The sky was a deep, clear, finger-paint blue. Buff-colored sand flecked with charcoals and browns crunched beneath my feet. I squinted in the heat and glare of the sun, but I wasn’t on the beach. I was walking in a forest. But no branches interlaced over my head to shade me; no tall, straight trunks offered a cool place to sit and rest my back. Like Alice after the mushroom, I towered above these trees. Some reached eye-level, but many stood just over waist high. It was 1977, and in my first real job as Assistant Curator at a small natural history museum on New York’s Long Island, I was out learning firsthand about the beauty and mystery of the endangered Dwarf Pine Barrens.
The name alone shows how local citizens viewed this delicate ecosystem. They saw an empty, unproductive, useless tract, a place that would bulldoze nicely into a golf course or condominiums. They knew nothing of its fragile beauty or of the imperiled plants and animals living there in happy harmony. They didn’t care about its ultra-rare pygmy pitch pines. Short and somewhat misshapen, these evergreens don’t live up to most people’s expectations of real trees, although many of us found them unexpectedly beautiful even then, if in a graceless sort of way. Insignificant as individuals, these old-soul trees mass together to create a complex system of scrub oaks, low-bush blueberry, huckleberry, and bearberry, which provide shelter for orchids, ferns, mosses, and wintergreen, along with the many unusual insects and small animals that called and call this place home.
The pines also harbor a most interesting secret: only the heat, destruction, and raging ugliness of a forest fire can induce their cones to open and disperse the seeds they hold. This magical blending of tragedy and rebirth is the species’ way of gaining the strength that comes from genetic variety. As the pines burn, they scatter the potential for offspring at their feet. The fittest will survive.
This brings to mind the American version of democracy. Although I just about never miss a chance to vote, I’ve had some serious misgivings about how meaningful our elections are. The whirlwind of money and media savvy aimed at the public seems to propel the most dubious considerations to the forefront, prompting ill-considered or emotional decisions. I find it frustrating to watch some people make choices on what looks to me like not much more than a whim. Yet I’m beginning to think that’s not the point. I’m beginning to think it’s all just pinecones.
For the past few years, I have worked at my town’s polling place during elections and I’ve seen a lot of voters. A recent school budget referendum drew only a moderate turnout, although the assortment of people was amazing. One fragile-looking woman with a painfully noisy aluminum walker made her way along the long, ribbed, plastic runner that led to the voting machines, the metal of the walker clanking, vibrating, and squealing with every shuffling step. Her friend, another elderly woman, followed close behind offering encouragement, and, at one point, she turned and gave me what I thought was a look of apology.
“That’s alright,” I said smiling. “It’s not a problem.”
”Maybe not for you,” she said. “You don’t have to walk behind her all day, every day.”
And she was right—I don’t. I don’t have any idea what it’s like to walk behind, or in the shoes of, any of those voters. A young man afflicted with a devastating palsy took a long, long time to push his wheelchair to the desk, and an equally long time to pronounce the name of his street so we could look him up in our records. His body shuddered with periodic tremors and his features twisted with effort, his face turning deep red. Then I noticed an elderly couple, clothes fresh out of mothballs, dressed as if they were attending a shipboard party. She clung to his arm and looked tentative; he guided her slowly to the booth.
The 2000 Presidential election saw a far steadier stream of people throughout the day, punctuated with flurries of particular types of voters: people on their way to work when the polls opened at six; women with infants and toddlers at mid-morning; nervous, first-time voters when the high school let out; tapped-out people with worried faces at the end of the day, rushing inside before the 8 p.m. deadline. They had one thing in common—their desire to cast their votes despite inconvenience. Not one of them, I’m sure, believed his or her vote was the critical one, the one that would sway the election, although on that day we had yet to learn just how close the final tally would be. But every one of them, for reasons only they knew, wanted to express an opinion, to have a say, to add a small piece to the huge mosaic of votes to be cast nationwide.
Some time ago, my husband said he believed the biggest effect of American elections was to stir the pot, to get as many people into the mix as possible and simply to provide near-random change. My immediate reaction was to say that was silly—even awful—but I’ve changed my mind. Every four years the fire of a presidential campaign roars its way through the country, licking at us from every side until we all wish it would end. And it does end—in a nationwide election that draws out voters from every nook and cranny of the country. Some people base their votes on careful study, others on the way candidates look. Some weigh every issue; others look at only ones that concern them. Some know many months, or even years, in advance how they will vote; others probably make up their minds on the drive to the polling place, or even inside the booth. Yet, the huge furor of the “presidential year” brings people out in all their diversity, adding the seeds of their thoughts and opinions to the political soil. They shake things up, adding new blood to the Congress, to the Senate, and to local offices. The pattern might defy logic, but it ensures the strength that comes from variety.
The Dwarf Pine Barrens is now recognized as a fragile and rare habitat in need of protection. Organizations have formed, laws have been passed, and I like to think more people accept that a forest of quirky little trees has its place and value, even if it fails to live up to expectations. I still don’t believe that the United States is even close to a pure or perfect democracy. But, the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s all pinecones. And maybe that’s not a bad thing at all.
|Author Bio: LYDIA FAZIO THEYS is an astronomer by training, a technical writer by necessity and a creative writer by night. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she now lives in Connecticut with her husband and their two children. Two cats, a neurotic Italian Greyhound, and whatever else wanders in through the cat door round out the mix. Her work has appeared in previous editions of Moondance, Yankee Pot Roast, Gator Springs Gazette, and Quintessence.
Contact Lydia at: email@example.com
Artist Bio: See more of Richard Lazzara's work here - http://www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/s/shankargallery/