Religion, politics and scenic byways
BY RUSSELL POWELL
YOU CAN’T ESCAPE IT. Whether you identify yourself as a Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, Pagan or atheist, we are all impacted when the lines between politics and religion blur. The trials of a single Christian denomination in Connecticut represent the latest battleground in a larger cultural war which has pitted fundamentalism against the mainstream, liberal against conservative and, until now, even region against region.
Our president claims to speak with God, and talks to his faithful in tongues. Starbucks quotes Jesus on their steaming cups. The Pope is quiet (for the moment), but the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church lingers on. The megachurches pray to feel-good prosperity. The Right prays for an ideologically aligned Supreme Court.
So the struggles of the Episcopal Church are not outside any of us, but emblematic of a larger struggle involving religion, morality, politics, and power. Religion and politics are eternal–at least in human terms. Their intersection historically has decided the fate of nations, and we are no exception. As the historian Randall Balmer points out on page 5, for New Englanders this is hardly a new awareness. But we must remain vigilant and discerning of this volatile mix. Too much is at risk of being burned at our figurative, collective stake.
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IT IS A CONTENTION of this magazine that we who live within the Connecticut River watershed have a lot more in common with each other than we generally acknowledge, What we have in common is not an abstraction. The river is the most obvious symbol of our connection, a natural feature of undeniable grandeur–our region’s metaphorical spine. The river and its tributaries have shaped not just the landscape but human history, channeling exploration, commerce, settlement and development along its banks.
We share culture as well, elusive to name, perhaps, but no less abstract than a southern drawl. In addition to our shared history and the ways in which our experience is informed by the river and the surrounding features of our landscape, our New England culture finds expression in many of our institutions, such as our concentration of colleges and universities and museums. In “The Back of the Book” (page 58), we list the art museums within the watershed or an easy drive from it. It is an impressive list, and we will feature other museums in future issues, literary, natural and historic. Our museums give substance to the ideas of connection and community, and we intend to showcase this periodically by cataloguing our region’s unique assets.
Writer Neal Pearce of the Washington Post Writers Group this fall released a series of articles, published in several New England newspapers, examining New England and its future. He noted the challenges facing the region (including loss of population and energy dependency), which, he argues, have created a poor climate for business. But he concludes that, with some effort and planning, New England’s economic future can be bright. He draws particular attention to the region’s two main north-south corridors: eastern New England’s linked series of rivers and highways, and the Connecticut River. Pearce contends that thinking of the region in this way ofers a path to extend natural alliances and build community and collaboration. We couldn’t agree more.
How can we take this concept forward? With a regional magazine, for one thing, which articulates our common history, interests and goals. Many other steps we can take to realize a strong future require considerable planning and funds. Yet there are some simple things we can do right now to foster community and collaboration with modest effort and money.
The Connecticut River, for example, nationally is one of just 14 American Heritage Rivers designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The heart of the American Heritage Rivers initiative, according to the EPA, “is locally driven and designed solutions.” The federal role “is confined to fostering community empowerment, while providing focused attention and resources to help river communities restore their environment, revitalize their economy, renew their culture and preserve their history.”
In September, a northern portion of the Connecticut River watershed received a National Scenic Byway designation from the Federal Highway Administration, for the corridor from Brattleboro, Vermont, to Pittsburg, New Hampshire. The National Scenic Byways Program, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is a grassroots collaborative effort established to help recognize, preserve and enhance selected roads throughout the United States. Since 1992, the National Scenic Byways Program has provided funding for almost 1,500 state and nationally designated byway projects in 48 states.
The U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognizes certain roads as All-American Roads or National Scenic Byways based on one of more archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities. The Connecticut River Scenic Farm Byway has been officially designated by the Massachusetts Legislature. The byway in Massachusetts travels on Route 47 in the towns of South Hadley, Hadley, Sunderland and Montague and then onto Route 63 in Montague, Erving and Northfield (to the New Hampshire border). The byway continues into Vermont and New Hampshire.
I do not suggest that assigning lofty names to areas bestows coherence or adds more than fumes to our economic engine. But these designations suggest a larger intent, qualify the region for federal funds, and represent a community of people and interest who have worked hard to gain them. If we choose, we can build on this–and not just to promote our economic interests.
This federal recognition as an American Heritage River and National Scenic Byway provides a simple means to acknowledge our connection. A common logo on their web pages would be a subtle yet effective way for our art museums (and other cultural institutions) to cross-promote, and not be viewed in isolation. People might build itineraries not on a single exhibit or collection but on the region’s full range of art offerings, revealing a previously unrecognized network or pattern.
Even easier (and for those museums technically outside the watershed, but included here because they are within easy travel distance from the river) would be links to each other’s web pages. The goal is art appreciation, and no two museum collections are alike. Why not employ this simple technique to guide visitors to each other? Our region’s cultural institutions are beginning to do this on a local level (Museums10, Springfield Museums), but the logic of collaboration holds true on a much larger scale.
Russell Powell is editor and publisher of New England Watershed.