Essentials

There is currently a debate raging in Minnesota about permanent funding for conservation. For the past several legislative sessions, lawmakers have tried to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to dedicate funding for clean water and land.

I support that.

Most people do, actually. The reason it’s never actually made it onto the ballot is because certain representatives insist that it include permanent funding for arts and culture: public broadcasting, theatre, museums, etc.

It has put me in a tight spot, because I’d like to see more funding both for our state’s natural and cultural resources. Ultimately though, I’ve come to feel that with the dire threats facing the environment from accelerating development, global warming and pollution, that we should pass the conservation funding immediately. Ideally, we could pass two pieces of legislation, one for the woods and one for the arts. But either way, I want to see the conservation funding bad enough that I’m willing to make the arts fight their own fight.

And it has seemed a little selfish of the pro-arts funding gang to hold up the conservation funding, which could almost assuredly pass otherwise.

Today, Dennis Anderson almost changed my mind. The long-time outdoors writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and an influential voice in the state’s hunting and fishing circles, wrote a vitriolic column condemning the “paintbrush and MPR crowd” for insisting on funding.

Minnesota is, after all — as others have cryptically noted — running out of wetlands.

Not artwork.

I know that Anderson has his priorities. And they are priorities that I share. Leaving a legacy of unsoiled outdoor spaces is important to me. But there is no call for such hostility and name calling.

Normally, I would ignore this. I learned long ago that the best response to a bully is no response at all. But Anderson’s column actually got me thinking about a brief discussion that arose on this site last weekend in the comments on my “Stillness” post.

A fellow named Eric started things off by saying:

“…Its interesting that this stillness tends to reside in beautiful natural enviornments, maybe thats why I also seek them out.

To which my lovely wife Rosie responded:

“…it’s one of the conflicts i can’t resolve when people say they snowmobile or four-wheel to enjoy nature. those machines only shoot you from end of nature to the next…

Responding to both Eric and Rosie, I stumbled on some new thoughts of my own. I said:

i dont know why stillness tends to reside only in natural environments, but i think it does. i believe it can also reside in the works of humans: art, love, and maybe if i write it well enough, it can live in words? nonetheless, i will go forth into the woods as long as i’m able to, seeking that ephemeral stillness. i feel like i should quote some sigurd olson here, but i won’t. but i feel that undisturbed time in the woods is essential to the human spirit and soul. it is as important as art and love…

Finally, my old blog-friend Lene chimed in:

I think it would be fun to explore moment we feel that same stillness we experience in the natural world when we’re on a bus, a plane, walking in NYC. I think we can carry it with us (or do we find some solace there too, maybe in the safety of crowds?).

I had been thinking about this discussion all week, and when I came across Anderson’s divisive column today, I realized how starkly I disagreed with what he wrote. For a long time, I have believed in the “spiritual necessity” of wilderness, to quote Sigurd Olson. I believe it is unique and valuable.

And in the “Stillness” discussion, I finally made my own connections between the value of wilderness and the value of such human creations as art or writing. There is something intangible in both the outdoors and in art that is essential to my life. It is something felt — deep inside — rather than seen.

I still don’t think trying to hitch the arts funding to the conservation funding is a good idea. If I thought it would pass as a united bill, I would be all for it. But it won’t, so I’m not.

Even so, there is no need for Anderson’s comments. It is just more of the counter-productive us vs. them, metro vs. outstate, hook-and-bullet vs. arts-and-theatre attitudes that have plagued this state, and the conservation movement as a whole, for decades. Goodness knows what irreparable damage has already been done by taking such stances.

His column to me seemed uninformed, as if he was living in a fantasy world where someone like me, who listens to public radio on his way to the trout stream, doesn’t exist, much less exist in any great number. Minnesota’s great love of the outdoors does not reside just in the hearts of hunters and fishermen, or in those who live outside the seven-county metro area.

Nonetheless, it has been useful for me to remind myself that the way I feel while standing before one of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Van Goghs is not much different than the way I feel while paddling my canoe down the St. Croix River.

10 thoughts on “Essentials

  1. Deb

    When I read that column I had the same feeling about Anderson’s comments. It is unfortunate that attitudes like his are exactly the reason why a combined arts/ conservation funding bill would not pass. True, we may not be running out of artwork, but I’m afraid we are running out of people who have the capacity to experience that intangible feeling you describe, whether it comes from wild places or works of art.

  2. the dharma bum Post author

    Deb – exactly. I hadn’t even thought about the point you mention, that while we may have lots of artwork, appreciation for it is on the decline. Anderson illustrates that point for us quite handily.

    It just saddens me terribly that we are still relegated to these antagonistic roles… the ‘artists’ mocking the ‘hicks,’ the hunters and fishers mocking the “artsy-fartsy” city folk. I wish both sides could see how much we all have in common…

  3. Eric

    I like where the “stillness” blog has led. I agree with you, currently living in Milwaukee and growing up in the rural country side. I’ve experienced stillness in both places. My intial comments were based on my recent trip which still was filling me with awe in the face of a daily commute.

    Being a professional in the arts community and vocial advocate for the natural enviornment many times I’ve been caught in a hinterland alienated from both groups. Too often in today’s society we are faced with the “…with us or against us mentality,” forcing our issue afraid that if we listen to the other side we’ll be mistaken as weak. Are we now reaping the fruits that have been sown by the political system for the past 6 years? Or has the mentality always been prevalent?

  4. cK

    We are nowhere without our environment, so we must guard that first. And we are no one–we are soulless and without community or inspiration–without art, so we must guard that second.

    Everything else (business, defense, etc.) is either an opportunity or a reflex.

    I retire to non-chambers.
    -cK

  5. Randy

    bum, I’m terribly conflicted on this one as well, but I also have a conflict that spreads into wondering whether or not there is a place for the vitriol, and in the modern world of politics, what is enough and what crosses the line into bullying?

    Having worked on and with the state council of TU and working on local projects, coordination between individuals and groups (all within the conservation, environment umbrella) can become terribly heated, and unfortunately, sometimes the loudest voice wins because people choose to back down.

    I wish there was an easy answer, or even an easy way to say what I’m trying to say, but in the current world of politics it can get too ugly for comfort.

    For what it’s worth,
    Randy

  6. the dharma bum Post author

    Thanks to all of you, this has been a very enlightening thread.

    Eric:

    Are we now reaping the fruits that have been sown by the political system for the past 6 years? Or has the mentality always been prevalent?

    I think the answer is… Yes. No one can deny that this country has become more culturally divided as it has become more politically divided. It seems to me like everyone is looking for ways that the group of people they identify with is different (and better) than other groups. Whether it’s NASCAR fans vs. Tour de France followers, SUV drivers vs. hybrid drivers, north vs. south, east vs. west, or, in this case, a fairly overarching dichotomy: arts vs. outdoors, paint brushes vs. shotguns… I emphasized the word “identify” because it seems to me that all of this is related to these carefully-constructed ideas of self that everyone seems so obsessed with. We look at celebrities, politicians, products, television shows, fashion, and latch onto specific images that we call “me.”

    Which, is nothing new. And that’s why I say ‘yes’ that this has also always been prevalent. Seems to be human nature to seek out and “celebrate” differentness. In this country, perhaps it was the Civil War that really served as the watershed moment. Before that, it seems like there was still a cohesive American-ness, forged during the Revolution and… a shared hatred of those other others, the Redcoats. Or perhaps it was in the 1880s when the frontier finally died and that cohesion died with it… the sense of unlimited frontier and a shared belief in Manifest Destiny had reinforced what we held in common. Or maybe it’s been since the 1960s… No matter what, it seems like it’s been a long time since Americans weren’t seeking out ways to prove their superiority to each other.

    cK:

    We are nowhere without our environment, so we must guard that first. And we are no one–we are soulless and without community or inspiration–without art, so we must guard that second.

    Excellent. I like that. It breaks down very nicely what I was trying to say, that both the environment and art are essential to our souls and our survival.

    Randy
    Sorry, no excerpt of your comments because I’d have to do the whole thing.

    I think I get what you’re saying, that sometimes the only way to succeed (unfortunately) is to be vocal, to be a little vitriolic. Sort of Machiavellian, eh? That is indeed probably true… A sad truth, but true nonetheless.

    The thing is, the stakes are so high. Especially with conservation issues, if we don’t act now, we might lose a lot of invaluable natural resources forever. So, let us win by any means necessary…

    But, then, what about the losers? What if we stand up and are vocal and even vitriolic because we feel there is no other option, and what if we get so caught up that we defame an important cause like the arts and they lose because they aren’t as vitriolic (or as well-funded or well-connected or…)?

    Wonderful, we save our roadless areas or our trout streams, but an emerging artist takes a job at a cubefarm because there’s no grant money and his talent dies a quiet death, or an art museum has to close another day out of the week, serving less school groups, or or or…

    There are no easy answers here. You know that the environment is one of the things I hold above all else, but it doesn’t mean that we should necessarily feel good about our successes if it comes at such great expense elsewhere.

    Am I making any sense?

  7. Randy

    I’m with you, Greg, and you’re right. I also think it’s hard to fully grasp this because of the huge amount of money involved and the fact that needs aren’t clearly defined for both conservation and arts combined…and I don’t think the need can ever be truly quantified.

    Just as an aside…
    On top of dedicated funding from sales taxes, I don’t see anything wrong with expanding the scope of dedicating funding for arts through license plates as has been done for conservation dollars. This has been a fantastic way to make money that goes directly back into conservation usage. Just one option of many, I suppose. As a contributor and listener of public radio, the Current in particular, I don’t want to see the arts lose out down the road either.

    Everyone’s comments are very good food for thought.

    Randy

  8. rosie

    in my ever-hopeful state of mind, i read this statement from the bum and felt it could never happen in quite that way:

    Wonderful, we save our roadless areas or our trout streams, but an emerging artist takes a job at a cubefarm because there’s no grant money and his talent dies a quiet death, or an art museum has to close another day out of the week, serving less school groups, or or or…

    i believe that the one good turn begets the other, which is why if one of these two good causes succeeds, then the other succeeds because they are so intertwined. for the sake of saving what might be forever lost i agree with the bum that the environment ought to get first billing; but then there has to be the love and passion behind the movement to help the arts folks make the connection and vice versa.

  9. the dharma bum Post author

    randy – that’s a really good idea for the license plates. minnesota seems relatively ‘stingy’ with the license plate options they have… why not a plate to support the arts? (the only problem being which one would I have on my car?)

    also, there’s the secondary issue of whether writing funding into the state’s constitution is really what that document was intended for. i still support the idea, but i wish there was a better way to provide consistent, non-politicized funding without going to such extreme lengths. and if the various causes can’t ever fully articulate their needs, how are we to ever fully meet those needs? especially in such a permanent manner?

    like i said, i still support the initiative, but there are lots of questions about whether this course is the best one.

    rosie – of course, i was just “thinking out loud” and i know i got a little pessimisstic there… and i know i can count on you for optimism… thank goodness. but i ask you: how are the two causes so intertwined? when you have leaders and spokespeople voicing things like anderson voices (and only echoing and emphasizing the beliefs of the people they represent, the artists, the hunters), it seems like everyone is trying as hard as they can to demonstrate how different their causes are.

    so, going back to my original point, what we need more than anything right now, are some voices speaking loudly about solidarity and what the two causes share, not attacking each other. i just don’t think we need the nastiness.

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