Sam Smith, February 2016
Earlier today my wife and I went to the funeral of a Maine farmer we’ve known for almost 50 years. Several of his grandchildren lived with us this past week as Charlie was winding down in hospice. Back in the 1940s and 50s, Charlie had become one of the first people to get involved in what we now call organic farming. He was also an organic father. One of his sons became chair of the town council, one was on the school board and one was fire chief. While still in his 80s he traveled around the country with a son and grandson who were helping to run firefighter challenges.
But the same week that Charlie was on his way out, and I was sharing time and stories with his family, I was also following the South Carolina primary, the Nevada caucus and the death of Justice Scalia. I have seldom felt so bi-polar. Charlie was a model of what we imagine a good American to be – smart, kind, imaginative, honest, hard working – while the national story couldn’t be more in contrast.
I had noticed this before, attending town meetings that were so much more rational than what I had come to expect when I lived in Washington. But it is something on normal days I and many others, tend to forget. That good America is right around us, still affected by what we do and say, still possible to make work with wisdom and decency. We too often accept the mass media version of reality, one driven by dollars, narcissism, mythology, lies, and the crudest forms of propaganda.
Yet all the time, little noted, something far better might be nearby in our town or neighborhood.
The other day I came across something I wrote a few years ago about the little republics of America:
Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of “the political effects of decentralization that I most admire in America.” As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.
It is so easy to forget, thanks in no small part to the myths of cable television, that sanity, wisdom and progress still thrive in the small places of our land. That there is still real power of change in these little republics we call home. And that all across the country there are others who share our values and dreams.
What has happened to our land has often encouraged depression, anger and hate. But none of these are tools of survival.
One of the things that farming teaches you is that life is not just about the way the land ought to be but that you have to deal with the way that it is and do something sensible about it.The same is true of our larger republic. I am so glad that I worked with, and knew, farmers like Charlie who taught me not to be a victim of problems but a solver. Stuff I never learned from CNN or MSNBC.