2008 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Donal Heffernan


Donal Heffernan is a writer and poet, international lawyer, and university professor. His work has been published in books, literary journals, and magazines. . His novel Lakota Windows about the new tribal Americas is expected to be published next year. He lives in rural Stillwater.

To Love the World-Leonardo’s Green Dream

By Donal Heffernan

Baby grass is resting, please do not disturb
-On the Great Wall of China

At dawn as the spring sun rose, the energy farm seemed a mirage as the rays greeted the cool morning air and dancing landfill currents. “Why are the fences so high,” I asked Leonardo, my longtime friend and high school teammate who opted for a garbage truck rather than a college education. His hilly recycling farm was 200 acres of trees, windmills, a trout pond with hopping spring frogs, mounds of rubbish, and the kind of landscape one would expect to find on a developing Mars. The surrounding fence reminded one of a high prison fence. I’d never seen anything like it in this our prairie hometown.

“It’s the bags,” he said, “Jillions of chemical shopping sacks. They’d blanket the county if I didn’t stop em. In the year of 1008 AD if they would have been round, they’d be decomposed about now some claim-better on land than the oceans-so there’s something to look forward to I guess,” as he shook his head. “Ireland said no to this wasteful use of oil, and other countries, cities, and states are doing the same. Actually the wind helps us separate them from the good stuff. The oceans and the forests can help on about half the carbon, but the rest is trouble as it stands.” His last words were growing faint as the frogs started up their morning chorus over by the pond.

The frogs were enjoying their first week out of the mud
After all the smashing, burying, and spraying, they are still
Spring’s great, green, sound.

There were no fences around the many windmills that made swishing sounds similar to cars passing without the sound of motors. “They are part of the energy plant over there,” he pointed: Leonardo’s new ethanol plant I came to see was beside a long line of rail tank cars, now working 24 hours a day turning out a clean energy fuel that displaces oil and cuts down on the carbon avalanche coming at us. But the big surprise was ahead.

“I hope to run the plant with the biogas I’m capturing from the rotting garbage and from the electricity we’re now generating from the windmills.” He smiled as he described the process as we walked through this amazing area I earlier compared to Mars: there was a spider of pipes with legs going in a number of directions to different garbage pits, a central digester for processing with a swimming pool next to it for all the bacteria to do their work. I thought of the story of turning water into wine as he explained the process of converting garbage into a substantial source of clean energy. It would not only reduce the greenhouse gases from his landfill, and help run the ethanol plant, but it would also soon generate clean energy gases used to produce electricity, heat and fuel for engines- maybe some left for the nearby village. Then there were the solar panels-oh boy! The power of the sun: And yet, in a recent poll taken by the Washington Post, one of five Americans polled still believe the sun revolves around the earth Whew! Galileo help us!

He reminded me of a proud weatherperson predicting a good weekend of weather. But it was more than that. While driving home, I thought about him and his energy farm: how forty years ago most in our class from high school headed to college, and a few stayed behind-Leonardo was one of them-with his garbage truck. Most of us never returned. Now he’s cleaning up in more ways than one; certainly beyond what our class ever anticipated–making real change: quite a bit more than those of us with all our degrees.

Where did his hopes and dreams come from?
I doubt he knew.
Some have a birthright saying OK
Some not.
While others, their world
Pursued and won, have fallen weary.

Leonardo claims it’s not a big deal, “Just like Ireland, the first thing that has to change is our attitude-each one of us. Nuts still drive at speeds spewing carbon all over hell. The assumed reality is this economy is where human, comfort, activity, and growth are all beholden to emitting carbon. That’s the attitude. But the transition has begun. We can sure get down to where there’s just enough carbon for plants and us. They can only use about one-half of what we produce today if we quit destroying our saviors–guess you can call it my green dream.”

Restlessness such as ours, success such as ours, striving such as ours, does not make beauty.
Other things must come first
-Willa Cather (1873-1947).

I didn’t listen to the radio driving home. I didn’t need to hear about what’s wrong with the world. I wanted to cherish what I saw and heard for a few hundred miles, and reflect upon his shepherding of this land we love.

Thinking back: those were the good days? No, they weren’t. When Leonardo and I were growing up, we lived next to a Lakota reservation. Only after World War II, after many tribal members gave their lives for America, these first people were the last to be allowed the right to vote.

We were raised in a community that was considered pagan, because the tribal belief was that God was everywhere and in all things, plants, all animals, and even in the sky and weather. When Leonardo married Trillium Wolf, few applauded, except family and tribe. To love the land is to love the lifeblood of the land and its air and waters. “It’s no big deal,” Leonardo says about his “Green Dream.” “We are just carrying on from our ancestors.” Maybe the transition is easier for us.”

In our dreams about hometown
we seldom age
spring was green with pink sock
and came without floods
money from being good.
People flew around like mean blue jays
others were mild as if trained by chickadees
only old folks died.
God and the Great Spirit
attended most games and political events
the best restaurants were in church basements.
You may not remember
the day you left
it could have been early fall
spring like today

around equinox time, or
maybe you didn’t leave at all.

On the final leg of my return journey my old friend’s pledge of “passing it on in better shape,” forced me to answer it. Am I doing that? Certainly, all of nature’s and our DNA instructions show us that’s the main reason why we’re here. It’s totally arrogant to think otherwise. We will all leave our footprints on the way out. To love the land-let’s try and keep the carbon part of those footprints small, and also have the courage to accept the possibility of cleaner times ahead.

©2008 Donal Heffernan*

*”To Love the Land-Leonardo’s Green Dream” is based upon a real prairie energy farm and hometown. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the parties.
* “Hometown” by Donal Heffernan, was published in “Intelligible Hues” Univ. of Texas, Austin 2006