Near the back of our farm, our level produce fields begin to slope upward into a rocky wooded bluff, before dropping off sharply into the headwaters of the beautiful Pequest River. The bluff is a small wood, with walnuts, sycamores, cedars and maples fending off invasive imports like olive and barberry. Our kids dubbed it Little Round Top, after the Gettysburg bluff famously defended by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment on the second day of the epic Civil War battle.
In truth, our little bluff looks a lot like its namesake — unimpressive, rocky, wooded, and of no particular use to us or most others. But on that sweltering July afternoon some 150 years ago, Little Round Top was the most precious piece of real estate in the country. And that’s because on that hill, the 20th Maine stood at the very end of the Union Army’s left flank. Confederate brigades from Alabama and Texas had made a desperate dash to turn Chamberlain’s flank and roll the Union lines up from behind. And the little band from Maine was the only defense for the exposed regiments from Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, all the way to General Meade’s center on Cemetery Hill. If he should fall, there would then be nothing between Lee and a defenseless Lincoln in the capitol.
Very literally, the survival of the great American venture rested with the Maine volunteers on that useless little piece of ground – Little Round Top. You know the rest of the story, of course. Exhausted and out of ammunition, the Maine volunteers fixed bayonets and charged, modern weaponry now no more lethal than medieval spears. But upon those spears rested the dream of a United States of America, and they did not fail.
I thought about that little Gettysburg bluff a lot yesterday – the day the US finally rejected a Canadian company’s application to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline through the American heartland. For those of us accustomed to losing bout after bout to the big polluters, this day was a rare and precious gift.
The traffic on social media was euphoric: Hallelujah! Praise God! Give thanks! Well done! The back-slapping went on all day long. We exulted that – for once – our country had decided that some fossil fuels simply must be left in the ground.
And yet, from other quarters, we heard a different voice: What’s the big deal? In a world that burns 100 million barrels of oil every day, the KXL pipeline would have carried “only” 800,000 barrels – about one percent of the world’s total. With trains available to carry at least some of the tar sands crude, this one pipeline was hardly worth all the struggle, right?
Like, perhaps, that little hill – Little Round Top. A nearly worthless little piece of Pennsylvania farmland.
Virtually every great struggle has its pivot point. Before El Alamein, Hitler never lost a battle. Afterward, he never won. The same for Hirohito at Midway. And for Lee at Little Round Top.
El Alamein? Midway? Little Round Top? All pretty much worthless ground. But their defense marked the hinge of fate in some of the greatest struggles of modern history.
For me, Keystone may join them in the pantheon of epic milestones, even while its importance is dismissed by pundits at both ends of the political spectrum. From the very outset of this struggle seven years ago, we heard the dismissive narrative. Even the State Department said it: The oil will get out, one way or another. Fighting the pipeline is like fighting laws of physics (or at least of economics). Resistance is essentially futile. And on the odd chance that we might win, we have only stopped a teensy bit of world supply, even if it’s really dirty supply.
Relax. Go home. Do something useful.
Well, we didn’t go home. Evangelical Christians committed to pray daily for Kerry and Obama to reject the pipeline. We joined with native peoples and Nebraska ranchers to protest the Canadian scheme. We walked through the tar sands pits with First Nations in poisoned Alberta communities to testify to the cultural genocide inflicted by the mining. We circled the White House, arm in arm, to let Obama know how strongly we felt. We joined 1,200 others inside Washington’s Anacostia prison in our effort to be heard. We told our stories in thousands of letters to the White House. We joined 400,000 others crowding the streets of Manhattan to voice our lament for God’s creation.
And we kept on praying.
We’ve been losing for a long, long time. Greenhouse gas concentrations are now the highest they’ve been in almost a million years – permanently above 400 parts per million. Drought and flooding have become depressingly commonplace, and 60 million humans have been forcibly displaced in resource conflicts worldwide. Species continue to disappear forever; the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic than ever in human history. And the US Congress is still controlled by those who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the findings of climate science.
But, for once, we have stood our ground, and prevailed. Keystone XL is dead for now. And just watch. I think we may be seeing a new day dawning. This may be our El Alamein. This may be our Midway.
And for me? I’m headed out to take a walk up our own Little Round Top, sit on a rock, and take a moment to give thanks.