FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Tale of two meetings

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tale of two meetings

Sam Smith

Over the past fortnight I have attended two five hour meetings held by boards of non-profits on which I have served for many years. For me, the two have much in common. I admire their purpose, the way they pursue it, the people who make it happen, and the results they have produced.  

But the two are vastly different in a key regard. One is dedicated to reducing the bad in Washington. The other is dedicated to growing the good in Maine.

The first group is a DC foundation that has dealt with such overwhelming matters as helping government whistleblowers long before the current NSA scandal, improving the public’s privacy on the Internet, eliminating various offenses of the TSA, and attacking the use of offshore tax havens by American corporations.

It is a tough mission, sometimes dangerous, yet the groups have done it with remarkable skill, determination and wisdom.

The second board runs a Maine public farm and agriculture education center that has been pressing for clean food and a clean environment since before Silent Spring. It is visited by thousands of school children every year, has hundreds attending its summer day camp and trains the young with a Teen Ag program, which last year produced thousands of pounds of food for local public pantries as its participants learned the skills of a farmer, the world’s earliest multi-tasker.

The meeting of the first group featured reports from organizations it funds, as presented by some of the most remarkable people you will find in Washington but about whom you won’t hear much in a capital that has become so corrupt, incompetent, and indifferent to those it is supposed to represent. On any one of many issues, it would be easy to throw up one’s hands and just give up. These extraordinary folks have refused to do so.

The meeting of the second group featured a long range plan for the farm and its ancillary activities, a plan that emphasizes the need for real changes in how we treat agriculture in Maine given that only ten percent of the food we eat is locally grown (and only 3 percent of our proteins). Further, because of their age Maine farmers are retiring and dying in large numbers and not being replaced.

Such things are easy to talk about in Maine because things like food and the environment are not abstractions or just policy issues. It is part of living here and you don’t turn your back on them. All you have to do is listen to how often they come up in conversation and you know that it’s on folks’ minds.

At the farm meeting, I offered the suggestion that in three major ways greater America was failing but that Maine had something new and important to offer. Ecology was one. Democracy was another because of Maine’s independent history and culture including the belief that you can’t have your liberty without letting others have theirs.

The third, the economy, might surprise contemporary economists and their media mavens, but that’s because much of our economic thinking is stuck in ancient mythology about growth and capitalism. As James Kunstler points out, you can’t rely on growth if you run out of the fuels to run it. And that’s before you even get to the question of what excessive population does to our planet and our fellow humans. A deep work effort, survival skills and understanding of the true role of cooperation of the sort you find in Maine could become huge factors in finding another way out.

I had these thoughts during the meeting in part because, as we discussed the long range plan, we were joined by three staff members in charge of farming operations – all in their 20s or 30s and all highly skilled and motivated. One had even been a member of our Teen Ag program, gone to Smith College for a year, and then decided that she really wanted to go into agriculture instead.

When I looked into the faces of those reporting at our Washington meeting, I saw courage, determination and a refusal to be intimidated. But the odds were still scary.

When I looked into the faces of those running the Maine farm’s operation, I saw skill and determination, but I also saw not just the planters of crops but also the planters of hope and of reasonable dreams.

The America of Washington is a wallowing ship waiting to be rescued.

The America of a corner of Maine has great potential that just needs some more good answers.

The tale of two meetings.

And of two Americas.