Sunday, May 08, 2016


Fort Mac Fire smoke

The weather is glorious — if you don’t mind the burnishment of the FORT MAC smoke plume turning everything a little brassy.  Their evacuation is continuing.  The fire is almost to Saskatchewan.  Two babies have been born in the midst of the confusion.  They’re safe.  The pilot of a just-landing fire retardant plane had a medical incident, lost control which was seized by the copilot, but not before the plane went off the runway.

Instead of working on my yard, I’m here at the keyboard thinking about — oh, you know, small towns, world overpopulation, the Trump atrocity, and the two beautiful but sad movies I watched in the last few days: “Amour” and “The Keeping Room”. (Reviews later maybe.)  I’m trying to think of an overarching concept.  The main thing is an ecological approach to everything — that is, how the different entities and processes fit together, affect each other, die out, and leave spaces for something new — mutation and evolution being part of all that.

What is the homeostasis of my subjects?  For instance, small towns like Valier-- since the monthly town council meeting is tomorrow night.  How much stability on the one hand and disruption on the other can we tolerate without collapsing?  The mayor has been inquiring into the global venture capital practise of buying properties auctioned for failure to pay taxes, bundling them as toxic assets.  49 properties in Valier (out of something like 200) are vulnerably delinquent.  I don’t know how many have reverted to county ownership nor how many have gone to satisfy liens on estates of penniless elderly people who died in nursing homes.  Probably a few are just abandoned with no clue to the location of their owners.
Across the street from the town hall
Such information is technically public, rarely reported, but it represents a considerable shift in wealth in a little town whose supporting infrastructure is aging out.  Property ownership is boom-and-bust as much as anything else.  How do you handle a sewage lagoon or a water supply in response to that?

The holocaust in Fort Mac is only beginning to be felt in long terms.  The downturn in high-pay oil field work has already plunged roughneck workers into unemployment and closed down oil companies.  Will the rebuild of tar sands losses—which will undoubtedly begin as it cools — pull back former employees or create a new set with different skills?  Or will the companies find that it pays to leave the tar sands black and blank for a while until oil prices go back up?

Big, strong, not-necessarily-educated men are having a knock-on effect in small Western towns.  Bars provide an interface between tired lonesome guys away from any previous family, causing new alliances of unstable but fertile relationships.  To quote the movies, “there will be blood” but also there will be babies.  We make a fuss about marijuana being an “entry drug” to cocaine or meth, but say nothing about alcohol as an entry drug, far more violent and pervasive than pot.  

At first we thought in terms of veterans returning from combat and struggling with PTSD, but now we’re thinking about common drunken bullies fueled by a pervasive culture of extreme superheroes and “religious” systems of dark and evil far more magnetic than the anemic mainstream churches.  There are certain men in neighborhoods whom we avoid.  When he’s out shouting bare-chested in his yard, we go indoors.  We can’t control him so we control ourselves.  We never really know what's happening indoors.

Such men are catnip to women susceptible to the idea that a man will finance and protect a family and to the emotional extravaganzas a man can stage after a siege of abuse.  The women are local but defiant of family, maybe shunned.  

Since the Internet is so handy, I spent some time looking for what to do about families with abuse and violence.  There are a lot of hotlines and websites.  The bottom line is that such families fall between laws to protect families and keep the peace, and another set of laws meant to protect private life from invasion by authorities.  Basically, everyone is stumped.  It’s a gap in the ecosystem being filled by floaters attracted by big salaries for uneducated hard labor.  In small towns we are more exposed to them when they show up.

Businesses that had been run in stable and growth-supporting ways, originally built on a strong work ethic and willingness to accept hard conditions, have been sold to people who are climbing the learning curve and expecting profits to support luxuries.  Families who have resources have essentially bought the town.  Offend them or be offended by them and it will be necessary to drive thirty miles to get groceries.  

Sources of pride are high school sports teams, ancestor worship of 1900’s immigration, and a nice yard.  Someone in another town said to me, “Don’t you think Valier is a pretty town?”  She was entirely unconscious of the blocks of metal grain storage or side-street properties collapsing and unoccupied.

At a town council meeting a few years ago, also several council versions ago, a man came who asked to give a testimonial.  He was leaving town for a new job he couldn’t resist, but he was broken-hearted about leaving friends in town and his feeling of belonging.  I don’t know who he was or where he went or what happened, but I’m very curious.  Was he just lucky, or was there something in his personality?  Was it the timing?
Bill Houff

The Reverend Bill Houff of the Spokane UU church, used to tell a story about a guy wanting to move to a community that was peaceful and prosperous.  He figured rural and small was the way to go, so he drove out along country roads until he came to a field where an old-timer was working and hailed him for conversation.  “Is this a good town to live in?” the guy asked.

The old-timer looked him up and down.  “What was the last town like where you lived before?”  City guy explained what made him want to move.

Old-timer, before turning back to his tractor and field, opined, “Towns you move to are always pretty much like the town you left.”  In short, it’s a self-fulfilling expectation.

Entering Valier

It’s one of those survival conundrums:  what is good for the individual may not be good for the community and vice versa.  How does one achieve balance and mutual contentment?  Are those qualities to strive for anyway?  Doesn’t every context need threat, defiance, discomfort, in order to realize something toxic that had been unconscious?  Isn't mutation in the interest of evolution always scary?

In short, how can one hack small town culture problems that paralyze the normal routes, like elections, churches, or the sheriff?  Few want to be on a council forced to react to intractable problems.  But now there are new planetary dynamics shifting the terms of settlements on every continent:  global weather change, disease pandemics, visible and invisible famine, and the exhaustion of resources, including soil fertility, exotic metals, and mountain water-making.  

Australian firefighter gives a koala a drink.

Oh, yeah.  And this is the kind of continental conflagration fires that Australia has lived with for centuries.  Don’t go planting fire-loving eucalyptus trees.  There are no koala bears in Canada.   Alberta is importing firefighters from Jalisco, Mexico, with whom they have had a training relationship for years. But what about their tribal firefighters? Are they as professional as the ones in Montana? We’re all in this together.

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