Monday, May 30, 2016

Think like a fish

                               14. But Sue the Bastards Anyway 
                                                          (from The Far Side of Eden

     John Stephens, chair of the Napa group of the Sierra Club, lived on the west side of the city in a blue-collar subdivision with shared driveways and patches of grass. His patch was given over to native species. During the day, Stephens—tall, thin, with owlish glasses and slate-blue eyes—worked as a plumber at the Napa State Hospital, and at night he pursued various environmental goals, including river and forest protection, land conservation, the curtailment of urban sprawl, the preservation of ground water and water in the river and the wells, and numerous others. But what most of these had in common was H2O—its purity, its increasing scarcity, the declining health of things living in it. The state of the steelhead in the Napa River was in Stephens’s estimation “dismal, sickening.”
     So as a plumber he dealt with the utilitarian aspects of the earth’s most precious resource, and as an environmentalist he tried to restrict its use and degradation by human beings. It was a thoroughly contemporary dilemma, and it was mirrored, with variations, in the lives of most people actively involved in aspects of Napa’s environmental reforms.
     Many of these were discussed around Stephens’s dining room table in the west of the city. For years he had been a civil rights and a peace activist as well as what he called “a rocking chair Sierra Clubber,” but the Stanley Ranch controversy had galvanized him. Stephens proved adept at dealing with conflicting personalities and was voted onto the local Sierra Club executive committee, known as the ex-com. Its numbers varied from time to time, half the seats on this governing body elected by the valley’s entire membership and half by the other ex-com members.
     The Sierra Club was famously democratic and grass-roots, but there were certain controls not immediately apparent to the rank and file. Local autonomy—like access to local dues—went only so far, and Stephens soon learned about these limitations. He found the ex-com in Napa to be an “intellectual, quite wordy group,” and he had no trouble holding his own. Any member could raise an issue of concern and become the expert in that area and lead the charge, so to speak, as long as the rest of the committee went along. He became the conservation chair, one of many lesser chairs available to those who would sit in them. His soft-spoken persistence and ability to avoid open conflict usually prevailed, and during one meeting he went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and came back to discover that he had been elected chair of the Napa group.
      Membership was extensive in the county, but the vast majority of members weren’t actively involved in the group’s political activities. Many were only dimly aware of them, their interests tending toward hiking and bird watching and preserving redwoods and treasures like Yosemite. The local environmental nitty-gritty was left to the wordy ex-com members, the core of which in Napa was made up of Stephens, Tyler York, the vice chair, who was a builder and a distributor of organic fertilizer, two other veteran Sierra Clubbers, and a relatively new arrival, Chris Malan.
     She was voted onto the ex-com by the committee itself. This was due to her keen interest in the issues and a desire by other ex-commers to take advantage of her energy and growing clout. Her insistence on being heard and her reputation for environmental action indicated a dynamo for the resource, not a dilettante. The issues had in “recent years become increasingly complicated and divisive, and Chris was made the political chair.
     From the beginning she talked, across the embroidered white cloth on John Stephens’s dining table, sometimes nibbling a cookie, about the growing need to sue the county for neglecting state environmental laws and to sue specific property owners for wreaking havoc in the hills.
 To order Napa:

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