Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter?

Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter?                                                              —by Jinny Batterson

After the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in south Florida, I listened to some of the early news reports. Of course, there was outrage at the taking of seventeen lives, fourteen of them students at the school. There was the customary soul-searching and hand-wringing over supposed reasons for the violence that once again had erupted in our midst.

Then I partially tuned out. I wrote yet another set of letters and messages to my NRA-indebted U.S. Senators. I commiserated with family and friends. I tried to focus mainly on small, more localized projects where I could make a positive difference.

While I tried to process this latest affront to human dignity, somewhere in the back of my mind, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas rang a bell. Most high schools are named either geographically, or for some local educator or political figure. Why, then, did this woman’s name seem somehow familiar?  After a while, I checked the internet for a biography of Ms. Stoneman Douglas. First I noticed a picture of an aged woman in a brimmed hat, holding a cat on her lap. Skimming the accompanying text, I found that Marjory had been born in 1890, an only child of a marriage that unraveled when she was six. She spent much of her childhood under the stern tutelage of her mother’s parents in Taunton, Massachusetts. As she grew up, her mother’s mental and physical health deteriorated, leading to several institutionalizations, then a death due to metastatic breast cancer shortly after Marjory graduated from college. 

Always an avid reader, Marjory began writing for publication in her teens. After a brief tumultuous marriage, Marjory moved to Florida in 1915 and worked for several years at her father’s newspaper, which eventually became the Miami Herald. Over time, she established a career as a free-lance writer, penning over 100 articles and short stories, several novels, as well as the non-faction account The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947.

Now the connection clicked—I’d spent a couple of vacations exploring parts of Everglades National Park, including the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area. I read further into her biography. In later life, Douglas became a tireless advocate for preservation of the Everglades, earning several awards, plus the enmity of some agricultural and real estate developers. She turned 100 the year Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School opened, and lived for eight more years, continuing to write and speak about the need for good environmental stewardship. According to a local journalist who’d interviewed Stoneman Douglas several times, “She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.”

I applaud the ongoing efforts by student survivors at the school named in her honor to reimagine our national obsession with guns. I’ve heard that some of their fundraising appeals contain variations of this Stoneman Douglas quote: “Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.”  She didn’t give up. Neither can we. 

         

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love     —by Jinny Batterson

This past Saturday started out chilly, with intermittent showers. When I first awoke, I felt discouraged about political shenanigans that have infected multiple levels of our government— disagreement about state and federal voting maps, with lawsuits, hastily crafted legislation, and lots of confusion about districts for upcoming elections; serious questions about the impartiality of our judiciary and proper procedures for selecting judges; looming ballooning federal deficits; periodic government shutdowns; inadequate funding for education and health care; voter suppression; little progress on comprehensive immigration reform; climate change dissension; despoiling of rivers, forests, coastlines; White House staff scandals.

Rather than roll over and try to go back to sleep, though, I got up, got out my umbrella and rain gear, then took the public bus to downtown Raleigh to participate in this year’s “HistoricThousands on Jones Street” march and rally, the twelfth such annual public gathering. HKonJ has become an increasingly potent way for ordinary citizens to voice their concerns near the legislative offices of our North Carolina elected representatives. Multiple non-partisan groups had sent me invitations to the march. Arriving at the assembly area, I saw clusters of fellow prospective marchers with well-made, well-used banners and signs. However, what most intrigues me about such gatherings are the individual signs, banners, and costumes participants come up with to express their views. Among the first I spotted was worn by a neatly bearded man—a t-shirt that proclaimed in yellow letters against a black background: “Make Tacos, Not Walls.” Not far away, a married couple with a religious bent held up complementary signs—his explained “I’m a privileged white male who believes in liberty and justice for all,” while hers was briefer: “That ‘love thy neighbor’ thing? I meant that!—@GOD.” Two younger guys carried a poster with slightly wobbly large letters. In bold black and red, it demanded: “Who voted for Gerry Mander?”, an indictment of the more and more brazen legislative ploys to create voting districts that unfairly advantage selected incumbents, groups, or political parties.    

As a woman, I was especially receptive to signs crafted by women. Just before the formal march started, I talked with two female friends who’d come from different parts of North Carolina to meet at HKonJ. One had written on a rough piece of cardboard, the kind sometimes used by homeless people at major intersections, “Hope Will Never Be Silent!”  Her companion had a slightly more elaborate poster, in vibrant colors, “Love Is Why We Are Here.”

Once showers resumed after the march, attendance dwindled. Many of us sought shelter in local restaurants and shops. As I headed down Fayetteville Street toward a local snack bar run by an immigrant family, I noticed two women seated at an outdoor table, deep in conversation. One had on a flowered hat of the type sported by the political satire group the “Raging Grannies.” 

After a bit, they interrupted their talk long enough for me to ask for a photo of them and their sign, a quote from earlier social activist Dorothy Day: “Love is the Only Solution.”   

The HKonJ event helped renew my faith in the capacities and decency of ordinary citizens. We came together to express, for whatever issues most compelled us, our stakes in this city, state, country and planet. I’d guess that within the overall march were folks whose views opposed each other’s on one or more issues. To be able to “walk in each other’s shoes” will take further work, listening, and mutual respect. Nevertheless, despite the weather, we all walked together, chanted together, laughed together, sometimes even sang together.

Long ago, a prolific letter writer explained that faith, hope, and love abide forever. This is as true of our civic life as it is of our religious and spiritual lives. With civic faith, civic hope, and, above all, civic love, I’m persuaded that we can together get ourselves out of the challenging set of messes we’ve gotten ourselves into.  Happy Valentine’s Day! 

A Parable for Our Time?

A Parable for Our Times?  —by Jinny Batterson

A number of years ago, a friend told me the following parable, which I’ve adapted slightly to fit our current situation:

During a rare break in legislative sessions, a small bipartisan group of junior legislators arranged a recreational outing at a big scenic lake nearby.  Everyone was invited. The hosts hoped that during this lull in legislative routine, they could begin to rebuild some of the trust and cooperative spirit that had badly frayed during several previous contentious debates.

All was going well, with even a slight uptick in cordiality, until a sudden storm came up and capsized the large tour boat where everyone was riding. Panic set in; most passengers were thrown overboard. Two of the area’s leading legislators, one from each party, were thrown further from the main boat than the rest, out of sight of the others. Just as both were about to go under, neither having learned to swim, they spied a small row boat nearby. At first it seemed they might come to blows or try to keep each other out of the smaller boat, but after a bit both made it in, one at either end.  Although there were oars in the oar locks, neither legislator made any move toward rowing to shore. Instead, the two sat, stone-faced, as the small boat floated in circles in the middle of the lake. A while later, the boat began to fill with water—it was likely not a brand-new boat and had perhaps not had the best of maintenance. There was a bailing bucket attached to a rope on the boat’s floor, but neither legislator made a move toward bailing, either. Instead, the two continued to glare at each other.

Finally, one concentrated his most withering gaze on the other and said with a sneer, “Your end of the boat is sinking.”    

Groundhog

Groundhog  —by Jinny Batterson

Harbinger of spring, furry cousin of a squirrel,
We celebrate your special day
By snatching you from burrow and sleep
To blink at the light–strong sun means longer winter.

Midway between poinsettia and forsythia,
We want a fellow creature to provide some assurance
That winter will end–a prognostication from one
Who also dislikes freezing cold and biting storms.

You don’t much care about the splendor of the overcoats,
Scarves, or top hats of those who briefly torment you.
Their race, religion, creed, or politics also matter little.

What’s more important Is that they make their
Ceremony short, so that you can return to needed
Rest before the frenzy of spring.

Plump marmot, I salute you; I beg for
Your wisdom to forebear when poked and prodded
And made to squint in uncomfortable directions.

And, yes, I want to believe that spring is on its way,
Whatever its speed.

Living at the Bottom of a Hill

Living at the Bottom of a Hill    —by Jinny Batterson

When we first purchased our most recent home, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to its topography.  Mostly I noticed that it was within easy walking distance of the home where one of our grown children then lived. Another plus to our downsize-for-retirement condo was that it was only about 10 minutes’ drive from our regional airport—a boon for visiting further-off family and friends. It sat on a small lot on one of two adjacent loops of privately maintained road near a major interstate in the central North Carolina piedmont. 

I soon warmed to the flexibility and freedom that living in a condo afforded: exterior maintenance, including most lawn care and landscaping, was handled by our homeowners’ association for a small monthly fee. Because our unit’s previous owners had been handy do-it-yourselfers, initially we had little indoor maintenance, either. For the first couple of years we owned the place, we spent as much time away from it traveling as we did “at home,” finding it in good shape whenever we returned.   

It was not until my first year of living in the condo full-time that I discovered a few downsides to our new living quarters. Along with the maintenance provided by the condo association came a good many rules and restrictions, some of which I learned about only after violating them. Then there was the smallness of the yard—rather than the previous acre-plus I’d had to garden in, the area of land that went with our unit was tiny: a small sliver in front and another small sliver with a northern exposure in back between an overhanging deck and a common area of woodland. The worst, though, was storm drainage.

front walk in hard rain

The four-unit building where we had one of the middle units sat near the bottom of a rather steep hill. Whenever we had what my mom would have called a “gully washer,” puddles formed along our front walk. Water seeped through our unfinished basement, whose back area of concrete slab was about ten feet lower than its roughly graded dirt-floored front. Rainwater from buildings further up the slopes came rushing down, washing away sod and lawn, silting in our minuscule back yard, causing deepening gashes in the landscape, piling up gravel and debris against bases of trees in the woodland commons, accelerating disease and decay. 

front yard washing away

Walking or driving in other areas of our hilly town, I took note of large scale efforts to deal with this “bottom of the hill” effect: retaining walls twenty or more feet high, stream buffers of woodland and brush, gravel or paved greenways along creeks, truckloads and truckloads of rocks and pebbles dumped along steep slopes and into low-lying areas, retention ponds of many sizes and shapes.

I became a late-life-learner about the rudiments of smaller-scale erosion control—appropriate landscape plants, rain gardens, check dams, terracing, mulch, mulch, and more mulch. Within the confines of our HOA’s covenants, sometimes to the annoyance of my neighbors, I’ve tried to find ways to reduce storm run-off and redirect it into less destructive channels. Progress is slow and intermittent. My guess is that there will never be a permanent solution, and that as the climate continues to change, the challenges of living near the bottoms of hills will become more severe.

Still, I’ve decided, there’s no better landscape in which to live. Flat areas can be just as damaged by prolonged rain events as hills. (Remember 2016’s Hurricane Matthew in eastern North Carolina or 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston?) Living on the crests of hills or mountains poses other challenges—water supplies do not arrive uphill unaided; lightning favors ridge tops. So I’ll keep working at stewarding this little plot that is mine for a time. By and by, the gullies may wash less destructively.             

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout    —by Jinny Batterson

I recently spent a week of after-Christmas visit with parts of the next generations of our family on the U.S. West Coast. As visiting grandma, I got to attend some of the children’s after school activities, including a meeting of our granddaughter’s “Daisies and Brownies” troop. Before the meeting, I was curious about how this branch of Girl Scouting had evolved in the generations since I started Brownies in the 1950’s. At first, lacking everyday exposure to younger children, I found this recent meeting’s hubbub a little daunting, though it’s likely that little girls are no more or less squirmy and giggly than my friends and I were so many years ago. For starters, girls now can become “Daisies” a year or two younger than the Brownie program I entered in second grade.  Still, I recognized parts of the program: an opening circle and a check-in when each girl could relate any important events or concerns, lots of singing, lots of running around, a craft activity, time outdoors, a pledge to honor oneself and others, a short-term service project, plus an introduction to this year’s annual cookie sales campaign for the scouts, parents, and grandparents present.

Since the meeting, I’ve ruminated a bit about why I’m glad our granddaughter is in Girl Scouting. Some American girls recently gained admission to Boy Scout troops. The “#metoo” social media movement has gained wide publicity for its attempts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment (something the Girl Scouts have been doing with less fanfare for decades). Why continue to be a Girl Scout in these changing times?

Based on my previous exposure and my brief reconnection through my granddaughter, these are several aspects that still seem important to me:

—revolving skills-based leadership within a basic structure. No one person has all the skills needed for the many different situations life will throw at us. In Scouting, some will excel at crafts, while others can organize; some are adept song leaders; some have sports skills; some are tech-savvy; still others are gifted at laying campfires. In the troop where I was a member, one girl, Cheryl, was somewhat less athletic than most, not good at crafts, a reluctant camper, quiet and shy. The rest of us knew, though, that she was very important to our troop. She had a family asset missing to the rest of us: her mom worked at a large nearby military base. At cookie sales time, it was Cheryl’s turn to be a star. Though the rest of us were a little jealous as she loaded the family station wagon full of cartons of cookies for distribution, we knew her work was vital to reaching our sales goals each year.

—an international focus in addition to the local, state, and national civic engagement of each Girl Scout. For me, this was best exemplified by the first international Scouting center, a chalet in the Swiss Alps that opened in 1932. Many Scouts know the “Chalet song” with its aspirational closing: “And this its dedication shall never fail nor be undone, each race, each creed, each nation beneath its roof are one.”  The Chalet is now the oldest of five operating international centers, including a recently organized rotating event space among Girl Scouts in Africa. 

—An affirmation of the worth of each individual, along with the importance of working together toward common goals. Like Cheryl in our troop long ago, some Scouts will have less readily visible skills, but Girl Scouting teaches that each of us has an important role to play. No one is inconsequential. When we get overly invested in a “great leader” model, it can be all too easy to forget this basic truth.   

  About this time last year, I was a local participant in one of many “Women’s Marches” that occurred globally on the third weekend of January. At this year’s anniversary weekend, I’ll have to track hometown activities from afar. Yet after having observed our granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop, I’m heartened that, if and when we forget to value all the world’s citizens, she and others like her will continue to show up to remind us:  all of us matter, including women and girls.   

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version  –by Jinny Batterson

Lantern Festival Lion

Happy (Western) New Year!  As global cultures mingle more often, more of us Americans of all backgrounds are getting exposure to holidays and calendars celebrated elsewhere.  For the past three years, a traveling exhibit of lighted silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter, a little earlier than the period of “Chinese New Year,” which typically occurs in late January or early February and includes a lantern festival on its final day.

Lantern Festival Dragon

Yesterday I braved colder than normal temperatures to see this year’s display at a local outdoor amphitheater that otherwise would be shuttered for the season. This year’s North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was bigger and better than ever, its signature lake-surface dragon periodically spouting water rather than fire into the frigid air.  Weather had diminished last night’s crowds somewhat, but not the enthusiasm of those who braved the elements, sometimes fortified with spiked hot chocolate or coffee. Most of the twenty-five major complexes of lights had placards describing them in both English and Chinese. 

“Lantern festival” in China is an old celebration, thought to have originated almost two thousand years ago, celebrated at the first new moon of the lunar new year, the final day of the two-week Chinese Spring Festival celebration.  According to legend, a leading Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor, was angry with villagers for killing a crane, one of his favorite birds. He planned to send down fire to destroy the village, but the villagers, warned by the emperor’s daughter, hung red lanterns around their houses, set off firecrackers, and lit bonfires in the streets, tricking the emperor into thinking the village was already on fire and thus saving the village. Ever since, in towns and villages throughout China, people parade with lanterns on the evening of  Lantern Festival.  If you have a chance to see the North Carolina version, please wear plenty of layers, and prepare to revel in winter light.   

The Light is Starting to Come Back

The Light is Starting to Come Back   —by Jinny Batterson

So far, 2017 has not been my favorite year. I’ve been fortunate to have had generally good health, good friends, good weather, and adequate finances, but I cannot say the same about the wider world. Hunger and disease have decimated our most vulnerable human populations, while many other species suffer from man-made changes over which they have little control. Our American political culture has mostly continued to turn away from civility and dialogue toward further name-calling, dissension, and gridlock. Economic disparity grows unchecked. It remains to be seen whether a recently enacted U.S. tax reform plan will provide relief for those less well off. Catastrophic storms and weather events have become more common and more deadly. Globally, tensions in multiple regions have produced lethal violence.

So as a somewhat bleak December drew toward its close amid tidings of discomfort and malcontent, I marked the times of sunrise and sunset on December 21, the winter solstice, more carefully than usual: where I live, our nourishing star made its grand entry that day at about 7:22 a.m., and exited around 5:05 p.m.  On Christmas Eve, the sun rose at about 7:23, and set near 5:07 p.m. The shape of our days changes as the sun returns—it takes a while after the solstice before sunrise starts to get earlier. The first inkling of longer days comes in later sunsets. Detailed charts show a December 24th day length a scant eight seconds longer than at its minimum, but the rate of increase accelerates day by day until around the spring equinox in late March, when each day is over two minutes longer than the day before.

Our civic culture, if it is to recover, will not right itself immediately. Underlying diseases of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and all our other “isms” will not diminish or disappear without ongoing effort. Needed changes will require shifts in both personal attitudes and public policy. Still, just as the physical light is strengthening, I see a few first glimmers that our civic light level may also be on the rise. Participation rates in recent state, municipal, and special elections have increased. Women and other minorities who’ve previously suffered in silence are finding the courage to speak out about abusive behavior. Charitable giving has bumped up. Like the lengthening of days, societal changes often start at the “bottom” or sunset, rather than at the “top” or sunrise. A warm smile to a neighbor, a small kindness to a stranger, an hour or two spent volunteering at a homeless shelter, are not as likely to be highly publicized as our current chief executive’s sneers and slurs. They are just as important, or more so, to our society’s health.

At the beginning of 2017, I participated in our local edition of the global women’s march. Rather than spout vitriol about the 2016 election outcome, I tried to look forward. I crafted a sign to help inspire others, and also to remind myself of what I found most important, a three-pronged plan for action:
–adapt to climate change
–support voting rights
–practice kindness
In smaller letters at the bottom of the sign, I added a postscript: “Make Trump irrelevant.” 

I’m not sure what follow-ups will occur in 2018 to the shifts begun this year. I have to believe that the light is starting to come back.

Waiting for the Sunday Paper Carrier

Waiting for the Sunday Paper Carrier   —by Jinny Batterson

One of the things I notice as I continue to age are some cultural habits I picked up in an earlier, slower, more personalized time, habits less practiced in our increasingly rushed and electronically mediated society. This season makes me especially aware of the ongoing shifts. I still address postal holiday cards, prowl store aisles searching for an appropriate gift for a “secret Santa giftee,” and prepare small cash “bonus” envelopes for the public and private service providers who help make my life more comfortable throughout the year:

—the landscaping crew that cuts my lawn and maintains the shrubbery near our condo;

—the mail carrier who lugs sacks full of promotional brochures, catalogs and magazines, along with the occasional piece of personal correspondence, to our neighborhood mail station;

—the recycling crew that regularly picks up our cast-off bottles, cans, and papers;

—the newspaper delivery person who throws our Sunday paper, well-protected inside plastic sleeves against cold and damp, onto my front stoop each week.   

One of the aspects of retirement I relish most is the increased flexibility in my schedule. If I want to stay in my jammies until 10, on most days I can. If I prefer to avoid driving during rush hour, I can usually adapt my errands so they are done on off-peak days and at off-peak hours. Sometimes I can even take the local transit bus and not drive at all! 

Scheduling flexibility is a special gift at the holidays. Being at home so I can flag down a member of the lawn crew a couple of weeks before Christmas and hand him a holiday envelope gives nearly as much satisfaction to me as to the lawn crew members. It’s a little harder to catch the recyclers, slightly less regular in their schedule, but I can typically hear their truck coming with enough advance notice to run out and give them their card.  Catching the mail carrier on his/her rounds is harder still, since mail delivery times are pretty variable, especially at this time of year. Also, our mailbox station is out of immediate sight of our condo. However, by putting the holiday bonus envelope at the far back of my mail slot, I can be fairly confident the mail carrier will pick it up before depositing the following day’s mail.

That leaves only the newspaper deliverer.  Only rarely am I aware of the arrival of the Sunday paper—if I happen to be up using the bathroom in the predawn hours, or sometimes if the newspaper catches a corner of our front steps with a louder-than-usual thunk.  So last weekend I wasn’t sure how early I would need to set a wake-up alarm in order to catch the delivery van on its rounds. I guessed that 5 a.m. would be early enough.    

Turns out, I had about an hour to spare, which I spent watching early morning news (on this particular day somewhat less shrill than prime time, a blessing!) and reading part of a library book. I hope our deliverer has good plans for the small tip I was able to provide; I got a lot of satisfaction from actually meeting her, and thanking her for another year of reliable service.  Seeing her smile made my holiday happier.  Then, due to my happily retired state, I ended my early morning vigil by going back inside, casting a quick glance at the comics and the headlines, taking off my robe and slippers, and putting me and my jammies back to bed. 

The Twenty-Acre Wood

The Twenty-Acre Wood    —by Jinny Batterson

Town with an aging population—not unusual
For one of the “boomburgs” that began ringing
Older cities in the latter twentieth century.
Its housing stock shows signs of wear, too.
The supply of previous farmland and woodland
Available for new development dwindles. What to do?

Infill is the latest mantra. Clean up that brownfield
And put a mid-rise apartment building on it.
The natural buffers around some streams and lakes
Can surely support a hotel complex to boost revenue.

Our condo development is one of those showing
Its age. We’ve known for a while that the
Twenty-acre wood just across the adjacent commuter
Artery would some day disappear. The latest plan:
A senior living community–how apt.

I’ve recently taken to walking around and through the wood,
While it’s still there. Before the latest zoning change, an owner’s
Representative took a group of us to see a “champion tree”
Near the woods’ heart: a white oak.

The 36-inch diameter champ, broad at its base, later split
Into a trio of still-stately trunks branching skyward.
Curious, I checked online for the maximum lifespan
Of a white oak–over five hundred years.

The owner rep had relocated to North Carolina for a new assignment
With the development company that had long employed him.
A diversified outfit, it purchased the acreage years ago, back when
Land was more readily available. He hadn’t walked the property before.

“The surveyors tied a yellow ribbon around the champion
Tree,” he said. “Otherwise I never would have found it.”
Although town zoning makes special note of champion trees,
It’s possible to get permission to replace one with younger plantings.

Turns out, the land has likely not been a wood
All that long. Aside from the champion oak, which
May at some time have shaded an early farmhouse,
Most of the trees are younger–pines, gums, a few
Hickories, sassafras and maples.
.

Area residents have used the undulating terrain
As a convenient dumping ground for unwanted
Yard debris. One dying oak, smaller than the champ,
Has planks nailed to its trunk, a basic treehouse
Nestled into a crook about a dozen feet up.

Earlier, the town installed a culvert at a low point in the
Woodland, to divert run-off into a nearby containment pond.
Its rock-lined approach has sprouted a pine, now thirty feet high.
The spindly tree strains for light, drinks in the available moisture.

Upland, there’s a surprising amount of briar-free space between trees.
Here and there a cache of beer bottles, a discarded car seat,
A rusted old lawn chair, bald tires, an excavation that perhaps
Once was a more extensive dumping ground.

Lest my aging flower child self get overly sentimental,
Moodily humming “Big Yellow Taxi” as I wander, I remember the
Resilience of woodlands. Untended, farmsteads or meadows
Take only a human generation or so to return to young forest.

Once the seniors housed in the new complex have died,
And the development has fallen into disarray along with them,
The woods will take back over, planned or unplanned.