Mow-tivation

As flood waters overtake several small towns in Nebraska and cause mandatory water restrictions to be imposed on our capital city, it seems like a good time to reflect on choices I made last spring to grow my family’s commitment to green living.

E-GO. That’s actually the name of the mower. Does that “E” stand for Electric or Environmental? It must do double-duty. My cordless, electric lawn mower has exceeded all my expectations, and I confess they were pretty high. A few posts back I talked about hiring out care of my yard and how it had caused me to lose connection to the landscape.

Taking back mowing was the obvious solution but I couldn’t see myself hauling the gas mower back to the shop where I knew they’d rehabilitate it at considerable expense and I’d have to replace the bag the squirrels had feasted on after having consumed a nearly full bag of Kingsford charcoal (including the bag itself). This delay would be followed by some number of successful though hot and fume-filled mows after which I would face the dreaded NO-GO where the pull-start mower suddenly refuses to pull-start.

Research and reviews led me to the E-GO. The reviews were numerous, so numerous and so detailed and positive. Some reviewers had even posted video clips of them using their mower — a sort of, “I know you won’t believe what I am saying unless you can see it (and hear it)”.

I wanted to join this club of E-GO mowers. I couldn’t believe my luck — that very product carried in stock just down the road.

I chose the self-propelled model because my husband urged me to — “you shouldn’t have to injure yourself to mow” he reminded me. Oh. Yeah. Mowing is not penance. The first time I mowed, I felt almost giddy. The caregiver of my neighbor wandered over from the driveway to our south, “What’s that?” Of course she knew it was a mower but how could it be so quiet — like one of the reviews said, issuing the purr of a large box fan?

I actually watched for the grass to grow enough so that I could mow again. The battery held up impressively through each mowing of our considerable yard (by city standards).

My compost pile grew, layered with waste from the kitchen and some decent rains. My daughter dubbed the newly established compost pile “cute” and was sunk in reverie about the old compost pile from her childhood, towering, bound by chicken wire, and into which she and the neighbor boy would clamber and jump, jump, jump the same way my father and his younger brother stamped down shredded cabbage and brine for sour cabbage heads in the fall up in Kinney, Minnesota (a tiny town with a big distinction).

Those jumping boys from Kinney are on my mind right now as I continue transferring taped oral histories to digital files from two uncles and one aunt from Up North. Cabbage figured heavily in all their minds — nobody grew cabbage as large, round and firm as they did…a slurry of manure and water, poured by hand at the base of each plant, was the secret. Connection to the land was a matter of survival.

Ironically, adjacent to their home, the taconite mines growled and consumed the wooded north country. Its immigrant workers, my paternal grandfather among them, toiled long and brutal hours in an environment threaded with asbestos that led to their premature deaths. Intolerable pain, like that of many present-day coal miners, led to alcohol dependence rather than opioid addiction but the trajectory was somewhat similar.

During prohibition, my paternal grandmother made “moon” for him, the name given to bootleg alcohol distilled by the light of the moon, just as she labored over thick soups and humble bread and sarma by the panful. Plums from Oregon, fermented, boiled into mash and distilled in the basement (until the setup had to be relocated to evade detection) were as essential to my grandfather as food.

The wholesale plundering of natural resources with attendant health damage followed by mediation of that damage were normalized for my dad as a youngster. Perhaps this is why he greeted news of the massive flooding in Nebraska with less alarm than I thought was warranted. “All that snow from the mountains is melting,” he mused. Of course if that were the cause, we’d be accustomed to whole towns, bridges and dams being consumed by the spring melt. We aren’t.

Far from the coastal U.S., we in the heart of the nation are likewise experiencing weather extremes predicted by well-researched and commonly available models of the costly disruption of climate change. Unusually large and frequent snowfall and rain coupled with wildly variant temperatures wreaks its own havoc. The excess moisture of course comes from somewhere if the water cycle children are still taught about in elementary school is valid. A few years ago, I began to associate heavy snow with dislocation of polar bear habitat and this poem arose:

May Day / Christine Hope Davis

Did you notice snow
bank Minneapolis, and Philadelphia,
bury and re-bury and re-bury
Kansas City, sock New York’s canyons
of commerce, see it shrivel
the pink-fingered rhododendrons
that rim Asheville? Did you
notice it bruise the tulips in Omaha?
Could you make out my claws
thrashing North even as I spun sugar
snow on descent, even
as my belly cried seal                          
                                  seal
                                         seal?
Piles of it flaked
off my back as I balanced on my puck
of ice. You cursed every inch I could not
spare. And I, loving ice, watched
bergs subside month by month, watched them rise
in swollen clouds. What remained
but to plunge the half ton of me into the front                    many fronts,           
                       and brandish                          my own body                              an arctic flag
                                                   in the face of my enemy?
                                                                                                  I know enough
                                                  to die               trying.

My lone, rechargeable, electric mower is not going to make any appreciable difference and yet I was following the choice of a neighbor and I tend to believe the words of Albert Einstein, spoken in 1953, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” He wasn’t talking about climate change of course, but of the horrors uncovered in the wake of the Holocaust. Consider how radical his statement was. In the wake of so much “doing” of evil, he argued that it was inaction by so many that we had to fear most, inaction that made the world most dangerous. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail ten years later, a letter in which he excoriates the majority of white liberals for their complacency and “donothingness” regarding the civil rights movement.

How different is complacency about climate change than that displayed in either of these critical passages of (in)humanity? How costly is donothingness for us in this century?

Long before Einstein was born, an English clergyman, Sydney Smith, born in 1771 said, “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little – do what you can.”

A young woman, Vera Günther, from Bochum, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany has a few things to say about “doing what you can” in her talk, “Why it is Better to Do Something Small.” She argues humbly and compellingly that each small step takes you to the next small step and the next and each of these enlarges the original idea, and tends to draw more people into the process of addressing a problem far too big for one person, however passionate, to solve.

This week, I listened to the deflation of a friend, a dedicated friend whose concerted activism I admire, who not only works diligently to align her own choices with a sustainable planet, but to educate and advocate with many, many others locally and with state and national elected leaders. She shared a passage in Justice on Earth, edited by Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom, that had left her feeling demoralized:

“Many…have led the way in their communities by purchasing renewable energy, replacing lightbulbs, weatherizing buildings, and installing solar panels. These are important steps to demonstrate how to reduce carbon omissions, but while they are necessary, generally they are insufficient for exemplifying prophetic moral imagination. This is because they do not require us to change our relationships of privilege and power to other people…They hint at but do not directly speak the language of morality.”

It is good to be challenged by these words of Pamela Sparr who is an intersectional activist. They help me consider what Günther sought in her activism — how do I forge bridges among people who haven’t been connected before, how do I keep looking for ways to deepen the difference I can make, to use my privilege for the common good, to surrender what I thought I needed in order to offer all that I can?

Sparr’s words, like Dr. King’s words remind us that there is more that can be done and those of us with privilege have a critical role to play, that the work of activism gets harder when we start to carve into the bone of our own privilege. It is tempting to look at all of this through the lens of “either/or” rather than “both/and”. Either you are living out a prophetic moral imperative with requisite sacrifice, or you are doing nothing.

I realize I cannot change the way my friend’s spirit took in Sparr’s words. That work belongs to her, however I can imagine Sparr applauding the substantial activism and dedication of my friend and even encouraging me in my own dopey small steps, my 60+ readers, the links I hope at least some of those readers click on to grow in their understanding, my divestment, my public actions/rallies, my letters to the editor and to public officials, my table talks, my walking when and where I can, my canvassing, my self-study, and my rechargeable mower, even as she invites me to go deeper still.

Going forward, I hope I can exhibit the resilience, courage and loving self-examination that all of this requires for the very long haul. I hope I will have models for this transformation. I hope I will not be alone on the journey.

Maybe I can think of discouragement as a luxury. Not a burden. A luxury I can choose to let go.

Important that Awake People be Awake

“For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

from “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” Copyright 1998, William Stafford

Thanks go to my oldest brother for swinging my eye back to the rich resources of the Poetry Foundation. The poem from which I drew the epigraph shines there along with so many poems I’m grateful to discover. The website is über-searchable so you can find the work of a particular poet or look at collections (based on themes or movements or in memory of certain poets) that have been curated by folks at the Foundation. Every time I go back, I find something inspired and inspiring. As I move into the third quarter of my teaching year with a focus on poetry, my debt to the Poetry Foundation will again grow.

I continue to dedicate a lot of my reading diet to works that help me to dismantle systemic racism through uncovering my own part in it. Just finished reading The Other Wes Moore by Wesley Moore and am 100 pages into Debby Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Irving’s book is an interesting one for me because she’s an age mate but with a different pedigree in that her family lineage is strongly tied to early east coast colonizer’s, where mine, as a hybrid kid with a mother claiming European lineage by way of Canada and a father who was part of his family’s first-born generation from Eastern Europe, is not as WASP-y as Irving’s. At least at the outset, she sounds more surprised by what she uncovers than I remember being (for example when she learns about redlining). I know well enough that this is nothing for me to feel proud about. The real work begins not with knowing what is or has been true for non-white’s in this country but with confronting it with intention and compassion.

Those confrontations are not always successful, are not often comfortable at the outset, but ahhhh the learning, the slow letting go, the loss of certainty that must precede transformation. I have revisited another post of mine a dozen times searching for its unintentional offenses after having triggered a black friend I meant to cherish. Only today did I find and mend a second sentence in that post that might have been a source of worry. I’ll keep looking.

I’m going to elaborate on one of the revisions I made to illustrate how tender and triggering language can be. For many years, I have lured finches who favor a seed that is grown on the African continent. I assumed it was from either the country of Nigeria or Niger because I had bought it under the name Niger seed. I had never heard it pronounced in any way but nye-jerr. However, its color, and the spelling, niger, different by just one letter from the pejorative N-word means that others do not always apprehend its proper pronunciation. My friend was not just being sensitive; so common was this mispronunciation, that Wild Birds Unlimited changed the spelling of the seed that they marketed to N-Y-J-E-R. And, in a truly counterproductive move, the company sought and secured a trademark on the spelling which prevents other purveyors of this seed (largely cultivated in Ethiopia and Kenya) from using “their” spelling. In other words, anyone else who wants to sell it is stuck with the potentially offensive spelling.

That seems shortsighted.

This fall, I finished reading Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules and involuntarily recoiled on reading each of multiple references to the sod encountered by early pioneers using the pejorative N-word + wool. It was the vernacular of the time. I get that. And, it offends the modern reader. Sandoz could have (and in my estimation should have) been much harder on Jules too. Do we forfeit this heralded work of literature then, which also depicts an objectively violent and misogynistic settler, who was also a visionary of sorts, widely respected (and feared) by the hardscrabble settlers around him?

Here’s what I think.

It was both shocking and important for me to encounter Jules Sandoz, as much as I particularly loathed his treatment of his wife and the daughter who would ultimately become his biographer. I literally had to force myself to keep reading for the first 150 pages. It was both disheartening and illuminating to realize how commonplace such attitudes were about women before the turn of the 20th century and this jolt helped me understand the depth and breadth of the culture of violence toward women which continues to plague us globally in the 21st century.

Reading the afterword was also instructive as it taught me that Mari Sandoz had to revise the work and submit it 30 times before she found a publisher (in what was an even more male industry than exists today, and publishing is still largely controlled by men). It was deemed too negative a treatment of Jules (she had indeed been harder on him). So she reworked it until she had gained the requisite detachment to make publication possible.

These serial rejections and revisions had to have been a painful process for her. And yet, as the slogan goes, “she persisted” and found a way to get her story in print, and a contemporary reader sees enough of Jules’ abuse to “get it” and feel compassion for her (which is not to say that those early rejections were fitting ones).

The call to revise cherished narrative, which every writer faces as a normal part of the work, has to be considered carefully, not only as to how it is carried out, but whether it is carried out. Never is the process more daunting than in the murky waters of biographical writing. Even an “innocent” blog post (labored over more than any reader might imagine) can carry seeds of harm. And, confronting that harm led me to learn more than I had known to start. I lost nothing by considering my friend’s reaction.

I grew and changed. Selfishly, I know that will serve my writing going forward. Readers are necessary to writing. A writer’s intentions must be good, it’s true. But that is not enough. A writer has to step back and consider the unexpected turbulence that can arise for readers navigating different lives than their own. When that “rough air” (gotta love that new euphemism they use on airlines now) can be eased without jettisoning the work, feedback from a reader who cares enough to offer it is worth a dozen revisions guided only by the self-reinforcing, echo-chamber of one’s own narrative.

 

In My Dreams

Today, especially today, I am giving myself the gift of indulging in a fantasy. My birthday wasn’t but a week ago and as I’m in the habit of celebrating it until it is done with me, let’s call this dreamscape a birthday gift.

I check the news, and there it is: a letter from the newest appointee to the United States Supreme Court.

Dear Christine,

I haven’t slept much. I wager you haven’t slept much either. I am asking the press to publish this letter in the hope it will reach you because I’m not sure where you are laying your head down in the wake of this confirmation mess. I know you have been forced to vacate your family home. You and your children and your husband, all as precious to you as mine are to me. (I know I already had a letter published in the Wall Street Journal but when you read what I have to say, I think you’ll understand why it was easy to find a broader outlet for this one.) The letter is long. I hope you will read it to the end.

I thought when I received news of the senate vote today, I would feel elated, vindicated, relieved. I don’t. I feel a little sick. Maybe I look the way you described Mark Judge looking when you saw him in the grocery store. You see, tonight, I decided to watch your testimony — every hour of it. I didn’t invite my wife and daughters to join me. I watched it alone. I didn’t drink while I watched it. I wanted to hear your testimony. Stone sober.

I have heard so much testimony in my years on the bench. I know what to watch for. You read your statement with dignity and composure. You displayed no bitterness or drama. You were careful, so careful in answering each question. Each time the senators to your left passed their time to the prosecutor they had hired, I saw you seek out that senator to see a face, to make eye contact, to acknowledge them. In a courtroom, I would have counted you a solid, credible witness. Really solid. Of course I flinched when the senators to your right asked you how you could be sure it was me. If you were sure it was me.

I recall when I read Mark Judge’s book, I told myself (as I had many times) it would be horrible to be in the grips of chemical dependency, to nearly lose your life because of it, to be unable to remember the things you did or said under the influence.

His many transgressions were the result of being addicted to alcohol.

I was not addicted. I was different. I didn’t black out. Of that, I was absolutely certain.

There’s a line in Mark’s book, where he says, “Please tell me I didn’t hurt her.” Maybe that was what threw me off the trail. Nobody ever came to report to me that I had harmed anyone. Ever. Maybe it wouldn’t have occurred to them to check. Everybody knew I was a virgin. I heard about it. A lot. I got razzed about it. I wish I’d been more self-confident, that it hadn’t bothered me so much. I needed a way to be one of the guys, a way that didn’t require me to give up my chastity. It really mattered to me.

I bulked up, went out for sports. And drinking heavily helped. Mark was a good teacher.

Absent addiction, I told myself, I was just a “guy” who had a good time, had a few beers. I rationalized all this by weighing my drinking against what I was able to achieve during those years. I wasn’t the mess that Mark was. I was making it on the field, the court, in the classroom. The only place I wasn’t making it was with girls. My choice, I said.

But, that stigma never went away. Given the chance to pose as someone who was ‘making it’ the way my peers all bragged about, I was glad to have all those innuendos in the year book. It bought me some capital with my peers. I like to think I would have admitted that, if my daughters and my wife hadn’t been in the hearing room. I just don’t know. With them there, I had to dodge those questions. Hell, I lied. It didn’t even feel like a choice. It didn’t feel like it mattered at that moment and then it was done. I could have corrected it right then. I could have done that. During your testimony, I saw how you carefully reviewed the things you had said in your statement, how you returned to the smallest inaccuracies to correct them.

I’ve seen witnesses bluff and evade plenty of times. I understood it to be a sign of poor character (and maybe it is) but to my surprise, when that moment arrived for me, I didn’t do any better. Being accused of something is very different than I’ve imagined in my years on the bench. When you have believed something for your entire professional life, it is very difficult to make room for a transgression like this.

I’ll never find out how this would have changed my conduct as a judge in the courtroom.

What I want to say, what I’m trying to avoid saying, what I must say if I’m to live with myself is that I believe you, Christine. I am painfully aware that whether I remember this happening, I believe it did happen and I am sorry, so very sorry for all you suffered then and for all you suffered recently. You have made a difference.

Now it is my turn to act bravely. Now it is my turn to act unselfishly. Just watch.

Indebted,

Brett

 

 

Blackbird

She’s giving me a tour of her four-treed acoustic guitar, once rooted in trunks of mahogany, golden sitka spruce and rosewood with an ebony bridge. The body is a dreadnought, a nod to the battleship “HMS Dreadnought” that loomed much larger than other ships of its time. The cutaway makes access to the upper frets easier. A little bit high tech…battery door, electronic tuner so she doesn’t have to carry her manual one, right-handed and I’m trying to imagine how common it is to see a left-handed guitar and do you pay a premium for that?

This guitar she owns, as of a year or so ago though she began lessons about three years ago after a false start as a seven-year-old on a ¾ size guitar, a size some dub a travel guitar. One such guitar branded by C. F. Martin was the first to fly in space and to be carried in a climb of Mount Everest. What do altitudes like that do to the tuning?

Her case is lumbering, even though faux leather. She grazes a couple walls on the way out after the bell rings, asking if she can use the ramps for students who need extra assistance, so she doesn’t hurt anyone with it. Yes. That seems prudent.

But before class ends, in the quiet of middle school, mid-period, she raises the tapestry, Hendrix-style strap over her head, bowing a little toward the guitar which seems a fitting way to begin.

She’s picking “Blackbird” — beautiful — in a range she can sing. A capo makes it higher by a whole step. Yamaha AC1RHC. She started picking a year and a half ago and it will just keep getting better. Even now, those notes, delivered with the skill she already holds, hold me in the harbor of memory.

What is it about an acoustic guitar? It all comes rushing in — Lightfoot, Mitchell, Taylor, Croce, Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Browne, Stevens — folk singers whose albums lined my shelf.

I do not tell her that I have a lump in my throat as I hear her deliver those lyrics, those chords on which I hung all the laundry of my adolescence in daylight, in the dead of night, waiting for this moment to arise.

Haunted By The Harts

My family grew suddenly yesterday.

Through 23 and Me, a stranger unburied a family secret. She had a genetic connection with one of my siblings. This is how I learned of the out-of-wedlock birth of Rebecca Ann Whetham (nee Smith) whose arrival at a so-called “home for unwed mothers” made my own mom an aunt at the age of 8.

Rebecca Ann was born on September 29, 1942, a cousin-to-be 18 years my senior almost to the day, but that wouldn’t have been unusual for me — the youngest child of the youngest child among my mom’s siblings. My father too was among the youngest of his mother’s brood of 12 children. So, I have many cousins who are considerably older than I.  At this writing, I know that Rebecca Ann, the daughter of my aunt, the one she bore who was later adopted by the Whetham’s, had four children, two daughters and two sons, before she died of cancer, just as my aunt died.

It was one of Rebecca Ann’s daughters who reached through the Internet to ultimately find her great aunt — my mother. I am so anxious to learn more. Rebecca Ann was born in the middle of WWII. Her biological mother would join the Navy as a wave shortly thereafter and later marry a man with whom she couldn’t bear any more children of her own. They would adopt two children — the first, an infant girl and the second, a baby boy. It was the boy who came wrapped in another family secret shared with me when I was still a child — he was the son of one of my cousins, conceived out of wedlock. How well my aunt must have understood my cousin’s predicament. How ready she was to offer herself to the baby. But, it was my mother and father who housed my cousin during her “confinement”.  Perhaps my aunt knew in a deeply personal and painful way that she was enabling her niece to see the son she could not keep grow up at a distance, to know how his life unfolded, to know he was alive and well. Perhaps.

I have known and known of adopted children, have known and known of adoptive parents. I confess that only some among them have met with the sort of “better” lives we seem to imagine for all adoptees and their adoptive parents. In fact, I have long felt troubled that adoption is romanticized in our culture. Unlike biological parents, adoptive ones are assumed to be uniformly wonderful and loving (presumably because they are going to the trouble of securing others’ children). However, like biological parents, some number of adoptive parents are absolutely unfit to shape and guard the lives of children. Like biological parents, some don’t know the full depth of their incompetency until their adopted children unearth it.

Terrorizing children always disturbs us but somehow, the betrayal seems more unsettling when it happens to adopted children. These children, either surrendered by or taken from biological parents, are somehow supposed to be exempt from further trauma. They have, after all, lost their birthright. Among my beloveds, I know adopted siblings who did not know that one among them was being serially molested by the adoptive father; adoptive parents who split up shortly after the “joys of parenthood” failed to square up with their idyllic fantasies; open adoptions which painfully closed without cause; adoptees who could not shake the feeling of abandonment and suffered addiction and worse.

I had almost forgotten about the SUV found at the base of an ocean-side cliff in Washington state, lost track of the fact that they never have recovered Devonte Hart’s body. The Washington Post returned to the story yesterday to ask how justice might have been denied the Hart children, is still denied them. The same day the story ran, my mother called to tell me about my surprise cousin.

It is honestly impossible to fathom what illness was at work in the Harts as they continued to accumulate victims, allowed to do so unto death. It is painful to reckon with the serial neglect of so many who were in a position to have intervened before the worst happened. Long before.

Then, I pause to realize we don’t stop similarly compromised biological parents either from adding to their families. Our news is populated with “bioparent” horror stories too and of course many family traumas are held closely so that nothing at all can be learned about them or from them.

I wonder if #MeToo will continue to teach us how to look hard in the direction of injustice and in refusing to look away, compel us to act. During the debridement of #MeToo, we are forced to expose past wounds but that isn’t enough. We have to support present and future healing and prevent future harm. I think this is part of what the Washington Post reporters were driving at — after the abuse is seen for what it is, what are we doing to respond, to dignify its victims and prevent future ones?

Because I believe that we are much more than the cells we walk, swim, run, sleep, and yes, gestate in, I pray that when the tortured souls of the Hart children left their bodies behind, they were ushered into Love eternal. And, because I believe that Love bathes us all, I hope it for their adoptive mothers too, pursued as they apparently were by their own demons.

For now, I am considering the coincidence of these haunting bits of news. For now, I am preoccupied with the tangling and untangling of lives that unwed pregnancy and adoption can bring. For now, I am trying to imagine what my aunt could have told me about what happened to her at 18 and whether that would have made a difference for me at 16. We were never closer than the summer before my 16th birthday, except today.

 

Kitchen Table

Yesterday, a friend and I sat watching snow fly as a finch huddled against the stone, the bird having had every reason to expect nyjer seed on arrival and warmer temperatures. Nearby, a pair of hardened cardinals were spying the budded branches of my forsythia.

“She looks like she is carrying eggs,” Nathan said. “See, there’s her mate.” He pointed to the male; cardinals are believed to mate for life.

I mentioned the great pines that grew in back and wondered aloud if the one nearest the house is where they might be nesting as they have other years. I thought of that tree with considerable guilt because I had waited too long to go to the nursery to ask about its decline — needles browning and dropping until this majestic specimen that provided shade for years looked almost dead on the side I could not see from inside the house.

I revered this tree…from the side that faced me.

During the five years I taught at Doane, yard work was one of the things I surrendered. A rare day’s respite from grading torturous freshman writing never seemed to overlap weather fit for mowing the lawn. The grass grew tall and harder to mow each week.

So, I hired a man with a mower. Nice guy. Single dad with a couple boys he brought to help out when school was not in session. Our agreement was that he would continue to bag my grass so I could continue to compost (prized nutrition for my raised vegetable beds). I don’t know how many mowings had passed before I noticed that he had stopped bagging, but when I asked, he assured me it would not harm the lawn because his mower pulverized the grass into such small pieces.

The lawn? I was worried about my vegetables.

The day that I discovered the ailing side of the 25-foot pine was the first day I realized that my mowing my yard was definitely not the same as his mowing my yard. With every pass of the mower, I used to survey my property, the borders, the entire landscape. I checked on my compost pile and the progression of invasive vines that I might need to pull. I noted volunteer perennials thickening and the seasonal emergence and recession of other species. I saw the mulberries come on hard and green, then purple sweetly with sun and rain. I sampled those berries.

Then, I left my land, modest as it is, and I am (and my tree is) the worse for it.

In a speech by the Native American activist Winona LaDuke before the General Assembly of the UUA in 2010, she recounts an attempt to talk with her father about her activism on behalf of their tribe. His response was something along the lines of, “You don’t know how to grow corn. Learn how to grow corn and then we’ll talk.”

Of course, her father wasn’t just suggesting she learn how to cultivate corn, right?

Both James Baldwin (in The Fire Next Time) and Wendell Berry (in The Hidden Wound) wrote eloquently about what happened when Blacks became separated from the land as a result of the Great Migration, about what they gave up and the poverty they inherited (both financially and spiritually). Reading reflections from two prominent 20th century writers in the space of two months, one Black and one white created a startling convergence I have no reason to imagine either man would have sought. This artificial meeting is something I’ve been turning over in my mind for months.

The land that slaves toiled over did not beat them, did not rape them, did not dehumanize them. Humans did that (as Leonard Pitts recently put it, but more on that in a moment). And after slavery ended, most whites in the south and elsewhere continued to make life so brutally unfair for emancipated slaves that they left behind the best talents they had been allowed to develop and the cradling land that had been a source of subsistence, in the wild hope that North or West, they could make a better life, a fresh start. If there were whites who objected to the brutality of their treatment after slavery and supported their determination to escape it, history contains scant evidence of either.

Isabel Wilkinson’s The Warmth of Other Suns recounts the arduous and painful dislocation of Blacks. First Lady Michelle Obama, who left the White House a scant 15 months ago, descended from these hopeful and determined and disadvantaged migrants.

Decades after the Great Migration, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” He generously added, “I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers [and sisters] in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.”

If he were here today, would Dr. King find the undergirding systems of racial oppression even partially dismantled?

On April 15, the syndicated columnist, Leonard Pitts, spoke at a PeaceMaking Workshop in Lincoln where I live. His text was a continuation of a conversation he began with this audience three years ago. I’ve been lucky to hear him both times and will be thrice lucky if he returns. He is an age mate and revealed that he is in considerable agony over the ground lost since he and I were teenagers, both of us certain that it would be impossible to ever go back, that the progress of the civil rights movement was a solid thing from which we would launch further steps toward justice, that the women’s movement meant I would never have to face inequity and harassment, that the Voting Rights Act and the important and overdue parity that it provided was utterly and completely irreversible.

Without care, without hands on connection, without consistent attention, and intention, a whole culture can go to weeds and the trees begin to brown and perish. And then there is the gnarly matter of believing that we’ve got things handled when we don’t. He spoke of that too.

Pitts also spoke about the importance of questioning what we think we know, about listening (even and especially when it is not pleasant to listen) and letting the listening alter us. And once we are altered — acting on behalf of what we now know to help repair the fabric of all humanity.

I can’t help seeing the parallel between what Pitts talked about and my looking at the “pretty” side of the tree, the one I can see from my house, and the one I stopped seeing when I stopped engaging with my property, when I thought someone else was handling it, someone else would let me know if I needed to do something.

The nurseryman says my tree is not lost. I can treat it and keep what remains though it will always show signs of the damage. And if I start this spring, I may be able to save the tree in the back corner of the yard that is only beginning to show signs of disease.

Faith tells me we are not lost either. We belong to each other. We have the work of truth and reconciliation to do inside ourselves and among one another. We needn’t wait for a grand plan. We can begin one heart at a time, sitting at a kitchen table, looking out on our sliver of the world, building trust and a new history that dignifies us all.

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.