Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Do good, or buy a Jaguar?

                                                       11. Go for it
                                                       (from The Far Side of Eden)
    Peter Mennen read the letter again, then leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. In a rush of elation and rage, he realized that stock in the family company, long reputed to have been left to Peter by his dear grandfather, had in fact been left to him, and had sat somewhere all these years without his knowing it. Mennen, Inc., had recently been acquired by Colgate-Palmolive, rendering all such stock public, and so his had surfaced through the inadvertent action of some functionary in a distant countinghouse through whose purview it had passed. Peter was not disinherited, as he had believed. He was not poor. He was, in all likelihood, rich.
     He found a lawyer, a hotshot litigator in San Francisco, who looked into the situation and came back and told Peter that he did indeed own stock and that its history was less savory than he had imagined. But if he took the matter to court, some people once close to Peter might go to jail and he might lose the bulk of the money. Peter told the lawyer, “I don’t care.”
     That is just what a litigator wants to hear, but this one didn’t work on contingency. The case would require a lot of digging and the pursuit of people who didn’t want to be pursued, and the lawyer asked, “How much money do you have?”
     Peter had about thirty thousand dollars that was supposed to pay for home renovation—the vegas, the fireplace designed by Carlene, the deck with its redwood ramada where Peter intended to plant wisteria—but it all disappeared into the litigator’s account.
     While he waited, Peter saw in his mind’s eye millions of dollars tumbling toward him, the greenbacks fluttering and turning in the air. They rained down, electrifying, transforming—sixteen million of them. As if in a dream, the case did not make it to court, and all pretension and false rectitude dissolved in a settlement that he felt vindicated decades of moral groping. It was the headiest of moments, a breathless experience, and then a strange thing happened: for the first time he could remember, Peter wanted to be rich.
     He went outside the post office and saw a Jaguar and wanted it. He saw a trophy house and wanted that, too, not a bungalow on Sylvaner Avenue. He wanted a sailboat, he wanted better clothes, he wanted . . . Going up and down, from the heights of anticipation to the depths of despair, he imagined himself in every enviable position in the valley and then got depressed. He realized that once he had all the possessions and positions, he wouldn’t be happy.
     It was painful, Carlene thought, watching all this. She would say, “Peter’s having a terrible time,” and wait for him to come out of it. They talked about what else might be done with the money, about various causes and, specifically, about fish—salmon and steelhead—species emblematic of big trees and clear mountain water, of the best of the West, which meant a lot to both of them, and wilderness. Gradually, Peter began to see that he had enough money either to be rich or to do some good, but not both.
     He sat in his office behind the Depression-era mural, staring up, and saw the dollars falling, falling right past him and into a bin at his feet marked “Mennen Environmental Foundation.” He wasn’t going to be rich after all, and that meant he had to remain a postmaster. This was fine, but the prospect of juggling both his public duties and those of the new environmental enterprise freaked him out. Carlene, who had taught him to eradicate Scotch broom and had prayed on Mount Shasta, said simply, “Why don’t you let me do it?”
     She went about it in her usual way, first looking into other, larger foundations and discovering that some were fronts providing access to resources for powerful people. Others did good work but wasted time and money by pitting one environmentalist against another. Some projects were good and some just excuses for extracting money. The Mennens’ was a piddling foundation compared to most, but it had about six hundred thousand dollars a year to spread around, enough to do something.
     The way to go, Carlene decided, was to pick a really good cause—there were so many—offer some money, and then bird-dog it. One of the best causes was the inventorying of wilderness in Utah, so it could be preserved, and Carlene got directly involved. She met with ranchers out there, whom she understood, and with native-plants people; she gave public testimony about wilderness before an advisory council, and shook things up.
     She and Peter started getting invited to things, like the meeting of Conservation International in Washington, D.C., where they showed up in Tevas and jeans only to discover that everybody else had on formal clothes and lots of jewelry. When Harrison Ford asked Peter to sit with him, Peter said, “I have to sit with my wife.”
     No one in Napa knew these things. Peter and Carlene helped with reforestation in Costa Rica and salmon restoration in Oregon. Carlene got interested in urban sprawl in the Bay Area and in how much money had been raised and spent over the years by the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Conservation League. She thought she could get more bang for the buck with smaller, more tightly focused grants, including those promoting watersheds and recovery of wild-land corridors. These had to be run by people who knew the terrain, she thought. “Don’t look for expertise and grant-writing talent,” she would say. “Look for passion on the land.”
     Gradually she and Peter returned, philanthropically speaking, to the place they had never left, where they had begun their lives together, Napa Valley. Then Chris Malan showed up at the fundraiser for Mike Thompson, nearly hysterical about development in the hills and unsure of what to do next. Chris might be overbearing at times, Carlene thought, but she was passionate and she got them to look differently at something they had taken for granted until then.
     Carlene delved into the possibility of suing the county, the vintners, or both. Through her contacts in the Sierra Club in San Francisco, she found a lawyer good at such things, and she collected a lot of pertinent information and turned it over to Chris, telling her, in effect, "Go for it."
To order Napa:

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