Together, we cross the fence


"My credo has always been: Don’t take yourself too seriously, and never give up."

--Tom Bell, founder of High Country News, speaking to the National Wildlife Federation, March 9, 2002

Barbed wire in the mind, I’ll call it that; a four-strand fence, let’s say, barbs sharp against chest, gut and legs, little reinforcers, reminders that I’m up against a serious frontier line. I’m looking into huge spaces. Behind me, my territory and yours, everything has a market price; few public changes occur without a profit accounting.

If I step over the top wire, or slip under it, antelope-style, I risk being branded. Most of the branding irons were made a long time ago. They mark you Innocent But Deluded; Subversive; Fellow Traveller; Class War Preacher; Communist; Extremist; Anti-American; Environmental Terrorist; Terrorist.

New irons are ordered when necessary, or the old ones can be altered with a running iron.

But what the hell, it’s just a fence, big gaps between the wires. Every time I get close to it, I notice some slight sags in the top wire. Somebody has stepped over, or was it just a range cow rubbing its hide? I’m looking far and away to uncertain horizons and into great swatches of dark and of light, and the borders where dark and light mingle — it’s all very familiar, the same old world of life and death and striving and wondering why we bother — and yet the colors and arrangements are not quite the same, and they shift, now here, now there, as if nothing is quite settled, and the winds have a different touch, a tangy taste.

When you look through a fence like that, what you see is no doubt different from what I see, but I’ll bet there are big overlaps. We could compare notes. I think that, having been at the fence, we would feel obliged to ransack all ideas, agreeable or not, and head some of them toward the reality mills of actual practice, the mazes of give-and-take. We would feel an urge to see that nothing gets permanently placed on a far margin or hidden in a drawer labeled "minority views, minor importance." Yes, that’s a big order, but as an ideal, can we post it?

Somewhere, at some time, faith enters. For me, it’s belief in our species’ ability to work together. Simple as that. Let’s face it: We’re basically sociable. If we’re deprived of some minimum of companionship, we tend to turn a little weird, and when a group of us comes up against stuff that has to be done, we usually do it, without a proviso that we love one another. Amazing, this ability to make allowances, to grin and bear, to do many a clever move and keep the work going. Out of that, understandings grow. Call it trust. Oh, love is terrific, no question, but trust gets the work done. I’m not talking about forced, organized "togetherness." Let me explain.

Evening, floodplain of a free-flowing stream in beautiful Ohio, scheduled to be dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The stream has sculpted its valley in waterworn ledges and rock pools. Steep slopes are forested: beech, white oak, bur oak, chinkapin, maple, ash, buckeye. A small group gathers to review last-ditch strategy. Two activists stand at the margin, talking together. I overhear one of them say, "This one’s a loser," and the other one nods. Later, I notice they aren’t there.

Yes, we were losing, and knew it, knew also that there are occasions when it’s best to fold and run, to fight another day. We stayed that time, trying for one last lick on the way down, maybe because of a pesky little hope that a sliver of blue sky might show, just in time. And this, too: It’s hard to quit before the people you’ve been with have something to say about quitting. Trust is what that is, one of life’s little dilemmas. Hard to call.

Human histories, countless risings to occasions. We and the earth are in one of those pretty big occasions right now and, sure enough, thousands of people are rising, working on projects that grapple with uncertainties, sizing each other up, full of hope one day, despair the next, but unable to back down. We’re insisting seriously that genuine change has to happen. The usual sweet talk and assurances and lies have turned too bitter, don’t fit the crimes.

Seriously Insistent: how’s that for a good, workaday definition of activism? The hazards of serious activism are, of course, the hazards of any venture into new territory. Out there on those frontiers we encounter difficult wake-up calls, sometimes daily, more than we thought we’d bargained for. But in the long run, it’s better than sitting regularly Starbucks reading The New York Times.

Some wake-ups are as subtle as a barely glimpsed flutter of an early spring moth; some arrive like a bull moose suddenly there. They come in all shapes and colors. They can be materials for us to use for the work ahead.

Martin Murie, a biologist and novelist, writes from North Bangor, New York, at the edge of the Adirondacks.

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