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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.