Starting a new year, with eagles and hope for renewing democracy

by Rob Tiller

The last week of 2020 was mostly cold and cloudy here, with extended periods of rain.  I wanted to check on the eagles and other birds at Jordan Lake, but wasn’t sure the weather would work, or if I’d have the necessary willpower.  One morning, when it was still dark, I managed to drag myself out of bed, verified it wasn’t raining, put on long underwear, and drove out of town and down US 1.  Below Jordan dam, there were lots of big birds:  eagles, herons, vultures, and gulls.  

I found a promising spot to set up my tripod, directly across the river from a couple of young bald eagles perched in a pine tree, and hoped to get a shot of them catching fish.  One of them took a dive close to me — too close to shoot with the long lens — but they caught no fish while I was there.  Still, I liked the rushing water, and the many birds flying and calling.  

Last week I learned that one of my favorite nature writers, Barry Lopez, just died at age 75.   These last few months I’ve been reading some of his nonfiction writing on the Arctic and other challenging environments, as I planned my own trips to Alaska and Antarctica (postponed because of the pandemic to 2021).  

Lopez insists that these wild places matter, even when there are no humans in the vicinity.  He’s in favor of animals, rocks, ice, and wind. His writing has an austere beauty and clarity.  I was glad to see he got an admiring obit in the NY TImes, which compared him to Thoreau and Muir.  There was also an appreciative obit in the Economist of January 2d.

I was also pleased to see that another of my helpful sources, Heather Cox Richardson, got some mainstream recognition in the NY Times.  A few months back, Sally put me on to HCR’s daily email newsletter on political matters.  She basically gives a high level summary of the most worrisome news of Trumpworld, with the calm explanatory voice of a professor of American history.  She provides persuasive evidence that sanity persists.

A couple of months back I listened to HCR’s latest book, How the South Won the Civil War.  I expected the book to focus on the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow era.  In fact, it’s a lively and dramatic overview of American history from colonization till now, with special attention to enslaved and indigenous people.

HCR’s discussion of Western settlement after the Civil War was particularly interesting, with persuasive evidence that both anti-Black and anti-Asian racism shaped the political framework.  She also traces the rise of Movement Conservatism, from Barry Goldwater, through Ronald Reagan, and to the Republican leadership today.  

Richardson shows that our current political system is closely related to the oligarchical and racist system of the antebellum South — a system that never really went away.  It’s a difficult and uncomfortable lesson.  

But she doesn’t seem to have given up on the democratic ideals that have also long been part of the American system.  I’m sure she’d agree, there’s still a chance we can make a better democracy.  With the inauguration around the corner, it could be a good time to renew our vows to build on what’s good in that system.