Ah, Wilderness/ Them's Fightin' Words | Media | Chicago Reader

Ah, Wilderness/ Them's Fightin' Words 

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By Michael Miner

When Debra Shore was writing for Outside magazine she did a piece on crime in the national parks and forests and other federally managed lands. There's a lot of it--drug smuggling, body dumping, automatic-weapons drilling.

Having got to know these federal lands, she wrote another story for Outside on the questions visitors to them ask. "I found these wonderfully illuminating," she tells me. "One of my favorites was, 'Why were all the old Civil War battles fought in national parks?'"

In national parks and--if some of our boldest dreamers were to get their way--in gleaming theme parks as well. Shore hopes not. At the time she was writing those stories, she says, "there was a kind of discussion in the universities about a national literary canon. It struck me that in some key ways our national park system--which includes not only natural areas such as Yellowstone and Yosemite but cultural and historic sites--constituted a canon, our national identity. Similarly, I've come to view some of the remnant natural communities in our region as a key part of figuring out who we are. They're part of our identity in terms of natural heritage and cultural heritage.

"Illinois was called the 'Prairie State,' and we have so little of the native prairies and open woods left, especially in this region," she continues. "We should revere them, instead of fearing our prairies, or our wetlands, or our marshes. This is part of our history, and it's a living history, a still evolving history. We read and we listen to music, but we also go out into nature. We are a part of nature."

Shore holds exactly the job you'd wish for a woman with these notions. She's editor of Chicago Wilderness, a new quarterly magazine published by the alliance that's formally the Chicago Region Biodiversity Council but prefers to call itself Chicago Wilderness too. Primarily, "Chicago wilderness" is a place, "an archipelago of 200,000 acres of protected natural lands stretching from Chiwaukee Prairie in Wisconsin, through the six counties of northeastern Illinois and Goose Lake Prairie southwest of Joliet, to the dunes of northwestern Indiana," as Shore wrote in the note introducing her first issue.

Chicago Wilderness, the council, was formed about a year and a half ago by 34 public and private institutions wishing to act in concert to protect and restore the region's natural environment. Major players include the Field Museum, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Brookfield Zoo, and the Forest Preserve District of Du Page County, whose representatives compose the magazine's executive committee. Also in the ranks are the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Chicago Park District, the Shedd Aquarium, the Army Corps of Engineers--and this past Monday the Argonne National Laboratory in Batavia and the Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund of Michigan City joined, raising the number of members to 56. Will so many comrades find a way to stay united behind more than the broadest principles of conservation and education? We'll see.

The council has already given us Shore's magazine. The first issue is slick, colorful, informative, and free of advertising (though no sacred vow has been taken to shun it). Laurel Ross, the Nature Conservancy's liaison with Chicago Wilderness, told me she'd shown the issue to someone she hoped would subscribe. "It's soothing," he said. "Soothing" isn't necessarily what a magazine most wants to be, though in this case it aptly describes the elegant photography. "I have a feeling this was a person who was saying it in a positive way," Ross insisted, "because he has a pretty stressful life. He was complimenting it. We want it to be stimulating. We want it to be provocative, interesting, exciting. I don't know if soothing and the other things are mutually exclusive."

If you want to decide for yourself you'll probably have to wait until February. The first issue of Chicago Wilderness was distributed only within the member organizations, but the second will have a price on it, at least $3, and will be sold publicly, if just at member institutions. (Subscriptions can be ordered from PO Box 268, Downers Grove 60515-0268.)

A recent issue of Outside carried a long account of "the most dangerous national forest in America," Los Angeles's Angeles National Forest, where "two or three dozen...corpses turn up each year." A local version of the tale's not out of the question, but it's not exactly what we're about, says Shore, whose lead stories in issue one concerned the "rebirth of the oak woods" and a survey of endangered species. "In the Chicago wilderness, sure there's some wild and crazy activity that occurs. But one of the biggest threats to biodiversity has to do with years of benign neglect by management agencies and by the general public.

"The prior course both locally and nationally was to designate an area as a park or preserve and promote visitation, and assume the other residents and species will get along fine. We've tinkered with the system in ways large and small. We've tinkered with the inhabitants--removed predators, changed the water flow, altered the air quality, introduced nonnative species. All of these factors mean we can't just hold our hands and say, well, we've done all these things, but now we're going to let these natural areas alone."

These areas must be brought back "to a naturally healthful state," Shore insists. Not uncontroversial, intervention is a policy that can use an advocate. Chicago Wilderness is that new voice.

Them's Fightin' Words

November's quote of the month might have been the gut reaction of high school teacher Debra Williams when a consortium of civil rights groups ponied up some $300,000 to keep an awkward affirmative-action case away from the Supreme Court.

"You don't get nothing in this world for having an advanced degree," said Williams, who reportedly "sobbed" bitterly as the deal was reached. "You don't get nothing but a slap in the face."

The comment appeared in nearly every account I've seen of the settlement, which was a front-page story November 22 in papers across the country. And some papers, such as the Sun-Times, ran it in headline type as a "readout." Williams's lapse of grammar generally went unremarked, though a Newsday writer, perhaps in solidarity, didn't reach for the king's English either, beginning his November 23 column, "The quote was unfortunate, even if it was said in anger and haste. The day would have gone a whole lot smoother if the teacher had sounded smart. She didn't." And I've heard that in an on-line debate one reporter argued that the press had been racist in letting Williams's double negative stand, since plenty of other quotes have been cleaned up for public consumption.

Ellis Henican, the Newsday columnist, lamented, "It may well be that Debra Williams...has a perfect command of Standard English. It may well be she is crystal clear on the preferred use of 'nothing' and 'anything.' But 'don't get nothing...'? No, that's not how top-notch high-school business teachers are supposed to speak. Especially not high-school business teachers with master's degrees from Rutgers University. Especially not high-school business teachers intent on demonstrating to the world that they truly deserve the jobs they have--and not just because of skin color."

At what point do blacks get the benefit of the doubt? Would Henry Louis Gates or August Wilson also get grief for a "don't get nothing"? We're told Debra Williams was highly agitated. We weren't told whether in her turbulent state she went south grammatically for reasons of emphasis, sarcasm, cultural atavism, or just plain ignorance. Guess, if you feel you need to. All I'm certain of is that it would have been wrong for the press to tidy up her outburst.

There's no good reason to be categorical about the inviolability of quotes. For example, why should a cabdriver fluent in five languages but not yet the master of English be made to sound semiliterate speaking it, when had he stuck to his native Farsi during an interview with a reporter capable of understanding and translating it he'd have appeared scholarly? The rules of quoting, like most things in journalism, are situational. Williams's situation is different from the cabbie's. She's a teacher, and teachers' adeptness with language is significant. Moreover, Williams is a black teacher who asks us to measure her by her qualifications against a white teacher named Sharon Taxman. It's useful to know how she used the language even if we don't know why.

The other reason to let Williams's quote stand is that it's a model of communication. There's no way to read what she said and not know exactly what she meant and exactly how she felt. She made herself crystal clear. The papers should have been half as coherent reporting the climax of the Williams-Taxman story as Williams was sounding off about it.

What happened, as you may recall, is that Williams and Taxman were business teachers hired by a high school in Piscataway, New Jersey, on the very same day. In 1989 the school decided to cut its business faculty by one. Williams and Taxman had the least seniority; Williams had a master's, Taxman more experience. The school board decided that because the business faculty was whiter than the board liked Williams should stay. Supported by the Bush administration, Taxman went to court.

"And who could blame her?" wondered Mike Kelly, a columnist for New Jersey's Bergen Record. "Sharon Taxman worked hard and played by the rules to establish her teaching career. She lost her job because of something she could not control--her skin color." As if this made her different from tens of thousands of American workers who've lost their jobs over something they presumably could have controlled, such as their failure to live in Bangkok or Tijuana.

Reporting last month's deal that snatched the Piscataway case from the jaws of the Supreme Court, USA Today commented, "Rather than lay off both, or neither, the board broke the tie solely on the basis of race. The white teacher was fired to preserve diversity in the department." This is a false listing of the alternatives. Rather than fire both of them, which would have been magisterially evenhanded idiocy, or neither of them, which might have required a hike in the Piscataway property tax, what the board could have done was find some pretext other than race for breaking the tie. If diversity was the higher value closest to the board's heart, it could have hidden that dirty secret and found some mendacious justification for dumping Taxman. For playing it straight, the board has received nothing but abuse from all sides, even from Williams, who naturally enough would rather have been kept on for her graduate degree.

The AP story carried by the Chicago Sun-Times began, "Averting what could have been a fatal blow to affirmative action from the U.S. Supreme Court, civil rights groups put up the money to settle a discrimination suit brought by a white teacher who was laid off so a black colleague could keep her job. The nation's highest court...had agreed to hear Sharon Taxman's case and was expected to yield a major ruling on affirmative action."

This AP story ran everywhere of course, and many other papers whose coverage was homegrown said the same. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported in its lead that "a group of black civil rights leaders has agreed to pay [Taxman] more than $308,000 to drop her lawsuit." Cokie Roberts announced on Nightline that a "white teacher suing for reverse discrimination" was paid off "to get her to drop her case."

This picture of an avenging white woman who took a bribe to abandon her quest for justice is fundamentally wrong. Taxman had no quest to abandon. She'd already won. She got her job back in 1992, and a lower court awarded her $144,000 in back pay and damages in '93. It was the school board that kept the meter running, turning first to a federal appeals court, which ruled for Taxman last year, and then to the Supreme Court. It was the school board that finally decided to cut its losses after the civil rights coalition came along offering to pick up most of the tab, which had reached $433,500. (The bulk of this money will cover Taxman's legal fees.)

To James Glassman of the Washington Post, Board of Education v. Taxman was as pure and holy a crusade as Oliver Brown's 1954 challenge to the segregated schools of Topeka, Kansas. "It asks the simple question: With all other factors equal, should race be used in a hiring and firing decision?" wrote Glassman, who didn't say what tiebreaker he favored. "Almost certainly, the Supreme Court would have said 'no.' But thanks to the money paid to Taxman, justice will have to be postponed."

He was stricken. "Imagine if the White Citizens Council of Topeka, certain that the high court would kill segregation, collected $100,000 to pay Oliver Brown and the other parents to drop their case. Imagine if the parents accepted. Imagine the horror and indignation with which such a payoff would have been greeted by political leaders and the press."

Brown sued to be able to send his daughter to a segregated public school, which he couldn't do until the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Taxman sued for money that she was awarded years before the Supreme Court accepted the case. Taxman didn't take a bribe. If the civil rights groups bribed anyone it was the Piscataway school board--the diversity freaks Glassman cast in the role once played by Topeka's segregationists.

Taxman got what she wanted, but Glassman wanted her to somehow keep fighting his battles for him. He couldn't say that straight out, not being as comfortable speaking his mind as Debra Williams.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Debra Shore photo by Kathy Richland.

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