Sort of fiction by Lazarus Washburn
Phaedra Elkspirit spent too much time on the Internet these days. On most mornings she was up well before dawn, making herb tea while her laptop booted up, then checking her e-mail, Facebook and blog accounts. Reading the latest postings by a half dozen currently favorite friends. Admiring pictures of yesterday’s pro-union protests from Wisconsin, an Alaskan grizzly bear encountered on a hike by a traveling friend, a series of pictures taken at a Buddhist retreat in the mountains of India––orange robes and prayer flags in the wind.
Reading the appeals from a myriad of environmental groups about the wolf crisis, the genetically modified mushrooms being sold in big box supermarkets, and a plea to send letters regarding a coalmine expanding fifty miles to the west. The newest probable global warming impacts, denial of them along with vicious attacks on the hard won social economic safety net.
Firing off lines of outrage, wit and sympathy. Signing her name to a petition to be sent to her congressional representative and two senators. I would like to express my utmost concern at the plight of the….
By the time all of that was done it was seven-thirty and time to make the block and a half walk to the Chicken Abortionist Café with her new iPad slipped into the outer pocket of her laptop case along with the paperback copy of Walden that she was in the midst of rereading for the double-digited time.
She sometimes wondered what Henry David Thoreau would have thought of all of this? Would he have spent his mornings writing entries in his blog: Words From the Woods in between hoeing his bean field. Pictures posted of the woodchuck that had eaten a full thirty feet of young plants “clean to the ground.” A link inserted to the Wikipedia entries on woodchucks and bush type lima beans.
Yes, Henry, who complained incessantly about modern conveniences like the new steam train whose tracks ran by just on the other side of Walden Pond, would have pretended to hold his nose while eagerly signing up for the highest DSL speeds available. Even if it meant having to take a few more surveying jobs than usual––a few more hours in the family’s pencil manufacturing business in Concord. Henry Thoreau would have taken a digital camera and iPad on his long walks.
Phaedra listened to the ranchers at the Abortionist’s community coffee table talk as she read the new issue of Mother Jones and that morning’s New York Times on her iPad. The tablet took up less space, wasn’t as in-your-face than the laptop, and could be handed around easily if needed.
“The drought down in Texas is looking worse this month,” she said and held up the screen for all to see.
A scrawny cow gazing forlornly at a dusty hole that had once been a pond. The ranchers of West Elk County looked up from their caramel cinnamon rolls and complaints about Forest Service grazing allotment rules and allowed Phaedra to demonstrate how one could flip through a whole album of photos of dry, drier and driest parts of Texas and Oklahoma.
In comparison it had rained in Anthracite almost every day for the past month. Everything in the valley seemed lush and emerald green and there were six-foot high weeds growing in road ditches.
“I hear they’re making money on the oil again though,” Frank Rice said, passing the iPad back to Phaedra. “One door closes and another opens…” In his late seventies, he raised hay and cattle north of town.
The ranchers and real estate agents at the table talked for a while about the irony of the conditions of places dependent upon dry land farming or pumping dwindling groundwater supplies while here in the high mountain desert of much of the Rio Poco there had been too much water and people hadn’t bothered to irrigate their hay fields, gardens, or lawns in weeks.
The conversation then turned, as it often did, to the federal government, the national debt and the economy. Listening to it with half her mind while she wrote a blog entry using the virtual keyboard on the iPad, Phaedra thought that the mostly older men at the table sounded overwhelmed.
Why didn’t the government just spend only what came in? Why didn’t the politicians do more to create jobs? And what the hell was this talk of messing with Social Security? (She took a few shots of them with the iPad’s camera) Their minds had filled to overflowing with bits of facts mixed with contradicting opinions and propaganda heard on their pickup radios while driving from one farm and ranch chore to the next.
Phaedra wondered how she could explain to them the modern complexities of practical economic theory and the valuable tool of deficit spending in slow times versus politics driven by public opinions as confused and angry as their own. How a federal Balanced Budget Amendment, if adopted by the states, might end up creating the unintended consequence of eliminating hundreds of thousand of jobs from the Federal and State governments all the way down to the Town of Anthracite’s water and sewer treatment and street maintenance programs.
How would she go about making them understand that the taxes paid in larger urban areas like Denver subsidized small, rural areas like West Elk County. That this was an America where people with more helped those with less.
“If they have to spend less and can’t raise more taxes that means government is going to have to get smaller,” someone said. “They’ll have no choice.”
“That probably means getting rid of all those farm programs,” Phaedra said. “Maybe defunding those agencies that make sure the big cattle packers aren’t monopolizing the whole market. Maybe sell off some of the National Forest where you have your grazing leases. Costs a lot of money to manage all that land.”
“We pay for a lot of that,” a rancher said.
“You guys contribute with grazing fees but it’s not much more than one bucket of water in a stock tank.” Phaedra brought up the data on her iPad and began to read it off.
“Internet crap,” Frank said.
“USDA figures crunched,” Phaedra said. “All footnoted and cited.” As if that meant anything to her scowling audience.
“The government is just out for more taxes to pay bureaucrats salaries and the environmentalists want our cows outa the woods period.” A fork was banged against the rim of a cup for emphasis. “So they can bring back wolves and grizzly bears to eat all the damn deer.”
“ Hmmph.” Phaedra shrugged and went back to reading Mother Jones.
At the offices of the West Elk Bugle upstairs in the museum building, Phaedra picked up the stuff from the floor under the mail slot and plugged both her iPad and laptop in to recharge. The Anthracite post office didn’t deliver mail in town but local businesses had gotten in the habit of dropping their invoices and checks off at the Bugle rather than mailing them. And people still dropped off handwritten or typed “items” for the paper.
Phaedra had been trying hard to get everyone use e-mail but the older people still liked to come in and talk while delivering their garden club notes and so on. There had been a few complaints about the new offices being up a flight of steep narrow stairs in the old Victorian house, but since people could only access the building when the museum was open they could always leave their contributions with one of the volunteers. The older ladies who tended the Museum for their part enjoyed the new wealth of visitors since in the past there had been many days with no one at all.
The Bugle, of which Phaedra was the only formal, full-time employee, had only recently moved into two of the four rooms upstairs in the West Elk County Historical Society building, a money saving measure since the paper’s new Crested Butte-based publisher owned the building as well as the Albert Street storefront that had been the newspaper’s former quarters.
The old office building, a narrow, single story, stuccoed-brick structure, had been sold to a real estate broker who specialized in foreclosures and “short sales.” Local ad revenue had been down for the last couple of years with the real estate market declining. Some businesses that had an in-town monopoly, like the Grubstop A & G Market and Anthracite Hardware and Lumber, now only ran an occasional notice.
The Bugle limped along mainly on the cushion of legals from the Town, County, and School District. That and want-ads, which had always been a staple. Phaedra wondered how long the absentee owner would be content with running a break-even small town paper.
Phaedra had taken a job as a reporter for the paper when she had first arrived in Town from Taos, New Mexico in 1994, meaning to stay for only a year or two and needing a little extra money while she established her Reiki therapy and jewelry making businesses. Then the reporter job had turned into the editor’s job when the former owner-publisher-editor had won election to the Board of County Commissioners.
And now, seventeen years later, she was also the publisher since that owner had retired after the death of his wife and sold the paper after two terms in local politics (and after Phaedra herself had served a single term as Commissioner). He still stopped by a couple times a month, stared at the new computers while he talked about lightboxes, wax, job printing and paste-up tables. When he had started in his father’s newspaper in the 1950’s, he said, they were still in the era of setting type with a machine that used melted lead.
“We spent as much time fixing machines that broke down as we did writing town council reports,” he said. “There were two papers in town then, one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans.” The Bugle had started as The West Elk Bugle-Democrat in 1903.
“Things change,” Phaedra told him as she showed him her iPad.”
“Well, they can change without me now,” the old man said. “I hear some fish calling my name.”
She never saw him at all from Thanksgiving through Easter when his took his camp trailer to southern Texas. He wasn’t on the Internet but he sent occasional post cards.
As for the new owner, she exchanged e-mailed status reports with him every day or two along with the occasional videoconference. All of the software and daily files were now backed up at a “cloud” site where the owner could access and play with stuff whenever he wanted. He commented but seldom changed anything and his contributions mostly were press releases for various charitable events that he was involved in Crested Butte and Gunnison. He seemed to keep busy.
Back in 1994 faxing stuff had been seen as cutting edge and there had been no Internet connection to speak of between Anthracite and the outside world unless one counted the Universal Bank’s DSL line and a few people who had dial-up AOL service via expensive long distance phone connections.
The local phone cooperative company was just then working on phasing out the last shared party lines. The Rio Poco had been a place people could come to secede from the bustle and progress of the outside world. No more. With three cell phone towers in the valley now the ranchers, retirees, and real estate agents couldn’t hide out for even a day of fishing without making up complicated excuses.
Husband: “I forgot and left my phone in my other jacket in the truck.”
Wife: “What if there had been an emergency and I couldn’t have gotten hold of you?”
Husband: “I checked voicemail when I got back. It was only a couple of hours.”
Wife: “A couple hours. A lot can happen in a couple of hours. The whole world can change.”
For some the entire Rio Poco was just a giant office with scenery.
A few days later a county road crew accidentally cut into the main fiber-optic cable while digging up a culvert on the east main road and the whole of West Elk County was suddenly without Internet or even cell or landline phone service outside of the valley.
“It’s gonna be a day or two,” the phone company guy at the Abortionist’s coffee table told Phaedra. “Not as simple as splicing a wire.”
“I don’t need to call nobody out there anyway,” one rancher said. He waved a hand at the world in general.
As for Phaedra, she felt off balance, slightly panicked and well… unconnected. She sighed and went and got a rumpled section of the Denver Post from the pile on top of the jukebox. Later, back in the office she found the writing going much faster and easier than it normally did with the promise of the whole world delivered by Internet no longer a constant temptation. Things went so smoothly in fact that she found she had some extra time in the afternoon to go downstairs and out into the backyard park at the museum and finish re-reading Walden.
Henry Thoreau described watching a loon who visited the pond, preached about the evils of too much convenience, of taking the train when you could walk and being wary of enterprises that required new clothing.
A fat squirrel came down from an elm tree and got a drink from the small fountain. Small birds hopped around in the grass.
After a while Phaedra stopped wondering how the riots in London were turning out.