Chapter One : Undocumented refuge
by Garrett Connelly
Gaston was flat out flabbergasted when none of the above actually won the election for president! If you don't already know Gaston, you should at least know he worked many long years to foster the idea of none of the above as a preprinted choice for every candidate or idea on every ballot in the country. And keep in mind that Gaston Gravier is a far more colorful character than his seemingly dry and boring quest to establish None-of-the-above as an optional choice for every category on every ballot in every election.
Gaston is an organic farmer on a small farm that is bisected by the Susan River in Lassen County. His farm is minuscule compared to corporation farms yet it is large enough to need a small tractor plus proportionate machinery and equipment for cultivating and harvesting. One of his products is organic hay, that requires him to have a hay baler and a manure spreader, for example. Gaston also works for the Forest service as a machine shop mechanic and thus has the skill to maintain older and less expensive farm equipment in like-new condition. He is the only man on Earth who can weld aluminum irrigation pipe with an acetylene torch.
The modest yet pleasant home of Gaston Gravier is separated from an unpaved county road by about ten acres of organic alfalfa. A vegetable and fruit stand with parking space near the road is stocked in season with apples, peaches, peas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, garlic, peppers, a few luffa and a wide variety of beans. The produce stand features an antique scale and coffee can for customers to weigh out and pay for what they want. Gaston's beautiful and comfortable little farm accents a flat, gray expanse of high desert sage and brush. Beyond the gray range of sage; one can occasionally see a flash of sun reflecting from a car traveling on a far distant and silent highway.
A forest of ponderosa pine mixed with fir and oak begins as the land rises gently just past the highway. A small town called Janesville nestles invisibly in the forest at the foot of great granite mountains. Steep cliffs of granite rise to towering peaks that show white rings of water level from glacier melt at the end of the last ice-age. The beautiful Elysian valley lies directly above Janesville. Its lush meadowland surrounded by vertical granite walls marks the northern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the southern beginning of the Cascades. This is where Earth's surface broke on a huge scale.
The expanse of gray desert brush between Janesville and Gaston's house appears completely flat and unbroken, but that is a trick of the eye. The Susan River flows toward a mostly dry lake surrounded by alkali mud flats. The river attracted Gaston to live and farm in this area. He protects a cool, water-filled natural wonderland inhabited by coyote, bear, beaver, eagle, badger, weasel, deer, porcupine and a host of other animal families from hummingbird to mountain lion. They are the reason he worked much of his life to finally succeed in establishing None of the Above on every option of every ballot throughout the nation.
One must walk all the way past Gaston's organic vegetable field and orchard before beginning to see what he is guarding. Here it becomes more and more obvious why he worked so many years on expansion of democracy to include None of the Above. A last row of apple trees blocks clear view of a trail that turns down into a completely hidden nature preserve. The river flows quietly slow in the depths of an island dotted expanse of water under an overarching shade forest of willow and oak. Beaver dams have created a hidden lagoon of cool, calm quiet in the middle of a gray high mountain desert valley. The tree tops of the sunken island paradise reach about as high as the desert brush on higher ground. That is why it is so invisible and unknown even in modern times.
"It has been years ago, now." As Gaston tells the story. "The army had worked its way down the mountains and through the valley toward my place. They were trapping beavers and blown' up their dams."
"Why?" He asks rhetorically as he warms up to his story. "'Cause the river will run faster and reach the alkaline dregs of the now almost dry lake." Gaston smiled and pointed up at the big granite mountain. "See those white evaporation lines on the cliff up there? We're standing in a place that was at least 900 meters under water. Maybe a thousand.
"Indigenous legends say it took more than a month to walk around this lake when it was full."
Gaston blockaded the army. They did not enter his land. He refused to let the army kill the beavers and blow up their dams. The army was outraged; A mere citizen forest service mechanic had blocked centrally approved plans. The army sent him general's orders. He sent the orders back unopened. The army then procured a court order. That's when he went to court. It was there that Gaston Gravier unexpectedly bloomed into a defender of Earth.
"I sat there quite awhile waiting for my turn in court." He says. "I was kinda nervous but there was no way I was going to let the army wage domino theory war on the beavers in my farm's area."
He knew he wouldn't be in any kind of real trouble but he had never done anything like going to court while trying to save beavers. "This is a new story." Gaston thought as he waited watching the clock like a grammar school student fidgeting for what seemed forever. He was actually startled out of distant reverie when his name was called and he was told to take a seat.
"I am Judge Rita Coleman. Do you swear to tell the truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth?" The Judge asked Gaston as she looked straight into his eyes.
"I do." He replied as he took a deep breath, mentally relaxed and looked straight back into Judge Coleman's eyes.
"You do not have a lawyer to represent you." The Judge said. "Is that true?"
"Yes." Gaston answered.
"Opposing the army is not a light thing to do." Judge Coleman said. "Why do you wish to proceed without a lawyer?"
Gaston had not anticipated this question and had not thought it through. He paused for a moment to compose his answer. The Judge did not push for a quick answer as she was in the somewhat awkward position of being both the Judge and ensuring Gaston's rights were not trampled in a way that might open her verdict for appeal to a higher court.
Gaston finally drew in a slow deep breath and replied to Judge Coleman's question; "I did not hire a lawyer because that would have been expensive. But more to the point, I did not hire a lawyer because I do not believe this is an entirely legal question." A brief silence followed while everyone in the courtroom thought over this response.
The army had known their case would be heard by a woman judge and had decided to appoint a female attorney as its legal representative. Army planning discussions arrived at the conclusion that Gaston was probably a reclusive desert rat hermit that would most likely become excited and chauvinist in court and offend the Judge. But this is not Gaston's way. Yes, his logic is forceful yet his goal was as peaceful as his calm inner strength.
The attorney for the army, Dolores Savage Esq., was interested by Gaston's case and his answer to the Judge. She stood, introduced herself, and asked him why he thought opposing the will of the Army was not an entirely legal issue.
"I don't see trapping beavers and blowing up their dams is strictly a legal issue to be addressed using strict legal thinking simply because I don't believe laws have been written for every situation that arises for life on Earth." Gaston replied.
"Then why do you think you have been summoned to appear in court?" The attorney asked. She smiled warmly at the Judge, nodded to Gaston and waited for his answer.
"The army is made to destroy things and it does look at my opposition as a strictly legal issue." Gaston replied. "The army is a big outfit and I am just one person." He concluded. "I don't have any choice other than to be here."
"Are you claiming your interpretation of the law is correct and the army is wrong?" The army attorney asked.
"No, your Honor." Gaston replied, turning his head so he was addressing the Judge directly. "I am not trained in legal matters and cannot say which view of the law is correct. I can say with conviction and pure heart that the army is morally wrong to trap and kill unsuspecting beaver families. I can also say that it is environmentally misguided to blow up the beaver dams once the beavers have been killed."
The army lawyer, Dolores Savage, is to this day a well-dressed and confident person. She had not heard about the army killing beavers and blowing up their dams before being selected to prosecute the case against Gaston Gravier. Although she didn't particularly like the beaver killing idea either, she assumed the army knew what it was doing. Dolores Savage the person decided her best course forward as an attorney was to find out why the army was eliminating beavers that lived in the Susan River. She felt if she could devise a line of questioning that forced Gaston to admit the army was doing the right thing, then he would withdraw his objections and the army could proceed.
"Why do you think the army wants to eradicate the beavers and remove their dams?" she asked.
"That is a good question." Gaston said. "I've asked several old-timers what they thought and also went to the library to read about beaver killing programs. That is how I learned to say 'no' to the army on my farm."
"Please tell the Court what you have discovered." The lawyer instructed, with a practiced hint of imperiousness.
"Well," Gaston began. "As best as I can determine; killing beavers and blowing up their dams is a left-over program from the Eastern States where land became scarce and beavers were eliminated to create more farmland. Rich soils collected by the dams was an added fertilizer bonus."
"Yes," Ms. Savage responded, "I've read a little history about beaver removal programs. Do you also object to what our country did then?"
Gaston sat back for a slow, deep breath. He looked into attorney Dolores Savage's eyes and saw a cold calculating mind that mostly thought about a successful career and was attempting to trap him like he was one of the beavers he was attempting to save. The courtroom went silent except for the soft clicking motion of the clock's second hand. A slow smile spread over Gaston's expression. His eyes began to twinkle as he answered.
"It's impossible for me to object to something that happened 150 or 200 years ago."
Gaston was visibly pleased that he had actually answered a loaded question from the beaver huntress lawyer in a court of law. An audible sigh flowed in unison from the public seating area when everyone there let out their tension at the same time. The courtroom had quietly filled to standing room only and overflowed out the door. Gaston has quite a few friends. Some people have more friends, others have less, he is in the middle. Even so. Word had spread fast through the valley. People had come to see what was happening. Gaston saw life-long friends and grinned a double wide smile of welcome.
Attorney Savage was comfortable in crowded, big-city courtrooms and did not at first notice how intent the audience had become. She was concentrating on Gaston's answer and was more than a little surprised that he placed the nation's founding patriots so far into the far distant past. Judge Coleman saw what was happening and was impressed to see so many people quietly crowding into the courtroom. Judge Coleman looked at the army attorney and wondered why she wasn't sweating.
Gaston Gravier sat quietly waiting for whatever was coming next. Judge Rita Coleman also waited, the way many curious judges do.
Dolores Savage Esq. realized Gaston was not going to obey army instructions without a court order. She changed course and decided to proceed quickly towards a judge’s decision based on a more educated respect for the constitution and the army's right to do whatever it decides is best to keep everybody secure and happy.
"So, may the court conclude that you have no intention of allowing the army's river enhancement program to proceed where the river passes through your farm?" Ms Savage asked.
"No, ma'am. I am protecting the beavers from the Army." Gaston answered.
"You say that as if you believe our army is an occupying enemy force instead of a respected part of government doing the best it can to protect national interests and security." Ms Savage said this with a touch of sarcasm. "You seem to be playing some kind of macho game and not aware that you are facing large fines, possible imprisonment and maybe even loss of your farm for a few beavers. Do you realize this?" she concluded.
Gaston's smile vanished and his face blanched white. A quiet moment passed before color returned to his cheeks. Every one who knew him could see the returning hint of a smile on Gaston's face expressed a slow rise to rare anger.
"You are describing retaliation by a dictator gone mad." Gaston replied quietly as he turned to address the Judge directly.
"Your Honor," he began anew; "The army's lawyer is describing major social changes I am not aware of. She is describing a military dictatorship at war with Earth, not the country I was raised in.
"These beavers have lived along the river for thousands of years. They provide valuable services that contribute to the wealth of the entire valley. It is me who is protecting national security interests. The army demands I obey without reason when I have very good reasons for protecting the beavers from the army."
Dolores Savage did not care much about beavers and was a heavy consumer that wasted the environment, severely, but she was not a bad person in her heart. She had a healthy competitive ego and wanted to win in court. It was her job to win in court. The Army's lawyer was smart enough to see she had not progressed with her job very well so far. She was also curious and asked about Gaston's reasons for protecting beavers and hoped against hope they were insufficient to sway the court.
"Please tell the court why you risk such dire personal consequences for a few beavers swimming around in the river." The lawyer asked with genuine curiosity as-well-as a clear and growing sense of respect for what Gaston had to say.
Gaston had been told by a lawyer to direct his answers to the Judge. He once again heeded that advice and turned directly to Judge Coleman. "Your Honor." he began;
"There are quite a few beaver families living on my land. New families fleeing the army's war against them are arriving as refugees every day. The old-time beaver residents are feeling the squeeze but so far are making space for the newcomers.
"The army says it is best to open the river channel so the river flows freely to Honey Lake. But nothing lives there; Honey Lake is a poisonous, left-over alkaline puddle in the high desert near the east slope of the Sierras."
Ms Savage interrupted Gaston with a sense of growing frustration. Her job was to discredit the witness. "Are you claiming you know better what to do with the river than army engineers?"
"Well," Gaston began. "Since you put it like that; Yes. I have a better plan than the army."
"How could a forest service mechanic know more about rivers than trained engineers?" the army’s attorney asked?
"I live on this river," Gaston replied. "I've watched the beavers for many years and have seen what happened where beavers were killed and their homes bombed with dynamite." He saw Judge Rita Coleman lean forward with interest and politely waited for Dolores Savage Esq. to ask him to continue.
Dolores Savage was thinking fast, she knew she was attempting to salvage the case. She figured Gaston would have a negative story about consequences of beaver removal and attempted to steer his response toward criticism of the army rather than any negative impacts on the river ecology.
"What do you think is wrong with the army that it will do something you consider harmful?" She asked. "Do you think the forest service is as bad as the army?"
Gaston was beginning to enjoy the army lawyer's questions. He had not given any thought along her various lines of reasoning but gradually came to see the common thread of her question topics was a trap. Ms. Savage was attempting to trick him into saying something contradictory and discredit him before Judge Coleman. He thought about the beaver families and all the animal families that depended on them before answering.
"I don't think the army or the forest service is bad." he responded. "Killing beavers and bombing their dams is an old-fashioned idea that is ignorant of negative consequences for the entire river watershed region."
Gaston was correct; Ms Savage actually believed she had worked Gaston into a position where his own words would convince the Judge he was wrong.
"Okay," Dolores Savage began; "You've already explained beaver eradication as a holdover from the colonial era. What makes you think it is a mistake for this valley in this era?"
"This is a desert," Gaston replied without a moment of hesitation. "The army wants to clear the river channel so water flows faster and there is a reduced chance of flooding."
"And you don't think the army knows what it's talking about?" Ms Savage asked.
Gaston deftly avoided putting the army itself on trial. "I think a mistake has been made. The river bed is wide and well below the surrounding terrain." He pointed out. "Plus; there has never been a flood here from the river overflowing onto the surrounding countryside."
"Therefor, you believe the army is being overly cautious." Ms Savage responded. "That is not an informed opinion describing damages done by removing the beavers and their dams."
"The damage is invisible." Gaston answered.
"Oh? Invisible is it? Please inform the Court exactly as to what that invisible damage is." Dolores Savage said this with her best tone of restrained yet withering sarcasm.
This was the moment Gaston had been waiting for. And the audience knew exactly what his answer would be.
"We live in a desert farming valley," Gaston began. "I mentioned earlier that many different kinds of animals and birds depend on the beaver; Coyote, badger, deer, bear, porcupine, eagle, egret, great heron, cray fish, rabbit, squirrel, lion and humming bird, salamander, frog, owl and many more.
"We humans also depend on their dams to slow the river flow so that more water percolates into the water table and irrigation wells don't go dry before summer ends."
Applause from the public was cut off by Judge Coleman with one sharp bang of her gavel. Many said they saw a fleeting facial expression suggesting approval of the reaction she was hearing from the people. True or not, Judge Rita Coleman eventually did become a living legend. A legal star with the historical stature of an Elizabeth Rose Bird.
Dolores Savage Esq. glanced at the crowd and then turned to the Judge to conclude her case. Now the "beaver huntress" was sweating.
"The defendant has admitted he is the one being overly cautious and has offered no proof of any kind that supports his decision to ignore the army and deny it access for beaver control and general river enhancement. Therefor, the Army respectfully requests the court order Gaston Gravier to cease obstructing the Army's plan for ensuring the security and safety of the people of this valley."
Judge Rita Coleman had obviously reached her decision for she responded almost instantly.
"The Army has not established a credible hazard or social inconvenience resulting from Mr Gravier refusing access permission to his land in order for the Army to carry out a beaver eradication and river bed clearing program," she declared pounding her gavel.
Gaston smiled in relief for the beavers and other animals. He laughed out loud at the celebration his friends and valley neighbors were enjoying inside and outside the courtroom. This was the moment he first felt his power to do good for all life on Earth. He knew all those animals and they knew him. He knew that he had used his intelligence and imagination to save several indigenous beaver colonies and an uncounted number of refugees who escaped the army's beaver war. Gaston Gravier smiled as he shook hands with everyone in reach. He found himself still smiling and hugging and shaking hands outside on the courthouse lawn.
The entire river was empty of beavers, both directions, up and down river; except for those living on his farm, and it was bursting with refugee beavers looking for a new home. Gaston laughed out loud again. Friends and neighbors had been urging him to become more active politically. Saving so many beavers and other animals boosted his ego with new self confidence. Gaston thought he might help at the looming constitutional convention. He had heard of autonomous democracy and new ways of voting. Saving so many animals energized much of the town and they all listened respectfully as they steered him to a recreation center sit down dinner. The day had disappeared in court. The night turned to food, music and celebration. Gaston went home a happy man.