Heather Conn Blogs

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9/11: In One Degree of Separation, a Growing Distance

This week, my guest blogger, again, is Frank McElroy. As I  mentioned in last week’s 9/11-related post, this is his follow-up piece to what he wrote about September 11 a decade ago:


The loss of the Trade Center was deeply personal to me.  My brother and I know the man (Karl Koch) whose family company erected the buildings; for decades, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, treated Karl and he was often in our home.  My brother and I had a wonderful visit with him in October 1968, looking, through the night, over all of New York from the top of one of the towers.  In that view, seemingly of the entire world, it was palpable that there was something about and among us, a sense of shared purpose and identity.  Today, that sense has been drowned by an endless and immeasurable lack of civility, a contrarian and senseless interaction, an absence of concern about our larger family and each other.


It is a mere ten years since the World Trade Center in Manhattan was consigned to its grave.  In that short period, Americans have given up their optimism, their belief that if we work together, good and some measure of prosperity will come.  We have ceded our privacy to dubious authority in favor of asserted needs for endless security, our calm and good will to fear and paranoia.  We have reaped the “neither” and nothing of Ben Franklin’s astute warning: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


Now, after a commission’s investigation, countless hours of testimony and seemingly endless documentaries, we are privileged to learn that in this single event, America experienced the greatest string of failures, possibly complicity, in every part of government. This, particularly, applies to our President (George Bush), his Cabinet, the FBI, and the CIA.  Incompetence at the level of the tiniest failure that occurred should have led to firings, indictments, incarceration.  Nobody responsible for the massive failure is on trial, in jail, accountable.


But our nation was glad to wrap itself in the flag as the smoke continued to emanate from the hole in southern Manhattan. This marked a coming together, it seemed, in some ways, to celebrate the heroics and  unending courage of so many who dealt with the mess.  Yet, now, with a bit of distance in time, we ignore the claims for health benefits made by those same heroic and courageous members of our big family.  And we can do that easily because Americans are no longer anything like a family.  Nothing America is about is shared commonly —  any number of charlatans falsely claim the history of the country and claim to have the answers to every problem we face, individually and as a country.  Thrown overboard, the commonweal has sunk to the bottom in favor of the furious drumbeat of fear, pushed by desperate politicians currying favor with business and by the largely spineless and insipid media our Constitution so powerfully protects.


Not long after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and many small towns — another event that demonstrated both the failure of our government and our character as Americans.  Seven years later, that disaster continues, but is largely forgotten except by those who continue to exist in its endless wake.


Yesterday, just before Labor Day, I watched footage from Newfane and Jamaica in Vermont, two small towns on Route 30, places I love and mentioned in my piece back in 2001. After 9/11, I was driving north from Marblehead, through a flag-waving America in New England, so desperately wanting to feel like a family, to share something common and comforting after a foreign force had ripped the American fabric to shreds.  Looking now at the roads and bridges lost to Tropical Storm Irene, days after it happened, I didn’t see any flags being waved, any response at all except the sadness and desperation that come when we reflect, in the face of real disaster, that we really are alone, that all is lost.


That has become a mean calculus in America, seized by some to  enhance the division of the country by wealth, race, religion, sex, politics, employment, and every other factor.  The degrees of separation between us might be the same as they were in 2001, but the distance between us has grown dramatically in the last decade.


Anticipate, hope, and work for better days.  Peace.










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September 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm Comment (1)

Giant yellow cedars at risk on Dakota Ridge: Save our ancient forests

Local conservationists Rick O’Neill (left) and Hans Penner
measure the girth of a giant yellow cedar on Dakota Ridge.

While a woodpecker tapped in the distance, a massive presence stood above the forest floor, a silent giant amidst hundreds of trees never touched by fire.


It was an ancient yellow cedar on Dakota Ridge on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, only about a half-hour walk from the upper parking lot of this popular recreational area. About thirty of us had gathered on a sunny 9/11 to honor twin towers of another kind: two yellow cedars of 1,000+ years, both currently slated to be logged.


These magnificent trees are part of a roughly 20.2-hectare (50-acre) cut block that could soon be little more than stumps. If logged, this yellow cedar will be exported to Asia, used as finishing wood for temples and expensive homes in Japan or China.


It took about a half-hour to walk in, along the forest floor, spongy with moss, past mountain hemlock and clusters of wild blueberries, to reach these rare old cedars. Along the way, local conservationist Hans Penner told us: “This forest hasn’t had a fire since the last ice age. Every tree here is an individual with its own history.”


As a co-founder of Elphinstone Logging Focus (ELF), which organized this guided hike, Penner emphasized the difference that public protest has made so far in the future of these magnificent trees. Last winter, B.C. Timber Sales  put this cut block out for tender, advertising it to interested logging companies.


However, ELF discovered that in addition to these first-growth yellow cedars, the proposed cut block contained culturally modified trees (CMTs). (Local First Nations have used such trees for centuries for stripping off bark to make clothing, hats, baskets, and more.) Any cutblock believed to contain CMTs that predate 1846 or are thought to predate 1846 requires a permit for logging, as per the Heritage Conservation Act.

Hans Penner indicates one of the culturally modified
trees in the cutblock.


When ELF notified B.C. Timber Sales of their discovery, the government body withdrew its advertising before late December last year. It has commissioned a “detailed archaeological assessment” that will examine the scarred trees in this cutblock for their potential to be officially declared CMTs. The auctioning of the timber sale for these hectares has been deferred until B.C. Timber Sales receives the recommendations of the archaeological report.


In the meantime, dozens of local residents have written to the premier, B.C. Timber Sales, and the Ministry of Forests to request that this area be made an ecological preserve (see below for details).


Today, a sign painted with a thunderbird symbol, left by Willard Joe of the Sechelt Indian Band, remains near the first giant yellow cedar as his family symbol and a reminder of the significance of this wood in First Nations traditions.


“We’re looking for a human connection to the past,” said Penner. He and local conservationist Rick O’Neill spread a measuring tape around the biggest ancient yellow cedar in this cut block. It measured 203.8 cm (79.92 inches), reaching two metres or 6.7 feet across.


O’Neill noted that if this ancient forest was logged, leaving perhaps just a half-dozen trees, it would not provide enough habitat for animals. “Even mice travel a mile,” he said, “and amphibians won’t cross a clearcut.”


Penner said: “The living forest has no dollar value.” Our ancient forests are priceless and irreplaceable. We need to protect them. Go up and see these special trees yourself. Write to or phone your local politician.

Take action!

If you would like to preserve old-growth forest on Mount Elphinstone, please contact the Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands and B.C. Timber Sales, quoting Block A84612.  Ask, or demand, that they place the cutblock and all remaining old-growth on Mt. Elphinstone under a moratorium until permanent protection is granted. Request that this forest be made an ecological preserve. Call and/or write to:

  • W. Blake Fougère, Resource Stewardship Officer, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Sunshine Coast District, 7077 Duncan Street Powell River, B.C. V8A 1W1, Phone 604-485-0728 Fax 604-485-0799 Blake.Fougere@gov.bc.ca
Mr. Fougère is a key Ministry individual who has considerable sway in choosing the immediate stoppage of logging in  Dakota Ridge and regarding the Elphinstone Park Expansion Campaigns. He is seeking public input NOW. Please write, call or email him about the urgent need to protect our Sunshine Coast from further logging. He’ll present this feedback for the B.C. Government’s Timber Supply Review, which will start soon. With this public input, the B.C. Government will plan its future logging of the Sunshine Coast.
Please feel free to write to any of the following too, and cc: Mr. Fougère on the correspondence:
  • Dana Hayden, Deputy Minister of Forests, Mines and Lands, Victoria Ph (250) 356-5012, email: forests.deputyministersoffice@gov.bc.ca
  • Copy to: Mike Falkiner, Executive Director, Field Operations, BCTS Tel: 250-387-8309, email: Forests.ExecutiveDivisionOffice@gov.bc.ca
  • and cc to: Norm Kemp, Planning Forester, BCTS Campbell River Ph. (250) 286-9359, email: Norm.Kempe@gems7.gov.bc.ca

For more information contact: Ross Muirhead 604-740-5654, or Hans Penner 604-886-5730. Email Elphinstone Logging Focus at loggingfocus@gmail.com and become ELF’s friend on Facebook.

For more information, see my archived blog post “A ‘living museum’ on Mount Elphinstone could be logged” (scroll down and you’ll find it here, under my Environment category).

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September 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm Comment (1)

Tenth anniversary of 9/11: one degree of separation

In this past week, marking a decade since the 9/11 disaster, I have watched several powerful documentaries about that horrific day, including “9/11: Heroes of the 88th Floor.” (This focuses on Port Authority workers Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, who saved the lives of dozens of people trapped in the World Trade Center, only to die themselves in the collapse of the towers.) I find such tales of selflessness, and the pay-it-forward response to those rescued by such heroes, truly uplifting, despite the horrendous circumstances.

But my husband, a New Yorker, refuses to watch such shows. He thinks that they over-hype the event, exploiting tragedy, and manipulating sentiment. He finds reminders of 9/11 too upsetting. For two days, following 9/11, he heard the U.S. military jets continue their deafening flight between Boston and New York, circling the skies night and day, and zooming directly overhead his home in Marblehead, Mass., north of Boston. (Who needed such overkill, when all flights were grounded?) He bears his own connection to what happened that September day, which I share below.

To honor his response to 9/11, and those who died that day, their loved ones who remain, the survivors, and those who worked so generously in the clean-up and aftermath, I include my husband’s article, which originally appeared in the Marblehead Reporter. It was later reprinted in The New York Times. This year, the editor of the Reporter asked him to write a follow-up piece, which I will include next week. Stay tuned.

One degree of separation

Frank L. McElroy


On the 11th day after the 11th day of September 2001, I found myself in escape driving through the heart of New England from Marblehead to southwestern Vermont. It couldn’t have been soon enough or more necessary to try to leave behind, even for a moment, the horror of the destruction in southern Manhattan and in Virginia.

Ellen, Mad and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire and Vermont, the names of the small towns passing by – Wilton, Peterborough, Dublin, Dummerston, Newfane, Jamaica, Winhall and Peru.

These are tiny places far away from the island of Manhattan, where I was born and where Ellen produced and directed broadcast advertising. Yet people in these places are more closely connected to New York than one might imagine.

The connection was made obvious in the messages which lined our route. There were innumerable flags displayed, beginning in Nashua and continuing the entire route, the greatest density on the roadside likely being in Dublin, N.H. Sign boards related a supportive or conciliatory thought: “Stand Tall America,” “Pray for those who died on Sept. 11,” and “Proud To Be An American/Proud To Be From New York.”

America is a nation of small towns and New York City just happens to be the biggest of all. People in the little towns have always known this – now New Yorkers have learned the same.

I didn’t think I knew anyone who died in the conflagration. My father was safe, as was my niece who lives on Manhattan. A week after the bombing, I connected to the Cornell University Web site. That early list of alumni dead numbered three, and I knew one. Not well, just an occasional acquaintance in the class below me who was a remarkable lacrosse player.

When I saw that name, all courage drained from me. I couldn’t search for any more friends or classmates that day or for days after, because I knew there would be more. And there will be, for everyone.

When the final list is made, many of us will discover that a lover, friend or classmate has been lost. What we won’t directly observe is that this calamity is so awesome and extreme that the six and seven degrees of separation which supposedly connect us all have been pared to one, maybe two.

When we are able to read the final list of the dead, I fear it is safe to say that nearly every one of us will either know someone who died or someone who knew or was related to a victim. In this there is a parallel to the Second World War. Other parallels include extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism, during the attacks and afterwards and continuing.

Driving along New Hampshire 101 and Vermont 9 and 30, I found no relief from the fear and heartache of the earlier 11 days. Looking at the messages, remembering the images, I cried, Ellen cried, Mad, too. We have grown accustomed to our even existence, won and preserved by so many who have come before us and made immeasurable sacrifice.

That existence is forever changed, but I am calmed by the knowledge that the loss occasioned by the brutal attacks is one shared so directly, by so many.

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September 9, 2011 at 9:38 am Comments (0)

Are you ready to call a minga?

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned a new word: minga. (My husband joked that it must be some version of Mingus, as in Charles, and started doing some free-form jazz on an air trombone.) A Quechan term, it roughly translates to “a community coming together to work for the benefit of all.” I came across it in the book Me to We, by Craig and Marc Kielburger. The authors describe a dilemma they had in Ecuador in a remote, mountain village, where they had come to build a school for local children. Due to delayed transport and delivery of supplies, their rate of construction was lagging far behind their schedule. Reluctantly, they realized that they would have to leave the needy community with the school only half-built.

That’s when they went to the village chief, the oldest woman in the community, for help. Through a translator, she told them: “No problem, I’ll just call a minga.” She took a few steps outside her simple hut and hollered, in Quecha: “Tomorrow . . .there will be a . . . minga.” The next morning, hundreds of people were in the village square. Women had arrived with infants on their backs, men had left their fields at prime harvest time, and young children were standing with eager eyes. They had come to build the school, walking countless kilometres to get there. Many of the kids who showed up lived too far away to even attend the school, but they came anyway. None of these people expected anything in return. They had  brought food and shared it with the authors and their volunteers. The authors state: “In a matter of hours, they did what would have taken us days, if not weeks, to accomplish.” Immediately after the new school was completed, all of these people participated in a lively celebration to honour the new building, then quietly disappeared.

A minga: “Upon hearing the word, people stop everything for individual gain, no matter how important, to come together for the collective good.” The authors tried to think of an equivalent English term, and other than “barn raising”,  the closest they got was “a riot, but for good.” What does this lack of such terminology say about our culture and language?

One reason that I love my community (Roberts Creek on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast), is its minga-like sensibility. People readily pitch in to benefit others in the area, whether it’s volunteering to paint the local Legion, to host a fundraiser for Japan’s tsunami victims or hold a silent auction to give financial support to a neighbour with cancer.

Yet, the dominant culture in the West still clings to a fierce “Me first” philosophy, valuing getting ahead and competing with one’s neighbour far more than mutual support and cooperation. The reality show The Survivor exemplifies this perfectly; ironically, while in this Ecuadorean village, the authors met one of the participants of the first Survivor show. He was so put off by the hype and papparazzi and image-based associations of the show, that he chose to get as far away from that as possible and flew to live in this remote part of the Andes.

I recommend the book Me to We to everyone. I think that it should be required reading in schools. (The authors co-founded the global activist organizations Free the Children and Me to We.) Their book encourages people to take an issue that they care deeply about, then imagine calling a minga to get people to help. They suggest the following:

“Make a list of how you could call one [a minga] in your community. Ask yourself:

  • Who would help me? Friends? Parents? Coworkers?
  • What tasks would I need help with?
  • How would I call my minga? By sending out a group email? By making a presentation to my faith group? By posting a hand-printed notice in my office?

It’s amazing how many people in our lives are ready to help out . . . all they need is someone to ask them.”

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September 5, 2011 at 10:11 am Comments (0)