Partisan politics are pulling my town apart

Can lessons from ecology offer a way to find common ground in our polarized nation?

 

When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker recited Maya Angelou’s poem “We Will Rise” with its refrain of “still, like dust, I will rise,” in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I thought of Salida, Colorado, the town I’ve lived in and loved for 19 years.

At the foot of the Rocky Mountains with the Arkansas River running through it and with thriving arts and recreation opportunities, Salida is often described as idyllic. Despite some serious local issues, including a lack of affordable housing, the warmth of the community’s culture has often made it feel that way. Until recently.

An anti-growth faction has taken control of the city council, purging city government and blocking long-planned local development projects. The council has voted 4-3, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking vote, to revise the contract of our city administrator, effectively firing her, despite the overflow crowd speaking in her favor.

The downtown historic district in Salida, Colorado.

The council also — by the same narrow majority — fired the city attorney and hired a new one who has zero experience in municipal law, but who bills at a substantially higher rate. The city’s highly regarded finance director quit, citing harassment; the public works director decided to retire. Other city employees also say they’ve been harassed at work and at home by supporters of the anti-growth faction.

Moreover, public meetings these days are more often punctuated by insults and accusations from all sides, and our town discourse has devolved into the “bitter twisted lies” in Angelou’s poem. It’s as if the national habit of declaring those who disagree with you the “enemy” has infected our town, too.    

At the end of a recent town hall meeting, Salida’s mayor and the head of the anti-growth faction admitted that the city council and the community were “broken.” “We need help,” he said, and asked for time to assess how to move forward. “Trust us,” the mayor said. The audience response was, to put it mildly, not positive. 

The anger in Salida, and in our polarized country, feels too much like Angelou’s poem. How do we get over this?

Maybe there’s something to learn from what’s called “reconciliation ecology,” which aims to increase the earth’s health by acknowledging problems, working with all species no matter how disruptive, healing broken relationships, and re-building biodiversity. Although I didn’t know about this approach at the time, it’s how I’ve worked to restore the stretch of degraded urban creek that runs by my property, which is considered industrial, just off Salida’s downtown.

Rather than attempting to restore the creek to some possibly imaginary pristine ecological past, I chose to work with what was there, gradually reducing the area occupied by invasive species. In a project that’s been 19 years in the making, I encouraged species that helped bring about healthy relationships.

Today, the banks of the once-barren creek are alive with birds and monarch butterflies and other pollinators. The addition of native wetland plants helped cleanse our urban runoff on its way to the Gold Medal trout waters of the Arkansas River, so now the block is a model for a community-wide trail restoration project.

In a way, it’s been an experiment in reconciliation ecology, minimizing what was ugly and didn’t work while enhancing what was healthy and is now productive. We’ve succeeded in adding beauty while encouraging both biodiversity and community health.

The word reconcile comes from the Latin for “to bring back together.” That’s a good metaphor for what we need in Salida and this nation: to rejoin our splintered communities. We could start by remembering what Westerners have always known, that we thrive by finding commonalities to build on. Suppose, for instance, you must evacuate because of a forest fire; as you hastily load up your most valuable possessions, you realize the firefighter leading the crew and defending where you live is the neighbor you disagree with on just about everything.

You disagree totally, except for the fact that you both love the place where you live. That’s what we can build on to create community, a word whose roots are in “common” and “shared.” It’s when we cease to exercise civility and treat some people as the “other” that we forget where we’re living and cease to be neighborly.

What I want for Salida, this nation, and for the entire world is reconciliation. We may never agree with each other, but I hope all of us want people to have the chance to rise.

Susan J. Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a writer and plant ecologist who would rather wade into the muck of a degraded urban creek than venture into political discourse.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.