As we walked into the large meeting room at the local university, I was struck by how crowded it was. There were at least 600 people crammed into a room designed for 500. A week earlier we had received an urgent email urging us to attend a pubic hearing on an executive order by the Obama administration to expand the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The room was packed with blue shirt wearing tree huggers, burley Trump troopers, paper shuffling environmental scientists, corporate miners, loggers and decrepit old 20th century ranchers, who wore the coolest cowboy hats and jackets.
This looked like a potentially volatile mix of people to cram into one room. All it would take would be for few “deplorables” to get agitated and things could get ugly very fast. I quickly scanned the room for potential trouble-makers. From my days of giving public presentations on meditation in the Bible Belt in the 1970’s, I had learned to spot people who were seething with hatred and keep an eye on them. This was not as easy as I thought it would be. The blue shirt environmentalists and anti-monument people were all mixed in with each other and every time I would spot someone whose behavior exhibited signs that they might be a closet “deplorable”, I noticed that they were wearing a blue shirt.
Suddenly, one of the minor officials sitting on the stage jumped up and quickly announced “now we will pledge allegiance to the flag.” Before I knew what happened, I found myself standing along with the other 600 people in the room who were pledging allegiance. I didn’t say the words, but I was stunned that everyone on both sides of the issue were making the pledge.
As soon as everyone sat back down, a grey haired, uncharismatic looking man in a seedy, dark brown sport jacket got up and methodically explained the ground rules for the meeting. I asked Linnea if she knew who he was and she said Senator Jeff Merkley. I was surprised that a U.S. Senator would get so personally involved in the details of determining who would get to speak. There was not enough time for all 250 people who signed up to speak, so they set up a lottery and each person was allowed to speak for one minute and would alternate one for and one against the monument.
After each person spoke, they received a polite applause from most of the people in the audience. Even the phony corporate mining executive who tried to look folksy in his brand new jeans and flannel shirt and claiming that his “family” had mined the area for generations was not booed.
My favorite speaker was a beat-up old rancher who could hardly walk and took forever to mosey up to the mike. When he finally got there, he said “well, I guess I used up my minute”! Cowboys were my heroes growing up in the 1940’s, but now that we live in the monument and have seen the destruction caused by livestock on the stream beds and wildflowers I am not so star-struck.
Merkley struggled to read the hand written names of every speaker, but would not give up until he had every single one right. After 2 hours, it seemed like a miracle that 100 people actually got to speak in an orderly prompt manner. It was so smooth and congenial that he decided to let anyone else who wanted to speak give their opinion.
I was amazed that 600 people with such diverse values could crowd into such a small space and politely listen to each other for four hours and I have to give credit to the determination and skills of Jeff Merkley. Maybe all the hatred and violence we see on the nightly news is not really the true nature of the American people.
Photos of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon courtesy of the Oregonian’s site OregonLive: