Raise the Statues, Tear Them Down

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This post is adapted from a talk I recently gave to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church.

Recently, the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, along with the Tri-States Civil War Roundtable, dedicated a marker in Woodland Cemetery at the grave of Edward Prince, a Quincyan who distinguished himself through service in the Civil War. Colonel Prince, who had been an attorney before the war, was the second-in-command of a daring cavalry raid in 1863 that diverted Confederate forces away from the defense of Vicksburg, allowing Ulysses S. Grant to move troops into position to take the city, a major turning point in the war.

It is right and proper to honor Colonel Prince’s leadership and valor. At the same time, I find myself wondering: What if Edward Prince’s father, instead of moving his family to Illinois in the 1830s to take up farming, had moved to Mississippi? Unfortunately, one scenario I can easily imagine is that Edward Prince would have distinguished himself in the service of the Confederate Army, and that his service would have been recognized, memorialized, and honored, and that today a controversy would be brewing over whether his statue should be taken down somewhere, or his name removed from a public building, or some other form of reconsideration of the meaning of his acts.

We all have our private forms of reverence. People we respect, honor, and seek to emulate. But reverence also has a public face, in which our society tries to single out people who demonstrate particular virtues, values, or actions, and that’s where things can get tricky.

For much of history, the idea of publicly sanctioned honor, and especially state-sanctioned honor, was tied up with power. And for much of the world, it still is. The emperor’s profile on coins, the triumphal arch in the public square, the dictator’s portrait in every schoolroom. These things show who’s in charge and whose will is to be obeyed. For the rest of us, our job is to admire from our lowly place, not aspire to their exalted status. But in modern times, we have adopted a more expansive idea of public admiration, one that does include an element of aspiration. We are called not only to admire these acclaimed people, but to be like them.  

The complication comes in the fact that people’s idea of what is admirable changes over time. Take Andrew Jackson, for example, first placed on the modern twenty-dollar bill in 1928, although his image has been on American currency, and thus a pre-eminent symbol of what it means to be an American, since the 1860s. What was it that led to his placement on such a widely used banknote? I’d have to say that for earlier generations, Jackson represented what many Americans liked to celebrate and found worthy of recognition: aggressiveness, domination, military prowess, distrust of elites and intellectuals, and boundless ambition. A lot of Americans today still think of those as admirable traits. So it’s no surprise that our former president placed a bust of Jackson prominently in the White House and frequently posed for pictures in front of it.

As for myself, I prefer the person who is being planned to replace Jackson, Harriet Tubman, as my virtue model. She was tough but focused, committed to human liberation in ways both large and small, and unafraid to risk her personal safety in the service of others. And she cared for her aging parents in their later years.

So our ideas of public honor change over time, and one generation’s heroes become the next generation’s problems. Will something similar happen in future years? You can count on it. So perhaps we need to think about how we as a society dole out praise. Maybe we don’t need a statue in the traffic circle to tell us how to act.   

It’s a commonplace among pollsters that when people name the person they most admire, they most frequently identify their mother or father. Favorite teachers come in pretty high on that list, too, along with more distant relatives like grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I’m not suggesting that we start putting up statues to our parents in the backyard, or even the household shrines that are commonplace in some countries. But I am wondering if our definition of heroism needs to be reconsidered, and whether it’s not as inaccessible as it might seem.

What is the phrase that heroes so often use when given praise for their accomplishments? “I was just doing my job.” I think we tend to attribute that comment to modesty, or maybe even false modesty, the idea that if someone says, “Yeah, I did great,” they’re crossing a line of appropriateness. But let’s take the hero at her word for a minute. Let’s say that’s the true and simple feeling. “I was just doing my job.” What does that say to us?

I think it tells us that if we’re looking for greatness, we don’t have to look too far. I’ll spare you any corny stories about everyday heroes because that’s not exactly what I’m talking about, but rather the simple observation that an action that may feel ordinary, even mundane, to the doer may have an impact far beyond its visible effects, or even its intended ones.

I am something of a worrywart in daily life, the kind of person who likes to plan and plan, and think of all the things that might go wrong, and as a result I sometimes rob myself of spontaneous enjoyment. I remember a friend of mine telling me once that on his kids’ birthdays, they would celebrate with a “Whatever Happens” day, deliberately unplanned, following the birthday child’s wishes as they unfolded and sometimes ending up with large blocks of empty time, whiling away a few hours engaged in what even a charitable observer might describe as goofing off. My initial thought about this was that it was kind of cheating, to make a tradition out of not planning anything, and part of me still thinks that. But looking at it from the other direction, I think about the birthday child’s perspective and what it feels like to know that your parent is clearing the day and letting you decide what to do. And if you want to spend the afternoon at the arcade, or go out for indulgent pancakes for breakfast, or just stay in bed until you feel like getting up, that’s what will happen. The implicit message of “Whatever Happens” day is: You matter. I will listen to you. Your wishes count.

And this is where I turn back to reverence, how we show it and how we perceive it in our daily lives. An ordinary encounter can be reverential. When we approach a conversation thinking equally of the other person’s perspective and needs, as well as our own, we are recognizing that individual’s fellow humanity.

But there are many obstacles to that kind of interaction, as we all know. For one thing, and let’s face it, people tend to be pretty selfish much of the time, focused on their own desires and needs and not those of others. I expect you’ve had the experience, as I have many times, of being in a conversation with someone and realizing that they were not paying any genuine attention to what you were saying, but instead thinking ahead to the next thing they were going to say. It’s not a pleasant feeling to recognize that you’re basically serving as a placeholder for someone else’s monologue.

And to complicate matters further, we are surrounded by a great deal of noise these days. How many times, when you ask someone how they’re doing, you receive the stock response, “Busy.” Now there are different kinds of busy. There’s the busy of someone who is trying to make ends meet, and that’s a busy we can all respect. There’s the busy of someone in search of wealth or status, something we’ve all engaged in, although we sense instinctively that this kind of busy has to be monitored so it doesn’t throw one’s life out of balance. And then there’s the busy of someone who is using busy-ness to avoid any empty moments, as if there’s something disreputable about sitting on the deck to watch the sunset, or standing out in the yard getting to know your neighbor, or catching up with an old friend through a note, an e-mail, or even a posting on our current villain, Facebook. Sometimes busy-ness serves as a protective screen, keeping us at arm’s length from the rewarding, but emotionally taxing, labor of more genuine interaction.

And of course the social media themselves are often part of the noise. For every rediscovered friend and engaging conversation, there are a thousand predigested memes, stock comments, and smart remarks that are momentarily funny but ultimately corrosive. I find myself posting less and less on social media these days, not because I don’t recognize their potential as a medium for true engagement, but because they have failed to live up to that potential again and again. In 1985, long before the arrival of the Internet era, Neil Postman wrote his famous critique of the American mass media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’m sorry to report that the trends he identified in that book have not slowed or reversed, but accelerated, so that today we find ourselves in a state of near-terminal amusement, drowning in hashtag blessings.

I realize that I may appear to have wandered from my original topic by now, so I’d like to try to bring things together and show the connections. My point is that we are presently caught up in a great debate, here in the United States and elsewhere, about what sort of public honor should be given to people, and what kind of people should receive it, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that debate. Earlier this week, for example, the city of Mexico City announced that it was replacing the statue of Christopher Columbus that formerly stood along one of the city’s main thoroughfares with a different statue, a replica of a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting an indigenous woman, known as the Young Woman of Amajac. This is a powerful shift in emphasis, from the conqueror to the conquered, and we should not minimize its significance.

But in our daily lives, we are not likely to have the opportunity to behave heroically, to lead troops into battle, free enslaved people, or anything else that might put us in a portrait gallery. But what we can do is what I’ve suggested here: we can engage with our fellow humans in an authentic and reverential fashion.

I was thinking about the Golden Rule a few days ago. It occurred to me that most of the time, we think of the Golden Rule in instrumental terms. Why do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Because it’s good business in the long run. If I honor my agreements, and keep my word, and that encourages you to do the same, we both come out winners. Kind of like the rules of the road. Drive on the right and you won’t wreck. But there’s another level at which the Golden Rule speaks to us. In treating others as we would like to be treated, we are recognizing our common humanity, the bond that joins us all regardless of race, gender, age, or any of the other accidents of circumstance.

When we treat someone with courtesy, listen to them without prejudice, and act with compassion and kindness, we are just doing our job. Our job as human beings. And not that it matters, but it’s possible that someone will be building a little statue of us in their heart as a result.

The Bright Future Ahead

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Telosa – artist’s conception

It’s been a chaotic year and a half, with disease ravaging the world and many political leaders in the U.S. taking advantage of the crisis to score points against their opponents instead of taking the obvious necessary steps to restore public health. Many people will look back on this time in history, I fear, with shame and regret.

Which is why it’s comforting, in a weird way, to read about a billionaire and former Wal-Mart executive named Mark Lore (pronounced, apparently, Lor – EE) who has announced plans for a mega-scale utopian community to be built somewhere in the American West, with a target population of five million inhabitants by 2050.

The underlying idea behind Telosa, as this new city is to be called, is not exactly new, and indeed we see it at work in community land trusts around the country even now. The social critic Henry George formulated its basic principles in 1879: the community owns the land, but grants a license to individuals and companies for the use of that land. It’s a sort of modified half-capitalist, half-socialist idea, and of course the devil is in the details of such an arrangement.

The most immediate curiosity about Mr. Lore’s plan is the idea that this city of the future will be located in the American Southwest, which is already starved for water and could hardly be imagined to take on another five million people. Appalachia is also mentioned as a possible site, which would make a lot more sense ecologically.

Also nothing particularly new is the prospect of a successful businessperson deciding that he or she has a great new idea for reorganizing society, and using the power of wealth to test out this idea. One of the most interesting communities of the late 19th and early 20th century was Leclaire, Illinois, founded by plumbing industrialist N. O. Nelson in what is now Edwardsville.

Leclaire started out as a planned “workers’ paradise,” where employees of the N. O. Nelson Manufacturing Company would have all their needs met in a comfortable environment that would, in theory, make them happy, productive, and committed workers. Things didn’t quite turn out that way, as usually happens when someone else takes on the task of deciding what’s best for you. The workers had their own ideas about what their needs were, and eventually discord came to paradise.

The park at the site of Leclaire, Illinois.

It’s tempting to scoff at the idea of a model city being created by someone who is a former executive at a company that is, let’s face it, not anyone’s idea of a worker’s paradise. But that’s the thing about ideas for social improvement: they just keep coming up, again and again, and sometimes from the most unexpected places.

Floating

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I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.

They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.

Here’s the link.

Testimony

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Stephen Dunn passed away a few days ago at the age of 82. He was one of my absolute favorite poets. His specialty was seeing meaning in the smallest of things, and his work had immense wit that was also quite expansive. His poems would often take on bigger and bigger meanings as they went along, yet they always stayed grounded in the real and specific. He had such a marvelous way of seeing!

In his honor, here’s his poem “Testimony,” which was published in the New Yorker not quite ten years ago.

The Lord woke me in the middle of the night,

and there stood Jesus with a huge tray,

and the tray was heaped with cookies,

and He said, Stephen, have a cookie,

and that’s when I knew for sure the Lord

is the real deal, the Man of all men,

because at that very moment

I was thinking of cookies, Vanilla Wafers

to be exact, and there were two

Vanilla Wafers in among the chocolate

chips and the lemon ices, and one

had a big S on it, and I knew it was for me,

and Jesus took it off the tray and put it

in my mouth, as if He were giving me

communication, or whatever they call it.

Then He said, Have another,

and I tell you I thought a long time before I

refused, because I knew it was a test

to see if I was a Christian, which means

a man like Christ, not a big ole hog.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 19

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The dining lodge at Sam A. Baker State Park. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a kid, a trip to Sam A. Baker State Park, north of Patterson, was a real treat. I had no idea who Sam A. Baker was, or what he had to do with the park. All I knew was that there would be swimming and either a cookout or dinner in the lodge, which to my young eyes seemed like the most impossibly rustic place imaginable.

As the years went on, I grew to appreciate the park more. It’s one of the oldest parks in the state, dating back to the Fish and Game Department days of the 1920s. Its namesake was an educator from Patterson who went on to be elected state superintendent of schools and then governor, and who encouraged the development of the state park system during his term in office.

We are so rich in state parks and conservation areas nowadays that it’s hard to think back to what the state was like a century ago. A lot of people thought the state had no business developing a statewide park system; taxpayer dollars, you know. (Readers of this blog know that I regularly bemoan the reactionaries who hold power in Jefferson City, but it’s worth remembering that rule by reactionaries is pretty much a norm in Missouri. The era of the Danforths and Bonds, McCaskills and Eagletons, bipartisan, consensus-seeking moderates, is more the exception. But I digress.)

The geography of Sam A. Baker State Park is a wonderful encapsulation of the eastern Ozarks. Much of its 5,000-plus acres is taken up by Mudlick Mountain, a steep and rugged hill that stands out from its surrounding terrain. There’s a fire tower on top of Mudlick, one of the many CCC projects of the Depression that created the face of the park. I must admit that I’ve never climbed up to it, but I can only imagine the view from there. This photo from AllTrails.Com gives an idea:

The CCC also built a hiking and equestrian trail that circles the park, with some stone cabins for resting along the way. Big Creek runs along much of the eastern side of the park, through a pretty shut-in area first and then with some shallows and swimming holes along the campground area. At the southeastern corner of the park, Big Creek joins the St. Francis River, and although the river is nowhere near as clear and fresh-running as the streams farther west, it still has outfitters for float trips.

When I lived in the area in the ’70s, the park hosted an annual bluegrass festival. In the fall it permitted black-powder enthusiasts to hunt for deer in a special season. It had, in other words, something for just about everyone. Decisions made in the 1920s were benefiting citizens in an unimagined future. And that is still the case today.

If people wonder why I am so enthusiastic about our state system of parks and conservation areas, they should visit just about any other state and see what kind of system is offered there. Few states have such a robust network of places to experience the outdoors, the result of decisions made years ago by people we scarcely remember. When I think about “public servants,” that’s what I think about — people who thought about the well-being of future generations who would not know about them or remember them.

And if you’re looking for places to experience the outdoors, perhaps some place you’ve not heard of before, you should visit the Facebook page of a group called Rollahiking. Those folks are the most industrious hikers I’ve ever seen! They visit some of the most out-of-the way locations in Missouri and Arkansas, and they always post great pictures.

So That’s Who Watches Our Water

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Note: this is not the hog farm in question, as it has not yet been built. But it will look a lot like this.

A little while ago, I posted a commentary that touched upon a controversy over a proposed 10,000-hog factory in Livingston County, near Chillicothe. At that time, the Missouri Clean Water Commission was considering an “emergency” exception to its clean water rules that would allow the construction of the facility, despite questions about its impact on the local groundwater.

The debate over what constitutes “groundwater” and what doesn’t, which is where this controversy arose, is highly technical, and I won’t pretend to the level of expertise necessary to opine on it with any claim to authority. But I do need to update the information, because the Clean Water Commission decided yesterday that the proposed feeding operation can go ahead. The vote was 5-1, and you can read a thorough story about its discussion and vote here.

“Disappointed but not surprised” was the general reaction among the environmentalists and local residents who had argued against the permit. When I reached the end of the story, I realized why they had reacted that way.

The one vote against the factory farm came from a retired executive director of a rural sewer district.

The votes in favor came from the other five members of the commission, who are:

  • The executive director of a nonprofit organization funded by all the major ag associations, lenders, and companies;
  • A board member of the Missouri Farm Bureau;
  • A former member of the Missouri Corn Board;
  • The treasurer of the state Republican Party;
  • The former president of the MIssouri Soybean Association.

In other words, people for whom the idea of regulation is anathema to begin with. The Clean Water Commission is thoroughly stacked against any proposal that does not mesh with the profit pursuits of Big Ag in the state. They should probably start putting ironic quote marks around their name, i.e. the “Clean Water” Commission. If you’re hoping that the state government will act as any sort of counterweight to the pursuit of maximum profit at the expense of the public good, this is not the direction to look.

Humility and Pride

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A week ago, I was fortunate to be part of the ceremony honoring the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction finalists. It was a terrific ceremony, and you can watch the entire thing on this YouTube link.

Awards like this always inspire paired feelings in me. First, of course, there’s pride. I work hard at my writing, and it’s very gratifying to have a panel of judges, accomplished writers, literary critics, and teachers of writing, declare that it’s good. So I want to brag and holler.

But then I think…really? I’ve entered lots of contests, and not gotten a whiff of recognition. So you know there’s always an element of fortune involved. Were the finalists’ five books really the best out of the 419 entered? A different panel of judges could well have selected others. So any recognition needs to be taken with a significant dose of humility as well.

Today, though, I’m casting doubts aside and just basking in the enjoyment of being named a finalist. Perhaps in another year Scattered Lights would not have been selected, but this year it was, so I’m celebrating. Here’s the judges’ commendation, words which touched my heart and which I will cherish. They inspire me to keep working, and to keep trying to improve.

“In the last five years, it has seemed at times as if we are a nation of two permanently estranged tribes, doing little more than sending up angry flares at each other. But in Scattered Lights, a quiet, probing, masterful collection of stories set in his native Ozarks, Steve Wiegenstein tacitly rejects that binary and, in doing so, returns to a fundamental promise of fiction, that politics dissolves in the particular.

“Wiegenstein’s signal strength as a writer is in his characters – a girl reflecting with awe at herself on a kiss, a widow who refuses to take her predetermined place in a town’s society, a middle-aged man whose dispiriting new job suddenly and unexpectedly decides him in favor of courage and happiness. In all of these instances, the characters’ inner lives precede whatever lesson they may represent. Wiegenstein steadfastly and honorably refuses to invite catastrophe or revelation on his characters for the sake of a reader’s cheap excitement.

“Instead, he presents us with dozens of distinctive and real people doing their best, or not so best, but intermittently asking the same questions all of us do – why are we here, who loves us, what do we owe each other, what does it mean to be good? In the process, the pared, beautiful prose of Scattered Lights comes to seem less a style than an ethic – not to intrude, but to observe; not to judge, but to comprehend. The project founded on a final faith, present in great writers of short fiction, from Chekov to Grace Paley, to another of this year’s finalists Deesha Philyaw, that art is where our higher selves can meet, free from the transient furies of the news. The sooner we begin paying attention to each other as people, Wiegenstein argues, the more people we suddenly begin to see, no matter where we’re from.”

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

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In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday, or at least his purported birthday, here’s the opening of my short story, “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club.”

They found Miss Elizabeth dead this morning, upright in her velvet Queen Anne chair, hands folded. When I heard the news, I was in the same pose; I had fallen asleep while crocheting, as I am prone to do in the afternoons nowadays, and the telephone frightened me. Unexpected phone calls always bring thoughts of death. My first reaction:

Now I am the only one left who knows Miss Elizabeth’s story. My second reaction: Perhaps I am the only one to whom it has meaning.

You can read the rest of the story in my collection, Scattered Lights. If you already own the collection, thank you! And be sure to leave a review on your favorite book-review website.

Same Old Same Old

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The Lake of the Ozarks, satellite view.

I’ve talked a lot about books on this blog, but one I haven’t mentioned yet is Traci Angel’s The Scars of Project 459: The Environmental Story of the Lake of the Ozarks. I’m not especially fond of the book; I think the title promises more than the book delivers, and it’s written in a choppy-sentence, newspaper-journalism style that wears me out after a while. (If you want a deeper, more comprehensive account of the lake’s origins, I recommend Damming the Osage, which I have written about before.) But whatever its perceived deficiencies, the book offers a great glimpse into one of the enduring truths of the lake: it’s all about the money.

The Lake of the Ozarks is above all else a developer’s lake, designed and built to extract as much possible money from all conceivable uses. For all their garish commercialism, even Table Rock, Beaver, and the other big Ozark lakes have an ostensible “flood control” justification, and once in a while that justification actually emerges. But the Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t even have that. It’s a commercial enterprise, start to finish.

One of the stories told in The Scars of Project 459 is the notorious “goose poop” incident of 2009, and the book is worth reading just for that. The sequence of events runs roughly like this: Department of Natural Resources routine testing reveals high E. coli levels near the public beaches of the park, right before a major holiday weekend. DNR sits on the report until the holiday weekend is over, then releases it. Howls from environmentalists and public health advocates over the suspicious timing of the report’s delay and release brings the governor at the time (Jay Nixon) down to the lake to announce a major cleanup campaign. Howls from local businesses lead to a new suspect in the E. coli reading: a flock of geese that had been loitering suspiciously in the area and a coincidental heavy rainfalll that had surely, surely, caused the spike in contamination. Heads roll at the DNR. Winter comes, the incident is more or less forgotten, and no comprehensive effort to manage the lake’s water quality takes place. A comprehensive effort, you see, would require two things that are anathema to the powers-that-be around the lake: the expenditure of money for a public good, and cooperation among the four counties that comprise its local government.

The lake watershed is indeed a complex system, and no single source of contamination can be blamed for all its environmental ills. A 2014 report from the U.S. Geological Survey and Missouri DNR about surveys conducted in later years didn’t exonerate the geese, but it also took notice of contamination from local sewage treatment facilities during the frequent times that rainfall causes overflows of those facilities, household septic systems that have outlived their effectiveness, and leaking septic pits from sources around the lake, including (ironically enough) one in the state park itself. If all those episodes teach us anything, it’s that understanding the lake’s water quality requires science, and lots of it.

Which is why it’s so dispiriting to read the news today and see the usual passel of Missouri congresspeople pressuring the EPA to take the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir off its list of “impaired” waterways, where they were placed in November. The EPA’s list of impaired waterways included 481 bodies of water that both the state and the feds agreed were impaired, which is troubling enough. The state did not include the two big lakes and 38 other Missouri water bodies on its list, but the EPA disagreed with that decision, bringing the overall number up to 521. (On the semi-bright side, the two agencies agreed to remove 44 bodies of water from the list.)

So the state and the feds are in disagreement over the science on about eight percent of the total listings. So why are the congresspeople, none of them scientists or even remotely interested in science as far as I can tell, so worked up? A passage in the AP story gives the clue. “The letter said the impaired designations ‘would have significant impacts on families, landowners, small businesses,’ and on the state’s economy. . . . For example, the listing could force local governments to update wastewater facilities, potentially costing them millions of dollars, [Congressman Blaine] Luetkemeyer’s spokeswoman Georgeanna Sullivan said.”

Good heavens! Updating their wastewater facilities! What horrors. [Sorry for the sarcasm here.]

The congresspeople’s letter also says that fish kills at the lakes “were not verified by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources or the Missouri Department of Conservation.” Notice that it doesn’t deny that the fish kills occurred, which can easily be determined by looking at local news reports. Now again, the science behind fish kills is complicated; sometimes they occur simply through seasonal causes, and other times there are human-related causes. But the disingenuous phrasing of the letter reveals a desire to mislead, to cast doubt, where none needs to exist.

The more things change, as they say, the more they remain the same. Go to the lake and enjoy yourself, and if the water smells a little funny or looks a little green, don’t worry. It’ll wash on downstream eventually.