Kitchen Table Colloquies
Neighbors chat about saving the Sangamon basin
June 13, 1980
A report on a sort of pre-planning conference intended to cement if not create communities of interest who together might improve prospects for all creatures living in the basin of central Illinois’s Sangamon River, from mushrooms to millionaires. The raised consciousness and facilitated feedback that was the hoped-for end of the process begun on this day never happened, sadly. It remains sadly true, as one participant said, that few people who live in the Sangamon basin even know they live in the Sangamon basin, and it’s hard to get folks to care about a place they’re never heard of.
I had taken my preferred place near a rear exit at Sangamon State University's Brookens Auditorium, a seat strategically situated for the beating of speedy but graceful retreats. One learns to anticipate the floods of boredom that so often engulf participants at such meetings and take steps; in any hall, after all, the rear seats occupy the highest ground.
The occasion, I should explain, was the concluding session of the day-long conference held in May to kick off SSU's three-year Sangamon River Basin Project. The project is a complex and ambitious undertaking to engage the residents of a ten-county central Illinois region in what organizers have described as a "grand debate" over the future of the river basin, with attention paid to the conflicts between farmer and environmentalist, between farmer and coal miner, between developer and preservationist, between city and small town which will have reshaped the basin by the year 2000. Presided over by faculty brought to SSU expressly for the purpose, the project will not be merely another academic excursion. Rather it will be a community—treacherous word—exploration of alternatives through a process designed to be self-defining, inclusive, adaptive. The opening conference, then, was a chance for some of these citizens to meet, learn more about the project (and perhaps just as important, let the project learn more about them) as the two groups began to discover (in the words of SSU president Alex Lacy) "where we want to go together in the future."
The morning had been devoted to speeches and panel discussions, a pig roast, and a miniature arts festival. The crowd was congenial, skeptical, and a little confused; said one participant as she sat waiting for the concluding What-Does-It-All-Mean session to begin, "This is very, very amorphous." In my notes an entry reads simply, "Community?" Before the participants unravel the future there are some tricky problems in the present to solve. I wondered whether the planners hadn't devised a mechanism for this citizens' inquiry and missed providing them a motive.
There is no real Sangamon River community, only a collection of civil, economic, and historical communities which intersect the river basin. This absence of a shared set of identifications and assumptions, of a shared fate, will be vital to the project. Missing it in nature, the project staff will have to help create it.
It was doubly interesting, therefore, to study the kinds of people the conference attracted. They are the future's constituency hereabouts, good people, but as far from a cross-section as intelligence, education, and commitment have always made people like them. The talk that day had had a distinctly organic/solar/wilderness/preservationist/conservationist accent; even the pig which was served for lunch had been reared on a nonchemical diet. An outing had been planned for that weekend, a canoe trip down the Sangamon led by local Sierra Clubbers. I had no way of knowing, but I would have bet a bowl of The Den's best that at no time during the planning had it been seriously proposed to rent a bus for a day's sightseeing and souvenir-buying. I have nothing against canoe trips, mind you. It's just that the conference was designed to attract "all of the citizens of the Sangamon River basin" (their italics). The Redbirds get that kind of crowd, and they don't do it by offering sherry at the beer counter.
As the convenors trickled in from lunch, there was much casual chitchat about windmills in Chicago Heights and demonstration farms; noted one gentleman, "Fertilizer companies are like automakers with their big cars—they're going to die hard." There was some impatience expressed by attendees who found some of the planners' rhetoric—chock full as it was of feedbacks and focuses and scenarios, generating concepts here and facilitating there "outside the normal band of individualistic and vocal attitudes"—impenetrable.
The language, Venus-like, offered deceptively smooth surfaces. At one of the morning sessions someone had warned against the trap of pushing SSU's values as "standard," and the fact was that the project was in its most basic sense at odds with much of the region's people who have organized their world in terms of interstates and county lines; to them, the concept of the river basin as an ecological entity was alien. One of the planners told a reporter that citizens would have to undergo "intellectual conditioning" before they can first appreciate and then subvert the forces conquering the valley. How much was made clear by Brad Taylor, the ex-director of the Sangamon County planning commission, who pointed out that most people in the study area don't even know they're in the Sangamon River basin.
The conference chairman was Michael Scully, the articulate banker-cum-organic farmer from Buffalo who, as someone who lives outside the normal band of attitudes, was perhaps the inevitable person to chair the effort. Scully likened the project to a relay race in which people would carry on until they tired, then pass the work on to someone fresher, until together they would cover the distance. It struck me as I listened that it is also typical of farmers to see a harvest where everybody else sees only mud.
Scully and I had had a chance to talk a bit the previous evening at a reception at Lacy's house. The conversation ranged from our mutual hopes for the project to sandboxes and the matter of country living. We had each from our own perspective viewed with alarm the hemorrhage of people from the rural districts, though in my case the relevant statistic is the fact that since the Depression the migration of Americans from country to city has surpassed in numbers the whole of the European immigrations between 1820 and 1920, while for Scully it is the fact that his family's land near Buffalo which used to support nineteen families, now is home to only five.
Scully offered some reasons for the exodus. Fewer and fewer people are willing to work hard enough to be a farmer these days, he noted. Indeed town folk are not fit for farm work. Moreover, even those who are fit find it increasingly distasteful; farmers have found they can make a living from air-conditioned tractor cabs which differ only in their mobility to an accountant's desk, and so have given up raising livestock because animals are irremediably messy; only a millionaire would enjoy mucking about in the pig shed, as Scully does, because he finds it good exercise.
Then there is the isolation. Most people can't take it, and there is evidence that many of those who had to endure it could not either; Scully notes admiringly that his wife survives because she is a country girl who was bred to it. Isolation begets boredom; William Cobbett, the nineteenth-century English countryman-journalist, observed, "In towns, or large villages, people make a shift to find the means of rubbing the rust off from each other by a vast variety of sources of contest. But in the country, there is, alas! no such resource. Here they are so placed as to prevent the possibility of such lucky local contact. Here, therefore . . . all circumstances seem calculated to cause never-ceasing concord with its accompanying dullness."
There are hints of a return to the country by unhappy urban expatriates, but it won't last. The continuing aggregation of humans in cities which began 6,000 years ago is a more convincing statement about the rigors of the country life than any modern manifesto. What kept people in the country was the fact that in the cruder economies of the past most of those who wished to eat had to grow the food themselves. While some city slickers take to wearing overalls, farmers strive to shed theirs. Farmers increasingly seem to be in the country but are less and less of the country. I take it to be significant that the winners of a recent farm bureau "Farm Beautification" contest had nothing remotely farmlike about them, but were instead precise copies of suburban ranch houses. It is a mark of pride among many farmers that one can't tell them from town folks anymore.
It did not occur to me until several days later that the modest colloquy between Scully and me was precisely the sort of thing the Sangamon basin project is intended to stimulate. It remains to be seen whether the particular institutional arrangements are best to weave the scattered strands of the region's thought; during the conference I made a note to the effect that a kitchen table might be a better venue for these discussions than a college. But where doesn't matter much so long as the discussions happen. As project planners have noted, "Existing trends promise little more than a continuation of the scattered growth which is neither economically sound, nor environmentally wise, with regard to the resources which belong to us all." ●