Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Importance Of Preservation

My Newburyport journal, The Undertoad, was controversial to say the least. Any paper that calls out local leaders and at times their questionable motives in a provincial community where nearly everyone knows each other is bound to be controversial.

What the paper ended up as was different from what it started out to be. I started The Undertoad because I didn’t like the way the mayor at that time was being treated and thought a new voice was needed in the community. That mayor was targeted by a segment of the community because she was an outsider, a woman and a lesbian. It had nothing to do with the work she did. Back then I didn’t waste any time jumping into the fire pit of local politics. To hell with the frying pan. But even then I had no idea how it would take off and what would become of it. I figured I'd print three or four issues and that would be it. I'd prove my point and move on.

My journal became a must-read publication because I named names and expected more out of those who chose to lead us. The ‘Toad reached its zenith when I ended up going head-to-head on a bi-weekly basis with a police department that was considered to be out of control and was headed up not by a questionable marshal (same as a chief in other communities) but an even more questionable and controversial detective who ran the department for decades.

I was advised not to do this by several members of the department themselves, and not all were were doing this in a friendly manner. At one point during this ‘war’ the Boston Globe wrote an article about the police stealing my trash so they could go through it. I had no idea what they were looking for; perhaps some evidence of drugs or child pornography or anything else they could find on me; perhaps even a list of informants. At the time I weighed close to 300 lbs and the only thing they found were Twinkie wrappers. I was fat, but I was also pretty boring.

Due to our reporting on the department the City commissioned an outside consultant to come in and look at the police, paying $32,000 for the report. The report, done by Earl Sweeney & Associates, backed up what had been reported in The Undertoad and went even further by saying that members of the department had approached stores urging them not to sell my paper and businesses not to advertise in it.

As is the case in all wars, there were casualties on both sides of the fence but I’m happy to tell you that I outlasted many of the bad guys and in the end the department turned out a lot better than what it had been. Now when I return to the city, most of the officers greet me warmly, but there was a time when I feared for my safety. There were all kinds of threats, including anonymous death threats to both me and my dogs. A girl friend was threatened more than once, not her life, but nevertheless it was unnerving for her.

At one point members of the police department, all but two or three of the 35 or so members, showed up at a city council meeting in full uniform, wearing guns, in an attempted show of intimidation to the council wanting backing from the elected officials and wanting them to decry my journal. It didn’t happen. Their “show of force” backfired and the department made themselves look even worse, revealing themselves as bullies. This was highlighted by a cartoon in the local paper of record, the Daily News, my competition and a publication that at the time refused to acknowledge by existence, running a cartoon that depicted The Undertoad in a good light. It was drawn by the locally-influential and talented Gary Robinson. (The original was given to me framed and matted by my friend Carol Buckley on my 40th birthday and is one of the few reminders of The Undertoad I have in my apartment up in Lincoln, New Hampshire.)

The political newcomers (progressives) and townies (good old boys)---(the terms no longer apply)---made for good reading, as did much of the cronyism and other controversies that were reported on. The Undertoad covered the community so closely it could be argued that it was the reason that during it’s 11 years in business not one mayor was re-elected to a second consecutive two-year term.

But for all that reporting that was colorful and controversial what I am most proud of is that this little paper thrived and created change. There was a weekly and a daily and yet my journal was the only publication at the time to get behind citizens who were trying to save historic High Street, support the Community Preservation Act, stop an access road that would have destroyed wetlands and open meadows and forests, and fight for the preservation of open space. The Undertoad was the only publication that questioned various boards in the business community such as the banks and the local hospital as to why they didn’t have more women members. (In all fairness, the Current eventually caught up to speed on environmental issues so they deserve some credit but they were late to the dance.) Those things, and shedding light on the good members of city boards and on the city payroll who were out to do positive things for the community went a long way towards shaping the city during those 11 years.

The merits of The Undertoad is debatable. If I agreed with what you did, I was a good guy; if I didn’t, or if I reported something unsavory about someone you liked, were neighbors with or were related to then I was a bad guy. To this day I’m often considered either a saint or a monster, depending on those you talk to.

What the critics didn’t understand (even though they read the paper, while not admitting to it) was that The Undertoad worked because it shed light on the dark places and got more people informed. You could call me a reformer or a muckraker, the choice is yours. Either way an agitator gets the dirt out and cleans things up. Through 11 years The 'Toad got people talkinig about Newburyport and that is a good thing. People are smarter than they appear (except when voting for a president), get them talking and you just never know what will come of it but it is usually something good.

My true love was not the controversy, I just refused to run from a fight, or in the case of The Undertoad, many fights, but was in nature and the protection of it. My favorite place in Newburyport was and is a small forest glade where Atticus and I went and sat. Most people don’t even know of it but come spring it erupts in more than 60 lady slippers. I would sit at the base of the tree and read and often just think, letting the controversy of the downtown and politics evaporate from my mind.

And that’s why I’m up here now in the mountains. I wanted a place where nature takes center stage. Long ago people gathered together up here to protect what the timber barons had not protected, what the timber barons had raped and pillaged. And now this is a pretty special place. I was enchanted upon my first return visit here in September of 2004, even more so when I came to the summit of Mt. Garfield with Atticus and three of my brothers and saw mountain after mountain running off into the distance.

I often argued against developers in Newburyport and considered them the biggest threat to the community which had beautiful open areas and historic neighborhoods. In my last year of publishing the journal I even argued against one developer by using the White Mountains and the move to protect them as an example of what can be done when a beautiful place is protected.
I don’t think about my old journal as much anymore, rarely talk politics with anyone, but I do continue to think about the importance of the land and open space no matter where it is, whether it be a meadow or woods in a small city or up here in the mountains.

Today I was reading Thoreau’s “Maine Woods” and came upon this:
The kings of England formerly had their forests ’to hold the king’s game,’ for sport or food, sometimes destroying villages to create or extend them; and I think that they were impelled by a true instinct. Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority, have your national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and the panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be ‘civilized off the face of the earth,’---our forests, not to hold the king’s game merely, but to hold and preserve the king himself also, the lord of creation,---not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true re-creation? or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our own national domains?

No comments: