'I Never Met a Liberal Before'

06/23/2015 05:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The very last thing the old farmer wanted to do on that rainy Sunday morning in early spring was sit down and talk with me. And he had made it perfectly clear why.

"I never met a liberal before," he had told his daughter, who had volunteered to act as a kind of emissary for me. And he was in no hurry to meet one now. The way he figured it, I was going to blow into his southern Illinois barn like a self-righteous virago. I'd give him a lecture about the very real dangers posed by a changing climate, and I'd probably throw in a few swipes at genetically modified crops and evangelize about the evils of creeping corporate capitalism while I was at it. That is, after all, what we liberals do, isn't it?

But that wasn't why I had come to White Hall, Illinois. I didn't travel halfway across the country to lecture Ethan Cox. I came there to listen to him, to learn from him. Three years earlier, and for two years in a row, Ethan had weathered -- just barely -- back-to-back floods, and the year after that, he had, through pluck and skill and courage, managed to escape the worst of a historic drought that cost farmers in 22 states $31 billion.

In response to those threats, and to the others that were already roiling on the horizon, Ethan Cox had started doing what my liberal friends and I mostly only talk about. He had started changing things, even if only on his farm, tinkering with what he planted, and altering how and when he planted it. He had begun to dust off some of the old techniques, the ones used by his grandfather and abandoned by his father in the days when American Farmer was still the only thing on television at six in the morning and was now relying heavily on no-till farming to help keep his precious topsoil from baking one year and washing away in a flood the next.

He's not alone. All over the country in recent years, from the thirsty ranges of west Texas and parched farmland of central California to the tinder-dry mountains of Montana, to the flood-ravaged suburbs of Austin to the rapidly acidifying and warming and rising waters off the coast of New Jersey, I have encountered men and woman, who, like Ethan Cox, are heroically rising to meet the challenge of an increasingly chaotic climate.

These are not people who are ideologically, politically or, in some cases, even religiously predisposed to believe in the whole idea of anthropogenic global climate change, and they are far too proud and stiff-necked to genuflect in front of the altar of anybody else's dogma.

In many cases, they see themselves as fiercely conservative, and often they view the issue of climate change the same way the barking ideologues on either side of the issue do, as a kind of litmus test, no different in that respect than any of a dozen other hot-button issues that fracture our culture today, from abortion to guns, to same-sex marriage.

And yet, these are people who are dealing with the challenges posed by extreme climatic events nonetheless. The scientists who study such things like to use the word adaptation to describe what these folks are doing. Ethan calls it something else. He calls it farming, and in adapting the old ways to this new challenge, what Ethan and the others are discovering is that they're using far less fuel, far less fertilizer and holding their own costs down. The scientists have a word for that too. They call it mitigation.

Now, I'm not naïve enough to believe that a handful of farmers and ranchers and fisherman and hunters can alter the trajectory of a climate that is fast on its way to a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise, or help us gird ourselves against the potentially devastating effects of that increase on their own, nor that even thousands of them can. That will take leadership from Washington and from every state capital. But if we can learn to listen to people like Ethan Cox, if we can find a way to get their stories into the public debate, to elbow their way past the polemicists and the harsh partisans who act as self-appointed censors of our public discourse, then maybe, just maybe, we can build the kind of consensus that will help our elected officials stop silly antics like carting snowballs into the well of the United States Senate and do something constructive. Those elected officials need courage. And wisdom. Ethan Cox has both in abundance.

I saw that when Ethan finally relented and agreed to sit down with me on that rainy spring morning. It was precisely because Ethan was wise enough to know he couldn't rely on what he'd been told about liberals like me that after about two hours of talking about how he was responding to the ever-increasing challenge of wild weather, he turned the tables and began quizzing me. Not about a climate change, per se, but about a host of other seemingly unrelated issues.

We talked about abortion, which he sees as a talisman of social decay, and he understood when I told him that I was pro-choice, but that didn't mean that I was pro-abortion. The subject turned to guns, and the semi-automatic rifle with the 30-round clip that he keeps in his Jeep on the off-chance that he has to plink a coyote before it gets a calf. And he allowed that if he thought for a moment that it would stop the kind of carnage we've seen in schools and movie theaters and more recently churches across America, he's gladly swap his .226 for the flintlock rifle that I carry to hunt deer in Pennsylvania. He even chuckled a bit when I told him that I carry the gun the Second Amendment explicitly permits me to carry.

For the next two hours, Ethan and I talked. It wasn't an interview anymore. It was just a conversation between two old men, who, while we may come from different ideological camps, have each managed to cheat catastrophe long enough to learn to listen to each other. And at the end, of it, at his invitation, I rolled a final cigarette, and Ethan, who had been ordered by his doctor to give up the coffin nails, took a deep breath when I lit it.

"You know, Ethan," I said. "We've just sat here for the better part of four and a half hours... and we've touched on most of the major hot-button issues in the culture wars -- abortion, same-sex marriage, even climate.

"On about 85 percent of those issues, you and I could find enough common ground to find a shared purpose. On another 10 percent or so, we could at least reach an understanding. There was maybe about five percent where the differences were just too great, but we could set those aside at least for now."

He agreed.

"So why is it," I asked, "that when I hear people talking about you and you hear people talking about me, the only thing they ever talk about is that five percent?"

The reason is that those who purport to speak for us, on climate, on guns, on all of it, aren't listening to us. They're not listening to Ethan. They're not listening to you.

I left that barn that day with a tremendous sense of optimism, a sense of optimism that has grown stronger at nearly every farm and ranch and fisherman's dock I've stopped at since. We may be a stiff-necked people, too proud for our good, but we're strong and inventive and courageous as hell, and we've got a story to tell that can encourage those who claim to lead us to actually lead.

It won't be easy, but maybe the way to get started is tell those stories.