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U.S. Democracy on Trial

Colorado Aspen Grove in the Fall. From

It is widely reported, and usually mourned, that the U.S. is more divided as a nation today than at any time since the Civil War. You might think the topic of why this is so and who or what forces are responsible for this fracturing would be highlighted in this crucial mid term U.S. election season. You might think we’d hear our politicians talking about what builds a healthy community at the local and national levels. You might think we would hear more dialog regarding depriving persons of the right to vote in the U.S. as a way to nurture more unified, sustainable community. On the contrary. Republican Party strategists and politicians keep coming up with new maneuvers to suppress the voter turnout, especially of persons of color.

The front page of the New York Times recently reported that 12 people had been arrested in North Carolina for voting in the 2016 election. A zealous County Prosecutor, and most likely one with lofty political ambitions, issued the warrants for their arrest as released felons who had been deprived of the right to vote in their State. Nine of the twelve are African-Americans.

The North Carolina arrests took place as a national movement to restore the voting rights of the 6 million released felons in the U.S. is taking shape. States have enacted widely divergent laws on the rights of convicted felons following their release. In Missouri and Kansas, only on completion of their sentence, which may include lengthy parole and probation, can felons regain their right to participate in elections. Those two states, along with every other state in the U.S., jail persons of color in numbers above, usually far above, their percentage of the State population.

Depriving targeted groups of the right to vote has become mainstream in the U.S. In both Kansas and Georgia, the Republican candidates for Governor in the November election have made illegal voting a focus of their political careers. In Kansas, the candidate has focused attention on voting by non-citizens and in Georgia on the voting of released felons whose ranks in that State are disproportionately African-American. So what is the effect of depriving fellow citizens of the right to vote on the unity of the nation? What is the effect on communities within the U.S.?

The arrests of released felons for voting in North Carolina took place the same week I learned something about creating healthy communities in Colorado. “A grove of aspens is actually one of the Earth’s largest living organisms” our bus driver declared as we climbed to the trailhead for the hike to Maroon Bells, above Aspen, Colorado. He went on to describe a network of “rhizomic” root systems that form a “colony” of aspen trees in a grove. On my return home, I read that an aspen can sprout up in such a colony over 100 feet from the “parent tree”.

The image of a “colony”, a community, of aspen trees working together to produce oxygen for other living creatures soon took shape in my mind. Aspens are like the lungs of the earth in our northern hemisphere as the rain forests are in the south. A thriving community bound and breathing together and enduring.

I also learned that an individual tree can survive for up to 150 years but there are “colonies” that have lasted thousands of years. The aspen root systems are deep enough that even the most intense fire seldom disables its capacity to propagate new sprouts above ground. In fact, forest fires enhance the growth of aspen colonies by clearing away other species and providing more sunlight for the emerging saplings. Their fast growth and the ease in which they self propagate favor their widespread use in reforestation projects.

What a beautiful metaphor for a healthy, thriving human community I thought as I admired the groves near the village named after this beautiful tree. Individual trees are bound together below the surface and their network makes them strong. Their roots spread as new sprouts seek the sunlight from their beds below ground. Aspen colonies/communities survive thousands of years in part because they spread out and enable a strong network for new trees.

Nowhere in my reading up on aspen “colonies” did I learn the result of removing individual trees and their roots from a grove. I will have to be content with the clear lesson of the aspens that a healthy, thriving “colony” is strengthened by its roots spreading and interlocking below ground, feeding on each other’s nutrients and lasting thousands of years. That’s the kind of community I want to belong to. How about you?