"State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor." said Thomas Jefferson, "The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."
America was full of ploughmen in Jefferson's day. The wilderness was their learning center. The Native Americans were their inspiration. Thomas Jefferson loved every minute of it. America would take the best Europe had to offer and the best aboriginal America had to offer and become a completely new place, the hale and hearty sort of place Europe might have become if only She had followed the example Robin Hood and Maid Marian set for us to follow, instead of Napoleon's.
By the mid-20th Century, however, it was clear that Jefferson's vision was finished. Instead of becoming our learning center, the wilderness became "endangered." America was crowding herself into towns-- what Jefferson called those "scars on the body politic."
America's towns were a new kind of totally unexplored wilderness. Rod Serling presented them as his favorite example of the Twilight Zone. No less mesmerized, Walt Disney created Main Street U.S.A., a walk-through American dream that inspired many children to become the urban planners and architects of the New Urbanism School that inspire us today.
At about this same time, the author of this essay discovered that he had become a citizen of a small American town. The discovery occurred when he returned to a piece of property that he had roamed as a youth. He wrote his first newspaper article then and did a lot of interviewing of senior citizens.
That Certain Smile
The most important thing he learned during these interviews was to watch for a certain smile that crosses an old person's face when the old person has just finished describing her vision to a young interviewer and now sits listening to the young person repeat what has just been explained. That Certain Smile means the interviewer isn't ready to put his interview in the newspaper yet. He needs to think a little harder and dig a little deeper. It only takes a separation of a few dozen years to create That Certain Smile. One can only wonder how broad That Certain Smilemust get when someone really old like Moses or Jesus hears the stuff being said about them today! It was during his pursuit of this intriguing question that the author earned the title of
Being the Mayor was a quaint experience. The Curmudgeon-Mayor won by a landslide and lost by a landslide two years later, after a single term, proving that he was more than able to live up to his reactionary image. His first hour on the job was interesting. He played the guitar while a man sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth." The Robin Hood Festival Court was there and so was the local Lions Club. It was a pretty respectable crowd, but something told him that he had best not give the speech he had spent all week writing:
One of the most amazing photographs ever taken appeared in the newspaper this year. It was a black and white photo and the images were so blurry that you couldn't make them out without reading the caption underneath the photo. It was a steel gray rectangle with two tiny points of light on either half. It was easy to miss. The two orbs were the Earth and the Moon, taken "over the shoulder" by a space ship heading away from us. It was just a test shot meant to make sure the camera was working. But it also turns out to be the first time the whole earth and whole moon was captured in a single snapshot. It was impossible to analyze this photo without feeling a twinge of alarm for the future of the planet we call home. A more desolate photograph cannot be imagined. That is our island home there in that infinite vacuum of space and it's impossible to tell which blob of light is which.His handwritten draft of the speech gets weirder, much weirder from that point on, as he scratches for something relevant to say about Sherwood Oregon USA. The same thing happened time and time again during his brief career in politics. Having raised an interesting topic, the Curmudgeon failed to connect it with anything that mattered.
Losing the Mayor's title was regrettable, but his deepest regret was actually the loss of his position on the Sherwood Planning Commission which he had held prior to becoming Mr. Mayor. Oregon State Governor Tom McCall's Land Use Law, Senate Bill 100, is admired around the globe today as much as it was during the 1970s when it was passed. Just a few years ago an official from the City of Portland was greeted with a standing ovation at the United Nations for no other reason than SB100. He was an official from the town with the Urban Growth Boundary.
In the early 1970's Bill Moyers did a special television show about SB100 on Public Broadcasting which made this author and future Mayor yearn to get back to his home town as soon as possible. Thus, he became the Chairman of the Planning Commission as well as the town Curmudgeon. As Planning Commissioner he helped to draft the Sherwood Comprehensive Land Use Plan. As Curmudgeon he wrote articles to get people involved in the planning process. Local land use decisions had always been made between a few people in a back room at City Hall, but that was no longer going to be the case. The Oregon Comprehensive Plan's first goal, Goal Number One, was Citizen Involvement, and Citizen Involvement was what the Sherwood Comprehensive Plan was going to get. This article, "How do You Spell Gobbledygook?" was his first shot at bringing the Sherwood Comprehensive Plan to the people.
"What do they want us to do?" demanded Commissioner Jack Gruver of the Planning Commission Nov. 31st. "Whatever it is. I want to get it done. I don't want to guess what it is they want us to do."
A planning specialist was hired indeed, and Gruver's suspicions were fully realized. On one occasion, over a hundred Sherwood citizens came to get involved in the Sherwood Comprehensive Land Use Plan. After one visit with the City Planner they were never seen again. Gruver was right. It was all gobbledygook. Another Commissioner explained the reason to this author during a particularly contentious land use hearing. "It really doesn't matter what these people think." he whispered, "They don't own the property." So much for Oregon's Big Art Project!
And then, as had happened so many times during the course of world history when the future is in doubt: The Wilderness Visitor arrived. Joe Galbreath was proud of his pioneer family background and his Scottish-Italian ancestry. He even looked a little like Mel Gibson in the 1995 movie Braveheart. He joined the Commission, obviously for no other reason than to make life on the Planning Commission a living hell. Constantly interrupting every meeting with profane and irreverent remarks ("Say! When are us new members going to get swore in? I thought we was going to get swore in!"), he was determined to out-curmudgeon the Curmudgeon. Of course, this could not happen. Galbreath had met his match. He was suddenly appearing in "Curmudgeon's Corner" articles as just the perfect example of what a Sherwood Planning Commissioner should be like.
With Galbreath taken care of, the Chairman of the Sherwood Planning Commission trumpeted himself as the town's one and only surviving Curmudgeon, the true visitor from the wilderness, the only one who, during formative times in Oregon's history, could rise and lead humankind through the important topics that needed to be endlessly discussed by the Planning Commission, topics such as Economics , World History, Astronomy and Archeology.
A Chance to Act
Alas, the Curmudgeon Mayor quickly realized that there wasn't going to be time or space on the agenda for such flights of fancy. The City Budget replaced Land Use Planning as the main topic. The basic idea was how to rip off a chunk of the Budget for your favorite project before the tax payers find out. The process reminded the Curmudgeon of the oft-repeated but unprintable anecdote he remembered from Boeing Aircraft Company concerning a certain goat owned by a man named Hogan. One Department Head lectured the Mayor privately about How the System Works: There should always be one member of the City Council who advocates for the Department he happened to be in charge of, to the detriment of everyone else's, he soberly explained. As happened so many times when confronted by people who reminded him of characters in a Saturday morning cartoon, the Mayor started to laugh only to realize the man wasn't kidding! There was dismay (even tears!) on more than one department head's face as the following news was being generated [I should also add that there were members of the bureaucracy who were scrupulously honest: How well I remember the look of contempt I got from one when I suggested she get in there and play the game along with everyone else.]:
DATELINE February 4, 1981 Sherwood Mayor Clyde Ray List announced his council assignments at last Wednesday's City Council meeting. Most of the members were not excited about List's assignments but they agreed to give them a try.
Meanwhile meetings with representatives of State and county government weren't much more inspiring than the City Budget Committee. During his first meeting with The Public Officials' Caucus, the host-Mayor challenged everyone to explore ways to prove to the foes of modern government what a lean, mean fighting machine our agencies truly are. The head of the County Commission listened politely to the obviously green Mayor's proposal of inviting leaders of private industry in to compare our effectiveness with their own... and then shifted her eyes to the person standing next to the Mayor, the State Representative, and said, "When are you going to put a sales tax before the voters?"
It was all downhill for the Mayor's political career from that moment on, except for one bright moment when the Mayor cast a veto against a silly ordinance permitting mobilhomes on a temporary basis. People seemed less interested in the fact that some low income old people might be cast out into the cold than in the fact that a Mayor had done such an unusual thing as to exercise his little known veto power.
By the time he fell off the end of his one and only term as Mayor, some people thought it peculiar that the ex-Mayor "...didn't come away with anything." A Mayor should at least get his property rezoned. What other reason could there be to be in government? If not his own property, then what property developer was he "fronting" for? One Real Estate salesman telephoned him to find out where the hot properties were, and, following a lengthy silence on the other end of the line, muttered "I thought you were one of the town fathers" and hung up. There was even a rumor that the ex-Mayor was truly insane, or that he had had a nervous breakdown which prevented him from functioning normally. To make matters worse, the ex-Mayor was a fan of Mark Twain, who not only enjoyed dark rumors of this kind about his mental well-being, but did everything he could to encourage them.
The Great Void
The Curmudgeon's original purpose in returning to Sherwood was to serve as caretaker to his parents. His father, Frederick Michael List, suffered a massive stroke in 1972 and passed away in 1979, a few days after discovering that his son had been elected Mayor. The Curmudgeon's mother lived for another twenty years and passed away in 2001. The Curmudgeon had been very close to his parents and they did everything possible to make him comfortable under these strained circumstances. There was only one parental requirement that nearly sent him over the edge, and that was the necessity of going to church every Sunday. The Curmudgeon was born into the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, an organization so conservative as to be called prehistoric in its thinking.
For still our ancient foe
And though this world, with devils filled,
--A Mighty Fortress is Our God
Being preached to is a uniquely American past-time. Americans pay enormous sums of money to see some guy pretend that he has just returned from the Other Side and knows what happens when you die. These preachers can be enjoyable to listen to sometimes-- in spite of the white robes, candlelight and choir music-- because at least they have a Vision to share. It is a Vision that deserves respect because it has shaped the nation's character like nothing else in history. What irritated the Curmudgeon was that these guys got paid for what they were doing while he was providing his monthly Curmudgeons Corner articles for free. It only seemed fair that he should challenge the professionals to set the highest standard possible for inspired teaching.
The Sustainability Forum of 1994-5
The rumor that the ex-Mayor was mentally deranged was not contradicted by the number of times he had been observed talking to himself while walking to and from City Council Meetings. It was difficult to conduct a lively dialog of any kind without talking to yourself in those days.
Lack of meaningful dialog made the Curmudgeon Mayor the only person at City Hall who knew how to operate a computer! The City Library had won a science grant. An Atari 400 computer was purchased-- the first ever owned by the City. It's hardly what you'd call a computer today, but the instant the Mayor saw his own name rolling across the television screen in response to what he had typed on the keyboard, he was hooked. He started composing little decision making adventures in Atari BASIC for kids to read. Since then, he has never lost his fascination for the way those two inventions, the written word and the computer algorythm, can work together.
In the meantime the old fashioned human to human brand of dialog did eventually come along, but not until a decade after losing the Mayor's job. By that time the Curmudgeon had sunk to the level of City Hall reporter for the local newspaper.
The Sustainability Roundtable included everyone you would expect to see at such an event: Preachers, businessmen, and community volunteers. They all took their places in a circle of chairs at the Sherwood Senior Center to formulate a concrete set of policy goals for Sherwood to implement within the foreseeable future. The Sherwood Institute for Sustainability was organized eventually, in order to keep the discussion going after the Roundtable adjourned.
The Institute does not involve itself in political issues because it responds to a United Nations initiative. There cannot be a slate of Council candidates running under the Sustainability banner. However, since 1994, the Institute for Sustainability has built some very valuable bridges for this Curmudgeon to cross. He has appeared as a lecturer in the Intermediate School and a musician at the High School because of the Institute.
The Institute is well on its way to becoming the kind of think-tank that is so desperately needed by Mayors during their lonely time in office. Who knows? In years to come the Sherwood Institute for Sustainability may even become a true learning center with a Nobel laureate or two on the staff!
The Wilderness Visitor? Will We See Him Again?
All we can be certain of is that when The Wilderness Visitor arrives He will have done so with the gravest reluctance. He will have traded his natural Jeffersonian habitat for that artificial urban setting only after civilization has exhausted every other possibility. In the meantime you may catch a glimpse of Him flitting by in His automobile or possibly even on foot. It's even possible that She has taken to the sky.
Clyde Ray List as Wilderness Visitor. This time he's Friar Tuck during the Sherwood Oregon USA Robin Hood Festival.
by Author / Artist / Historian / Musician Clyde Ray List.