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 are capitalizing on our good fortune to present many of the Norris Alfred writings to our readership. We believe that his observations are as fresh and relevant to today's world as they were when originally written.
April 10, 1992
Time slips by with increasing rapidity during the misnamed “golden years.” There is a time to die. Now in my 79th year I know my personal future is short, while the past continues to lengthen at an equal rapidity.
I once was in the Sequoia National Forest, walking the pedestrian paths, and remember the cathedral silence of myself and my companion and all who were behind and ahead of us on that path. It was a respectful, worshipful quiet in the awe those centuries of growth inspired. I find it impossible to forgive the cutting down (harvesting, as it is less quarrelsomely described) of ancient trees. The horror of clear-cutting should never have been allowed in national forests. However, that is just one of the many bits of convincing evidence that democratic government is only that in name, not in fact. Our federal government is losing revenue in the mistaken concept that the best way to preserve a national treasure is to sell it—not to the highest bidder—to the largest donator of campaign funds to reelection, reelection, reelection, ad inf.
Besides trees, national forests provide grazing acres for cattle. This year there was an attempt to increase the fee western cattlemen pay to graze cattle in national forests. I’ve forgotten the amount charged, but it was ridiculously low. The GAO (Government Accounting Office) showed, by the sums,
how much money the federal government was losing selling timber and grazing permits. The total was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
A bill came up in Congress to increase grazing fees on federal lands. It didn’t pass. Both of Nebraska’s noble (?) senators voted against it. This is one small bit of evidence that smells of U.S. democracy’s decay. Until our elected leaders in the White House and Capitol understand they are expected to represent ALL congressional districts and states of the United States, the stinking mess will boil and bubble more trouble.
Our elected representatives are just beginning to dig into the political mess the Department of Agriculture has been wallowing in for years. They are discovering the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. There are programs that pay farmers to drain wetlands and programs that pay farmers to preserve wetlands, for example.
Lately I have learned of an area along the Platte River, between Grand Island and Kearney, that is gaining questionable fame as “Cancer Alley.” The incidence of pulmonary cancer in teenagers and colon cancer in adults is startlingly above the national average. The suspicion won’t down that the heavy application of anhydrous ammonia to the sandy, porous Platte valley soil is to blame by causing excessive, unhealthy accumulation of nitrates and nitrites n the drinking water.
To sacrifice citizens’ health for a 200-plus-bushels-per-acre corn yield is unconscionable. There are three indispensable elements for sustaining life on the planet Earth—air, water and land. Earth life must have air to breathe, water to drink and a place on the land to live.
Every bit of life on this planet Earth is connected. The worm in the ground is connected to the bird in the air. The tree lives with its roots in the soil and its branches in the air. The locust needs both the ground and the tree to complete its cycle of life. The harsh, rasping call of the locust high in the tree is evidence of the connection.
In the sea of humanity (five billion-plus) on Earth no humans are islands unto themselves. As humans we are one of the innumerable connections. During the last half of the 20th century, we have been discovering the connections by destroying them, which is uncontrolled research into our limitations. I have written that many times, maybe more than once in this Journal. Lacking compassion for the Earth and life on it, we are doomed to destroy it—the only livable place we know in all of dark space.
There is fear in darkness. I didn’t realize that until I took three young men from the urban East, with all its lights at night, to visit friends in a farmhouse, so they could, perhaps, gain some insight into rural life. This was in the days before farms had automatic yard lights that came on with the night. They had a good visit, and one of the young men said he would wait in the car while the other two continued conversation near the door. Just as we were ready to leave, the one waiting in the car came back in the house. He had an odd expression, and I asked if something was wrong.
“It’s dark out there!” he exclaimed.