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
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...