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Observations: Compromising Principles

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image "My" osprey flying off his new perch in the marina. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Principles can be malleable, but I’m still surprised when I toss mine out the window.

By Mitch Traphagen

It is amazing how transient principles can be. Years ago, I went backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park with a friend. The park is a national treasure, we studied it and learned how incredibly fragile the tundra grasses were at the elevations we planned to hike. The most conscientious hikers eschewed the best and most popular hiking boots because the sole of the boot, while excellent for the grip and safety of the hiker had a nasty tendency to chew up the tundra. We decided to wear the boots but would always be careful not to leave the trail at the higher elevations, thus eliminating any possibility of damage.

We should have known things wouldn’t go well. The campsite for the second night of the trip was named July and we were backpacking in June. As we approached 10,000 feet in elevation, well above the tree line, the clouds started piling up against the mountains and began to appear ominous. We were out in the open on a mountain and suddenly, with little regard for anything but our own skin, our environmental concerns went straight out the window. Trail or no trail, we were going to get off that mountain as quickly as possible. As we tromped over the fragile tundra in our haste to save ourselves, we created the mantra, “*** the tundra!” I’ll say right now that I was young and stupid, for both the profanity and for walking over the tundra with our uber-damaging hiking boots. Fortunately, I learned that day just how stupid I was as I cleared snow away from the campsite in order to pitch the tent. Yes, there was a reason the site was named July.

Looking back, I was amazed that my oh-so-lofty and noble principles could be so easily diminished by the mere presence of a simple afternoon thunderstorm. It took so little to throw away what I thought had so much meaning. Working for the House of Representatives, I gained an appreciation for that. In Washington, D.C., principles are compromised in the name of what is hoped to be the greater good. It didn’t take working there long for me to realize that without compromise, nothing would be accomplished and no one would survive for long, including some of our greatest presidents. And it doesn’t matter who you think are the greatest presidents, they all compromised.

In D.C., everything is compromise. Those who totally lose sight of their principles in compromising tend to end up on the front page — such as we’ve seen recently — and occasionally behind bars, but the majority of compromise is done to move things along, to at least take a step forward. Whether you are the one giving or the one taking in any one circumstance depends upon what side of the aisle you are on. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The next time, or the time after that, those who took will surely be giving. It’s not perfect, of course, but it has worked for 235 years and there is no reason to think it won’t work next week or next year.

So yes, I know principles can be malleable, but I’m still surprised when I toss mine out the window.

Ospreys are beautiful and majestic birds. They are protected by the state of Florida and rightly so. Lately though, they’ve become my nemesis. To support the mast of a sailboat, there are wires running from the deck to the middle and top of the mast. Sticking out from the mast are spreaders, they help to guide two heavy-duty wires to the very top. On my boat, the spreaders are made of wood and have a flat surface a few inches across. They are the perfect perch for my nemesis osprey to nap, fish and…well, poop. Ospreys are prolific — at both fishing and at the latter. The mess left on my deck and on the boat’s canvas is something that you would have to see to believe. Hours have been wasted in the hot sun spent scrubbing it all off only to return a day or two later and find an even worse mess. That’s not even mentioning the various fish parts that are apparently inedible and thus, slovenly dropped to the deck.

Finally, I had enough. I climbed the mast and ran string between the mast and the wires, just above the spreaders, thus robbing the osprey of his perch. The string was heavy enough for him to see, but not so large and cumbersome that he could simply push it out of the way.

I climbed down the mast and felt a sense of victory. Perhaps now my boat would remain clean. My victory was confirmed a few hours later when I walked out on deck and saw no new fish parts or other piles of unspeakable droppings. But then I looked over at a boat just a short distance away.

That boat’s spreaders were not nearly so large and flat as mine, yet perched upon them was my osprey. He looked disheveled and unhappy. In fact, I could actually feel his sadness. For reasons he couldn’t begin to fathom, his favorite place was no longer accessible to him. He had no idea why his favorite perch was gone, but he knew the replacement was not nearly so comfortable and familiar. I honestly felt bad for him.

In the evening, I walked out on my still un-fouled deck and there he was, still looking sad. I called out to him, “I’m sorry,” I said aloud, not caring if people in the marina thought I was insane. As I spoke, he looked over at me and I swear upon all I hold dear that I could again feel his sadness. It was almost enough for me to climb up the mast and remove the strings I tied to prevent him from landing.

Almost enough, but not quite — I have my principles. I love that there are ospreys here, and I will contribute to causes that help to ensure their survival; but in this case, I just had to compromise. He had been “giving” me way too much, and I just had to take it away.

A short while later, I walked out on deck again and saw the osprey, still sitting on his new perch. I noticed he had fallen asleep. He’s home.

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