Civility

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A dike along the Okanogan River 

Two nights after The Election, I warily attended a local town hall-style meeting. It’d been organized to discuss a proposed walking trail along the river. This idea has been the subject of controversy and dispute for decades. After witnessing  a nation turn itself into an ouroboros —that mythological snake who eats its own tail — I was not eager to deal with anything political. To my astonishment, the meeting turned out to be a welcome oasis of civility amidst the week’s political maelstrom.

The Okanogan River is a placid stream that every once in a rare while goes bonkers. In 1948, 1972 and 1974, so-called “hundred year” floods submerged vast areas. I know those dates well because they’re painted on the bulkhead of the house next door to mark how high the river had risen. The Army Corps of Engineers responded in the 1970s by building broad dikes to keep the river in its “natural” channel. Ever since, there’ve been no hundred-year floods to test the dikes, but their use and maintenance have been contentious.

Various environmental and wildlife agencies want the dikes covered with native vegetation to provide habitat. The Corps wants them free of roots that supposedly undermine the dikes’ stability. Just plain folks have, for years, simply wanted the privilege of walking along those dikes to enjoy the beauty of a free-flowing river. For years, adjacent property owners strenuously objected, not wanting their privacy invaded. Thus the “no trespassing” signs on the dikes mean that only trespassers can walk there. And they do.

For several months, a small group of volunteers has worked strenuously to create a plan for developing a trail that would serve the public while protecting property owners. The meeting drew a full house. City officials and the volunteer group laid out their proposal, candidly describing both pluses and minuses.

Not far from me sat an elderly gentleman who shuffled papers and grumbled every once in a while about trespassers on his property and how he’d received the meeting notice only the day before. When it came time for questions and discussion, he raised his hand.

“Here we go,” I thought to myself. Prepared for the usual NIMBY response, I was pleasantly surprised when he spoke about how he’d enjoyed urban trails elsewhere. He outlined some of the problems that would have to be resolved if this trail were developed. He did it in a way that said, yes, there are problems, and there may be solutions. That was the tone for the entire meeting, an openness to finding solutions together.

Such a small event in a week when history was made. For me it was the most important event, an evening when I thought, yes, maybe the American experiment can work, maybe we can govern ourselves. The late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Maybe all civility is local, too. That’s where it matters most, and who knows — it just might catch on nationwide.

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