Not In My Backyard?

She is a stocky woman, a strong woman and her voice is shaking. On the back of her T-shirt are the words, “Save the Sandhills” circling an image of a wind turbine struck through with the universal sign for “not allowed”. She is from Cherry County in the Nebraska Sandhills, a place I have written protectively about in this space before. She is testifying before the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee on LB1054 — a piece of legislation drafted by her state senator to reverse legislation passed two years ago and signed into law by our governor.

This is hard for her, the situation and the testifying before a horseshoe of suits.

Costumes mean different things to different people. One man who testifies in favor of the bill will scoff at the “suits” (gesturing to wind power developers who have testified against the bill) worn by those who only care about money. I don’t think he means to rope in all the senators but this is how stereotyping often fails us — it always ropes the innocent with those perceived guilty. The senators wear suits presumably to show their seriousness, their respect for the privilege of serving (though there are other ways to do this too). Same costume, different meaning.

Suits aside, I have testified before a legislative committee — it can be intimidating.

The legislation passed two years ago made it easier for Nebraska to attract wind power developers, a piece of the renewable energy puzzle, the latter of which I am keen to solve. It is also a piece of the rural economic development puzzle — an ongoing brain teaser for county governments.

The woman is here to speak truth to power, flanked by several ranching neighbors who have traveled hundreds of miles to the capital. She wants to reinstate a provision the earlier bill removed, that private wind development projects be authorized only after review by the state board that is charged with regulating public power in Nebraska.

There’s the rub, or part of it. Does a private wind development project fall under the auspices of Nebraska’s Power Review Board? Two years ago, the legislature said no. The stated charge of the board, as established in 1963, is “to regulate Nebraska’s publicly owned electrical utility industry.” On its surface, it would seem they made a reasonable decision, consistent with the stated charge.

What happened?

There’s an old saw, right? You don’t know what you don’t know.

Without direct experience of a change, it is hard to know what might become critically important once you gain experience. The woman testifying, her hand raised now, a trembling finger tracing an arc across those senators’ chests, hopes passing LB1054 will give local residents a stronger voice than their county board seems willing to offer.

The chair of the committee asks the woman when her county board is up for reelection. The woman at first seems confused, uncertain what this has to do with the matter at hand, then answers. The senator suggests (and he clarifies he doesn’t mean to sound flip) putting up candidates who will better represent the interest of the landowners present.

She is here to speak truth to power and I want her to know this matters, to validate her.

And, I understand where the chair is coming from. During the hearing, I submitted my email contribution to the gathered testimony in which I wrote in part:

As I listen to testimony …I am struck by the fact that those communities who seem to be testifying in favor of the bill are the victims of poor local representation and/or nonexistent zoning. While I’m mindful of and care about the impact to individual land owners, I oppose the bill in part because I don’t feel our state should be called upon to redress local political dysfunction.”

I spent this morning looking at documentary material on YouTube capturing the reactions of farmers in Wisconsin (Fond du lac County). Here I got to see what one of the ranchers from Cherry County had mentioned in his testimony — the phenomenon of “shadow flicker”. During the testimony, I had heard the reference and thought, how bad could that be? I got a much better sense of it on the videos.

If you have ever had a fire truck parked outside your home, you know what shadow flicker is on steroids — that pulsing play of light that temporarily overtakes any windowed room facing the street — can’t miss it. Shadow flicker from a turbine is a subdued version of that minus the colorful lights. And, the flicker is slower — as slow as the blades turn, blocking and unblocking the sun, casting an amplified shadow of those sculpted blades round and round, three times per revolution.

Alfred Hitchcock would have loved filming a movie in a house near a turbine!

What I don’t know is what part of a day (a week, a month) those rotating shadows overtake someone’s living room. Does it matter? I think it does matter or it might. In fact, I would argue in a world full of people, nobody gets a pass on being annoyed part of the time. In the city, it might be a barking dog (or two or four), a neighbor’s teenagers (and their friends) who drive loud cars and play loud music, the guy down the block who insists on using his smoker without considering that you don’t prefer to be enveloped by smoke, the one with musical Christmas lights, the other one with a taste for fireworks that exceeds yours by about four hours (or four days), the high school band up the hill practicing at 630 AM, the kids joy-riding on the main drag more than a mile away, the neighbor who ages or falls on hard times and can’t any longer maintain his/her property and on and on. City dwellers don’t enjoy these “wrinkles”. Living in a city has its pros and cons too. We don’t choose our neighbors; if we could they’d be perfect angels — like us.

Even so, I also wrote in my email:

As an active member of Citizens Climate Lobby, a volunteer, bipartisan organization working to promote legislation on the national level to ease the effects of climate change, I’m here to listen and learn…I am learning a lot.”

Is there a limit to what a property owner should have to accept? One of the dismayed property owners in Wisconsin said he could live with a turbine a mile from his home but not 1000 feet. A mile is 5,280 feet. That’s a big difference. Could sitings accommodate it?

Turbine placement has turned neighboring ranchers and farmers against one another; the rancher who chooses to rent land for the placement of a turbine may be alienated by those who choose not to do so. The fabric of rural life tears a little and many who embrace that life feel it is already worn thin in too many places. Yet, the mayor of Broken Bow testified to the rejuvenation of a central retail hub in rural Nebraska and spoke against the bill. So-called wind farms had turned that small Nebraska town around.

I waited for concerns to be outlined about the precious Sandhills, but they were mentioned only in passing. The importance of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels was not mentioned at all. It was the personal encroachment that rankled the most and the feeling of their concerns falling on deaf ears at home. I hope one of them runs for their local government and finds what I hope every elected official does, that nothing looks as straightforward behind the public desk as it does behind the private one.

I left realizing anew how hard the job of a thoughtful legislator is, how numerous their constituents’ concerns, how truly impossible it is to please everyone and how critical it is for all of us to be in respectful, continual, candid and transparent dialogue.


As if this is Ever Easy

                    for S.C. on her birthday

Because I am tired and awake.
Because the grackles dive like my heart
in its poverty of sleep.
Because their sharp feet
pierce the deck as they lean
pecking. Because wild birds
don’t mark time
just land and gorge.
Because I have reason to be glad
things aren’t worse, they are worse,
because I am trying
to love the hardest ones to love.

The Hidden Wound

The poet and essayist Wendell Berry wrote a book about racism. Yes he did. It is moving and provocative and full of his insights and his uncertainties. He reflects on the damage racism has done to humanity through the lens of his own experience and his long-articulated passion for the land.

It is the last book I tackled in 2017. I am simmering in it and expect the flavors to grow richer like a good stew. Written in 1968-9, with an afterword added in 1988, Berry raises credible questions and proposes novel challenges unlike any I’ve encountered (yes, those observations are now 30 years old and eerily prophetic). These aren’t platitudes but excavations by a white man looking at racism as something that continues to rob us all of dignity and humanity.

Sometimes, a poet sees what is hardest to see and finds words to express it.

Here are a few outtakes to tempt you, each of which drew me into long, fruitful reflection on my own life and what I might undertake in the coming year:

“No man will ever be whole and dignified and free except in the knowledge that the men around him are whole and dignified and free, and that the world itself is free of contempt and misuse.”

“To both the racist and the puritan, childhood is not a time of life that we grow out of, as the life of the child grows out of the life of the parent or as a plant grows out of the soil, but a time and state of consciousness to be left behind, to cut oneself off from … The child may be joyous, the man must be sober and self-denying; the child may be free, the man is to be “responsible”; the child may be candid in his feelings, the man must be polite, restrained, mindful of the demands of convention; the child may be playful, the man must be industrious. I am not necessarily objecting to the manly virtues, but I am objecting that they should be so exclusively assigned to grownups, and that grownups should be so exclusively restricted to them. A man may have all the prescribed adult virtues and, if he lacks the childhood virtues, still be a dunce and a bore and a liar.”

“From other stories that have been handed down to me I know that my people, like many others in the slave states, went to church with their slaves, were baptized with them, and presumably expected to associate with them in heaven. Again, I have been years realizing what this means, and what it has cost.

“First, consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit. If there had ever opened a conscious connection between the two claims, if the two sides of his mind had ever touched, it would have been like building a fire in a house full of gunpowder: somewhere down deep in his mind he always knew of the danger, and his nerves were always alert to it.”

“As a people, we have been tolled farther and farther away from the facts of what we have done by the romanticizers, whose bait is nothing more than the wishful insinuation that we have done no harm. Speaking a public language of propaganda, uninfluenced by the real content of our history which we know only in a deep and guarded privacy, we are still in the throes of the paradox of the “gentleman and soldier.”

“However conscious it may have been, there is no doubt in my mind that all this moral and verbal obfuscation is intentional. Nor do I doubt that its purpose is to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism—an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves.”

“I should understand the land, not as a commodity, an inert fact to be taken for granted, but as an ultimate value, enduring and alive, useful and beautiful and mysterious and formidable and comforting, beneficent and terribly demanding, worthy of the best of man’s attention and care… [My father] insisted that I learn to do the hand labor that the land required, knowing–and saying again and again–that the ability to do such work is the source of a confidence and an independence of character that can come no other way, not by money, not by education.”

You don’t have to take my word for it of course.

Changing our Stories

On the prowl for beacons in the dark on the advice of my recent owl visitor, I checked out a podcast recommended by a friend. How glad I am. It’s called Changing our Stories and it’s lovely. This is a professional broadcast by a woman brave enough to change her own story in the wake of the 2016 election.

What kindling the events of that year and the past one have provided so many, in so many places, in so many ways. May the fires of commitment continue to draw us together.

Andrea Smardon, the executive producer of the podcast, resigned as a contributor to NPR to forge a freelance career that mines stories of healing, empowerment and transformation. That’s the terrain of Changing our Stories. Smardon stays expertly near enough but leaves most of the room for her subjects to reveal their ordinary and spectacular wisdom in a 10-12 minute story that feels longer, in a good way.

Here’s to first-rate feature journalism, to taking risks, to honoring stories.

For a Time, An Owl

All the mitt-sized leaves, burnished and curled have see-sawed from the vines that climb our pale stone fascia. I spy squirrels through the kitchen window, all driven by instinctual haste in December — they scamper through tunnels of leaves, seem to scheme as they bury their grid of nuts in my raised garden boxes. Later today, I will hear their claws thudding across the shingles overhead as they muster sufficient speed for their many flights from roof to trees.

Sadly, the owl is gone.

For days, a congress of dominant birds dived and swarmed the honey locust knothole habitually rented by squirrels. The jays, the starlings, the lone flicker, would peer inside and quickly retreat, one after another. Had an old squirrel died inside? Were they paying their respects? Had there been a battle? Had one of them been vanquished and dragged into the knothole? I have seen protests that follow the killing of a young bird — whole flocks wheeling and calling out as if convening a brief but raucous wake. Squirrels took turns too, glancing in then scampering away, perhaps repelled by some violation of their best dwelling.

Great dramas unfold outdoors, some as violent and unwelcome as indoor ones. Once, a particularly loud thump drew me to the large, reflective windows that look out on the sprawling locust (I’ve tried many things to prevent the birds mistaking the glass for a sheltering tree instead of the mirrored tree that is actually behind them). I looked down since, as a rule, the errant flyers fall stunned to the patio below. Not this time. Not exactly. Instead, a hawk, astride the fallen bird sunk its talons into the breast; I could see it quiver. I shivered too, at the execution of those avian blades and the force that must have launched the prey into the window, wired to escape predation.

But, the owl.

It was overcast when my oldest daughter gave herself a break from reading Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change, to watch the agile squirrels race tandem, head first down the limbs, then trunk of the locust. At its base, she and her sister had lovingly assembled fairy encampments built from fallen twigs, leaves and acorns. Elongate, deep green hosta leaves made the sprites’ floor. One spring, their father had shimmied dangerously high into its branches to fasten stout cables for a simple and spectacularly long swing. In the interest of truth and justice, I must add that their swing had been pleaded for over long months until I, suffering heights with vertigo, willed myself to climb half as high on a tree in the front yard to rig up a swing that was deemed wholly inadequate (there is more than one way to inspire an intractable father to action). Over our sloping backyard, the tree swing could carry a girl breath by breath into unbroken sky, no telling what she might imagine and why.

But, the owl.

In a suburban neighborhood, encounters with owls evoke a distinct awe — their calls travel on the night air even breaching walls and windows. Did you hear it? There. So cool, the sound of an owl, but sightings rarely happen in suburbia. When the ancient cottonwood down the road lost its battle with whatever ailed it, the great horned owl we’d often heard doubtless moved on. Twice I’d set eyes on him — on the steeple of the Swedish Covenant Church and on the seat of my bicycle. Really. A hugely nerd move, the great hunter had walloped one of our windows in broad daylight, darkening the room with his wingspan. His bell rung, he perched on the bicycle seat for a good three minutes, rendering his bad luck, my good fortune.

If not for the swivel of his camouflaged head, my daughter would have missed our small knothole visitor. In fact, nobody expects to see an owl, perched in a knothole in the middle of suburbia, in the middle of the day, cloudy or not. Do you move for the binoculars, aim the iPhone at the prize even knowing it will be a long distance long shot? You want to share the moment.

She took the photo with her ever-ready iPhone and eased out of her chair to rally her stepdad in the basement who knew where the binoculars were. Together they studied the margins of the eastern screech owl in the knothole of the tree. Diurnal owls do exist but the eastern screech owl is not among them. It craned its neck this way and that, studied the ground, seemed to study them, but never took flight, never made a sound.

Animal spiritualists would say that the owl’s appearance signaled connection with intuition or provided inspiration to manage in darkness. Ecologists though point to disruption — our sleepy owl, having been disturbed in sleep, hunting, or eating patterns may have been looking for a place to get some much-needed food so he could rest as usual during the day. How strange (and perhaps interesting) the world might look in daylight to a bird who typically works nights. Both ways of knowing seem valid to me.

Over a week, the owl returned in daylight once more and since, the squirrels seem to have reclaimed the knothole. I have decided the owl brought both signs to us, that neither meaning excludes the other, that inspiration to manage in darkness is just what we need in such disrupted times both outdoors and inside. That noisy and inaudible owl sound too reached us through wall and window and we thank the owl and will listen.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It is no way to make progress, but I’ll take what I can get.

On August 22, 2017, “A federal judge in Arizona ruled that the state violated the constitutional rights of Mexican American students by eliminating a successful Mexican American studies program, saying officials ‘were motivated by racial animus’ and were pushing ‘discriminatory ends in order to make political gains.’

I knew something about the case in Arizona, because my oldest daughter had written a paper on it as a student of Kalamazoo College and we have the sort of nerdy mother-daughter relationship that included her sharing some of her college papers and me being glad she did.  When I saw the news out of Arizona, I had the feeling I have had a number of times in the past 18 months: a sunny corner being turned, a way forward in a nation that has more often had a heart than lacked one.

Three hopeful days passed.

Then, a new story hit the wires, Sheriff Joe Arpaio had received a presidential pardon. Arpaio began his tenure as a sheriff in Maricopa County, AZ the same year that my daughter was born. In a sense, she grew up on his watch. I knew a little something about Arpaio as well. In 2012, the general assembly of my faith had assembled en masse outside the detention centers where Arpaio routinely (and with considerable pride) held people “simply on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally — a practice that had led to the detention of some Latinos who were citizens or legal residents.”

I listened to the live stream, imperfect and intermittent, with tears in my eyes and a full heart, as hundreds of my UU brethren stood in sweltering heat singing and balancing lights and candles in their outstretched hands as part of an Interfaith vigil at Arpaio’s Tent City to raise awareness about the prisoners’ plight and to let the unlawfully detained prisoners know that they were not forgotten (they could hear them and conveyed that they took heart). Among them was Susan Frederick Gray, who was part of a delegation of faith leaders who toured Tent City hosted by Arpaio. This June, our denomination elected her as the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

susan frederick gray and arpaio.jpg

Source: UU World, copyright 2012, Nancy Pierce

Two years earlier, she had been arrested in an act of civil disobedience, in front of Arpaio’s jail, along with other clergy, in protest of an Arizona deportation law.

When Arpaio was found in contempt of court on July 31, 2017, it seemed justice would at last be served. It had been five years since the Interfaith action, seven years since her arrest and many more years of local activism to bring this about. The pardon hasn’t gone unanswered of course as it is rather unprecedented as pardons go — generally, they aren’t granted before a person is brought to trial.

Even so, as the deadline approached for the announcement on the fate of DACA recipients, I had hope that the news might be supportive of this impressive group of young people who have worked, studied, practiced law, medicine and other professions though hindered along the way by prejudice and states slow to enable basic freedoms so that they can be productive participants while awaiting a path to citizenship. My home state, Nebraska, was the very last in the nation to make driver’s licenses and professional licenses available to DACA recipients and this required not one vote of our unicameral but two as each initial vote was vetoed by our governor. Our president though, had vowed to find a way to spare DACA recipients, had talked repeatedly about doing so.

On September 5, 2017, hours before my daughter and one of her friends joined me to stand in support of Nebraska DACA recipients, the news came — DACA would be dismantled. We had even more reason to join several hundred with the same intention.


As in Washington, I stretched my arms all the way up throughout the news conference, even though they ached, honestly because they ached…the sign was more visible and the “price” of those aching shoulders felt very small in comparison to what DACA youth (many my daughter’s age) were bearing in their stretched spirits.

me at the DACA rally.jpg

Copyright Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal, September 5, 2017

Will our president follow through on his recent announcement that he will embrace a bipartisan path for DACA recipients? I hope so. We need more sunny corners. All of us.

The phrase “motivated by racial animus” keeps ringing. Racial animus. Surely this is something we all have a part to play in dismantling. I know that it begins with guarding hope, “the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/and sings the tune without words/and never stops — at all.” (Emily Dickinson)

Waiting for What Exactly?

A hawk had lit where it didn’t fit and it gave me pause. That’s how this series of blogged essays began. A cardinal robbed a zygotic zucchini from my garden to share with its mate and not to be out-shined, a squirrel felled an entire body-sized leaf of chard and devoured it with a magician’s timing and talent.

Sampling the South for college prospects with my youngest daughter surfaced a set of insights impossible without this space to unpack them, as did an errant turn in an elementary school zone at pick-up time, an embarrassment unexpectedly rewarded by the kindness of strangers and a flock of cedar waxwings drinking at the head of my driveway.

I waited for nothing more than the unremarkable and somehow rich turns of my ordinary days to write, turns that I believe abound in each day if my eyes are open, if my heart is, if I am present.  The photo of an old friend appearing in my glove box or a passing word of wisdom could send me into deep and useful reflection.

Perhaps all bloggers “should” themselves into reaching for something with greater weight and in so doing, find themselves reaching away from more regular writing. If I am enjoying writing so much it cannot possibly be enough, right?

Of course, I want to say what matters, to say what heals, to say what awakens at least part of the time. I want to say something that makes a difference. More and more that has meant waiting to write. And as days become weeks and months, I wonder, waiting for what exactly? For everyday ideas to grow spellbinding? For the perfect intersection of events and insight? For the current of prose to strike like lightning from my fingertips?

If the past several months have taught me anything, it is that later isn’t good enough. Right Now wails like a storm bearing down in Spring. The Now tumbles over, under and surrounds me. Now compels me when later feels very much like never.

All the lengthier posts of recent months have a common theme — if not now, when?

Today was powerfully simple because I listened and was listened to, because I offered comfort to another mother, because I was honest with myself about something that had derailed my confidence and compromised my health and I was honest about it with someone I love and respect.

Today I bit off just as much as I could chew without choking on achievement.

Today I wrote knowing it would be a small sound and I pressed publish anyway, because writers, they write.