The Ride Down

The Ride Down

Perhaps one of the most important moments during the Napa County Board of Supervisor’s hearing for a neighbor’s proposed hillside vineyard happened just as the meeting adjourned. Presentations had been given by both parties, piles of copies of opposing hydrology reports thick as War and Peace circulated. Frustrations were expressed. Members of the public were given three minutes each to comment. A handful of neighbors and community members spoke: of concern for the ground water supply, questions on property rights. There were explosions of outrage, expressions of deep concern for the environment, the river, the salmon, and deprecating remarks about these concerns. Experts on one side were denigrated by the other. Threats were made; lines drawn. Some identified themselves as victims and the other side as bullies, although it was not always clear which was which.

After the decision was made for a continuance, we filed out of the chamber into the hall. The “down” light by the elevator was lit; some of us gathered to descend. Out of the corner of my eye I scanned who might be in the elevator with me: the conservationist and her attorney? The neighbor who averted her eyes when I tried to make eye contact— or did I only imagine that? The vineyard owner and his wife (neighbors) who promised to return in six months with their own team of attorneys? One of the assortment of others: Farm Bureau representatives, Sierra Club representatives, other neighbors, county clerks and planners? 

As we waited for the elevator to arrive, I wondered what has happened that we do not know how to have constructive conversations about controversial issues. We don’t know how to discuss without belittling, provoking, or deprecating the other’s position. Power struggles replace problem solving; we become more polarized. This happens in Napa, in our state and national governments, and it happens in the world. The process around this hillside vineyard issue is a microcosm of a much larger and most serious issue.

So making the descent is both a metaphor and a concrete fact. To get down, we travel by the same, 10 foot by 10 foot elevator. The proximity gives us the chance to look at each other, even get to know, and maybe care about each other a little bit, even though we may not want the same things. The elevator reminds us that in the end, we are all in this together. How we behave, what we do, impacts our neighbors, the people down the road, across the valley, in the world. We all live in the world we cultivate, erode, restore, dump into, are nourished by, and exploit.

When all is said and done, we have one thing in common: that ride down.