“Together in Silence”

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. –Frederick Douglass

A special advertisement appears in this week’s edition of Big Stone County’s newspapers. Signed, “Two Concerned Big Stone County Residents,” the anonymous ad calls upon community members to join one or more sessions of “silent prayer/meditation for healing in our community and ourselves.” (See ad below)

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I do not doubt that these concerned residents have good intentions. I think prayer and meditation can be useful tools for healing and reassessing one’s direction and role in community.

But, in my last few years in the area (handily coinciding, I guess, with the time frame of the community “becoming fragmented”), the biggest problem I’ve seen in Big Stone County is silence. Many long and short-term residents here have related stories to me about being silenced, shut down, shut out and told either directly or indirectly what they should not say and with whom they should not associate.

One can assume that the main “event” referenced in this advertisement is the proposed Strata Quarry project. Township, county, and regional residents raised their voices, held public meetings and listening sessions, and took to their keyboards to try to raise awareness of their struggle to save the outcrops, the quality of life along the Upper Minnesota River, their health and safety, and their community sovereignty.

But now that the city has annexed a portion of the township and unanimously passed a conditional use permit for Strata to begin quarrying there, we who have fought long and hard for justice, and even to be heard, should be silent? Get over it? Accept our fate and make Minnesota nice with the people and corporations who have been deaf to our testimony?

The message of the ad, that “we need each other,” is true. But the message coming from the county and city governments was ever that we “needed” Strata more than we needed those community members whose quality of life and, in some cases, livelihoods would be diminished or destroyed by allowing the quarry project to go forward.

We do all play a vital part in our community. But too often in Big Stone County, it seems that while all residents are equal, some residents are more equal than others. And those more-equal residents have too long held the power to determine the public face, reputation, and future of this county while silencing, vilifying, or ridiculing the voices of the less-equal.

How’s that going for us? At the city’s Strata quarry CUP hearing, I was the recipient of a lecture from one of the commissioners about “people who are not from here” failing to understand that “all we have is our rock.”

I was being schooled that, with our declining, aging, and impoverished population out here on Minnesota’s west coast, we are darned lucky that we have a corporation willing to come in and pay us a pittance to take…well, all we have. I mean, thank goodness they decided to come here when everyone knows how easy it is to push through industrial development in South Dakota! And here are these agitators making so much noise and trouble that could scare them away!

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce director gets on the local radio station, pleading with business owners and local folks to be nicer to those who’ve come to live among us during the retrofit of the coal plant across the lake.  It seems a few were actually leaving due to the treatment they received here. No wonder the old joke about Ortonville “eating its young” keeps resurfacing.

Of course, they don’t eat their young, and there are lots of friendly and helpful people in Ortonville and throughout our fair county. And the question about where all the young people go is easily answered by, “we send them off to college.”

So, how come we haven’t lost ALL our population by now? Well, a few natives do return to the area, but the studies about who moves to western Minnesota clearly indicate that it’s people looking for great quality of life, opportunities to be involved in their community, and people who appreciate the rural and small town atmosphere.

The reason that people move to western Minnesota isn’t because they were hoping to get to that glorious land to our west–the place of unfettered industrial development and low taxes–but their wagon broke down on the way. The vast majority of people who move here (and people who continue to live here) are here because they WANT to live in rural western Minnesota.

And they’re not blind. In fact, with an outsider’s perspective, they can often see much more clearly what makes Big Stone County an incredibly special place–our waters and wildlife and prairies and, yes, our rocks and our people. In many cases, these outsiders (as well as many local folks) have a vision of community and economic development that sustains rather than undermines those priceless resources. But that vision lacks vocal champions in local government and economic development.

So, back to the advertisement’s call for silent prayer and meditation. If you are so moved, what would you pray for?

While I tend to subscribe to Mary Harris’ directive to, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” I’d meditate on the same things I work for: A voice for the voiceless. Justice for the people of Ortonville Township. Individuals with vision, compassion, and courage to run for public office. Real public dialogue. Preservation and appreciation of our beautiful lands and waters. Community spirit that is about cooperation rather than control.

But, I will also demand them out loud, and I will do so because, as the ad indicates, we need to move forward in a way that is productive and healthy for everyone.

And we have been silent about what way that is for too long.

Strata–Both Kinds

Maybe it’s the foodie in me, but with all the discussions and hearings lately about Strata Corp’s proposed granite quarry and rock-crushing project along the upper Minnesota River, I keep thinking of that other kind of strata. The kinder, gentler, savory bread pudding kind.

This post is not meant to be some kind of cruel joke–it’s really about both things. But, to channel M.F.K. Fisher’s brand of culinary wisdom–sometimes in dark hours and with the wolf snuffling ’round the door, we need a repast that is, for all its humble ingredients, a celebration of light and hope and that channels our best intentions for good outcomes from scrappy beginnings.

It starts with a loaf of bread. I made two a little over a week ago from a rye starter that went bubbly from wild yeasts. The loaves are dense, but tasty, and I took the second of the batch out of the freezer last night for just this project. Usually, you’d use stale bread for a strata, but mine wasn’t. It’s not always possible to plan perfectly for these things.

I sliced it thin, and layered it in the bottom of a small buttered casserole. On top of the bread, I grated a little nubbin of very good cheese a friend shared with me quite some time ago. It was almost too hard to sliver, but it had a good, heady aroma. The next layer was roasted vegetables from the summer garden, and on top of that more bread, more cheese, more vegetables.

With the layers completed, I cracked eight eggs into a bowl–hard to make strata without cracking some–and whisked them with milk. That mixture went over the top of the layers in the casserole–with a pause for a bit to let the bubbles come up and the custard soak in.

The most important thing about a strata is that it wants to take its time. You can’t just pour in the egg mixture and bake it straight away–the bread won’t have time to soak up the moisture. So, even though I made it early this afternoon (when I was hungry! I ate something else then), I am just now baking it for a late supper.

Strata is a humble and democratic dish–it takes whatever you’ve got–any little bit of this or piece of that–brings it together, takes its sweet and sometimes frustrating time, and comes out with something quite wonderful and beyond what any of its one ingredients could’ve accomplished.

So, perhaps my thinking about the one strata and the other Strata are not so unconnected. Or maybe I am about to stretch a clumsy metaphor way too far.

As I’ve written previously, I’m against that mining project. I think that the long term and widespread economic benefit of preserving the natural beauty of this place far outweighs the limited economic benefit to having our granite outcrops blasted, crushed, and exported for the aggregate taxes.

And, I’m inspired when I see citizens out in public exercising their right to oppose the Strata quarry–people of all different stripes–people who’d probably not sit on the same side of the aisle in most other matters–coming together. It’s good stuff. It’s local democracy. It takes time, and its messy and sometimes a little weird, but the end product is often very much better than any one of us could’ve come up with on our own.

This Sunday at noon, those opposed to the Strata Corp mining project are gathering at the Memorial Building in Clinton for a potluck and discussion session. If you’d like to join in the discussion, please come and bring a dish to share.

Since that’s two days from now, and my supper will only stretch so far, I’ll bring biscuits instead.