and if so, how — the approach this group has taken, their formation of a “radical center,” might be broadened to address divisions in American society beyond ecosystem management. 

To understand my question, though, it will probably help to go back to the particular problem faced in southern Arizona and New Mexico and how the Malpai Group has sought to address it. At stake — for everyone — was protection of the land they loved. How best to protect the land and for whom and for what: the crucial ecological questions could not be addressed outside political considerations. Ranchers, understandably, wanted to continue ranching, which meant grazing their cattle on both private and public lands. Environmentalists believed, because the assumption had been enshrined in public policy for decades, that grazing degraded the environment and had to be reduced, if not stopped outright. (When a conservation group acquired land, therefore, it generally took that land out of the ranch economy entirely.) Battle lines had been drawn, therefore, with positions entrenched and parties unable to grant an inch to their opposition. 
Meetings of ranchers, land managers, wildlife officials, and environmentalists routinely degenerated into insulting tirades….
What have I left out at the end of that sentence? Here’s how it wraps up: 
… whereas the Malpai discussions and subsequent get-togethers managed to remain civil and constructive. 
With, I might add, people coming from the same kinds of groups and backgrounds as attended the disorderly, unproductive meetings marked by “insulting tirades.” What was the difference? That difference was not in the life experience of those involved or in their educations or larger political allegiances.  It was a genuine concern for a specific geographic area and the realization that without new and genuine solutions for that area’s problems, everyone involved would lose

Trust was not immediately granted to the group, and not everyone in the area was interested in joining. The movement that created the group was literally and metaphorically grassroots, but it did not spring full-blown into being overnight. It began with a discussion group coming together to determine points of agreement, finally culminating in an official statement:

To reverse this [existing political] polarization [between ranchers and environmentalists], which is a no-win situation for the land and everyone concerned, the ‘Malpai Meeting’ proposes that a concerned effort be made to identify the conservational common ground that unites all of us who love the land, then to create programs in which we can work together to implement the values we share.
Valuing the land itself was the bedrock common value of the group.
All [of us] who love the land agree that it should not be cashed-in or mined-out and that its health takes precedence over profits.
That “over profits” part makes for a strong statement, given that ranching families depend on making their livelihood from the land, but that livelihood depends on the land’s health, and so the ranchers have the strongest economic stake, along with a deep love often going back generations — what Wendell Berry calls “affection” for the very specific piece of the earth they call home. 

The scourge of mesquite that the Artist and I could not help noticing when we first arrived in southeast Arizona is more than an aesthetic concern. When shrubs outcompete grass, grazing suffers. On land dominated by woody plants with increasingly bare earth between shrubs, the desert’s sparse rainfall is lost more quickly to runoff, carrying with it more and more of the already thin topsoil. Without topsoil, and with shrubs having gained the upper hand, merely removing cattle from the land is no guarantee whatsoever that grasslands will regenerate. Old “wisdom” that called for maximum numbers of grazing animals per acre has proved insufficient protection for the land. Rainfall varies from season to season and year to year, and so both available water and season need to be taken into account when determining where and how many animals to graze. A universal formula (the holy grail of science) doesn’t cut it. “Averages” do not occur in nature. 

— And here I will cut to the chase and reveal that fire is a big part of the long-term solution for preserving Southwestern desert grasslands. Decades of fire suppression are what gave mesquite the upper hand over grass. The overall situation, of course, is much more complex than what I have presented here, and anyone interested is advised to look into the book from which I have drawn my information. My own point today, here, much as I have come to love southeast Arizona and care for its future, is a broader one. 

The “radical center” position created by the Malpai Borderlands Group, the author of the book explains, “was not simply centrist.
Rather than splitting the difference between two extremes, the radical center aimed to discard the polar oppositions that defined the spectrum in the first place.
I love that! This “center” is not some meaningless compromise where no one ends up satisfied. The goal of the group was nothing less than —
to unite ranching and conversation, to make them complementary and symbiotic if not synonymous … [in an] effort that would have to be public and multilateral.
Persons involved began by meeting in conversation to find common values. Their conversations were kept civil. Rejecting “expert” advice that had not worked in the past, they did not reject science but insisted on research conducted locally by scientists not wedded to specific outcomes promoted by any particular group. Members of the MBG, like the researchers on their lands, were determined to maintain open minds

Quick recap:

Civil conversation among open-minded people not wedded in advance to specific political outcomes but agreeing to examine empirical evidence to determine what best accomplishes their shared goals. 

That is how I see the MBG example as applicable to widely diverse economic, social, and environmental problems in other parts of our country. Can you see it, too?

Not everyone in the AZ/NM borderlands area, I’m sure, has joined the Malpai Borderlands Group. True, that’s just a guess on my part, but think about it. Even when a new approach to solving an old problem outperforms previous attempts, there are usually a few people who continue, in the face of all evidence, to clutch tightly to their previous ideologically-driven beliefs. That’s why I wouldn't be surprised if a few unconvinced extremists remain on both ends of the political continuum. But I bring that up not to cast any bad light on anyone but merely to urge those who would seek consensus and cooperation — and results — to realize that it is possible for committed individuals to join together and move forward without everyone within earshot being on board. 

No individual or group in history has ever had 100% support and devotion. It isn’t necessary. Without 100% of a population being on board, however, the more people who come to see cooperation and empirical research bringing tangible benefits to all concerned, themselves included, the more support the “radical center” will gain — provided it holds to a nonconfrontational, noncoercive, open-minded approach. 

What do you think? Worth a try in other areas of community life, in other parts of the United States? “Git ‘er done!” How about it?

Postscript, 4/10

In my eagerness to share the story of the Malpai Borderlands Group and my ideas for how what worked for them could work in other places and other situations, I may have glossed too quickly over another piece contributing to the group’s success. You see, it was not only that a civil conversation uncovered common values. It was much more. This group of property owners, environmentalists, ranchers, scientists, and government agency employees came together to address a specific problem because they shared a common goal

“Our goal is to restore and maintain the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape to support a diverse, flourishing community of human, plant, and animal life in our borderlands region.” 

The problem was that their regional landscape was threatened in several ways. Their mission was to find strategies to reach their shared goal (“to restore and maintain … natural processes…”) by accomplishing clear objectives embedded in the goal statement — preventing fragmentation, restoring grasslands, remediating shrub encroachment, and conserving ranching as a livelihood. 

It’s one thing for people who disagree politically to come together to try listening to one another’s views. That’s very, very hard — and maybe it isn’t even worth the time spent. On the other hand, when people in a community, who share some common core value or values, disagree over how to accomplish a shared goal — that’s when conversation is most likely to be successful, as long as political ideologies, religious differences, “how we’ve always done things,” and the like can be set aside and the question at hand approached with open minds. When there is something that people agree needs doing, their problem is no longer a matter of abstract principle but a question of what will work. Pragmatism is America’s contribution to Western philosophy, and Americans have always been noted for their ability to find ways to get things done.

An ecological community, a village, a school district, a county fair committee, even a church — all, from time to time, face specific problems requiring consensus on how the problems will be solved. Too often the necessary discussions disintegrate into unproductive, painful, “insulting tirades.” A better model is available, if we’re adult enough to adopt it.