In the 1980s I went to live with a boyfriend in the town of Patagonia, Arizona. If that sounds remote, you’re right. It was two hours southwest of Tucson, 14 miles east of Nogales on the Mexican border.
We lived in a trailer for a few months before I returned to New York, two writers carving out space and time. Patagonia was then mostly a town of trailers, lots of Latino families, a small grocery store selling meats and produce past their prime, cowboy ranches behind the hills, and blimps high up looking for people crossing the border.
Every afternoon my boyfriend and his brother-in-law, who also lived in town, came together to smoke weed. I didn’t because weed put me to sleep. One day I heard them getting very upset about the prospect of a senior housing project getting built just above the town. They were virulently against it—it would destroy the local ambience, this wasn’t what Patagonia was about, it wasn’t why they’d come here—and they were going to fight it tooth and nail.
I was surprised to hear them fulminate. All of us lived modest lives there; we didn’t have to pay rent for the trailer, had money for food, and didn’t spend more because there was nothing to spend money on. But there were lots of families with children squeezed into small, narrow trailers. They went to Nogales to cash welfare checks and use up food stamps because there was no way to make any money in Patagonia. A senior housing project might bring in well-to-do people, whom my boyfriend abhorred, but it would also bring jobs and help the town’s economy. Both men, left-wing radicals both, were dead set against it.
I remembered all this talking to a neighbor yesterday morning. The Montague Farm that the Zen Peacemakers had once owned, where I still like to walk the dogs, became a venue for weekend weddings after we left, and she was up in arms. On Saturday nights she heard music till 11:00 (latest), strangers walked on the road, some cars couldn’t find the place and asked for directions. “It shouldn’t be here,” she said.
Having been on the other side of things, I tried to describe to her how hard it was to make a go of the Farm, that there wasn’t enough community demand for the beautiful space, and that weddings were the only way to keep it in the black. She wasn’t interested.
After we hung up, I remembered that time when the Zen Peacemakers worked out of those offices, held a number of big gatherings, and the zendo sat there as well. No one complained about noise, but a few complained about light pollution from the beautiful hall that was lit at most a couple of nights a week. It was the first time I heard the term light pollution. I personally loved to drive on the road below and see the big hall gleaming with its golden light, but obviously not everyone did. I wondered why they didn’t consider the light coming out of their windows also light pollution.
“What are we supposed to do, work in the dark?” I said to the foreman who supervised the renovations of the hall.
He said, “People come here to get away from all that.”
The question is: Get away from what? Get away from life?
The Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts, sometimes known as the Happy Valley, is a highly progressive part of the state. It has five well-known colleges and universities with a sophisticated international student body and faculty. Many people have come here from Boston or New York. There’s everything that you associate with college-based towns and cities: a lively music/art scene, active newspaper reporting, and a lot of community organizing around social issues. On weekends it’s common to see people holding up placards in the village commons against war, fossil fuel, nuclear energy, etc. The area is full of well-meaning, highly intelligent, and principled residents who meet in New England’s storied town hall meetings, models of local governance recognized around the world.
There is practically no affordable housing here. The Commonwealth (love the Massachusetts moniker) mandates that 30% of all new construction units must be affordable housing in an area where home prices have gone sky high, but when contractors come to our town meetings with plans for such construction, they are voted down. This has happened in at least three towns that I know of over the past few months. Local town officers tell us that we are in violation of Commonwealth law, but that doesn’t seem to make much impact.
Almost everybody here bemoans the little progress the country is making to fight climate change. So, we must have lots of wind farms in this rural area, right? Wrong. Large solar installations? Wrong again. These proposals are voted down over and over, usually shelved with the declaration that the town needs a year to study all the implications. For the country and the world, developing clean sources of energy is super urgent. But build those alternatives here? Not on your life.
People have lots of reasons: It’s the wrong scale for the small town, it may damage the forests, it’s unsightly, there are lots of places far and wide that are more suitable, say Nebraska. just not here. Not in my back yard.
Massachusetts voters voted a few years back to legalize marijuana. My guess is that in our area, almost everybody voted for it. But when companies and farms wanted to start growing cannabis and selling those products in dispensaries, the towns again used delaying tactics. Yes, it was now legal, yes, there was a big demand, but couldn’t you sell it in Keene, New Hampshire, or down in Springfield where the population is poorer and of darker skin (not that anyone actually spells that out)? Here we have to be careful about our children, our schools. Cannabis suppliers had to start suing towns in court before the towns finally gave in, and now we have several such dispensaries in the area doing great business, I’m told.
We enjoy such safety here. There’s a big middle class, people are educated, and most are fairly prosperous. You’d think that this affords us a greater margin for taking risks, for giving more than others for each other’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet. Instead, we live petty, precious lives, guarding vigilantly against any intrusion into our privilege even as we congratulate ourselves on our progressive values and write indignant letters to the editor about the state of the world.
While we complain that there isn’t much of an economy here outside the colleges and that our kids have to leave the area to get jobs and homes they can afford, we object to the smallest noise, the smallest road congestion, lights at night, and wind and solar installations that will actually do something to fight climate change.
People are proud to be on the right side of the issue, send money, petition their representatives, indulge in outrage about what direction our country’s going in. But do something about that here? Give up some of our elite indulgences to actually make a difference?
Not in our back yard.
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.