Editorial in the Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch following the Rock House Fire of 2011 – May 25, 2011
About 50 yards from my home in Elbow Canyon is an old abandoned telephone line. Two wires on a 10- foot pole lean almost to the ground. The wires run up and over the hill back towards Fort Davis and across the ridge in the opposite direction to points west. I like to think of the conversations these wires carried half a century or more ago, the news they brought––joyful and sad, the wonder and satisfaction of hearing a voice on the other end of a handset for the first time. The men who set the poles were almost certainly ranchers putting it together on their own, no phone company involved, literally bringing the future to their homes, tying the ranches, town and families together. Creating community.
A few evenings ago our town displayed something very different from that spirit of community. Rather than utilizing the opportunity at our Town Hall meeting to honestly and constructively discuss, analyze and learn from the many things that went right and the few things that went wrong during the Rock House Fire, we apparently chose instead to re-enact the familiar yet worn-out theater of “locals vs. newcomers”.
We should ask ourselves: How many years does a resident of Jeff Davis County have to call this place home to be seen as a legitimate member of the community? At what point does their voice matter? Five years? Ten years? Fifty years? If so, perhaps we ought to make that number known to families thinking about putting down roots here. Or maybe there isn’t a number but only some intricate web of family ties and acres owned that bestows the crown of legitimacy on a citizen, like the feudal societies of the past.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I always thought our system of representative democracy was designed so all citizens could have a voice and that every voice matters; that the decisions of our elected officials were supposed to be made in transparency for the public good and with the public’s involvement in the process, and that asking questions of our representatives is not only a right but a duty. You know: “Of the People, By the People, For the People.”
A common chorus in the above-referenced theater is “This isn’t Houston/Dallas/Austin/whatever.” I believe newcomers understand that, and I don’t believe people who move here want to see this place become like those places. After all, they come here for a reason. At the same time does that mean we should close the door on progress? Certainly there’s a conversation to be had as to what progress means and how that should manifest, and by having that conversation we are then working together towards a common goal, not alienating our neighbors and perpetuating divisiveness in our community.
Honestly, look at our main street. How many businesses have come and gone over the last decade or so, or are struggling to survive today? How many buildings are idle or underutilized? How many of our kids have had to leave to find simple work, let alone careers? Sure, times are tough, but we cannot be willfully blind to economic decline while trying to put the brakes on “change.”
One thing is certain: change is inevitable. It can either be for the better or for the worse. We can’t stop change; we can only try to influence it in a positive direction. As sad and tragic as the wildfires have been for our area they also brought us an extraordinary opportunity to renew and revitalize our area by articulating a vision of the future and working together to achieve it.
Regardless of where they settled, when our ancestors laid the first rock for a home’s foundation, drove the first fencepost, dug the first well, cleared the first road or built a rural phone line, they were all creating change––bringing “progress” to an area that benefited from their vision and hard work. When we cling to the unattainable stance of “I like things the way they are,” we are, in truth, failing to honor the pioneer spirit and very real efforts of our forebears, who toiled and bled to make a better place for their children and their children’s children. Isn’t that what we all want? A place that’s better tomorrow than it was yesterday because of our efforts?
Our tomorrow can be a model of community with our feet firmly placed in the rich and proud past, our eyes looking forward and our hands working together today.
The only thing we lack is a renewed pioneer spirit for Jeff Davis County––an attitude that welcomes the energy and expertise of people who want to call this land home, who have come here to build their lives and a more vibrant community––like our ancestors did so many years ago. The people of our county––at this moment––have an incredible opportunity to renew the pioneer spirit that built this wonderful country and to share a common ground of respect. Let’s start today.