Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Lessons from Nixon and the Amish

In August of 1974, after resigning his presidency in disgrace, Richard Nixon
met with the White House staff. 

In his darkest hour, Nixon gave the most masterful and human speech of his
career, a heartfelt and spontaneous exhortation to remember the lessons he
had forgotten.

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty," Nixon said. 

"Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win
unless you hate them." he added. 

"Then, you destroy yourself."

Nixon remembered the lessons taught him by his Quaker mother too late. He had
already destroyed himself. 

Nixon might have mentioned his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. Although Lincoln
waged the most brutal war in American history, he steadfastly refused to hate
his enemies. 

Lincoln's refusal to hate infuriated even his supporters. 

When he was shot only days after winning the war, the message from many
Northern pulpits the next Sunday was that God had removed the saintly but
soft Lincoln from the scene so proper Old Testament vengeance could be
wreaked on the defeated South. 

But Lincoln knew the deep truth Nixon learned too late: By hating back, you
only destroy yourself. 

That difficult lesson hit home this week in the small town. 

In an apparent act of malice, the barn of a local Amish farm family was
burned to the ground. Some livestock perished in the blaze. The barn-burning
followed several incidents of harassment. 

Immediately, many of us felt indignation and rage. Who would do this? How can
we find them? 

While attempting to fall asleep, I confess that revenge fantasies bounced
around my head. 


If I caught those guys, I thought, I would take my .286 hunting rifle, make
sure the clip was full and shoot out some tires and maybe a radiator. 

I would subdue the perpetrators, tie them to an oak tree and let the
mosquitoes eat them for a day or two until they begged me to call law

Trouble is, such a response would not meet with the approval of the Amish
community, not even the family that lost the barn. 

A local friend visited the farmer affected as soon as he found out about the
hideous act of hatred. He wanted to help, but he also wanted to offer some
hometown justice. 

On that count, he was rebuffed. 

My friend writes: "I am at a loss of words at the graciousness and humility
displayed by a man who was violated in a way that would have me seeking

The Amish farmer wasn't interested in revenge or even justice. 

"I just feel bad for the guy," the farmer said. "That's no way to live." 

The farmer expressed a desire that the perpetrators, if caught, could get
their lives in order. 

And then he changed the subject. 

The shooting at an Amish school in Pennsylvania five years ago immediately
came to mind. A deranged gunman killed five children before shooting

One Amish elder admonished his fellow believers: "We must not think evil of
this man."

"This man has a mother and a wife and a soul," said another. 

The shooter's wife was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral for
the children. She was treated with a compassion and kindness that floored

She later wrote the Amish, "Your compassion has reached beyond our family,
beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely
thank you."

The lesson taught by the Amish, and by Richard Nixon, is priceless and
timeless: When hated by others, you don't lose until you hate back. Then you
destroy yourself. 

As we struggle with how to respond to a shameful act which calls into
question our decency as a community, we might remember that our desire for
vengeance is based partly in pride.

We want to restore our pride in our culture, our sense that we are good
people, our sense that our tribe is hospitable and decent. 

In short, we want to get back to feeling superior as soon as possible. 

But to get there, we dream of shooting out tires and tying people to oak
trees, acts which would only drag us down to the level of the perpetrators. 

It may be that the only appropriate response is learn from the simple but
profound wisdom of those who suffered the wrong. 


The danger of acting like a duck

Last week, a wood duck whooshed through the yard at forty miles-per-hour and wove through the thick woods without hitting a tree. 

One of the latest extreme human sports is wing-suiting, where idiots with nothing better to do jump off a cliff wearing an outfit that makes them float like a flying squirrel. 

As they fall towards the base of the cliff, their goal is to catch some air and swoop between the trees down the side of the mountain. Just like a wood duck. 

One mistake and they go splat. 

After they go splat, some poor rescue squad with better things to do has to risk their lives to untangle the saps from the upper branches of a 100-foot spruce. 

Wood ducks go wing-suiting every day and nobody thinks anything of it. I have never yet heard of a wood duck going splat. 

Humans make fools of themselves when they imitate mountain goats, wood ducks, spiders, dolphins and other talented wildlife. 

We also show our self-centeredness when we fail to appreciate the amazing talents of animals when they are just being animals. 

No, most humans don't get amazed by animals until a critter does something human like talk, as some parrots do; roll over or shake hands, as some dogs do; act stuck up, as most cats do, or come when called, as cows, horses, pigs and sheep do. 

In other words, we don't notice animals until they imitate some stupid human-like task that is utterly unnatural and completely beneath them. 

Teach an animal some stupid human trick and they'll end up on the Tonight Show, which a whole lot more people watch than Animal Planet. 

When an animal shows an amazing talent that is part of its natural purpose, like flying through the woods at forty miles-per-hour without hitting a tree, we get jealous and try to do it ourselves!

The other day, I watched a fat gray squirrel run out to the end of a high branch, which bent down under her weight, and leap to grab a branch on the next tree, four feet away.  

The slightest error would have meant a fall of sixty feet. I am not going to try it, but it's just another day life of a squirrel.

The greasy swallows aren't anybody's favorite bird, but watching them dart through the air is a wonder. They skim the lawn at two inches altitude, nabbing a half-dozen mosquitoes with every pass.

As they swoop around for another pass, the swallows maneuver like a stunt plane on fast-forward.  

Science says they are just trying to survive, but watching the swallows show off makes me think they are just having fun with their acrobatic abilities. 

The swans have been sitting on their nest for three weeks now. No sign of little ones yet, but you have to admire their complete and total patience with the most boring task in the world. 

With no books to read, no television, no knitting, mama swan, with some help from papa, somehow survives the nesting period without going bonkers. The only humans to replicate her feat are Buddhist monks. 

Our cumbersome human brains enable us to complete crossword puzzles and build skyscrapers, but we lack the focus, and therefore the genius, of animals, whose brains allow them to do a few things very well. 

What if we used our brains efficiently? What if we were able to focus on one task and work as diligently as a sparrow building its nest? 

Some humans have. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin and other great thinkers never seemed to shut off their creative juices. Monumental discoveries and achievements stacked up throughout their lives. 

However, some ultra-focused humans have been a disaster. 

If you measure a leader by his accomplishments for good or ill, Josef Stalin was a genius. Historians to this day are trying to understand the depth of his sheer talent for evil. 


He ruled through sheer terror, brilliantly applied. He won a devastating war. He transformed an entire economy. He held power for decades in a cut-throat culture of revolutionaries. And he killed tens of millions. 

The risk of humans focusing their brains like animals do is high. 

Maybe it is better that most of us waste our brains on mindless activities like watching baseball. 

After all, when focused but misguided human daredevils try to act like animals, they often go splat. 



While placing planters on some graves for Memorial Day, I get a chance to walk around and see some of the markers and remember the people buried there. 

Today, I saw the grave of my old bus driver, August Lindberg, and his wife Nora. 

I remember August from the first day of kindergarten. 

Scared and not knowing what to expect, that first big bottom step felt a lot like a step taken two years earlier on the moon. 

It was a small step for man, but a big step for a kindergartener. 

I grabbed the handle bar, pulled myself up and stopped to catch my breath. 

I looked up and saw the most welcome smile in my short life: Wiry August, dressed in the drab green work clothes farmers favored at the time, held the silver handle that opened the door. 

Our family had just moved back from the city. I had never been exposed to gruff old farmers in green clothes with Pall Malls in their shirt pocket. I wasn't sure I wanted to put my fate in the hands of such a foreign species. 

But August's smile told me that it was all right for me to take my time struggling up those big steps. It also eased my fears of school. 

I imagined that the first thing they would do when we got to school would be to give us all shots. And then the whippings would begin. 

Eventually, they did give us a German measles vaccination. But it wasn't the first day. 

And there were no whippings. 

However, school was still frightening. Things weren't always peaceful on the bus. And the long, full first grade days caused me dread. 

Through that rough year, August was my protector and friend. If I wasn't at the top of the drive, he would wait. And wait. 

One time after a fresh snow, I didn't show up at the mailbox. Instead of driving off, as he would have for anybody else, August maneuvered the bus up our long, unplowed drive and found me outside of our trailer house making snow angels. 

He figured I had gotten distracted. He wasn't even mad. I was so grateful that he had saved me from getting in trouble with Ma and Pa. 

After the long school days in first grade, we kids spilled out to where the buses lined up on the other side of the playground's chain link fence. My bus was #5, three buses down from the first.

The drivers, most of them gruff farmers in drab green work clothes, leaned against the fence, tugged on filterless cigarettes pinched between their thumb and forefinger and mumbled gruff man talk with their smoke-buffed voices. 

I was scared to death of them. 

But when I showed up lugging my books, August left the man talk to lean down and ask me how my day went. Every time. 

Our little daily conversations became a daily ritual. The approval from gruff-looking but sweet-hearted August always made my day better. 

One day in second grade, we had a substitute driver. I was sick in the pit of my stomach. Where was my friend August? 

August had had a stroke. He was paralyzed. 

At the time, kids were protected from medical knowledge, but I did overhear two neighbor women say that August couldn't talk. 

When somebody visited August, the women said, a tear rolled down his cheek. That was the only sign they saw that he knew they were there. 

It broke my heart. It was my first loss, and it was a big one. 

August died a year later. 

I eventually got to be friends with Clarence, the new bus driver. He was nice to me, too. 

But nobody replaced August. 

A few years later, August's widow Nora told me how much August had liked me. She treated me as well as August had. We continued to talk even after she moved away and I went to college.

Now, my memories of August and Nora are sparked when I head out to the cemetery once per year and see their marker. 

I noticed today that August was born 102 years ago. 

Many years have gone by, but I remember like it was yesterday struggling up that first step of the bus and looking up to see August's smile. 

I guess that's what Memorial Day is for. 


Harmon's handwriting

Many years ago while browsing the bookstore, I ran across a book which contained the addresses of famous sports legends. 

Well! It was the middle of winter and I had nothing better to do, so I bought the book, sat down and wrote letters to some of my favorite old ball players. 

Willie Stargell. Carlton Fisk. Lou Piniella. Tom Seaver. Jerry Koosman. I wrote a couple of dozen players about my favorite memories of their playing career. 

My motives weren't all pure. I was sort of hoping they would be so touched by my stories that they would plop an autographed picture in the mail. But I didn't ask.  

I didn't realize that, because the autographs of these ball players had become worth good money, they were pestered all the time by innocent-sounding people who really wanted to sell their autograph for profit. 

Because these older players didn't share in the wealth of baseball players of later years, they made sure only to give out mementoes at events where they were paid to do so. A lot of them needed the money, and their notoriety was all they had to sell. 

I received exactly one piece of mail in return. 

It was a crinkled envelope which contained a handwritten note on lined paper thanking me for my kind comments. 

It was from Harmon Killebrew. 

Only later did I find out that at the time he sent me the note, Killebrew was broke, recently-divorced and besieged by a collapsed lung which nearly killed him. 

The handwriting on the note was immaculate, a boxy cursive script that clearly was etched with great care and effort. 

The signature was as neat as the rest of the letter. No big flourishes. No egotistical scribbles. Just an unpretentious and readable "Harmon Killebrew."

I still have the letter, but I don't know where it is. Like several other items I treasure, I hid it so well that I can't find it. 

I suspect it is folded in the Q volume of the encyclopedia back at Mom and Dad's. Or in some classic book by Jane Austen. 

It may turn up someday, or it may not. 

When Harmon Killebrew passed away last week, accolades poured in for the humble man who hit the ball farther than anybody since Babe Ruth. 

Humble Harmon was loved by all who met him, they said. The contrast between his gentle, self-effacing personality and his violent presence in the batter's box was noted by all. 

But what warmed my heart was the testimony of several young ballplayers who had signed autographs alongside Killebrew. 

Twin Michael Cuddyer said Killebrew was so offended by Cuddyer's flippant, sloppy signature that he said, "if you sign one more thing with that scrawl, I am leaving and the only one they’ll be mad at is you." 

Killebrew told Torii Hunter to neaten his signature so people can actually read it. 

"If the kids can't read it," Killebrew told Hunter, "that ball will soon be covered with mud like the rest of them." 

Behind Killebrew's careful signature was the philosophy he carried to his grave: 

Always be grateful for being able to play baseball for a living. Always respect those who fill the seats. Always be humble. Do everything with great care, even the small tasks.

Handwriting is a dying art. One wonders if they'll teach it in twenty years. 

But Harmon Killebrew has made an argument for keeping cursive in the curriculum. 

When I received Harmon's handwritten note, I was stunned, humbled by the obvious effort that went into producing it. 

For ten minutes, at least, Hall of Famer Harmon had concentrated upon showing appreciation to a fan who wrote him a letter for reasons which might have been shady. 

Harmon's handwritten letter shamed me: I realized it is inappropriate for anybody over trick-or-treating age to pester baseball stars for an autograph. Grow up, people. 

I learned that lesson only because Killebrew's note was hand-written. His humble, careful and gentlemanly personality came through.

Killebrew's philosophy was powerfully expressed with his careful signature, custom-etched for a fan he never met. 

No email, text message or copied-off script will ever carry as much weight. 

So, the next time we sign a check, letter or tax document, let's buckle down, take pride in the task, and make it legible. 

And remember the lessons taught by the handwriting of the mighty but humble Harmon Killebrew. 


New phones

People around here, including myself, were crabby enough as the long winter dragged into a dreary, wet spring. 

Then to top it all off, Company A bought the local cell phone tower from Company B. 

The corporate finagling forced our entire town to get new phones. 

What a disaster. Just when the weather was pushing us to the end of our durance, we were given yet another enemy: our own phones. 

Now, instead of grumbling about the weather, people wander around staring at their phones mumbling, "I hate this thing, I hate this thing."

The phones were free, true. But new phones, in order to distinguish them from old phones, come loaded with gadgets completely unrelated to making a phone call. 

Mine came with a complete pull-out keyboard. The only way you can type on the thing is with a tweezers. 

Heaven forbid you want to type a capital letter. The button that is labeled "shift" isn't a shift key and to use it you would have to carry a second set of tweezers. 

The phone was clearly designed by a committee of technical gurus who flunked English. 

The same gurus assumed we're all as smart as nine-year-olds and able to figure these things out in two minutes own like any nine-year-old would. 

The phone can do anything you want it to. It can take pictures. It can cruise the internet. It can send text messages. It can send email. It can turn on the coffee maker. 

Just don't try to place a simple phone call. 

To try to make the thing work, I searched for the manual. Could I have thrown it? I dug through the box. I dug through the garbage. 

The only two leaflets I found instructed me on how to use the phone to keep my list of addresses, how to "synch my calendar," how to check my stocks, how to Twitter, how to Tweet, how to play Scrabble with friends overseas, how to check the Twins score and on and on. 

But to make a simple phone call? No instructions to be found. 

Instead, I fumbled around with the phone for an hour. I accidentally connected to the internet four times. I can't imagine what the bill for that will be.

If I had an emergency during those first days with that phone, I wouldn't have been able to call 911 unless there happened to be a third-grader nearby. 

Turns out, the instructions for the phone are on a DVD which I had stashed in the same drawer with the other DVDs I never watch. 

Instruction manuals should be on paper. You should be able to page through them to find what you need to know. You shouldn't have to sit through a video tutorial that covers all kinds of things you don't want to know before it gets to the point where it teaches you to place a simple phone call. 

Instructional videos for technical gadgets only add insult to injury. To prove that the gadget is easy to use, they don't make it easy to use. Instead, they hire ditzy actors to say how easy it is to use.

"It's easy! Just pull down the 'function' menu, select 'edit,' enter the contact information, push the right arrow twice, hit the star key and tell the phone to call 911."

They go through it so fast that to catch it all, you have to rewind the DVD. That requires that you find the rewind button on the DVD player, which is a whole new can of worms. 

Some people just love these gadgets. They enjoy figuring them out so they can bat you over the head with their knowledge. "It's easy!" they gloat.

More often than not, they're in third grade. 

But many of us have responsibilities other than figuring out our phone. We have crops to plant, lawns to rake, dinners to eat. 

To the people in this world who actually work, the phone is a tool, not an end in itself. We don't use it to play Scrabble. We don't snuggle up with it on the couch for hours on end. 

We also don't run into light poles while walking, or sit at intersections for thirty seconds waiting for the stop sign to change while we finish texting "U R 2 kewl!" to our friends. 

We just want to make a phone call! Will somebody please help us? 


Spiking the football


It was a moment seared into the minds of long-time Vikings fans: 

On November 7, 1976, the talented but star-crossed Vikings played the Detroit Lions. Legendary quarterback Fran Tarkenton flung bomb after bomb down field to fight off the Lions' dreaded blitz. 

One of Tarkenton's targets: Standout rookie wide-receiver Sammy White. 

As the game clock wound down to two minutes, Tarkenton found White with a pass over the middle. White caught the ball three strides from the end zone and looked to be in the clear. 

An excitable kid, White held the ball in the air as he crossed the ten-yard line. 

White didn't see the Lion's defender who raced across the field to cut White's legs from beneath him. 

As White tripped, the ball rolled into the end zone. Lion defenders fell on it for a touchback. The play caused a nine point swing against the Vikings. 

White's path back to the bench led him past legendary no-nonsense Vikings coach Bud Grant. 

As sports columnist Jim Klobuchar wrote at the time, White's trek had to be "one of the longest and saddest miles in the history of human remorse."

The 50 million viewers on national television assumed White would be disciplined severely by the taciturn Grant.

He was not. Grant told a devastated White, "there’s a difference between show biz and show boating. What you did was show boating, and it cost us a touchdown. You will get another chance." 

Within minutes, White did get a second chance. He caught a spectacular touchdown pass. The Vikings won. And White was given the game ball. 

Eventually, White would be named NFL rookie of the year. 

However, if you talk to Vikings fans, the redemption part of White's story is usually left out. 

The sad legend of Sammy White doesn't include his rookie of the year award, or his reward of the game ball after a humiliating screw up. 

No, by the next morning, a different legend had already taken shape, even in the sixth grade classroom where this non-football fan listened to wiser heads discuss the great issue of the day: Sammy White, idiot showboat, had spiked the ball on the 10-yard line without realizing he hadn’t yet arrived in the end zone. 

Can you imagine the fury of the great stone face, Bud Grant! Grant didn't countenance celebrations after any touchdown, much less a touchdown that was not yet complete.

White was not only guilty of stupidity, but he also committed a breach of Minnesota etiquette. 

To this day, when Sammy White comes up in conversation, talk turns to the time he lost the ball on the 10-yard line because he celebrated too early. 

White is unfairly remembered for committing an un-Minnesotan act under the steely glare of the ultimate representative of Minnesota stoicism, class and dignity, Bud Grant. 

In the last week, debate has erupted over the proper way to commemorate the death of the world's most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden. 

The president himself said, "We don't spike the football."

But others, both liberal and conservative, thought a little celebration was in order and that the president was being downright unpatriotic by not sharing the rah-rah enthusiasm of those who wanted to gloat. 

As a bleeding heart liberal, I think celebration over the death of any human being, no matter how notorious, is unseemly. 

As a cautious conservative and glum Minnesotan, I think celebration will just jinx things and cause a karmic backfire. 

Both conservative and liberal impulses lead me to believe that celebrating the death of an enemy is just plain unwise, especially when the broader goal of ending terrorism has not necessarily been achieved. 

"Speak softly and carry a big stick," said President Theodore Roosevelt. Bud Grant would probably agree. 

Amazingly, many politicians and editorialists have demanded that the president gloat. They want to see the photos of the mutilated body. They want to shove bin Laden's death in the enemy's face. Anything less, to quote Sarah Palin, is "pussyfooting." 

But the advocates of spiking the football should remember the lesson learned by Sammy White: 

Over the long term, one moment of adolescent gloating can obscure an entire career of exemplary accomplishment. 

Instead, it is wise to remember the Bud Grant way: Always keep it classy. Always be humble. 

Spiking the football doesn't win ball games.


Word gets around

Columnist Val Farmer wrote a column published last week listing the advantages of rural life.

Trust, long-term friendships, community traditions, volunteerism, conversation, concern for those in crisis were amongst the virtues he listed which seem to be characteristic of rural life in the Midwest. 

I agree with every one of his points. 

But before we rubes get big heads, let's examine more closely why we behave with such virtue. 

Last November, I found myself standing outside a downtown Minneapolis hotel watching the machines clear the snow from a massive blizzard. 

A well-dressed man walked up, looking distraught. 

"They towed my car!" he said, throwing out his hands in helpless dismay. 

Originally from Los Angeles, the man had just taken a new job in Minneapolis. He was unfamiliar with the snow emergency street parking restrictions.

His wallet was in his car. He had no cash or credit card to take a cab to the impound lot. When he called the impound lot, they said he would need to fork over some money before he would even be allowed to enter his car and get his wallet. 

Well! This small town boy thought this was a great chance to show some small town virtue and welcome this erstwhile Californian to the virtuous Midwest. 

"How much do you need?" I said. 

"Oh, I can't expect you to do that," he said. 

No, I insist, I said. 

We exchanged cell phone numbers. We tried the numbers to make sure they worked. He would take a cab to the impound lot, get his car out and stop back at the hotel and pay me back. 

I gave him a crisp $100 bill and said see you in a bit. 

The man thanked me, hugged me, quoted from Corinthians and by the time he hailed a cab, I was pretty full of my virtuous small-town self. 

Two hours later, he still hadn't called. So I called him. 

The phone went right to a message. It was a clip of a blues song which started, "Somethin's gone very wrong!" 

I had been scammed. I looked up the phone number online. It was for a phone which had been stolen. 

At first, I was angry. Then I evaluated my motives for being such a dupe. 

I had assumed several things that simply weren't true, at least outside the small town.

First, I assumed I would see the man again at some point, maybe at a basketball game or a funeral, so he wouldn't want to rip me off and have to face me later. 

But there are five million people in Minnesota. I will most certainly never see the man again. 

Second, I assumed that if I didn't help him out in his time of distress, he would tell everybody he knew what a jerk I was and my reputation would be in the gutter. 

Of course, he didn't know me from Adam, and wouldn't know anybody who knew me to tell about my failure to come through in his time of need. 

Third, I assumed that the man valued his own reputation. Who wants to be known as a crook? What if word gets around to the people he does business with? 

Again, my assumption was stupid. I don't know a soul who knows him. I didn't even remember the man's name. I couldn't ruin his reputation if I tried!

Why do we usually behave pretty well towards each other in small towns, unlike city scumbags like the man who ripped me off? 

Because word gets around. 

If you rip off people at your business, word gets around. 

If you do shoddy work, word gets around. 

If you are a jerk to pets and small children, word gets around. 

Conversely, if you do honest good deeds, like pull somebody out of the ditch, word also gets around. 

Are we country people nicer people than people in the city? 

Not always. We gossip and we shoot people with big ideas down and we are sometimes distant to newcomers and we aren't always paragons of virtue. 

But, yes, I think it is fair to say that people in a small town are on balance going to be more trustworthy, more helpful in emergencies, more willing to throw pancake suppers for the ill and pretty darn likely to band together to build a new ball diamond. 

But why are small-towners more well-behaved? Is it because we are better people? 

Before we get too proud, we should consider the possibility that we do what we do for one reason: 


In the small town, word gets around. 

Diligent rodents

Life on and near the swamp this spring has been dominated by hard-working rodents. 

The big gray squirrel has solved the puzzle of one "squirrel proof" bird feeder and is working diligently on the second. 

Having failed to solve the puzzle–a spring loaded cage which uses the squirrel's weight to shut the openings–the squirrel has resorted to brute force. He is slowly gnawing away the thick wire from which the feeder is hung. 

When the feeder finally falls, the squirrel will be free to roll it around on the lawn until he works all of the sunflower bits loose. 

On the swamp, muskrat were the first to appear. They own a home mid-swamp which they remodeled last year, forcing the swans to build their nest somewhere other than their usual nesting site: on top of old muskrat houses.

Then, the beaver appeared. 

As they glide across the swamp like a low-riding barge, the beaver leave behind a V-shaped wake that calls attention to their location no matter how far across the swamp they work. 

And boy do they work. 

A hike through the woods today revealed the extent of their labors. A new state-of-the-art three-tiered dam has raised the water level of the swamp several inches. A small grove of mature aspen lie as if felled by a twister. 

Lately, the beaver have shown their skills a few feet from the house, in full view from the crow's nest. 

Beaver don't seem organized. They flit from one task to another with no apparent sense of purpose. 

They load up with mud and dump it on shore for no apparent reason. 

They work to drag one sapling away, but quickly give up and try another if the first one doesn't budge. 

Then they disappear to another sector of the swamp, presumably for more random, unorganized tasks. 

And yet in the end, their efforts produce lodges and dams worthy of a primitive civilization. 

Beaver have long been regarded as an enemy of civilization. They clog culverts, flood farmland and generally muck up the progress of the spring run-off. 

But what would happen if we made beaver our ally?

A potential solution to spring flooding: Release 10,000 beaver in the area and let them plan their own water retention projects. 

They probably could out-do the Army Corps of Engineers. 

In fact, a beaver should hold at least one seat on each watershed board. Their hydraulic wisdom could be a valuable addition. 

But, beaver would be too busy to attend meetings. 

Their work doesn't look organized, but through sheer dogged persistence, beaver change the landscape. 

After they raised the swamp several inches, the water now laps at our rusty old implements. We're going to have to put on wading boots to get at our cultivators. 

The pond in the garden jumped its banks and is drowning out lawn. 

We humans could fight all this, go into battle mode, shoot the beaver and reclaim our territory. 

That's what has been done for the past one hundred years. 

But our human efforts haven't worn well. We drained places which should never have been drained. We ditched where no ditches should run. 


And we flood every spring. 

The swamp in front of the house was drained by a county ditch in the 1940s. I suspect the county hoped to add six acres of farmland to the tax rolls. 

But the land was no good. Trees grew up, and the drained swamp turned into a forest. 

Then, the beaver returned. Nobody trapped them because nobody cared. They dammed up the swamp again and drowned out the trees they didn't cut down. 

The dead ash trees made great firewood, so Dad cut them all down to ice level. 

Once the trees were removed, a pair of swans made the refilled swamp their home. 

Then somebody trapped the beaver. Or they just left. In any case, their unmaintained dam fell down and the swamp emptied again. 

Because I had built a house near the swamp based on it being full of water and life, I tried to dam up the old ditch.  

My dam leaked. But then the beaver returned and built their own. When it leaks, they fix it. 

Now the swamp is full to the brim. Ducks, swans, geese and herons make it their home. The swamp is once again a hub of activity.

And we all have the diligent if destructive beaver to thank. 


Skip the message


Whenever I hear somebody suggest listening to a song because "it has a great message," I cringe, no matter if the song is a call to protest or a summons to piety. 

Music should be music, not politics or preaching. 

Music touches a different part of the brain than spoken language. Stroke victims who cannot speak sometimes maintain the ability to sing favorite songs. 

Alzheimer's victims who don't know where they are can often sing along to all verses of an old, familiar hymn. 

The charms of music are mysterious.

Most great musicians have nothing of interest to say in spoken interviews. Their eloquence arises from the musical part of their brain and doesn't translate well to the intellect. 

Songs with an overt message obscure the profound emotional impact that comes from a great melody performed by a great musician. 

That's why I prefer nonsense lyrics to songs with a story. 


"Obla di, Obla da, life goes on," is about as deep as I can stand. 

I have never figured out opera. The few times I have tried, the experience was ruined when I found out the soprano's screeching up and down the scale for the past five minutes said nothing more than "The kitchen is on fire!" in Italian. 

Much better just to enjoy the beautiful sound of the Latin words in Mozart's Requiem than to discover their meaning and be disappointed that more wasn't said with all those beautiful syllables. 

Most songs with an overt message fail to convince. 

Nothing worse than a con-artist crooner singing "baby, baby, baby, I'll love you till the end of time." 

His real goal is more carnal and his drippy sentiments will likely dry up by Monday morning. 

Much better to hear Mick Jaggar use his voice as a rhythmic instrument. No need to dig for deep meaning in "Jumpin Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gas!"

The words of the best rock songs are just an excuse to have fun. 

Bob Dylan has a reputation as a great protest songwriter. However, his most memorable songs make no sense at all except as an enjoyment of the sound and rhythm of the language. 

Oh, I suppose there's story to Bob’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But isn't it more fun just to enjoy the poetry of "once upon a time you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your  prime, didn't youuuuuuuuuu?" 

Boors who insist upon explaining the message of that song are in the same class as people who give away the endings of movies you haven’t yet seen. Please, just be quiet.

Although George Frederic Handel was German, he wrote the great "Messiah" oratorio in English. The text was taken from archaic and beautiful passages of the King James Bible. Handel emphasized the poetry of the words and created something miraculous. 

However, immediately after a live performance of the Hallelujah Chorus you can usually overhear certain people in the audience rush to make sure everybody knows that the text was more important than the music. 

"You can't let the beautiful music get in the way of the important message," they nervously lecture in an panicked attempt to can the deep joy of the experience.

These kill-joys can't stand the idea of beautiful music for the sake of beautiful music. Unless a song browbeats you with their ideological message, they don't want to hear it. 

Perhaps they are afraid to revel in the part of the brain tied to pure music, the cranial sector that produces our deepest emotions, emotions you can't express in words and shouldn't even try. 

Good music is so powerful it makes some people afraid. 

And let's not let the coffee-house crooners off the hook, those joyless granolas who write preachy ditties against multinational corporations and acid rain. 

C'mon, people, music is a break from the cares of this world. It is a window into something bigger, something we don't understand. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering where a talented music teacher took seventeen of us, most with no musical experience, and taught us a complicated round. 

We sang no words. Just nonsense syllables. But there we were, seventeen people from all different backgrounds and of all ages producing stunning four-part harmony together. 

None of us could describe exactly what we learned. But for many of us, it was a peak experience that we'll never forget. 

That's music as it should be: Too big to be reduced to words. 



Flood folly

Early settlers built their settlements on rivers because that's where the power was for milling the crops. The larger rivers also provided transportation to ship the goods to market. 

Now, 130 years later, the rivers are useless except to provide a little pretty scenery that breaks up the monotony of the prairie. 

Due to human ingenuity and technological progress, the spring melt drains faster than ever off the farmland and heads right towards the towns on the river, towns which now suffer 100-year floods two springs out of three. 

To who live by the river, the prettiness is wearing thin.

Then came the trains. Towns sprouted near the tracks because the rail was the lifeline to civilization. Trains brought the mail and the groceries and the visiting relatives.

Railroad tracks went right through the heart of the downtown of the river cities because that's where industry was. And the downtown depot was where people caught the train to get to civilization, or to go fight wars. 

Now, 120 years later, the railroads carry more coal than people. The coal and other goods head somewhere out east. The trains don't even stop at the old depot.


Yet trains still rumble right through the downtown where they snarl up traffic and hit the occasional inebriated pedestrian. 

Early settlers adapted, at least for a while. Dozens of little clapboard towns built before the railroads came through simply dried up when the tracks were completed. Some people moved buildings miles to be closer to the rail. 

Now we are stuck. Our towns are too big to move away from the rising water. And it would cost too much to run the rail tracks around the towns so the coal trains and the trains loaded with cars from Korea wouldn't need to slow down on their way out east. 

We are trapped in patterns created by our ancestors for reasons which no longer exist. 

As for the flooding, it would have been better if about 100 years ago some visionary realized that we no longer need to hug the river, let's move this town to higher ground. 

But that was back when 100-year floods only happened every fifty years. People had little reason to act. 

Instead, we kept building bigger buildings and more houses right at the lowest spots in our big old lake bottom. 

Now, it is too late to adapt to nature. We are faced with the much more expensive task of forcing nature to adapt to us. 

Downstream on the Red River is the city of Winnipeg with at least five times the population of any upstream city. After a flood disaster in 1950, Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin decided to build a diversion. 

"Duff’s Ditch," as it was dubbed by its opponents, was completed in 1968 and first saved the city from major flooding in 1969. Seven times since then, Winnipeg has been saved by the efforts of Mr. Roblin, who, by the time he died a few years back was regarded as a hero. 

After a few close brushes with disaster, Fargo is fighting for a similar diversion. Perhaps we should call it "Denny’s Ditch" after Fargo flood-fighter extraordinaire Dennis Walaker. 

Undoubtably a wise move, the ditch, which will cost a tremendous amount of money, now faces a severe threat. 

In a colossal political mistake, the people along the Red have gotten good at fighting floods. The panic and failures of 1997 have been replaced by a calm, workmanlike and effective response. 

Preparation has improved. Diking has improved. People know the drill. No more last-minute massive sandbagging panics. No more leaks through the sewer. 

Worst of all for the prospects of long-term funding, there will likely be no national television coverage of neighborhoods underwater and flooded buildings burning down to the water level. 

No good deed goes unpunished. If you anticipate disaster and use past experience to prepare for it, you get no national attention. 

You can hear the conversation in the halls of Congress: Why should we pay a billion dollars for Denny's Ditch when the good people of Fargo seem to be getting along fine without it? 

We have come a long way from the days when towns were built and torn down for solid, local economic reasons. 

Now, to get anything done, you need a big disaster that is recorded on video and played over and over on the national news until people in California start calling their congressman to forget the deficit, we have to rescue those poor people waving from their roof up on the tundra.