The Polk Progress was a Nebraska treasure that ceased publication in late 1989 after 82 years as a weekly newspaper. From 1955 until its last issue, the editor and publisher was the late Norris Alfred. In its last few months, the Progress had 900 subscribers in 45 states. Alfred was a remarkable Nebraskan with an uncanny eye for connecting the present with the future. Prairie Fire has collaborated with the Alfred family, the University of Nebraska School of Journalism and the Nebraska State Historical Society to locate and archive many of Norris's writings. We shall capitalize on our good fortune to present many of the Norris Alfred writings to our readership in this issue and upcoming issues. We believe that his observations are as fresh and relevant to today's world as they were when originally written. A friend of Mr. Alfred, and ours, Bill Lock has graciously written the following background piece. -W. Don Nelson
By Bill Lock
Introducing a new set of readers to the work of Norris Alfred is an honor, one I accepted with some hesitation. I knew Norris as a friend and a birder. Many people knew him as a writer admired from a distance. I admired his village newspaper in part because I had grown up on a farm 10 miles from Norris's hometown of Polk. My respect and love for him was because he spoke to my concerns about this and other villages, and about our shared desires for preserving the good things in life we found in those villages. In his editorials he was a gentle voice, prodding our consciousness about the losses of future possibilities due to the mining of groundwater, the diminishing quality of the water due to overuse of agricultural chemicals, and the ongoing loss of life from soil erosion. But he also spoke in more subtle ways of the changes in the human landscape, about the losses of memories and personalities from the community. As he and his friend Lee Morris would drive down a gravel road, sometimes with me driving, they would watch birds and sip coffee, and I would hear their ongoing essay on the changing face and faces of this rural place. We would joyfully celebrate the return of birds to familiar spots, like the bridge three miles east of my family's farm or the basins near Lee Morris's place. Finding a wetland full of ducks and geese, grasshopper sparrows and occasional burrowing owl would fill our minds and hearts with joy, and I would see that sense of wonder in Norris was renewed. His humorous and loving observations on the people in his small town that he made each week also renewed my sense of hope, as I was reminded of how important friendships, humor and civility are to the life of any community and why our fragile relationships need the daily, or at least weekly, attention from old friends. This seems to me an endangered feature of the life today, something lost as people strive to achieve that goal of PROGRESS that Norris found so amusing and so much less than enchanting compared to the cycles and seasons of the land, the birds and our souls. His gentle reminders and pointed criticisms live on in my memory. Hopefully the printing of his editorials and columns in this paper will renew a sense of wonder and hope in all of us, as we seek peace and even a little progress in our human relationships now and then.
From a small section of a 19-page biographical piece that Norris Alfred wrote and gave to his friend Bill Lock:
One pleasant memory is a spring day in the Polk Cemetery watching a blackpoll warbler as it searched intently, purposefully, a budding tree branch three feet above my head. The little bird was oblivious of my presence as it moved constantly and pecked at edible tidbits on leaf-bursting twigs. To that diligent devourer of nature's crumbs I was another tombstone, albeit an enthralled one. I remained motionless as a grave marker while observing that bit of the Grand Design go about its business of living.
That blackpoll warbler was a small, lively chunk of the infinite variety of life on earth and I, momentarily, wondered about size and significance. That little bird wasn't concerned about nor even noticed me. To that blackpoll warbler I was no-account-insignificant. My death wouldn't upset its life. Would the bird's death upset mine?
One bird's death would not be disturbing. If the blackpoll warbler joined the passenger pigeon, Eskimo curlew and great auk as an extinct species, that would be cause for worry.
Every spring the sight of migrating birds is reassuring; just as surging green growth renews the spirit, so do spring warblers, migrating north. A gnawing uneasiness that human exploitation may be upsetting the planet's rhythms subsides with the spring migration. The little beasties survived another winter. The Grand Design is still intact.
There is a Grand Design. A functioning, throbbing whole of which the blackpoll warble is a part. That bird flew north and found food in a Polk Cemetery tree. Accidental? Not likely. That warbler demonstrated repetitious purpose in its hunger and unawareness of my presence.
The repetition has been described as machine-like, but life is more than mechanical motion honed to ten-thousandths of an inch. Earth supports life that has hopes, love and capacity to cope with the unexpected. Machines are monotonous, predictable and wear out. With care and conservation the earth won't.
An excerpt from Butterfly Against the Gale by Norris W. Alfred:
Sept. 24, 1987 br>
"God, Excuses And Power"
A world full of refugees is a tragedy and unforgivable in our, supposedly, enlightened civilization. The tragedy is intensified as nations lose their borders and refuse refugees space in which to live. Every human needs space on this earth-a spot to call home. We can conceive of no greater horror than being condemned to live a homeless life, dependent on the humanity of others, in a world that regards compassion as a weakness. There now are third-generation homeless in the Middle East. "Grandpa, did you live in a house?" "It's heaven, my boy, heaven!" "Will I ever live in house?" "Only when damn fools quit fighting."...
Perhaps, one of these days we will come to the final excuse for causing human suffering and then, only then, will we turn to what we have always suppressed-our humanness-and realize we are responsible for and accountable to each other. To live in peace requires being peaceful. As "god" of our behavior, we need to be superhuman first before we can claim to be a supernation. Superhumanity is Godpower.
From the forward to Butterfly Against the Gale...
Marty Strange br>
Nov. 20, 1991
For over 32 years, Norris W. Alfred published and edited the weekly Polk Progress serving the communities of Polk, Hordville, and Arborville, Neb., with a combined population, including farm families, of about 700. The paper was always published on 24x36-inch newsprint and printed on an 1890 big-cylinder Babcock flatbed press. Photographs were printed from zinc screen engravings. The last edition, Dec. 28, 1989, looked just as plain and homely as any small town newspaper....
When Norris announced his retirement, he told readers: "Essentially, for me, the Polk Progress has been an enjoyable business, utilizing whatever talents I possess. I have had the opportunity to explore and learn, constantly discovering. What more can be asked of an occupation?"