Wednesday 28 October 2009

Mystery in the Wilderness part 2

A mist floats between the hills, gray-brown with evergreen patches, where Highway 19 winds north of Eminence. A gravel road veers off to the right — there is not a single paved road in Shannon County that is not federal or state-maintained. The road, graveled five years ago to give visitors easier access to the wild horses, cuts a narrow path down a thickly wooded slope to a pasture in the hollow of the hills.

Eight wild horses graze in Broadfoot Field, long-haired and muscular, mostly white or gray dappled.

They are bigger than most horses and appear more powerful. Their ribs do not show. Their tails have never been cut and almost touch the ground. Their manes are long and matted, peppered with burs from the brush.

The horses rest with their hind legs together, never straying far from the sanctuary of the wooded slopes that rise like walls around the valley. The filly, only 3 days old, clings to her mother’s side.

The horses spend much of their time in thick woods, one reason that finding the missing animals has been so difficult.

The Broadfoot Bunch is one of four loose and shifting herds in the wild horse population. Others include the Cornfield, Grassy and Shawnee Creek groups, plus "a few stragglers," Smith says.

The horses killed or missing were all from the Cornfield Bunch; its numbers have been reduced from 13 to five.

No one knows how long the herds have roamed the hills around Eminence. The most common theory holds that they are descendants of farm horses that escaped during the Depression. Others, however, say the herds date back much further.

"You ask the oldest person in Shannon County, and they’ll tell you there have been wild horses here as long as anyone can remember," says Shannon County sheriff Butter Reeves.

Smith says the horses seem to be descendants from Appaloosas and Arabians, "but there’s no pedigree on them."

The horses had free reign over much of the county when farmers held open range in common. Shannon County was the last in the state to fence its open range, but when it did so in the 1960s, the herds still had more than 100 square miles of wilderness to roam. Almost half of Shannon County is national forest, scenic waterways or other government-protected land.

The Broadfoot Bunch takes notice of two local men photographing them from 100 yards away; the stallion immediately positions himself between the intruders and the foal. The mares form a tight circle around the newborn. Though locals talk of getting within 20 feet of the herd, the animals are skittish these days.

Made nervous by the visitors, they break into a gallop, their manes and tails flowing behind them. One by one, they vanish into the brush, the lead mare in front and the stallion defending the rear.


The National Park Service in 1989 pushed to remove the horses from the area, fearing the wild animals would damage the park and noting they were not native to the area.

"They put a notice in the newspaper, asking for bids for rounding up the horses," says Roger Dillon, editor of the town newspaper, the Shannon County Current Wave. "That’s what got people’s attention and got the ball rolling."

"They considered them feral animals," says Richard Wilkins, one of the two area residents who sued to block removal of the horses. "They said horses cause bank erosion, when they cross streams and such. But tourists cause a lot more damage than that — horses don’t leave beer cans lying around."

Wilkins and his neighbor Rolland Smotherman, who often rode together to see the horses, filed an injunction to stop the department. They also charged the parks department with using traps to catch the horses, a charge the agency denied in court.

"At first, we didn’t think we could do anything," Wilkins says. "Even when we realized we could fight the government, we didn’t think we could win. We were the two guys who started it, but got support from all over the country."

Wilkins and Smotherman won their court case but lost on appeal in federal court.

"It kept rolling around in the courts like the presidential election," Smotherman says. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But the wild horse supporters would not succumb. Smotherman says he and Wilkins wrote to "every government official they thought could help" and found an ally in their U.S. representative, the late Bill Emerson.

"We also gave it a lot of coverage, along with the West Plains Quill and others," Dillon says. "Once it was all over the papers, the thing kind of snowballed."

On Oct. 6, 1993, hundreds of wild horse supporters drove in a caravan from Smith’s trail to the office of the parks department in Van Buren, 32 miles away.

"We headed out from here bumper-to-bumper from Eminence to Winona," Smith says. "When the first people were getting to Winona, the last people were leaving here. That’s 11 long miles of cars and trucks."

The riders drove to Van Buren with their horses in tow, Thompson says, then rode on horseback into town, where thousands of supporters had gathered.

"When we got to Van Buren, there was a gob of folks from everywheres," Smith says. "It was a pretty good deal. They said we couldn’t block the highway, but we did. We blocked the whole damn town. There was more people on horseback than the town could hold."

The day after the protest, department superintendent Art Sullivan postponed the horses’ removal.

In 1995, Emerson sponsored legislation in Congress to save the herds, winning support from U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and John Ashcroft. The bill capped the herd at 50 — there have never been more than 40 — and commissioned the Wild Horse League to maintain them. Congress passed the bill overwhelmingly, and President Bill Clinton made it law in 1995.


On Nov. 16, a camper in the Ozark Scenic Riverways told the sheriff he had passed two deer hunters who said they had seen dead horses. A mare and stallion from the Cornfield Bunch had been shot in the gut.

Two sheriff’s deputies and a state conservation agent inspected the scene that day but found no evidence of the killer. Two days later, someone returned and shot the mare’s colt as it lingered around its mother.

As law enforcement agencies and locals searched, the news grew worse. In early December tourists who got lost riding Smith’s trail found the bodies of three more mares near Colley Lake, half a mile from the first three. The horses were so badly decomposed that Reeves believes they were probably shot around the same time as the others.

At Reeves behest, the Missouri Highway Patrol flew a helicopter over the area twice with a local farmer who knows the horses well. They found nothing and probably will not fly again, he says.

"The terrain out there is so rugged and brushy, and the canopy in areas so heavy, that they could be laying a short distance from you and you could overlook them," Reeves says.

Four slugs from a high-power rifle were found, Reeves says, and they are being examined at a ballistics lab.

While the horses were shot during deer season, Reeves is certain the killings were intentional.

"Some of the horses were brown, some were white," he says. "They were shot from a close range. There’s no way anyone mistook them for deer."

"Whoever it was, they knew animals — they knew the colt would come back to its mother," says one trail rider who would not give her name. "It almost seems like whoever it was had at least a little bit of a conscience, not wanting the colt to starve."

But Reeves says shooting the colt "was just cruelty. I don’t think it was out of kindness — the colt was old enough to make it on its own."

Reeves believes the colt ran from the gunshots and that the killer came back to the spot again and again until the colt returned.

Bond calls the killings "a despicable tragedy, absolutely senseless. The people in the region have worked to protect the horses, and to just slaughter them makes no sense."

Chris Ward, acting superintendent of the parks service, says at the league meeting that he hopes to solve the case within a week. Reeves says his office has been "swamped with calls" about the killings, from local families to bounty hunters offering their services.

The morning after the meeting, Reeves met with agents of the Department of Conservation and the National Parks Service. "We have some leads that are coinciding," he says.

"These horses have become a part of Shannon County’s heritage, part of our culture," Reeves says. "Not just for Shannon County people, but for the million and a half people who float the rivers and get to see them every year. We have several thousand people who come here a year camping, hiking, bicycling or whatever. They get to see these horses also. So these are their horses, your horses, everybody’s horses."


There are few strangers in Eminence, a town of 614 people where friends and enemies see each other every day. The vast open space that surrounds the community somehow creates closer quarters.

At the T&T Diner, local folks sit with their children or neighbors, most in jeans or hunting fatigues, and talk about everything from Florida ballots and environmental issues to hunting season and local gossip: Tonight’s best tidbit is about the two teenagers who got into a fist-fight down on Main Street the day before.

No topic, however, is more popular than the wild horses. Many residents say they see the horses almost every day, but the experience never grows old. An hour’s conversation yields a dozen or more rumors about the killings, with fingers pointing in all directions. Some residents blame hunters, others blame farmers, city-dwellers, drunks or local teenage troublemakers.

Dillon calls these theories "an insult to locals, city folks, deer hunters, kids and drunks." The killer’s actions, he says, demonstrate "a certain slime-ball mentality that will not be forgiven nor forgotten in these parts."

It’s true the wild horses are an important attraction in a county where the average income is $11,000 a year and tourism is the primary industry. The major industries that once supported the county have dried up, Reeves says.

"The mining is gone now, the timber is gone, the railroad is gone," he says. "But we still have the horses."

Still, the herds are much more than an economic asset. They are a symbol, to locals and to tourists alike.

When advocates won federal protection for the horses in 1995, U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson, who succeeded her husband in Congress, praised the victory. The horses, she said, are "a living symbol of the people’s wishes vs. the federal bureaucracy."

The residents’ love for the horses is rooted in a deep current of regional pride. Dillon says the animals, and the pursuit of whomever is killing them, have become a focal point of this Ozark community.

"People in this town are divided on a lot of things," he says, "but they are united in this."

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Mystery in the Wilderness

The shooting deaths of six federally protected wild horses in southern Missouri have stirred advocates to action and prompted an unprecedented investigation by local, state and federal agents.
By BRIAN C. KALLER of the Tribune's staff

EMINENCE — On a stark winter night, about 120 horse riders gather at the meeting hall, their worn cowboy hats brushing the paper snowflakes that hang from the ceiling. Most monthly meetings of the Missouri Wild Horse League draw a dozen or so people, but tonight the hall is packed.

The folks who have gathered are among the thousands who come every year to see the herds of wild horses that roam the Ozark hills. Now, in the wooded wilderness outside the hall, someone is shooting the horses and leaving them to die.

Cowboys and tourists listen attentively at the meeting. Tears stain at least two weathered faces. Some of these people had fought for years to get the horses federally protected, had marched in protest to keep them safe and had successfully taken their case from Shannon County to the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

"I know what everyone’s thinking," says Elmo Thompson, the 83-year-old president of the Missouri Wild Horse League. "Do we know who killed the wild horses? If we did they’d be in jail, and you’d know about it."

Jim Smith, owner of the Cross-Country Trail Ride and longtime league member, recounts the grim details. Of the fewer than 35 horses that remain in the hills, six have been killed, probably within two days. Two horses remain missing, and hope of finding them alive grows slim.

Federal and state agencies are working with the sheriff, Smith tells the group, and the Missouri Highway Patrol scoured the area twice by helicopter, to no avail.
The reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer already stands at $1,000, and the league collected another $1,700 in donations at the meeting.

The evening is not without good news for the league. Smith announces that a foal had been born two days earlier to the "Broadfoot bunch," the herd often seen in nearby Broadfoot Field. And a 3-year-old stallion is ready for adoption — herds have only one male at a time, and the league gives the others away.

Local residents formed the Wild Horse League about 10 years ago to protect the only wild horses in the Midwest. The group now has more than 1,000 members representing all 50 states and five foreign countries, Smith says. Donations are pouring in, with people sending checks "from five to 1,500 dollars," he says.

"We all love the wild horses. We all miss them," Thompson says. "All the local people here cherish the wild horses, like I do mine at home."

That same night, visitors from across the country surround a campfire. There is only one topic of conversation. Voices crack as the visitors — men and women, elderly and children — talk about the killer and the appropriate punishment.

"How can someone hurt an animal that’s wild and free like that?" asks Melissa Page of Kentucky. "To a horse person, that’s the lowest form of life."

Some people travel thousands of miles several times a year to ride the trails here. Smith bills his land as the site of the largest riding trail in the world in one of the largest and most sparsely populated counties in the state.

"We haven’t got much left that is free in this country," Tony Merrick of Kentucky says. "The horses have been here longer than any of us."

"Civilization’s running out, the population’s increasing so fast," Page says. "This is the last freedom we’ll ever see. It’s one of the incentives to keep some things pure."

The herds lure Paula Fivecoat of Arbyrd to Shannon County about a half-dozen times a year.

"It’s not a ride unless you’ve seen the wild horses twice" within a week, she says.
But Merrick’s wife, Mary, says the killings have darkened the mood of recent rides. Many of the riders that day heard faraway gunshots on the trail and feared the killers had returned.

"Seven years I’ve been coming here," Page says. "I’m afraid next year we’ll come back and there will be none left."

Continued tomorrow. Originally published Dec. 17, 2000.

Saturday 24 October 2009


We have all been busy preparing for our second annual Feile na Samhna (FAY-la na SAU-na), the Halloween Festival, where I and several other people will be giving talks about .... well, the situation we're in.

What do you call it anyway? It's not just peak oil, the fact that oil supplies are reaching a global limit and will decline. It's not just climate change, the fact that the atmosphere has been transformed into something that has not existed since Earth was an alien world. It's not just that this world that had trouble handling one billion people now must support seven billion. It's not just the economy, as defined by news reports and Wall Street numbers. All these are part of something larger.

I have been interested in these issues since I was my daughter's now-age, as long as I have understood what happens when you pour several cups into one cup. When I first saw the hundred-year-old elm in our backyard fall, and realized it was older than anyone alive -- and that once it was gone, the yard felt different. When I tasted the difference between our tomatoes and ones from a supermarket. When I realized that I was the last kid at school to walk everywhere.

Some people refer to the crash or the collapse, but I have tried to avoid these --- they are rousing and get the Michael Ruppert crowd, but they avoid the main point, that this is not a sudden danger we can swerve and avoid. We must not wait for it to hit -- "it," the thing that happens, when we suddenly become characters in an action movie.

Others refer to the Transition, and that captures the idea that it will be gradual and may result in something better. I personally like "Restoration," as in the title of this blog, although it might sound too much like Charles II's reign. Also, nostalgia for an earlier era works with Americans, as does describing the picturesque life of Irish villagers -- when you are speaking to actual Irish villagers, as I often do, it doesn't work. What is traditional is not exotic to them, and the memories of pre-Celtic-Tiger poverty are not appealing.

So here it is: How to present the image of this situation to hundreds of festival-going families in an Irish town, in a way that is family-friendly, upbeat, and will not drive people away. Ideas?

Friday 23 October 2009

Thursday 22 October 2009


When people start their own business venture, they usually prefer finding investors to relying solely on a bank loan – many other people can share in your risk and rewards, and it is in their business if you succeed. Now, many farmers are using this model, finding selling shares of their farm to the people who will eat the crops.

The model, called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), is spreading rapidly across North America and coming to Europe. In a CSA model, residents of the local community invest in a farm at the beginning of the year, before the crops have been planted. Typically each family buys a standard share of the farm’s produce, and in exchange they receive a box of crops each week for the rest of the season. What they receive will depend on the time of year, but if a farmer plants enough variety, any weeks’ box will likely have several different kinds of crops, whether delivered in May or October.

Such projects make a farm particularly resilient in the face of global financial crises. A CSA farm does not depend on loans from major banks to continue from year to year, nor do its crop sales depend on the vagaries of faraway markets. A CSA pays the farmer early in the year, so that the farm does not have to go deeply in debt each year, and it allows the farmer to market their food before their 16-hour days begin.

Sometimes a CSA plan finds a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They provide work for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.

In addition, CSAs allow neighbours to form a personal relationship with the person who is growing their food, and allows the farmer to hear and respond to consumer demand quickly, without the need for commissioning survey groups. Since people must invest in the farm, they usually must come to the farm at least once a year, and get to meet the farmer and see where their food comes from. They must accept a variety of vegetables and learn to cook them.

Finally, food transported from Athy or Allenwood to somewhere else in County Kildare uses very little fuel, compared to the majority of our food that is transported from across an ocean. Local food creates very few of the carbon emissions that create the greenhouse effect, and so do not worsen climate change.

CSAs can go beyond vegetables as well, to include grains, meat, home-made bread, eggs, cheese, flowers or fruit. Several farmers could join forces to create a regional CSA, coordinating their efforts – one supplying chickens, for example, and another supplying vegetables.

CSA have mostly spread through the USA and Canada, where the group Local Harvest lists 2,500 CSA farms, almost all of which appeared in the last 20 years – but a few CSAs have begun here in Ireland. My group is keen to start one in our area --- I know you readers are from all over, but if you have experience with starting a CSA, please send it to me. If you are in the County Kildare area, e-mail me and let's work together.

(Photo: cows across the River Liffey from us.)

Monday 19 October 2009

Root cellars

Look over any town in the USA and you will see many garages, tool sheds, storage units and even swimming pools, but you are unlikely to find a single backyard root cellar, or even many people who are familiar with the term. Yet root cellaring seems to have been practiced in most times and places, and even, in a sense, by animals who bury their food. It is a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.

Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated.

Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on. Many vegetables and fruits can be stored, however -- krauts like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale; onions and their relatives leeks and garlic; fruit like apples and pears; herbs and even salad greens. Most of the vegetables come from late-season plantings, when the crops are ripening at the latest possible moment before they must be stored for winter.

You can keep potatoes or carrots in boxes of earth, sand or sawdust. You can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can poke two pegs in the ground at either end of a crop row, pull string taut between them, and wrap plastic over the rope to make a long small tent. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food.

Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes are covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.

Other people have built more elaborate structures. One could, for example, dig a pit about a metre deep and a few metres across, lean two wooden walls against each other in the pit to make a triangle, nail them together, and cover the top with a thin layer of earth. The result is a root cellar with an insulating earth and grass roof that can be a walk-in refrigerator during the winter months.

Friday 16 October 2009

Thursday 15 October 2009

Preparing for winter

As the nights grow longer and winter approaches, this is a good time to plan your garden for next year – clear out the old plants, order seed and map our the property. When you plan your property, think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods.

We have a small copse of trees in the back of our property, and while it is no bigger than an average back garden, it has room for hazel trees that produce nuts this time of year. We planted blueberries and other shade-loving plants under the hazels, so they too can produce food, and we will have sorrel, radishes and other ground crops lower still.

You might want to check into polytunnels – greenhouses of sheeted plastic – and consider whether one might be useful for you. If you are to get one, best to put it up before it gets too dark and rainy, and so you can use it over the winter.

This is also a good time to start thinking about keeping animals like chickens, rabbits and bees, and whether you could keep them on your property. Many people find spring the best time to get new animals, so best to start planning their new environment now.

You might be unpacking all the winter clothes around now, but this is also a good time to start buying extra blankets and old clothes from the charity shops and boot sales, in case you need them. Those blankets and old clothes are not only good for people, but for home insulation as well.

Talk to some neighbours about meeting at each others’ houses for dinner once a month or so. As people become busier each year, they have less and less time for the basic socializing out of which a community is built. Consider volunteering for a charity or neighbourhood group during the winter, when you have less chance to be outdoors.

Spend as much time outdoors as possible while there is still some sunlight in Ireland – we all need Vitamin D, which we synthesize from the sun, and there is too little of it here for much of the year.

Photo: The road in front of our land.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Hope Project

I had the honour to participate in an inspiring story recently. A young lady named Jennifer wrote me last month, saying she was concerned for her friend. Her friend was active in ecological issues, Jennifer said, but knowledge of peak oil, climate change and other problems brought her down, and she was losing hope for the future. For her birthday, Jennifer asked, would I write something about what gives me hope, and could she publish them online?

I was honoured and wrote something as best I could and sent it off to Jennifer, thinking it would just be my writing and maybe a few others.

When the birthday came around and I checked the link I received, I was amazed. Jennifer had written dozens of people across the world – scientists, activists, authors and bloggers, all working in some way on the Long Emergency, all explaining to an (apparently) young woman why we need to keep going. It is, hands down, the best birthday present I’ve ever heard of.

The list includes many names I knew well, and whose books fill my shelves: rural America chronicler Richard Manning, “Long Emergency” author James Howard Kunstler, climatologist Mark Lynas, anthropologist Joseph Tainter, permaculturist Su Dennett, writer Dmitri Orlov. There were people who organized towns around the world, people who saved vst areas of rainforest, people who inspired their own small movements. In fact, there are a few people here who might have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is what I wrote:

If you often feel troubled about the world’s future, then I feel like we are kindred spirits. Every day I wonder about the future of my little girl during the long emergency ahead. And I suck it up and continue with my day job or volunteer group or bedtime story, knowing I can rarely tell anyone who would understand.

Today we diagnose such compassion, and prescribe medicines to remove it. But we should feel troubled, to a point, because the troubles exist, no matter how many people ignore them. It is what the medieval monk Isaac of Stella called the hell of mercy, what all dangerous saints feel to be inspired to do good things.

You see, people who care about the world’s future have two big problems – what to do with all that despair, and where they get the energy to do all that activism. And the two problems solve each other – that feeling of powerlessness can be a most powerful fuel, if you put it to work for you.

Because if people were irredeemable – if we really didn’t deserve to be saved – you wouldn’t feel this way, and millions of others wouldn’t either.

And I remind myself of a few things. I remind myself that we are not destroying the Earth – she has been through worse than us, and will heal. I remember that, when human societies collapsed before, Nature grew back fast. For us it may take 50 years or 5 million, depending on how much we destroy now – and that is what we are fighting for, for the damage to be only superficial, and Nature to return in profusion for our grandchildren. But however long it takes, it will happen.

I am concerned for the many people who might die in the coming decades, if we don’t live on less. But I also think of my grandparents, or the elderly Irish around where I live now, or most people in most eras, all of whom lived on a fraction of the energy Westerners live on today, and sometimes lived long and happy lives. They were delighted to get an orange for Christmas or walk miles to the village to call on neighbors, and if they were healthy and loved, they did not consider themselves to be living terrible lives. When things get bad people are often wiser and more neighborly in real life than they are in action movies.

Remember that you are not alone. The world is teeming with people who care as you do. They might be homesteading, or forming unsung community groups, or meeting in church basements, or learning how to turn compost into electricity. They might look like everyone else, and you have likely passed them on the street without knowing. But they are all around you, and they are on your side.

Also, remember that all movements were pathetic and hopeless until they won. The idea that women might vote was considered a ridiculous idea almost until it became law. No one thought race laws in the South could be repealed, until they were. Revolutions seem to happen suddenly because the people in power, who write the histories, ignored all the previous steps – decades of patient work from forgotten heroes, many of whom must have despaired and given up hope. And there is much that is wrong with the world that was never righted, because too many people gave up.

Realize that the numbers required to make these sweeping changes were tiny. Only a few thousand people at any time were active in getting women the right to vote, or repealing race laws, among a population of tens of millions. I once compared the budget of anti-environmental corporations and groups to the small number of truly active environmentalists, and found they must be spending tens of thousands of dollars to fight each activist – more money than those activists probably made in a year in their day jobs. It costs powerful people a great deal to fight you. You have more power than you realize.

Keep in mind that you are important. Unlike most people on Earth, you live where we can make tens of thousands of dollars a year rather than a few hundred, as in Africa. You have medical care – expensive, but available. You have access to colleges and free community courses. You have community-access television whose cameras can be rented for a small fee. You have restaurants whose owners throw away tonnes of food each night – some of which could be eaten by people, some by household chickens or other animals. You live in a place where the garbage cans are filled with things that can be reused. You live with libraries, internet cafes and a surfeit of cheap stuff. It means there is much that can be reused, and that it is easy to live cheaply while using up few resources. It means you have power that most people in the world will never know, and that you are too important to lose.

Remember – and I’m sorry if this sounds cheesy, but it’s true – that there is no one else in the world like you, no one who sees everything you see, and the world would be a worse place if you gave up.

Keep in mind that we already know how to cope with the Long Emergency – and many people are already growing their own food, re-using other people’s cast-offs, learning to build and heat in ways that do not waste. If things ever do become desperate, each person who is learning such skills can become a teacher. Every such shelter can be a headquarters. Every homestead that saves its heirloom seeds and saves a surplus for the neighbor can be an ark during the flood – and if we have enough of them, no one ever need drown.

Finally, be good to yourself – don’t beat yourself up over things for which you are not responsible.

Thank you, Jennifer, and to your friend, Happy Belated Birthday.

Friday 9 October 2009

We now pause our usual blog to get political

Folks, I don’t usually get political on this blog, except in the sense that everything from education to sex to race to religion to food is now considered political. My politics do not fall into categories defined by FOX and CBS, and I believe we show our religion in what we do, not what team we claim to be on. Before forming opinions, I like to read the source material first – the legislation itself, the actual Hirsch Report, the real scientific papers from climatologists – rather than simply repeating an anagram of whatever commentary I’ve sought out.

I will comment on Obama’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, though, because I feel strongly about this -- and if you disagree, tell me respectfully and you can return to enjoying my future posts about how to cook snails.

This is the most respected award in the world, one that transcends nationality and religion to focus solely on heroic accomplishment. It bequeaths global attention to men and women most people had never heard of – Aung San Yuu Ki, Carlos Filipe Ximenez Belo, Mairead Corrigan, Wangaari Maathai – who spent years facing the constant threat of violent death, despised by the powerful and embarrassing the comfortable.

But too often the Prize has been given to their opposite – someone who is both powerful and popular, riding a wave of sentiment on the issue of the moment. In some cases it has been political gangsters who finally gave in to their people’s demands for peace, say, in Israel or Northern Ireland. In other cases it has been inner-circle Machiavellis, at the stopped-clock moments when they found peace advantageous.

I don’t mean to be harsh to politicians who get the prize – they probably did do more for peace than any activist, in the same way that the rich man in Jesus’ parable gave much more to the church than the old widow. I am willing to express some admiration for Al Gore or Mikhail Gorbachev, as they risked their political careers. But let’s not confuse them with people who blocked tanks with their bodies, or were beaten with clubs and went back for more, or who sat in prison for thirty years without giving in.

But this is stranger than the usual undeserved awards. This Nobel Peace Prize goes not only to the most powerful man in the world, but a man who has had few accomplishments in his life other than rising quickly to power and winning the White House, and who has only been there nine months. And since nominations must be submitted by January 31, according to the Nobel Academy’s web site, Mr. Obama had been president for a week and four days when his name was submitted.

Understand that I am not trying to personally insult Mr. Obama. I don’t think he walks on water, but I was relieved to be rid of the previous administration, and I liked many things about him -- for example, his talk of expanding clean energy and restoring passenger rail.

I like his more realistic discussion of climate change, but I also know that just yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to keep most of the Patriot Act intact. I had a fantasy that the White House lawn could be turned into a Victory Garden, and was pleasantly surprised when it came true – but his administration has not ended the so-called “rendition” flights, in which citizens of other countries are kidnapped and flown to dictatorships to have their toenails pulled off slowly.

He has taken steps toward closing my country’s concentration camp, moved slowly toward ending the federal government’s occupation of Iraq, meeting about nuclear disarmament, taking steps toward reforming health care. But those are all intentions and preliminaries, not actual accomplishments – nor did anyone expect him and his staff to turn the world upside-down in a few months.

The Academy’s intentions were probably noble, and the recipient is a widely beloved man. But an undeserved award reduces the Nobel Prize's power to aid the next Third-World peasant who organise medical care for impoverished millions, or who chains herself to the last remaining rainforest trees. They hear the parable and honour the wrong party.