Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.1.07

Crossing the Lines
The need for real conversations

I believe the single most moving, admirable behavior of humans is when they converse across lines: ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, political, racial, age, cultural or species.

Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize in 1983 for her scientific research on so-called “jumping genes,” mobile sequences of DNA within the genetic material of a cell. She discovered this process in the 1940s and early 1950s. It helped explain how genes can turn off or on the expression of some physical characteristics in a living being. Other scientists finally understood her work in the 1960s and 1970s as they studied genetic regulation and genetic change. McClintock spent her adult life with corn, and a fellow scientist remarked that McClintock was able to see things happening within corn genes that others had not yet seen because she empathized with corn. She conversed with corn, listening by observing and talking by testing hypotheses. A biography of McClintock is titled A Feeling for the Organism.

I remember a remarkable, quiet conversation in 1980 with a soldier who was on lunch break during military training in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. I was doing my botany doctoral research there among buckwheat flowers and their pollinators. He wandered over to where I was tracking wasps and attending to plants that were variously covered with thin cloth cages or open to insect visits. He asked about everything I did. Because I needed to have the various species of wasps identified for my dissertation, I had a killing jar and he watched as I placed two wasps in it.

“I notice you didn’t watch the wasps as they were dying,” he said.

I hadn’t noticed. “You’re right,” I admitted. “I don’t like to see what I’m doing.”

Then I ventured the reciprocity. “I guess that’s how military people can bomb villages from the air, yes? They don’t have to see what they’re doing.”

A silence. “I think you’re right,” he said.

He stayed on until he needed to return to his squad.

“Well,” he said, “I thought I was just going for a walk during lunch. I didn’t know I was going to learn so much about life.”

Me neither.

The Latin origin of the word “conversation” is “com” (with) + “vertare” (turn about) = “turn about with.” This carries the essence of conversation: its two-way nature; its reciprocity; its equality among those engaged in conversation; the changes that can happen.

Perhaps the polar opposite of conversation is subjugation. The Latin origin of the word comes from “sub” (under) + “jugum” (yoke) = “to bring under a yoke.”

War is not a conversation. Neither is imprisonment without rights. Authoritarian parenting. Extinction of species. Political control through economic wealth. Toxic emissions. Unequal treatment of gay people. Heating of everyone’s climate. Overpopulation of Earth by humans. Abusive words.

In each of these cases, the exchanges are not equal or reciprocal. One side is doing the “talking”; the effect is to place the other under a yoke. It’s never good.

We’ve had a long non-conversation in Eugene regarding the West Eugene Parkway. And then some people on opposite sides of the parkway issue began conversing. They listened and considered what each other was saying. Then there were some more conversations. About west Eugene transportation. Transportation needs of commercial industries. Transportation options for Veneta. Wetlands. Fears. How to get past fears.


Our community is now inching toward a formal, sustained conversation (a “collaborative process”) about solutions for transportation and environment in west Eugene. Where everyone who cares about the outcome (including butterflies) is well represented. Where everyone present will be encouraged to talk and everyone else is expected to listen. Where everyone tries to offer solutions all the others can accept and everyone is expected to consider ideas they hadn’t previously considered.

Those who engage in conversations are the hope of the world. The Ron Chases who converse with ex-cons and the Sister Prejeans who converse with murderers. Teachers who converse well with eighth-graders. The Kevin Wheelers who converse with boreal toads in muddy mountain ponds. The Kitty Piercys who try to converse with everyone in their community. The Al Gores who converse with the atmosphere. The journalists who converse with the despised; the discarded; the innovators; ones who know what isn’t being told.

We need conversations across lines because we never know as much as we thought we did. Such conversations tend to foment understanding. At a remarkable rate, they replace fear with affection and impasses with solutions. They are born out of courage.

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at