2019
July
24
Wednesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, we’ve selected five stories to look at political perceptions (Mueller testimony), innovation (on the farm), busting stereotypes (one-child families), hope (a Liberian in Montana), and nurturing (purple martins).

But first, let’s examine people power in Nashville, Tennessee. 

When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived Monday morning in a Nashville suburb, they met passive resistance. A handful of residents cheered and gave food and water to a neighbor and his 12-year-old son, who refused to leave their van. After a four-hour peaceful standoff, the ICE agents left. 

You’ve heard of sanctuary cities? This might be the first sanctuary neighborhood. 

However you may feel about unauthorized immigrants, what happened in that Nashville subdivision fits into a larger pattern of nonviolent people power challenging perceived injustice. You can see it in the streets of Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Moldova, Algeria, and Sudan. 

Concurrent with a global rise in authoritarian governments is the rise of individuals feeling empowered to address societal wrongs. At no other time in human history has it been so easy to organize, thanks to the ubiquity of cellphones and social media. 

We might view the often leaderless protest as another form of populism. We might see it as a manifestation of direct democracy and the exercise of free speech. We might see it as a collapse of the rule of law and order, too. 

Or, in the case of Nashville, we might see it as an expression of basic compassion and loyalty. “We stuck together like neighbors are supposed to do,” Felishadae Young told WZTV, the Fox TV station in Nashville.

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1. What the Mueller hearings did – and didn’t – accomplish

If you’re looking for clarity, or a shift in public opinion, little was added to the record during Wednesday’s six-hour testimony by Robert Mueller. But the political parties may get some “highlight clips” for the 2020 campaign.

David

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What did Wednesday’s marathon questioning of former special counsel Robert Mueller accomplish? For Democrats, the hearings were an opportunity to highlight elements of his report such as the lack of exoneration of the president on obstruction, the details of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the many contacts between Trump associates and Russians. Few Americans have read the report, polling shows

In reality, the hearings may have generated better clips for Republicans, who could string together moments of Mr. Mueller’s halting delivery and thus diminish the impact of his assertions about no exoneration for President Donald Trump. 

Ultimately, analysts expect, the hearings will change few if any minds. For Democrats who wanted to build momentum toward an impeachment inquiry, Wednesday was a bust. 

“The effort toward impeachment effectively collapses,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar. “It leaves the state of play politically where it was going in. If there was a big loser here, it was Mueller and his reputation.”

But, he adds, “the Republicans also weren’t able to do what they intended – to draw into question the entire enterprise, to show that it was corrupt from the beginning.” 

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What the Mueller hearings did – and didn’t – accomplish

Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony Wednesday couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. 

Liberals had fantasized that the former special counsel would burst from the confines of his report, and say that he would have indicted President Donald Trump for obstruction, if not for Department of Justice guidelines barring indictment of a sitting president. 

Conservatives had yearned to get Mr. Mueller to admit that his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was unfounded and biased. 

Neither, of course, came to be. In six-plus hours of halting testimony, Mr. Mueller was cautious, often asking that a question be repeated, and, as promised, stuck to the four corners of the report. His answers were often simply a referral to the 448-page document or a polite “I’m not going to get into that.” 

Democrats frequently aimed toward yes or no responses in an effort to draw out points they wanted made. When House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., asked if he had “totally exonerated” President Trump on obstruction of justice, as the president frequently claims, Mr. Mueller was unequivocal. 

“No,” Mr. Mueller responded firmly. 

Later, he did make a flat assertion: “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” meaning not exonerated. The former special counsel also affirmed that the president could, in theory, be indicted after leaving office. 

But Mr. Mueller’s less-than-robust performance sparked a new line of attack: that his two-year investigation was driven more by his team of investigators than by the man at the top. That will likely fuel Republican efforts to discredit those involved, many of them having previously been registered Democrats

Mr. Mueller was always a reluctant witness, compelled to testify by a subpoena from two committees – House Judiciary in the morning, House Intelligence in the afternoon. He stated in May that “the report is my testimony,” a futile effort to avoid Wednesday’s marathon of questioning.  

What did the hearings accomplish? For the Democrats, they were an opportunity to highlight elements of the report the public may not be aware of – such as the lack of exoneration of Mr. Trump on obstruction, the details of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the many contacts between Trump associates and Russians. Few Americans have read the report, in full or in part, polling shows

Wednesday’s hearings may have been less an exercise in “if you missed the book, watch the movie,” than an attempt by Democrats to make a highlight reel of clips for news coverage and campaign ads. In reality, the hearings may have generated better clips for Republicans, who could string together moments of Mr. Mueller’s halting delivery and thus diminish the impact of his assertions about no exoneration for Mr. Trump. 

Ultimately, analysts expect, the hearings will harden positions on both sides, and change few if any minds. For Democrats who wanted to build momentum toward an impeachment inquiry, Wednesday was a bust. 

“The effort toward impeachment effectively collapses,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It leaves the state of play politically where it was going in. If there was a big loser here, it was Mueller and his reputation. The conclusion broadly taken will be that his day has passed.”

But, he adds, “the Republicans also weren’t able to do what they intended – to draw into question the entire enterprise, to show that it was corrupt from the beginning.”  

For the Democrats eager to move toward impeachment, the stakes could not have been higher. Wednesday’s hearings were the last, best chance to spark such a move before the 2020 campaign floods the political arena. 

Going in, the hearings had more potential upside for the Republicans. Without a bombshell moment, Republicans – and Mr. Trump – could say, “Nothing to see here.” And it gave them airtime to promote their line of questioning on the origins of the investigation, the Steele dossier, and alleged bias among the investigators on Mr. Mueller’s team. 

Indeed, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee called Wednesday’s hearing “long overdue.” 

“We’ve had the truth for months – no American conspired to throw our elections,” said Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. “What we need today is to let that truth bring us confidence and closure.”

Mr. Trump had insisted he was so unconcerned about the Mueller hearings that he wasn’t going to pay much attention. But his Twitter feed suggested otherwise, as he put out a string of tweets on the investigation throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

In the afternoon session with the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Mueller opened by defending his work. “It is not a witch hunt,” he said.

But Trump defenders wouldn’t let go. “The witch hunt is not going to stop,” Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas told reporters between hearings. “It’s going to keep going through the next election.”

Democrats insist the day of hearings wasn’t a mistake. 

“They had to do it, because of the mischaracterization by Trump and all his people of what the report said,” says veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. 

After the Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats already pushing hard for impeachment were undaunted.

“We have enough evidence to move forward,” said Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas who introduced articles of impeachment in 2017 and again this month. This hearing was “not a seminal moment in time.”

Still, hopes that the hearings would jump-start an impeachment inquiry were likely doomed from the start. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has worked hard to keep her caucus in line and forestall impeachment. Before the hearings, the list of House Democrats favoring an inquiry stood at 92, well below half of their 235 members.

Speaker Pelosi has long argued impeachment would be divisive, potentially counterproductive politically, and pointless in the face of a Republican-run Senate that would not convict Mr. Trump and therefore not lead to his removal from office. The wiser path, she says, is to fight hard to defeat him at the ballot box next year. 

The next question is what, if any, effect the hearings may have on public opinion. Support for impeachment hearings was already declining – 21% in July versus 27% last month in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Even among Democrats, only 39% favored impeachment before Wednesday’s hearings. 

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report. 

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2. Why cattle and ecotourism combine on one Nebraska ranch

For this generation of small farmers to survive, they are learning to innovate and diversify into such areas as prairie chicken festivals, branded beef, and “tanking.”

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sarah Sortum drives the Jeep she uses to take tourists around the grasslands on her family farm, Switzer Ranch, as part of her ecotourism business, Calamus Outfitters, in Burwell, Nebraska. Farmers are diversifying in order to make a living in rural America.

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When Sarah Sortum came back to join her family’s Nebraska ranch in 2006, her brother had already started a side operation for hunting and horseback riding on the land. But it was not at all clear how the operation could support her and her husband. Fresh thinking opened the way. 

Ms. Sortum was able to expand the operations into ecotourism and additional leisure activities, alongside raising cattle. She organized a prairie chicken festival that has become a staple every spring, when the male birds do their mating dance. 

Her example symbolizes a wider evolution on farms and ranches across the United States. A surge in entrepreneurialism includes large conventional farms looking toward technologies like self-driving tractors to become more efficient. It also includes other operations – usually smaller ones – diversifying into new products and services, such as branded beef and ecotourism.

Ms. Sortum says it’s “really hard” to face all the questions. “What's the best for the land? What's the best for me now? What's the best 50 years from now?” she asks. But grappling with those issues is what’s seeing her through.

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Why cattle and ecotourism combine on one Nebraska ranch

With the skill of a safari driver, Sarah Sortum eases her modified Jeep over a rut and bumps to the top of a ridge. Directly in front of her is what looks like a breached sand dune, more at home on an ocean coast than here in the rolling green pastures of central Nebraska. The left half of the knob still has its prairie grass on top, but the right half is completely missing.

“This is a blowout,” says Ms. Sortum. “Wind will just get hold of the sand and blow it out.”

Blowouts were a nuisance when her family was only raising cattle on this 2,000-plus acre spread outside Burwell. Now that the ranch has diversified into ecotourism, they’re suddenly valuable – a feature to show off to tourists and also a place for lizards and kangaroo rats to burrow, making the local wildlife even more diverse, tourist-friendly, and sustainable.

Facing the most difficult downturn in nearly four decades, farmers and ranchers across the United States are experimenting with a burst of new ideas and technologies. The surge in entrepreneurialism stands in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when many operators hunkered down by slashing costs and sending spouses to work in town. And it’s occurring along two tracks. The dominant trend is that large conventional farms, on the cusp of adopting artificial intelligence, self-driving tractors, and other technologies, are getting ever bigger and more efficient. The less visible trend is that other operations – usually smaller ones – are diversifying into new products and services, such as branded beef and ecotourism, to offset low commodity prices.

“$3.50 [per bushel] corn is the mother of invention,” says John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union in Lincoln. The diversification “is all over the board.”

 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ecotourism entrepreneur Sarah Sortum, with Calamus Outfitters, walks through a "blowout," created by nature and the wind, on her family farm, Switzer Ranch, in Burwell, Nebraska.

The trend includes people who are relatively new to farming or who returned to it after a time away. Ms. Sortum and her husband, for example, launched the foray into ecotourism after coming back to the ranch in 2006.

It is also being led by farmers who broke the mold during the last downturn and tried something new. In 1985, Leo Barthelmess introduced some sheep into his cattle ranching operation outside Malta, Montana. Now, he and his wife, son, and brother run 1,100 ewes and 700 cows on some 25,000 acres, half of which is owned by the family and half by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. When cattle prices are low, the ranch hopes to make a profit off mutton and the sheep’s wool. 

“Diversity is nearly always good,” says Mr. Barthelmess.

Farmers have a long history of adapting to new conditions and technologies. But pioneering them in conservative farm country can be tough.

“Once we started farming, we put in two acres of strawberries, asparagus, raspberries, and an apple orchard,” says Denise O’Brien, who farms with her husband in Atlantic, Iowa. “Professors in horticulture said, ‘You can’t do it.’ We did it anyway.” Nearly four decades later, she’s turned the farm into a community-supported agriculture operation, which sells memberships and supplies its members with certified organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The farm also raises antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys and chickens.

Ms. O’Brien hasn’t stopped innovating. Over the past five years, she’s incorporated hoop houses, unheated greenhouses that allow her to begin her growing season in March and extend it into December. That longer growing season, in turn, allows her to sell her products year-round.

Another reason farmers resist diversification is that it often requires so much labor or capital that it’s difficult to scale up to commercial size. For example, Michael Kovach of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, raises among other things chickens both for eggs and meat. But “how that scales, that’s the difficulty,” he says. His farm doesn’t have the capital to build a large building, like commercial operations do, where they raise thousands of chickens by confining them. That’s the exact opposite of the natural, mostly outdoor poultry that he and his customers want. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sarah Sortum sits on the front of her Jeep on her family farm in Burwell, Nebraska.

When Ms. Sortum came back to the ranch here in Nebraska in 2006, her brother had already started a side operation for hunting and horseback riding on the land. But it was not at all clear how the operation could support her and her husband, Mark. He got a job as a substitute teacher and a gig at the local golf course. Having worked at a high-end resort ranch in Colorado, Ms. Sortum was able to expand the ranch’s operations into ecotourism and leisure, such as “tanking.” (It’s a Nebraska tradition: Think large kiddie pool made of steel or plastic with enough built-in seating for a family to float rudderless down a river.) 

Ms. Sortum also learned about the prairie plants as well as native birds and their calls. She organized a prairie chicken festival that has become a staple every spring, when the male birds do their mating dance. The ecotourism operation now has a full-time manager and cabins on-site where people can stay overnight (one of them is a restored one-room schoolhouse that her mother attended as a child). Ironically, the hunting trips, which started the diversification, have dwindled to almost nothing, because the guiding requires such long hours.

“We could probably streamline our operations” more, says Ms. Sortum, but she and her brother want to keep several options open for their children if they decide to come back to the ranch. That’s a turnaround from her generation.

“My brother and I didn’t feel we had that option” to return, she says. After the farm crisis of the 1980s, the implicit message from parents was: Go get an education and don’t come back, because there’s no future here.

Now, the message is: Come back if you want, but make sure you can add value to the operation. That can lead to some intergenerational dynamics.

In pickups parked side by side but facing opposite directions, Norman Brugger and his twin sons strategize the remaining chores for the day. The sons have spent the morning showing off their small diversified operation while their father has been trying out an automated planter.

 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Norman Brugger sits in his truck on the family farm in Albion, Nebraska, June 4, 2019. Technology is helping Mr. Brugger and other farmers adapt in tough times. “I absolutely like it,” he says of the autonomous planter he's been testing. “I can plant more acres.”

“I absolutely like it,” he says. “I can plant more acres.”

That has been agriculture’s story for the past century. Companies like John Deere and International Harvester mechanized plowing and harvesting so a single farmer could tend more acres with far less labor, which led to ever-bigger farms. And the trend continues. Since 1997, the number of operations with $500,000 or more in annual sales has doubled, according to the latest agricultural census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The only other kind of farm that’s grown – up 14% – is the smallest operations, which sell $2,500 or less annually.

Now, small startups and big companies, including Airbus, Amazon, and gaming graphics firm Nvidia, are pushing into agriculture technology, which is likely to lead to another jump in big farms. In April, IBM announced it would marry its artificial intelligence, big data, and blockchain know-how with the agronomy expertise of a leading crop-nutrition company in Norway. Deere is using face-recognition software to train insecticide sprayers to recognize and treat specific weeds without hurting the crop. 

Because the USDA defines farms so broadly, it’s hard to detect any rise in the diversifying entrepreneurs. Part of the challenge is that when they diversify into nonfarm businesses, like ecotourism, the statistics won’t capture it. Another challenge is that so many farmers are retiring and selling off their land that they’re possibly masking the rise of the younger entrepreneurs, says Jim MacDonald, a specialist in farm structure at the USDA.

For many of those wanting to make food production more natural and environmentally sound, the continued rise of big ag is a blow. Others within the diversification movement say the world needs both types of agriculture. Diversification provides a needed outlet for commercial farmers who can’t afford to rent or buy more land. And the niche markets that farm entrepreneurs rely on would quickly lose their price premiums if even a small number of commercial farmers switched over to fill those markets.

And then there are the compromises – what Ms. Sortum calls her “sacrifice acres” – that environmentally minded farmers and ranchers make because they need to make money off their land. For example, her family feeds grain to cattle in the winter on a concentrated piece of former cropland, a big ag practice that has environmental ramifications.

“It’s really hard,” she says. The land “is your home, it’s your baby, it’s your kid, it’s your spirit. It’s all of that. So you have to make a living off of it and make those decisions: What’s the best for the land? What’s the best for me now? What’s the best 50 years from now? It’s really hard to make those decisions sometimes because you have to make a living. Otherwise you aren’t going to be there.”

Clarence Leong contributed to this report. 

This series focuses on solutions to challenges faced by beginning farmers. The other installments include Part 1: What if aspiring farmers have no money for a farm? and Part 2: How a Maine network is helping new farmers stay in the business

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3. Rise of the only child: Why more families are happy with one

As more Americans opt to have only one child, they’re dismantling stereotypes about only children, and redefining successful families.

David

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More Americans are grappling with the idea of having one child. The one-child family is the fastest-growing family unit in the United States, according to census data. That’s causing a reevaluation of persistently held beliefs about only children and what constitutes a happy family.   

“To me the most controversial thing I could have ever done in public was be with one child and say I’m not going to have another one,” says Lauren Sandler, a journalist and mother. 

She’s in good company. The one-child family rose rapidly over the past generation. A Pew Research Center study found the number of mothers who reached the end of their childbearing years with one child doubled from 11% in 1976 to 22% in 2015. That’s thanks to a variety of social and economic factors, including delayed marriage and childbearing, higher rates of educational attainment and workforce involvement for women, and the high price tag of raising a child.  

With labels of only children as spoiled or lonely debunked, Toni Falbo, a professor and social psychologist, says parents of only children can relax. “In general, children grow up without siblings and they do just fine.”

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Rise of the only child: Why more families are happy with one

Lauren Sandler grew up as an only child, never giving it much thought until she became a mother and decided she was happy raising one kid. Suddenly, making the same choice her parents had made seemed shocking to people around her. 

“On the subway when people would see me with one child in a stroller, strangers would comment on how cute she was and immediately ask, ‘When are you having your next one?’” Ms. Sandler says. When she explained she wasn’t planning another, she received “head-shaking, tongue clucking, in a way that I’d never had a stranger respond to me.” 

“To me the most controversial thing I could have ever done in public was be with one child and say I’m not going to have another one,” says Ms. Sandler, a journalist and author of “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.” 

More Americans are grappling with the idea of having one child. The one-child family is the fastest-growing family unit in the United States, according to census data. That’s causing a reevaluation of many persistently held beliefs about only children and their parents and what constitutes a happy family.   

“Slowly, at a snail’s pace, the negative stereotypes seem to be waning,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “The Case for the Only Child.”  

Rise of the only child

The one-child family rose rapidly over the past generation. A Pew Research Center study found the number of mothers who reached the end of their childbearing years with one child doubled from 11% in 1976 to 22% in 2015. 

That coincides with an overall shift to smaller families, with the number of women giving birth to four or more children declining from 40% to 14% over the same time period.  

Those who study only children point to a variety of social and economic factors contributing to the change, including delayed marriage and childbearing, higher rates of educational attainment and workforce involvement for women, and the high price tag of raising a child even as housing costs skyrocket and wages stagnate. 

“The one-child family is definitely on the rise,” says Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher on fertility and family demographics at Pew Research Center.  

As more people consider raising one child, parents are sorting through their notions about only children, trying to understand whether they and their children will be better or worse off if the table stays set for three. 

Parents are concerned about whether their child will be lonely, or if it will be too big a burden for one child to care for aging parents, says Dr. Newman, who receives “endless queries” on these topics. 

Comedian Tina Fey captured some of the indecision parents feel, writing in a New Yorker essay, “I debate the second-baby issue when I can’t sleep. “Should I? No. I want to. I can’t. I must. Of course not.” 

Debunked stereotypes 

Many of the labels of only children as spoiled, lonely, or peculiar trace their source back to Granville Stanley Hall, a celebrated child psychologist of his day, who in 1896 declared “being an only child is a disease in itself.” 

In the 1970s, researchers began seriously studying only children and found no evidence that children without siblings turned out any differently than their peers. The research showed only children were instead more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem and achievement. 

Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted much of the groundbreaking research and continues to study only children. She believes the current sentiment among the American public is that having two children is most desirable.

“I think the belief in the ‘lonely-only,’ or the ‘maladjusted-only,’ persists because of the stereotypes,” Dr. Falbo says. “Stereotypes are something that seem to make sense in people’s thinking. They’ve been around for thousands of years, and there’s the benefit of thinking that all couples should have children, and that’s plural.” 

More recently, researchers in China determined that within a group of 250 college-aged students, only children scored similarly to children with siblings on IQ tests, but showed more flexibility (a measure of creativity) and less agreeableness.  

‘A good balance for us’ 

Of course, not all only children enjoyed their childhood. In an essay in Motherly, writer Christy Heather recalls “my childhood of endless summers alone, of always wanting more of my friends’ time than they wanted to give.” She and her husband did not want to raise an only child. 

Parents of only children have been criticized for being selfish by not giving their children a sibling. 

“People say, ‘What’s wrong with these parents, they’re so selfish, they need to have another child,’” Dr. Newman says. “Every family is different. As an outsider we don’t know what’s going on. We shouldn’t guess and judge and critique. I think that would be quite helpful.”  

The decision to have one child is based on elements that can and can’t be controlled, says Ms. Sandler. Sometimes parents plan for more kids, but infertility or miscarriages interfere. Other times parents can’t afford to pay for housing, plus multiple fees for piano, soccer, and art lessons. A study conducted by the real estate website Zillow in 2018 found that hotter home markets correlate with lower birth rates

For parents who find themselves unexpectedly raising an only child, or starting to doubt they can afford more than one, Dr. Falbo offers some advice. 

“For people considering just having one, there are very few downsides,” says Dr. Falbo. “In general, children grow up without siblings and they do just fine. That’s assuming they go to school, interact with peers, have extracurricular activities, and warm and responsive parents. If they have all that, their outcomes as an adult would be within the normal range.”

Some parents of grown only children look back warmly at their years raising one.

Robert Dewey and his wife raised their now-26-year-old daughter in Bethesda, Maryland. Both parents maintained full-time jobs and are active runners. Mr. Dewey’s wife sang in two choirs. As a trio, their family cheered at each other’s events, traveled together, and have always felt close. 

“We were able to have it all in terms of the quality of family life that we wanted, and focus on our child, and pursue our own interests professionally and personally,” he says. “So it seemed like a good balance for us.” 

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Point of Progress

What's going right

4. Birdhouses for the soul: People build nests for purple martins

Our next story is a tale of success: Here’s how an effort to house and nurture a bird species developed in the U.S. and why it continues.

David

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Each spring, thousands of purple martins fly from the Amazon rainforest to North America for their nesting season. But in the eastern half of the United States, instead of settling in tree branches or bushes, nearly all are welcomed into houses built by human landlords when they arrive. 

“These birds have a history of interacting with humans, going all the way back to Native Americans before European settlement,” says purple martin conservationist Joe Siegrist.

Today, many thousands of purple martin landlords still provide nesting cavities and guard against predators and invasive species. They support a relatively stable population of birds in the eastern half of the U.S., with some local fluctuations.

Citizen science initiatives have been key to the success of purple martin conservation, Mr. Siegrist says. As people become more in tune to the wildlife in their backyards, they develop a sense of ecological literacy.

“For now, the populations do seem pretty stable,” says Robyn Bailey, the project leader of a citizen science initiative called NestWatch. “Assuming that people continue to provide managed housing, that paints a fairly optimistic picture.”

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Birdhouses for the soul: People build nests for purple martins

In the middle of a nondescript field of grass at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, three large birdhouses balance improbably atop 12-foot metal poles. There’s no sign of the occupants, though, until a dark fleck appears from nowhere, swooping through the air and chirruping a sharp, sweet song. Suddenly, one becomes three becomes a dozen – until a small cloud of birds is circulating around the poles in an electric display of aerial maneuvering and operatic warbling.

The birds are purple martins, a large species of swallow with dark iridescent feathers and a diet of flying insects. Each spring, thousands fly from the Amazon rainforest to North America for their nesting season. But in the eastern half of the United States, instead of settling in tree branches or bushes, nearly all are welcomed into houses built by human landlords when they arrive. 

Anna Tarnow/The Christian Science Monitor
Purple martins rest in houses built for them at the Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, Massachusetts, on June 14, 2019. The sanctuary is part of the Massachusetts Audubon Society network and harbors a wide variety of native bird and animal species.

“These birds have a history of interacting with humans, going all the way back to Native Americans before European settlement,” says Joe Siegrist, president and chief executive of the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA). Native Americans reportedly “used to hang hollowed-out gourds in their villages, and the purple martins latched on.” Humans liked the birds for their fascinating behavior, and also their diet of pesky bugs. That connection, Mr. Siegrist says, allowed purple martins to survive the incursion of European settlers, who destroyed forests with natural purple martin nesting sites like old woodpecker holes.

Settlers also introduced invasive species such as the European starling and English house sparrow, which out-competed purple martins for natural nesting sites. But by the 1830s, the practice of purple martin landlording had been so widely adopted by settlers that famed ornithologist and painter John James Audubon noted “Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.” 

Today, many thousands of purple martin landlords still provide nesting cavities and guard against predators and invasive species. They support a relatively stable population of birds in the eastern half of the U.S., with some local fluctuations. For example, populations appear to be declining in Louisiana and parts of the Gulf Coast, but increasing in southern parts of Texas, says Robyn Bailey, the project leader of a citizen science initiative called NestWatch from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. According to Mr. Siegrist, invasive species or pesticides may influence population sizes. Data from NestWatch, however, show that purple martins led the top 10 list in nesting success in both 2016 and 2018. 

“For now, the populations do seem pretty stable,” says Ms. Bailey. “Assuming that people continue to provide managed housing, that paints a fairly optimistic picture.” That optimism, she adds, is because purple martins “are very charismatic and beautiful and people have a straightforward way to help them, which is fortunate – a lot of species don't have [that].”

In recent years, the true success of purple martin conservation is its citizen science initiatives. Such projects are designed to allow members of the public to meaningfully contribute to scientific research and experiments. “Citizen science projects ... help folks get more in tune with what's happening in their backyard,” says Mr. Siegrist. “[Participants] become ecologically literate and understand the linkage between their backyard and the natural world as a whole.”

eBird, for example, is the largest biodiversity-related citizen science project in the world, collecting data from hundreds of thousands of contributors and reporting more than 100 million bird sightings each year. And the PMCA is a leader among purple martin-specific data collection projects, with nearly 3,000 scout sightings reported in 2018.

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary is one data contributor to those projects. Each week during nesting season, a sanctuary worker lowers the purple martin houses using a winch and looks inside to count eggs, check for signs of invasive species, and tally colony numbers.

Anna Tarnow/The Christian Science Monitor
Purple martin eggs rest in nests built inside man-made shelters at the Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, Massachusetts, on June 14, 2019.

That data can indicate bigger changes that aren’t immediately apparent, says Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary director Doug Williams. “People recognized a long time ago that some of the species that do these big migrations ... were arriving earlier and earlier every year, and [wondered] ‘What's going on with that?’ And that could be one of the early indicators of climate change.”

Purple martins’ dependence on human housing has some downsides. “The risk is if [purple martins] are going to be conservation-reliant,” says Ms. Bailey. She cites surveys and demographic studies which show that purple martin landlords are, on average, in their early sixties. Some conservation groups, including the PMCA, worry about the future of purple martin housing as current landlords age.

But, Ms. Bailey adds, “[Birding] is a topic that is increasing among young people. We know birding is every bit as popular nowadays as hunting and fishing.” The question then becomes “how to help . . . recruit [more] people.”

And purple martins continue to capture human attention. “Folks just tune into the activity, the swooping, the color, the song – it’s captivating,” says Mr. Siegrist. “You're kind of helping them survive where humans have failed in the past. ... It's an emotional link that folks end up having with the purple martins.”

And, he adds, “It's one of the easiest things that a person can do to ensure the survival of a species. … And it's not just that they're a beautiful bird, and fun to watch. They're an integral part of our ecosystem.”

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Conversations on hope

5. Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee

We were moved by Maddie Collins’ story and example. She tells us why the U.S. is a land of relentless hope, hard work, freedom, love, and decency.  

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wilmot Collins (right), mayor of Helena, Montana, and his wife, Maddie (in red), chat with Bruce and Joyce Nachtsheim while eating apples off the tree in the yard of the Nachtsheims' new home, on Sept. 19, 2018, in Helena.

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All through the war in Liberia, Maddie Collins kept her Helena High School diploma in a secret zippered pocket, safe from the prying eyes of soldiers at checkpoints – a reminder of the year she spent as an exchange student when a Montana family adopted her as their own. It proved to be a ticket to a better life.

Her host parents, together with their congressional delegation and a local nursing school, helped Ms. Collins escape the war and welcomed her again in August 1991. Now Ms. Collins is a nurse at the local VA, a captain in the Army Reserve, and a pillar of her community along with her husband, who became the first African American to win a mayoral election in Montana state history two years ago and is now running for U.S. Senate.

She worries the United States is in danger of losing its status as a symbol of hope and freedom in the world’s eyes. But, she adds, “Our collective vision for an America that accepts people of all backgrounds is what I believe will help us overcome this challenge sooner rather than later. That’s what gives me hope.”

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Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee

When the war got especially hard – when bullets littered the streets and food was scarce in the Liberian capital of Monrovia – Maddie Collins would think of the mountains and streams of Montana.

There, on a ranch outside Helena, lived a family that had welcomed her with open arms as a high school exchange student. All during the Liberian civil war, she carried her Helena High School diploma with her in a secret zippered pocket. Those were harrowing times – sucking condensed milk out of a can for sustenance, having her home invaded in the middle of the night, taking refuge in the operating room of a hospital during a military raid.

Back in Montana, her honorary American family stood ready to host her again. On her first attempt, the visa official denied her application. 

But her host parents lobbied their congressional delegation and, with the help of a local nursing school in Helena where Ms. Collins planned to enroll, they succeeded in securing her a student visa. Then, on the eve of her departure, she got two hard pieces of news. The United States would not allow Wilmot, her new husband, to accompany her. And she learned she was pregnant.

Ms. Collins went anyway, moved back in with the Nachtsheims, and enrolled in nursing school. When she went into labor, Mr. Collins was thousands of miles away.

“I remember thinking, ‘I wish Wilmot could see her right now. I don’t think he’d ever see her in a more beautiful light,’” said Jaymie Sheldahl, Ms. Collins’ American “sister,” in an interview last year.

After giving birth, Ms. Collins placed her daughter in Jaymie’s arms. “Her name,” she said, “is Jaymie Louette.”

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Maddie Collins eats ice cream in her kitchen with Joyce Nachtsheim. The Nachtsheims hosted Ms. Collins as a high school exchange student and then helped her flee the civil war in her native Liberia.

“It was the family and sense of community I had in Helena, Montana, that gave me hope that home was waiting for Wilmot and me,” says Ms. Collins. “But getting there was the hardest part, and it was the part I left up to God.”

Little Jaymie was nearly 2 years old before her dad finally arrived at the Helena airport. Today, the Collinses are pillars of Helena, the capital of the least black state in America. Two years ago, Wilmot Collins – encouraged by their son, Bliss – became the first African American elected mayor in the history of Montana’s statehood. (The Monitor told Mayor Collins' story late last year. You can read it here: "How a refugee turned mayor seeks to transcend politics of divisiveness.")

Now Mr. Collins is running for the U.S. Senate. Jaymie is serving in the U.S. Navy. And Ms. Collins, who works at the local VA hospital, is less than a month away from completing her doctorate of nursing practice as a geriatric nurse practitioner.

If there is one theme running through the Collinses’ work, their military service, and their countless volunteer activities, it is a desire to give back to the community and the country that gave them a second chance.

“While Liberia will always be a part of me and who I am today, America symbolized a sense of renewal for me,” says Ms. Collins. “Because even after everything Wilmot and I went through together, it was America that showed us hard work and patience will pay off, and if you stay true to yourself in this country and treat others with love and decency, your past doesn’t solely define what your future will be.”

In those early days in Helena, she would drive past the National Guard Armory on her way to nursing school, and her heart would start pounding – a vestige of the trauma she had experienced during the war. But she decided to confront that fear, she explained in an interview last year. “I just joined to get over my fear – and to give back,” said Ms. Collins, who has risen to the rank of captain in the Army Nurse Corps.

She has also worked for Habitat for Humanity and helped with the local food share. Her family recently helped a Cuban family settle here, just as others had done for them. Now the Cubans have also become very involved in the community and are teaching salsa dancing. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maddie Collins examines a patient at the Leo Pocha Memorial Clinic, on Sept. 19, 2018, in Helena, Montana. The clinic caters to the local Native American community, who are treated for free, and other low-income patients.

As a doctoral student, she has been pursuing a project to help the city’s homeless population. “My heart is in helping the marginalized of society – people who don’t have the means to speak for themselves or are too busy struggling to stay alive,” she says.

It has not all been easy in Helena. Her family has faced racist threats and slights over the years, and her husband’s mayoral election was not warmly received by all. Montana has a strong white supremacist movement, and Mr. Collins’ advocacy for Montana to reopen its doors to refugees faced resistance.

While she believes diversity contributes to America’s strength, she says it’s been a challenge for various groups to understand each other across those differences. That will only get harder, she says, if polarization and division are embedded in every aspect of society. “We are vulnerable to losing our [status as a] symbol of hope and freedom in the world’s eyes,” says Ms. Collins.

But she adds, “I’ve seen America rebuild itself in times of great difficulties historically, and since I have arrived in this country,” such as after 9/11 or the Great Recession. “Our collective vision for an America that accepts people of all backgrounds is what I believe will help us overcome this challenge sooner rather than later. That’s what gives me hope.”

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Overcoming despair: How a wounded Green Beret came back stronger
Part 2: With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis
Part 3: Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans
Part 4: Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee
Part 5: Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution.
Part 6: How one African American mom tackles racism head-on
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The Monitor's View

For Ukraine, it’s no-joke cleanup time

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In the history of democracy, this may be a first: Ukraine’s new president, whose party won big in an election for parliament, wants the new lawmakers to make it easy to impeach him. The former TV comedian wants to be given the hook if he turns out to be a crook.

The proposal is only one of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s planned anti-corruption reforms and reflects the dramatic upsurge in popular demand for clean and transparent governance. More than two-thirds of the new MPs have never been in parliament before.

Europe’s largest country in the west, Britain, may be leaving the EU soon. But the 45 million strong Ukrainians are impatient to join the bloc, which they see as helping ensure an end to corrupt rule. First they will need to finish the task themselves. One of the initial tests will be making it easy to impeach a president, thus showing the humility to be held accountable is an important public virtue.

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For Ukraine, it’s no-joke cleanup time

In the history of democracy, this may be a first: Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won by a landslide in April, just saw his party win big in an election for parliament on Sunday. And what is one of his top priorities? He will ask the new lawmakers to make it easy to impeach him.

The former TV comedian wants to be given the hook if he turns out to be a crook.

The proposal is only one of Mr. Zelenskiy’s planned anti-corruption reforms. He also seeks to abolish the official immunity from prosecution that members of parliament enjoy – a protection that past lawmakers have used to hide their corrupt dealings. And he plans to ensure corruption-fighting agencies are independent of political control. He has a long list of institutional solutions.

As one of Europe’s most corrupt countries – and its largest – Ukraine has begun a sweep out of old practices that have driven corruption. The election results on Sunday reflected the dramatic upsurge in popular demand for clean and transparent governance: More than two-thirds of the new MPs have never been in parliament before. And the fresh faces are not all. The new president and his anti-corruption party, Servant of the People, will command the country’s first ruling majority, giving it both a chance and a mandate for concrete reform.

Two previous attempts at fixing Ukraine’s democracy, the 2004 Orange Revolution and the Maidan Revolution of 2014-15, failed to bring major changes. Yet as Ukrainians still eagerly hope to join the European Union – and as Russia tries to hold them back and ensure oligarchic rule – this time may be the best opportunity to instill civic virtues in public life.

“Years of public debate have given rise to a broad and sensible consensus around reforms,” writes Ukraine expert Anders Åslund at the Atlantic Council. “The question is no longer what to do but whether it will actually be done.”

Europe’s largest country in the west, Britain, may be leaving the EU soon. But the 45 million strong Ukrainians are impatient to join the bloc, which they see as helping ensure an end to corrupt rule. First they will need to finish the task themselves. One of the initial tests will be making it easy to impeach a president, thus showing the humility to be held accountable is an important public virtue.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Christly compassion – the highest kind of caring

When our care for others stems from a realization that everyone is able to feel and experience God’s healing, restoring love, we are better equipped to help and find solutions.

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Christly compassion – the highest kind of caring

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Urgent needs in so many parts of the world today continue to touch hearts, bringing calls for ever-greater sensitivity and caring to help meet those needs quickly and thoroughly. They’ve led me to think more deeply about the kind of caring that goes beyond emotion and how I can express it better.

Some questions that come to me are, How am I actually seeing these situations? Am I defining people simply as victims in pain, and sympathizing with them? During times of struggle, I’ve appreciated the intent of those who sympathized. But I’ve found myself even more grateful for those who encouraged me to rise above the challenge because they saw in me something of the spiritual strength we all have, even at a time I struggled to feel it myself.

So when I’m helping others, I strive to do it from that kind of deeper basis – supporting them as victors rather than as victims by seeing them walking in the healing light of God, as the spiritual image and likeness of God.

Each of us can practice this kind of caring that’s more powerful than sympathizing with a problem. We can, instead, wholeheartedly embrace this idea of one another as being God’s creation, reflecting the joy, peace, and strength of the Divine. Then we discover how to assure each other of God’s abundant love and unfailing care – in every situation. This is spiritually grounded compassion, which lifts thought toward healing resolutions.

We see this compassion illustrated in the Bible in a parable told by Jesus (see Luke 10:30-35). A Samaritan traveler’s response to a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left to die went beyond feeling sorry for him. He “had compassion” on him. This inspired what the Samaritan did next: He “went to him, and bound up his wounds” and made sure he was taken care of.

Clearly, the wounds suffered in such an attack weren’t just physical; they were mental, as well. They cried out for the active healing touch of divine Love, or God, right there on the roadside. The Samaritan expressed a Christlike compassion, which uplifts, restores, and strengthens in a way that simply acknowledging someone’s pain cannot do. It inspires and energizes both the caregiver and the one needing help.

Prayer to understand Love’s healing touch enables us to know the comfort and assurance of God’s infinite grace, and to feel and follow God’s guidance. I’ve found this is a foundation for helping myself and others find tangible solutions to problems, bringing to light the practicality of God’s care.

Several years ago, this approach helped me support a friend in a devastating situation: Soon after her husband passed on, she discovered that owing to wrongdoing by some employees, her family-owned company was over $1 million in debt. She was left with not only grief about losing her husband, but a mountain of indebtedness and the sorrow of having been lied to by people she had trusted.

In praying with my friend each day, I recalled how Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, describes the comforting, compassionate nature of God, divine Love. In her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” she illuminates a verse from Psalm 23 in the Bible this way: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for [Love] is with me; [Love’s] rod and [Love’s] staff they comfort me” (p. 578).

This became foundational in our prayers together as my friend navigated the steps needed to avoid losing everything. Divine Love’s comfort and care are never out of reach, even during the most trying times, because as God’s spiritual image, we can never truly be separated from our divine source. This idea gave my friend strength and empowered me to encourage and help her, rather than simply pitying.

Over the course of two and a half years, relying on God’s guidance daily, my friend repaid the entire debt, returned the business to profitability, and avoided personal bankruptcy. She said to me recently, “I knew that staying certain of God’s hand in solving all of this would bring resolution.”

To me, this experience illustrates how Christly compassion works on a much deeper level than mere human pity: It empowers us to understand everyone’s unique spiritual being, our unbroken spiritual identity. It goes beyond just walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It means realizing that we all are cared for by our divine Parent, able to feel and experience God’s healing, restoring love, and letting that inspire the way we help and care for others.

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Viewfinder

Call for change

Gabriella N. Baez/Reuters
Demonstrators chant and wave Puerto Rican flags calling for the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 24. The speaker of the House of Representatives announced Wednesday the House was beginning impeachment proceedings against the governor after the 11th day of mass protests.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 25th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Come back tomorrow. We’re working on a story about what more freedom really means for women in Saudi Arabia.

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