|The Catskills Esopus River Valley, had been a hotbed of political controversy the years I lived there. A developer
named Dean Gitter attempted to bring a large golf, ski and residential
'resort' to an area just up the road from where I lived in Pine Hill. His proposal
had the entire valley up in arms because, whereas some folks saw in
the project a potential windfall for the valley, others saw it bringing
rising taxes, traffic, pollution and loss of a way of life. The two
sides of the issue were pretty much vociferous in their opposition
to one another, resorting to a panoply of tactics to not merely
defeat or discredit the other but, in general, to just make their lives miserable.
The last letter (first below) was written when Mr. Gitter crossed a boundary choosing words for a letter to the editor of the Kingston Times. Clearly he'd intended to paint himself as an economic savior to the valley, with only our collective best interests in his mind. However the crudity with which he sought to do so made me wince.
The second letter (farther below) I felt compelled to offer in the wake of a county election in which a Democratic Town Supervisor was swept into office in a wave of anti-development sentiment in the valley.
Dear Mr. Dean Gitter:
I was inspired to write a letter to the editor of the Phoenicia Times after I read of your concern for my “lack of empathy for people who have lived here all their lives”. You see, I felt rather offended initially that you, a man who has never met me, could presume to know so much about me and make informed assessments of my various weaknesses of character. I now humbly admit this was a hasty judgement and hope you will forgive me.
I recalled the ways of my Mohawk ancestors, who abhorred hasty judgements and I sat awhile with your words, considering the possibility they contained a hidden gift. I realized if you were truly providing me with a gift, I’d be insulting you if I responded only to the Phoenicia Times. So, I concluded, I must address my gratitude to you directly. Furthermore, in light of the error of my hasty judgement, by tradition I am required to address you publicly when expressing my gratitude for your words and wisdom, so that all may see that I admit to my error of hasty judgement. Therefore, I‘ll ask the Phoenicia Times to also publish this.
Where was I? Ah, yes, the gift of your words of wisdom. Well, Dean - may I call you Dean? Please forgive me, it’s just I have this tendency to ingratiate myself with those to whom I feel indebted. It’s a bad habit, I know. Anyway, it took quite an effort for me to recognize the gift of your words. I struggled to find a way to read your words in a way that wouldn’t insult my ancestors or my people. I even sat in council with the spirits of my Mohawk and Metis ancestors to discern the place of wisdom from which you were secretly gifting me. When I noticed my ancestral spirits also struggling, I realized your words could be packing some REALLY powerful medicine, which would explain why I’d been so clueless up till then.
For instance, most any other newcomer to this valley, upon reading your words might go ballistic upon hearing of your brilliant assessment of their private fantasies. Not me, though. It was tough, it took time, but with the help of my ancestors, I finally saw, understood and was grateful, Dean. It didn’t matter that I was born and raised in rural Alaska and am intimately acquainted with development politics from 25 years of living there. That utterly misses your profound point: that I don’t have enough empathy for Shandaken’s lifetime residents. Sad, but so true.
I found myself especially grateful for your enlightening words on my failure to complete a “process” and “journey” to help me appreciate the “very precious way of life” we have here in Shandaken. So many people here must be boiling hot mad at you over these words but they just don’t understand you, Dean. It must be hard. I feel bad for you. Admittedly, even I was confused over your words at first. I thought the ‘process’ and ‘journey’ I needed to complete was to become a millionaire, buy a lot of land and clear-cut it so I could steep myself in the logger/developer experience. Then I got caught in a tangent arguing whether years of chopping firewood in Alaska counted for anything. That’s when I remembered you also referenced “mechanics”.
Now, inasmuch I can repair bicycles, washing machines, computers, am handy in home carpentry and the mechanics of physics, I suspect you really mean ‘automobile mechanics’. Auto mechanics keep cars running. Cars keep bringing tourists back. Tourists in traffic jams keep stopping at Catskill Corners to spend money on cold drinks and aspirin, so Dean can afford to buy more land for loggers……hmmm. Something’s missing. Then I remembered you also mentioned “improvisers”.
My ancestral elder spirits and I grappled at length with the concept of “improvisers”. I told them about taking extreme measures to grow a garden in Alaskan permafrost. They weren’t impressed. They did express interest when I showed them how to use duct tape to shore up door seals on our refrigerator in Shandaken. In the end, though, it was your own improvisation that helped me grasp the genius and wondrous power of your words.
It all began when, in a fit of boredom, one of the elder spirits wandered into my memory library and chanced on Robin Williams doing a stand-up routine. Well, Dean, as you can imagine, Robin’s comedy caused quite a hubbub in the council circle. They especially got a chuckle from his ad lib improvising. But when I tried to get them to calm down and help me with the meaning of your words, they went into an uproar. They starting guffawing, laughing, falling over, turning red and making such a racket I became self-conscious. I began glancing around my cubicle at work to see if anyone else heard them. Without fail, whenever I quoted some words from your stream of consciousness, the entire council of ancestral elder spirits fell into uncontrollable wails of laughter.
Dean, I apologize for being so slow, but while driving home on the thruway it finally dawned on me. The entire meaning of your words came cascading down like a ton of golf course fertilizer. I asked myself, “Is it plausible that Mr. Dean Gitter REALLY wants me, a Mohawk, to believe I’m the newcomer? It’s ludicrous! - of course he couldn’t. Does Dean really want me to think I am one of the inconsiderate rich while I improvise to repair my leaky refrigerator, chop wood from trees downed in winter storms and commute three hours daily for contract programmer work without benefits (when I could work for Dean at near minimum wage and make even less)? Certainly not! Then my mind surveyed the entire tome of words that have gushed from your lips – OSTENSIBLY in praise of the Belleayre project. It was suddenly clear: even you don’t believe in the project! Why should you? Clearly, you have completed your journey and process and can see your true worth: you carry profound laughter medicine for the rest of us. You are the contrary of the Esopus Valley.
Dean, I laughed till I had abdominal cramps. I pulled
off the thruway moaning in misery at the genius of your magic. Then
I started crying. I cried as I remembered your words admonishing
me that I don’t have empathy for Shandaken’s lifetime residents.
It’s true. I remember how Alaska’s old timers thrived on laughter
in the face of adversity. Yet, for months I’ve unwittingly wished
to deprive Shandaken’s old-timers of what must be the most powerful medicine
they know: the peals of laughter your contrary words must bring to each.
Keep doing what you do and saying what you say, Dean. I promise I’ll never say a bad word about your medicine again. No matter what insults spill from your lips, no matter what nonsense you utter or confusion you sow, I’ll honor you above others for the burden you’ve selflessly chosen to carry: the most profound laughter medicine I’ve ever encountered. I send my greetings to you and profound gratitude for the work Creator is doing through you. May coyote and raven forever walk beside you.
I wasn't born here nor have I lived here long enough to qualify even as a pseudo-local. I was born and raised in Alaska. After a few years of college and working in Philadelphia I finally found the sense to 'get outta Dodge', get married and move to Shandaken three years ago. Over the years, however, I've managed to hang on to some of the better sensibilities my father passed on to me.
My father's idea to give Alaska a try after the Second World War probably didn't seem so bad to my mother. You see, they’d met at the Hanford plant and neither of them had a clue what they were working on until after the bomb was dropped. That must have pretty well clinched it for them - they moved to Alaska. Looking back now, I think their decision was a pretty good one. I grew up in the woods, surrounded by mountains and developed a pretty good idea of what's important in life. My father passed on what he could of his Mohawk sensibility and pride to us kids and over the past eight years I've managed to recover the Mohawk traditions and language my grandfather hadn’t passed to his son. I've learned how important for all of us two-leggeds is the connection with the land of one’s birth - as well as the land one lives in.
While living down in Philly, I saw how lost people become when they are surrounded by brick boxes, concrete, steel and glass. For a while I was one of them. I credit these Catskill mountains with a good measure of my healing. Now, I find myself witnessing a local storm of disagreement and political angst that feels strangely familiar. It's almost as if the ghost of Alaskan development politics finally sniffed me out in the Catskills and set up residence with a twisted sentiment of keeping me company. There's a message for me in that somewhere......
I was at the American Cafe on election night. In the midst of being profoundly moved at the joy sweeping through so many of you, I could have sworn I saw the spirits of two old Mohawk clan mothers sitting in the corner with cautious looks on their faces. It troubled me this week. "Why do they have such sour faces?", I thought. A few days later it finally sunk in: I was being encouraged to look beyond the obvious.
Everyone likes to be on the winning side of an issue. Those laboring for a change in this valley obviously had powerful feelings of victory and redemption after the election and having watched suburbia creep out and surround the woods of my Alaskan home as a young man, it's not as if today I have any deep abiding affection for development. However, I wonder whether this community will now find the courage - and especially compassion - to put raw emotions in the past and focus on this comunity's future. I've seen firsthand on my grandfather's reservation how factionalism strangles and decimates a community - despite its leaders best efforts at compromise. I pray this community avoids such a legacy.
Some here say that Shandaken's future lies in protecting the pristine mountains, streams and valleys. Still others say it lies in promoting the kind of growth that provides opportunities for future generations. Folks, I've been hearing this for forty years - and they both miss the mark. This community's future lies in its people. Yeah, I know, those words probably sound trite to some of you (especially in the wake of an election), but in '64 when my hometown was reeling from 250 deaths and a 9.2 Richter earthquake, those words gave us the courage to rebuild as we looked for potable water amidst the reek of sulphur, broken gas lines and collapsed septic tanks.
Memories of Shandaken's flood in '95 should be all this community needs to see how much you depend on each other. If not, perhaps you should reflect on the heightened security measures on the reservoir - they don't have implications just for New York City's residents. For myself, I reminisce about opinionated life-time Alaskans taking time out to help neighbors on the opposite political side - not out of preference - but out of necessity. A hard land will do that to political archrivals. Rural Alaskans seem to prefer ultra-opinionated neighbors over political apathy, urban creature comforts and social homogeneity because that same hard land provides something money, skyscrapers and concrete can't provide: compassion.
When the temperature slips below -30 or a blizzard drops in, compassion is what ensures redneck John Birch Republican trappers check on Pinko-liberal tree-hugging hippies out of genuine concern - and vice versa. Compassion makes winter pipeline haul road truckers uniformly pull over to help despised out-of-state job-seekers change their tire. It's not a big deal back home because eventually everyone learns: 'There, but for the grace of God, go I'. The jokes about 'Tourist Season' (it's legal to shoot 'em now, right?) are the same in Alaska as they are here. However, if a blizzard whips up and scoots a developer's Lexus or an attorney's Jaguar into the ditch here in Shandaken, I'll do the same thing I'd do back home. I get them into our house where it's warm, lend them my phone while I head out with my snow shovel and start digging them out.
No, of course I don't expect that they'd do the same for me. That's not the point. Compassion is never about getting something in return, let alone 'doing the right thing'. Compassion is action that comes from realizing the other fella has a right to be mistaken because that's the first step to learning something better. I've been wrong before, and had folks say pretty nasty things to me because of it. I'll be damned if I'm gonna make someone else suffer unnecessarily while learning they're mistaken. So, sometimes compassion helps me find a kinder, more respectful way to speak with those mistaken about me. Yeah, some individuals don't want to hear it. They seem determined to 'hit the pothole' because they're convinced it doesn't exist. Compassion doesn't demand I let them run over me. I get out of the way. However, nothing gives me the right to make someone miserable just because they're mistaken about something and I supposedly 'know' it.
And this is where those two old clan-mothers come in. They reminded me that, in the Mohawk longhouse, the traditional political way was to build consensus. Sure, it takes more time, but the advantage of consensus is it preserves the community. Too often, popularity is simply a hiding place for those lacking the courage to step across the line and privately meet with the opposite side of an issue. The result is a fractured constituency locked in pervasive mudslinging and leaders quarantined from meaningful dialogue with their opponents out of fear of alienating their constituencies. Sounds like my grandfather’s rez.
There's a good saying my wife taught me: no one person has all the pieces of the picture. Certainly not any one of the numerous one-person PACs (political action committees) that sprouted so abundantly this fall. However, when silent fence-sitters AND mudslingers see two ardent opponents identify common ground, it encourages fence-sitters and mudslingers alike to find ways to build on it.
The political issues facing Shandaken are tough. There’s a clear mandate to protect the natural beauty and resources of this valley. However, the community also suffers from dependence on a fickle seasonal tourist income and lack of a nearby manufacturing or high-compensating service industry. Limited funds further hamper efforts at attracting such businesses here. Can this community identify development projects it enthusiastically supports? Without a doubt it can. Achieving this, however, will require more than novel ideas. It will require a community-engaging process that levels the playing field and truly honors all opinions. If leaders AND constituents can summon the discipline, courage AND compassion to build consensus on the issues, success is assured. Courage and compassion; we all know you have them in abundance - they just need to be applied in a new way.