Saturday, March 26 Isothermal Writers workshop (with John Sealy)
Friday, April 1 Poetry Workshop Lanier Library, Tryon, NC
Thursday April 14 Dead Fathers Poem Reading, 4pm Wofford Library
[As you can see by the date, I wrote this piece 21 years ago while teaching an interim class at Wofford College called “Integration & the Movies.” As a final project I asked my students– 12 black and 12 white– to write letters either to ML King or Malcolm X from “on down the line” as to how their visions turned out. I did the assignment and this is what turned out for me. We are even further “down the line” now and it’s interesting to consider this in terms of this particular MLK Day. Enjoy JL]
May I call you Martin? I feel I know you so well, and I would take it as an honor if I could use your first name as so many of your supporters did in the Civil Rights movement back in the 60s. I am a white Southern man, living and teaching in a middle-sized Southern town. We have one special connection to you here; your father is said to have preached here at a black Baptist church before you were born. I drive right past it on my way to work. I like to imagine you, maybe as a teenager, visiting here with your father to see old friends, walking the street in front of the church, the social revolution of mid-century already articulate and sleeping within you.
Martin, it has been twenty-three years since you were murdered in Memphis, and much has happened in those years; I will try and tell you about a few things that I know you would find of the deepest interest, no matter how much they may sadden you. First, you should be aware that your country is at war once again. The war you opposed finally ended in 1975, when the last Americans were pulled out of Saigon. Many feel we “lost” the war in Vietnam, and that defeat seems in some unconscious way to be part of what we are trying to correct in our cultural character in this present conflict. The politicians say, as always, we are fighting for “freedom,” and “liberty,” but most know there are much more banal realities at stake than those lofty ideals.
Why are we fighting? As in Vietnam, nothing is simple. We are told that a man named Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, is a monster, and is only years away from having a nuclear bomb; he has gassed his own people to quell an uprising, and he fought a brutal eight year war with Iran, where we supported him with weapons and funds. Much of America’s foreign policy over the years since you died has followed the old proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Maybe there is no doubt, if what we are told is true, that Saddam is a brutal tribal leader who has somehow risen to control the fourth largest army on the face of the planet.
Many are comparing Saddam to Hitler, and many people when you ask them, use that argument to support our country’s actions. I know there can never be another Hitler, Martin, just as there can never be another you. But there is so much trouble in the Middle East. Maybe the Bible you knew so well was right about the Middle East, that the final battle will be fought in sand and heat.
Things have happened so fast. In August of this year, soon after Saddam made peace with Iran, he invaded his neighbor, Kuwait. Now, six months later, with the support of the United Nations, we have half a million troops in the dry, dusty Middle Eastern oil fields. Many in our country wanted to “strangle” Iraq, to tighten an embargo around the country and continue to tighten it until Saddam pulls out of Kuwait. Some said this could be a truly “just” war and that we should not make the mistakes of Vietnam again. With that sort of resolve we began a massive bombardment of Iraq, using conventional weapons to level everything of military importance. We are now three weeks into the bombardment, and the frightening prospect for most Americans is that our troops are poised to enter Kuwait and extract Saddam Hussein’s army. Everyone knows that this action could be bloody and maybe as brutal as anything in the Iran/Iraq war.
Many have taken to the streets already against this war, as if many in our country have lost any resolve that war–no matter how just we might call it–can solve anything in this present age. Some citizens tie yellow ribbons around oak trees in support of our troops, and others hold prayer vigils to call on higher powers. Most ask for peace I’m sure, but what they whisper in their hearts is not known to anyone but God.
I’ve been thinking about you since the bombs began to fall on Baghdad. I’ve imagined that you would probably say we Americans have failed as soldiers of the heart, even though our jets and missiles now rule the skies over the Iraqi desert.
You are still remembered, Martin. It could even be said that you are a hero for many, an icon of sorts now. On the afternoon of the fourteenth of January, I watched your “I had a Dream” speech. The speech was recorded on a video tape that is readily available in almost every town of any size in America. Maybe that would surprise you most of all, how available you and your ideas are to millions of Americans. Anyone, with three dollars, a video tape player for their T.V., and a membership to a video store can spend an evening with “Martin Luther King, Jr.” So on the eve of your birthday (now a national holiday in all but three states) I joined a small gathering of students–almost all black–to view your twenty minute speech delivered in Washington in 1963.
As I’m sure you remember, you delivered your prepared text, then departed toward the end, in the flow of the moment, into one of the greatest, most heart-felt flourishes of rhetoric and feeling that an American leader has ever delivered. You gave us, in the last five minutes of your speech, two metaphors. You talked of non-violence being a “marvelous militancy,” a revolution not of the spleen but of the heart, and then you told us your personal dream: that men and women should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skins.
It was with your “marvelous militancy” that you unquestionably opposed war as a means to bring about peace. On the battlefield of the heart, I believe you would have said, there is only one means to the end called peace. The means is non-violence. Many today believe you were brought down in Memphis by this larger dream of yours, which included not only poor blacks of the Southern United States, but all poor people in the world–even, in your time, our enemy’s poor: the poor of both Vietnams.
So on the fifteenth of January, your birthday, the United States struck Iraq. Maybe history, as it moves along, will note the irony. That evening, a hundred ultra-modern cruise missiles came in low over the desert, hitting targets in Baghdad with what our military is calling “pin-point accuracy.”
Our President, George Bush, addressed the American public shortly after the air strikes began. I could not help but think of your speech, with its fresh perspectives and lively metaphors. President Bush had none of the freshness or power that we have always expected from our heroes; he told us that no “arms would be tied behind our military’s backs.” Earlier, before the war begun, he had talked of the U.S. “kicking some ass” in Kuwait, sounding like the World War II fighter pilot he is. So our president has set the tone for the Nineties; we would meet Saddam’s forceful occupation of Kuwait with our own force, and the cliched wrath of the Old Testament was unleashed again in the Middle East.
In his speech, our president called the fighting in the Middle East, the establishment of “A new world order.” But Martin, no matter what our president said, I believe you were the true prophet of “A new world order.” You believed with your heart in the organized use of non-violence in the face of even the most brutal force. You drew no line in the sand of non-violence. It was heart power all the way. The violent strikes by both Allied and Iraqis are nothing more than the age-old belief in meeting force with force. No real difference, you might say, between the war chariots of old Babylon and an American cruise missile. The brilliant technology arrayed against Iraq is an extension of the brutal “eye for an eye” justice of ancient Sumer. Each missile is a paragraph from Hammurabi’s Code chiseled in stone, not a flourish from an extemporaneous leader’s challenge. “Peaceful ends through peaceful means,” you would say.
You gave a thousand sermons and speeches to define your emerging “world order;” you filled the Birmingham city jails with singing children to sweep forward against the guns and clubs of a Southern racist police force rallied against the movement. It is clear to me now, twenty-two years after your death, that you truly believed in human imagination, heart and soul, not technology and force. And I believe more each day that true change takes your sort of imagination, not engineering, what can be plotted on the command computers of a missile or an F-15.
I guess nothing that I have said would surprise you. Less than a year before you died, you had written, “The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person’ oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
What can we do, Martin? What would you do? How can we live creatively in the “world house” with people like Saddam Hussein in the next room? Even if we did create him with our support, with our weapons deals and aid, he lives there now, like an uncle gone bad, stealing the family silver.
One more story that seems of some relevance: the day the war started it snowed in my town, and as I was leaving my office on campus to head home I heard screaming from the fraternity horseshoe. A snow ball fight had escalated into a near-brawl. There were two lines of fraternity boys facing off, screaming horrible things across the line. I wandered closer. Their faces were red; I could see the veins in their necks as they screamed and shook their fists at the opposing lin of fellow students.
My God, Martin, that is how it happens! The hate that can take us to war is as close as our own communities, and it can surface over the simplest things. I couldn’t help but see in the two lines of South Carolina fraternity boys the lines of Mississippi citizens lined up to brutally beat the Freedom riders as they came off the busses in ’61. There was “no good reason” for such hate, but that didn’t stop what happened back then. It seems that all we can do is continue to look into our hearts and act as originally as we see fit. The heart hasn’t changed much in 23 years, Martin. It’s still wide open in many and cold as a foxhole in many others. What kind of “marvelous militancy” will this age give us? I’m counting on you still to help point the way, just as Thoreau and Ghandi helped point the way for you. You left many ageless signs behind–in your books and speeches–and I’m hoping we can follow, leading as you suggested, not with one of the “three giant triplits”–militarism–but with our hearts.
Wishing you peace on the other side,
This morning we walked Murphy on the beach. January at Hilton Head is “low season,” so the beach was almost deserted. It was also low tide, but with bright sun and warm air. A few people strolled between the remnant dunes and winter ocean and we even let the dog off the leash. In high season Murphy would only be welcome early morning and late evening on the Hilton Head beach, the heat of the day reserved for paying human sun worshippers.
At first Murphy ran along the shore where star fish were stranded by the hundreds and I entered into a literary relationship with place as I often do. I remembered Loren Eiseley’s nature essay, “The Star Thrower,” read the first time thirty-five years ago. It’s about a lonely man Eiseley encounters throwing star fish back into the sea, a “perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back to life again.”
On these visits I’m often uncomfortable with the idea of Sea Pines. It’s the tension that’s always present between compassion and privilege, and I thought about that tension as we walked south among all the dying and dead star fish.
I reached down and tossed one back and I looked out to sea and thought about eternity, as I knew Loren Eisleley would expect me to do.
My lack of ease with Sea Pines is economic and social in origin. I was once a poor kid and I am no longer. There’s tension in the distance between who I was and who I am now. I grew up in an environment where resources were scarce, a cash desert, so the forces that shaped this island’s society since the 1960s were foreign to me most of my life. I still don’t understand them but I see that the wealth bubble of the past forty years has been glacial in its immensity. If all money locked up on Hilton Head in real estate, cash, securities, and stocks were ice, the burden on this island would be a mile high like the ice sheet now covering Greenland. But glacial ages pass and with the last decade’s thaw it’s possible that Hilton Head (and Sea Pines) could be seen in the future as a sort of terminal moraine left by the remarkable wealth and privilege.
Then Murphy changed course and pulled me away from my literary and social musings. He ran high up on the beach, slinging loose sand behind him. As he sniffed his way south I stopped and cast my gaze upward from the star fish on the shore to the beachfront houses. I focused on two in particular, a low one-story model with a screened porch all the way across the front, and a two-story stucco palace, what many would call a “McMansion,” with open balconies and fax classic column flourishes. “That’s where an old 60s beach house sat. That mansion’s the result of a tear down,” Betsy said, coming up behind me. “Looks like the new people in town don’t like screened porches.”
This contrast of the houses renewed my uneasy tension with Sea Pines. Until I started coming down here with Betsy my relationship with the place was entirely literary. I’d read what Charles Fraser created here in the 1960s but I knew Fraser only through John McPhee’s 1980s portrait of him in Encounters with the Archdruid when he was trying (unsuccessfully) to develop the Cumberland Island wilderness. In McPhee’s book Fraser is one of the villains at war with the Sierra Club’s David Brower. Back then Fraser told McPhee that he regarded all conservationists as druids (religious figures who sacrifice people and worship trees), so I know I wouldn’t have had much of a place in his universe. I wondered what he’d make of Eiseley’s “star thrower.”
Fraser’s been dead now for a decade. He lost control of the vision of Sea Pines Plantation (now known as Sea Pines “Resort”) in the 1980s and soon after that it changed hands many times. Fraser’s stock has risen. He is now considered an early visionary, a golden age grandparent of the “sustainability”/new urbanism movement, even the inventor of the modern resort style, but Sea Pines has followed other resort models through the years after a bankruptcy or two. Fraser’s original vision of the forest preserve, a thousand acre green space in the middle of the development, has been legally compromised, and many of the development’s original design standards have been relaxed.
Everybody carries around in their head clichéd phrases that prop up their world view. Two chestnuts I often trot out are William Faulkner’s “The past is not dead, sometimes it isn’t even past,” and one I often attribute to the Shakers, “Every force evolves a form.” Both echoed in my brain when I looked up at the two houses in the dunes at Sea Pines, and each made my heart ache in a different way. The old Sea Pines is a past that was capable of dying, and the force of the free market over the last forty years has evolved this ugly form of this current row of beach front houses.
When Murphy changed course again I looked away from the dunes and the line of contemporary houses there– surviving constructions from the quickly passing human financial bubble. When I looked the other way, out at the ocean, I saw a hint of eternity–time and tides. To stand next to the ocean is to be in touch with these eternal cycles of nature, but also with some base human cycles as well. Maybe that’s the whole point of vacation, to bring up such stark contrasts. Maybe that’s all that really matters. If you focus on the star fish and throw a few back you can glimpse eternity, in spite of the ugliness of the first row of new houses back from the dunes.
During my junior year in college I spent part of December and January of 1976 in South Florida on an independent study of sub-tropical ecology with my close friend, David Scott. We made our way south from South Carolina to the Everglades.
My friend and teacher Ab Abercrombie agreed to be our sponsor for the class. He told us what he knew of the Everglades, let us borrow the old Grumman canoe, and sent us on our way. It is in the Everglades where I saw many endangered species the first time–the bald eagle, the reddish egret, the indigo snake, the Everglades kite.
The Everglades National Park is over a million acres–but most of the visitors stay on the few miles of paved roads and trails, camp in numbered spots in the campgrounds, sleep in their Winnebagos. For us, our first month in the ‘Glades was an outlaw trip. I’m a little embarrassed by it now, but we felt that as long as we weren’t aware of laws, we were beyond them. We felt that the regulations the Park Service had established were for the millions of tourists who visited the Everglades and didn’t apply to us.
We camped where we wanted, caught endangered snakes with our bare hands, photographed them, and released them unharmed the next day. We spent our days hip-deep in water and mud off the trail, visiting off-limits islands in Ab’s then not-so-old Grumman canoe. Though Ab did not encourage our lawlessness (he wasn’t even aware of it at the time), he was like the threshold guardian in the fairy tales, pointing the way down the trails. He told us to go and find wildlife in the Everglades, and so we did.
We spent six weeks in the park that winter, and it was there I encountered one of my holy places: Buzzard’s Roost. We were listening to an interpretive naturalist’s program one day, and the speaker had called Buzzard’s Roost a “paradise.” I don’t think she imagined that there would be anyone in the tourist group who would actually hike through the sawgrass to see the place, a full mile off the edge of the trail.
The next day we walked out the asphalt Anhinga Trail, past the railing separating curious tourists from the slough full of preening Anhingas and basking alligators. Just beyond this, one of the most visited trails in any national park, we parted the button bush and disappeared behind it. There a trail headed off behind a fence. At that spot we departed the well-worn trail. We walked a mile through the sawgrass on an old air boat track beaten down by the park rangers on patrol and the park researchers checking sites. The everglades water was cool. Our long pants and tennis shoes quickly soaked through to our knees. It smelled of rotting vegetation. Ahead, we could see where the cypress trees formed a pyramid with large old trees in the middle and stunted ones around the edges of the circle of cypress. We knew this was Buzzard’s Roost.
We heard cricket and leopard frogs in the sawgrass ahead of us. As we stopped once to listen, a ribbon snake at our feet was swallowing a frog. We took pictures and then noticed when we picked the snake up that it had been gorging on frogs! Its body was lumpy with them! When we let the snake go, it moved quickly through the sawgrass in spite of its huge meal.
After a mile the air boat trail veers off to the east, and so we followed an alligator trail the rest of the distance–about another mile–to the cypress head. The trail, really only an indention in the grass, led from a small willow head to Buzzard’s Roost, and there were alligator tail drags and defecation all along the way.
Where we entered the dome there was a fringe of coco plum trees about fifteen feet high mixed in with stunted cypress, and the ground was matted with dead brown cypress needles. Inside the dome it was pure cypress and huge ferns. The old cypresses had fallen and were covered with ferns. There was a primordial feel to the place as the sun slanted through the shading branches. It was easy walking once we were inside, the cypress needles spongy under our shoes. We headed for the middle where we could see water shimmering in the light gap. Egrets waded in the shallow water, and as we approached, two gators slid into the water. They were huge, over ten feet. We stood at the hole for awhile, not saying anything. Finally one of the shy monsters surfaced, but quickly disappeared again under the dark water of the alligator hole.
Walking around the central alligator hole David found a stink pot turtle in the cypress needles and a little further on, a green anole on a dead cypress. The way David caught the anole was pure David Scott: the lizard headed up the thin cypress, and David shook the truck vigorously, and the surprised lizard tumbled down from its fifteen-foot purchase into David’s waiting hands.
A place like Buzzard’s Roost would stun someone from Wyoming, every inch of earth covered with a green hell of trees and grass that never stops growing and spreading, only slows down a little with the seasons. Such a southern place, I’ve come to believe, is like the talk of Southerners, a snarl of connections and mannered greetings, a social history of words in every introduction, a verbal bramble in every square inch of space. The south Florida wilderness offers a growing season of over 360 days. This single fact alone seems to separate the landscape from almost every single area of the country. That and the water.
I remember Buzzard’s Roost now (it’s been twenty years since I’ve been back there) as a shimmering place, a lingering, hidden, exposed, slow-flowing, duck weed-clogged stretch of water and trees. Three of the beasts that most sane people fear in the Everglades are there: rattlesnake, cottonmouth, alligator. They lie hidden, sunning in flattened pockets of sawgrass.They move slowly from shade to shade. They catch and eat anything with calories.
At Buzzard’s Roost what started out as a simple interim class became something much more complex. It was the beginning of what would become for us a sacred act, a yearly pilgrimage to South Florida, something very unacademic.
Ab joined us the next year, suffering our lawlessness; we canoed to Florida Bay’s mangrove islands to look for nesting osprey, camped under Australian pines, stared up at the wide South Florida sky, walked the Shark River trail, caught water snakes and baby alligators while the rangers weren’t looking, then released them back into the canals.
We were beyond the rules and regulations that the world was living by, and we knew somehow how important this outlaw stance was for us. It was what would release us; the country needed wild and endangered species, but we needed wild and endangered experiences.
For David and me these times were the tail end of childhood; we would graduate from college the next year and have to face creating a living somehow, still not sure if we wanted “the Real World” (as our friends called everything beyond college) to pass us by. Looking back, those days in the Everglades were the formative acts that taught me that the experience I needed to grow up was out there on the edge of the known, beyond what could be regulated or improved.
Edit or delete this entry. Make sure to always categorize your posts
The Union County lake that all reasonable people thought had been put to rest in 2008 is somehow, like Dracula, back from the dead.
Let me refresh your memory if you’ve somehow forgotten this important environmental issue: In 2004 Union County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered into an agreement through the Planning Assistance to States program to create a feasibility study for the potential creation of “Patriots Lake,” a 5,000 acre reservoir on private and public land along the Tyger River.
Most of the local and state environmental groups opposed the plan. The Sierra Club, Audubon, S.C. Wildlife Federation, and the Native Plant Society all lined up in opposition and promised stands against the lake. The impoundment would inundate 1,600 acres of freshwater wetlands and destroy waterfowl habitat and the nesting grounds for many species of birds. All this for a real estate pipe dream and a badly conceived plan to dam one of the most beautiful and ecologically important rivers in the piedmont.
These groups all pointed out that the plan to build the lake would lead to a national outcry if public lands were to be converted to benefit a few private interests.
I was opposed from the beginning as well, and have said so in several columns. I said I believe in public land, and as I see it, Union County wanted to create a lake on land that I own, land in the stewardship of the U.S. Forest Service. A decision like that should be discussed not only in Union County, but also in Spartanburg, Greenville, Anderson, Florida, Oregon, and Vermont.
When it was finally released, the feasibility study offered no good news for Union County. In their report on the project the Corps concluded that the lake would be situated over two earthquake faults.
What’s worse, the $187 million boondoggle would take federal land and open it to private development through a series of land swaps and purchase agreements.
In Union County, the few who were rich would get richer, and the lake project would do little for real economic development. The project would be a flash flood, not the kind of deep economic progress that soaks a community and revitalizes it like spring rains.
This report was good news for the Upcountry of South Carolina and for those who love public land. Our elected politicians concluded that Patriots Lake is not the best use of land for economic development. It would take a living river and drown it under an unnecessary impoundment.
But this summer the lake became one of the lead issues in the heated primary election campaign for Congress between Bob Inglis and Trey Gowdy.
Everyone knows that the only way the plan’s moving forward is with a flood of federal dollars, and Bob Inglis has always known the lake’s a bad idea. He said so.
But Trey Gowdy has put the discussion back on the table in spite of overwhelming evidence that this waterlogged potential earmark is our “bridge to nowhere.” Leading into the fall’s regular election you can expect the Union County Lake to bob like flotsam around Congressional District 4 discussions.
Bad ideas float back up in election years. PowerPoints, and partisan favors have been known to push them to the surface in spite of good sense and hard evidence from the agencies that should decide such things.
It’s up to vigilant citizens to drain this lake idea before it moves any further. We need to remind Congress we know that this lake was a bad idea in 2004 when it was proposed. It was a bad idea in 2008 when the Corps of Engineers put it to rest, and it’s still a bad idea as it staggers to life once again with the help of pandering politicians and local P.T. Barnum promoters.
There’s been so much talk in Spartanburg about Mayor Junie White issuing a proclamation making June 19th, 2010 “Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Day” that I too wanted to weigh in.
I decided that as a certified poet and therefore one of Percey Bysshe Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world” that I will use my power to proclaim support of proclamations. I therefore issue my own proclamation. After all, historically proclamations are as much a part of governing as laws.
I proclaim that proclaiming is ancient, and therefore should be looked upon as one of the gifts given to us by the past.
I proclaim that the Greeks considered proclaiming so important they even gave it its own supernatural entity, Angelia, the spirit of messages, tidings and, yes, proclamations.
I also therefore proclaim in this modern democracy that presidents without agreement from congresses, governors without agreement from legislatures, and mayors without agreement among fractious city councils should continue to proclaim whatever they have the motivation or courage to proclaim.
I proclaim that right-wingers should give up on reducing the role of government in our lives if that reduction should include lessening the ability of poets, presidents, governors, or mayors to proclaim what they have the courage to proclaim.
I proclaim that left-wingers should abandon the utopian hope that they will always be in agreement with all that is proclaimed.
I proclaim that centrists should look to both sides and call it good when proclamations ring out in the land.
Proclamations can be profound, as in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and they can also be perceived otherwise, such as the numerous proclamations for momentarily famous people and trivial achievements.
I proclaim that it is always left to the particular audience hearing the proclamation to sort out among themselves over time the profundity and importance thereof.
I proclaim it is also left to history, on which our actions either place us on the wrong or the right side.
I proclaim that Spartanburg, a place often perceived as caught in one of the many eddies of history, may have finally floated into the mainstream of civil rights.
I proclaim that maybe, just maybe, Spartanburg’s Mayor Junie White’s proclamation has placed him (and Spartanburg) on the right side of history.
I proclaim that the mayor’s support of LGBT equality was among the wisest, noblest things an elected official has done in the Upcountry of South Carolina.
I proclaim that there is no evidence the proclamation was politically motivated, or religiously motivated, or economically motivated, which makes it an act rare as summer snow in the Upcountry.
I proclaim Mayor Junie White’s proclamation was motivated by his wanting to do the right thing, and he did.
Thus proclaimed, I also proclaim to remember that we the people will continue to take sides on such proclamations, and will often disagree as to which side is just.
I therefore proclaim that the simple act of proclaiming is one of the cornerstones of democracy and justice and goodness.
I proclaim henceforth and forever that proclamations will flow freely among us. So be it. Today is proclamation day. It is thus proclaimed.
My friend Jack Byrne was in the upcountry last week to teach a sustainability workshop at Furman University. Jack’s the director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College in Vermont, one of the leaders in academic responsibility in the area of climate change.
Middlebury has pledged to be carbon neutral as an institution by 2016, and Jack has a large role in getting them there.
The college has a new biomass gasification plant. Rather than burn fuel oil from the Middle East, Middlebury burns a local renewable resource-wood from nearby forests and residue from milling operations, reducing their carbon footprint.
They move their nordic ski team around with a converted truck they run on waste vegetable oil from the dining halls. Their Snow Bowl has become the first carbon neutral ski area in the country.
Middlebury’s not alone in their pledge for a sustainable campus. Along with Middlebury, Furman was one of the first to sign the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a document that assures many of America’s schools will take climate change seriously.
Wofford College has now joined on as well. In all, about 675 colleges and universities have committed to develop plans for reducing their carbon emissions.
After Jack had finished his workshop at Furman we went on a road trip up through the southern mountains of North Carolina. We drove the back roads in my pickup truck, visited several friends, and talked about the state of the earth.
I took Jack up into Little Canada, one of the wildest corners of the mountains. Leftover snow from a big storm made him feel right at home. Then we stayed the night at my cabin near Cullowhee, where we sat next to a campfire and looked at a clear night sky free of light pollution.
Next morning we drove through the Nantahala Gorge, then climbed up the side of Wayah Bald and dropped over into the valley of the Little Tennessee where Franklin sits.
It was a typical road trip except for one thing. We were hyper aware the whole way of the carbon tracks we were laying down through the mountains of North Carolina. By the time we pulled back into Spartanburg we’d burned 20 gallons of gas, consumed four meals, bought a few things, and burned about 20 pounds of firewood with our campfire. All this made for quite a debt to the planet.
Being academics the irony did not escape us. Our institutional positions (Jack’s at Middlebury and mine teaching in Wofford’s environmental studies program) demanded some awareness and action.
But what could we do?
Jack said he buys carbon offsets for his trips. Carbon offsets are emission reduction credits from another organization’s sustainability projects that result in less carbon or other gases in the atmosphere. Jack uses a group called Native Energy.
They’re considered one of the top-rated carbon offset companies in the business. Payments for their carbon offset credits go to support renewable wind energy projects.
Some believe carbon offsets are a viable way to reduce individual, institutional, and corporate carbon footprints, while others ridicule offsets as pie-in-the-sky efforts to reduce climate guilt. The offsets make sense to me, if you use a company that’s legit like Native Energy.
Jack did a quick calculation before he left for Vermont and he figured our 300-mile road trip produced a little less than a ton of carbon. Native Energy charges about 12 dollars a ton for carbon offsets, so the credit will cost me about three lattes.
What’s the right action with climate change? The problem’s real, it’s not going away, and it will impact our lives even more in the future. I’m not willing to stop traveling, and I don’t think I’ll ever travel again without being aware of the carbon I’m spewing.
Last Friday evening it began snowing about 5 p.m. It fell at a rate of an inch an hour. By nine, four inches of powder covered the yards and roads as the fast-moving storm softened every angle with a shadow of unexpected white. There wasn’t even a mention this time of a “wintery mix.” We were getting pure snow.
As usual, our weather came up the I-85 corridor from Atlanta. Like clockwork, two hours after it was snowing in Atlanta the storm began in Spartanburg.
As the snow fell, it brought back many memories of frequent childhood snow storms to rival anything in Nebraska or Ohio. (Note to self: Someday check the newspaper archives to see whether it really did snow more in Spartanburg back in the 1960s and 70s.)
Back then there was also an order of expectation connected with winter weather. Every time the WSPA weatherman called for frozen precipitation, I knew there was also the possibility of a whole other order of disappointment.
On Friday Weather.com reported the exact hour the snow would start, the number of inches, and when it would stop. I tracked the storm on radar, watching the pink blob move over us in the cyberspace of my laptop.
In my childhood the weatherman seemed right about half the time at best. I think he kept a crate of chickens in the back for divining. “Might snow, and it might not,” was the best he could do.
It was up to us young mortals to worry over the mythology of weather. “Stick” was one of the magic words I remember from my piedmont childhood.
“Will it stick this time?” I would always ask my mother when the uncertain weatherman made his prediction. I knew if it didn’t stick, then school was a certainty.
Mama would open the door and check the actual conditions outside. She’d look up at the “snow clouds” and say, “Yes, I think it’s gonna stick this time.”
And what about those snow birds Mama was always pointing out when she’d drive out to get our bread and milk?
Where have all the snow birds gone? It’s been thirty years since I’ve heard anyone talk about them, and I can’t find them in my fancy field guide. They’re as rare as Greek gods now.
Instead of snow birds our children have the Weather Channel, and they’re fooled into thinking it’s not so important to look for snow clouds. They’ve traded self-reliance for weather personalities like Jim Cantore.
There are also some snow memories I’d rather forget. I remember once my brother in law got the car stuck on Whitestone Road and we walked a mile in the dark before finding shelter and a working phone at a stranger’s house. Those were the days before cell phones. I remember it felt like I’d fallen into a Jack London short story about Alaska. Were there wolves in the snowy Pacolet woods? Could I start a fire with spruce boughs? Would we ever see our distant family again?
And there’s the radiation that we all worried about in snow cream. Out west our government was still testing nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. We were all told not to eat the snow. The effect of that warning lingered for decades. That radioactive snow should have turned everyone into environmentalists, but it didn’t.
We quickly forgot that whatever you put in the air has its consequences. Forty years later the Chinese are polluting the snow in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains with their own industrial revolution, and coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley are blotting out the peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains with their fumes.
That’s what I thought about as the snow fell on Friday. I thought about snow memories. I watched it drift down and renew the whole February landscape. It brightened the dull winter hues and lifted my sprits. It focused me on the weather and reminded me I’m part of the world.
“Did you like AVATAR?” my friends ask when I tell them I finally saw it, the blockbuster James Cameron 3-D film. How could I not? I’m “green” to the core, an environmentalist, and my favorite Bible story as a child was always Eden.
The film let me disappear for several hours into a digital fantasy chock full of exotic wilderness, deep kinship with the rest of creation, and a fight for preservation. It let me leave behind the real world, a place where sustainability, if it’s going to work, will have to be business friendly.
The last film that really hit me like AVATAR was STAR WARS, which was released in 1977. That was near the end of the Cold War, and STAR WARS featured a full-tilt galactic battle between the Empire and Republic. STAR WARS was all about power and succession, and the battle scenes reminded viewers of the triumphs of World War II and old westerns.
STAR WARS was a hit back then because it comforted us at the same time it entertained. We knew that Luke Skywalker would triumph in the end and good would prevail over evil.The setting of STAR WARS was vast (the universe) and, like AVATAR, the themes were familiar to those who have read the Bible and Shakespeare.
But there were differences. In STAR WARS, nature was a backdrop for action and reflection, but it was never the main focus of the film.
Unlike George Lucas, James Cameron has centered his action on nature. He’s digitally created a lush pre-modern world and focused his story there. In AVATAR Cameron’s setting trumps plot, character, even the themes.
There is no problem yet with global warming on Pandora because they’ve had no Industrial Revolution. The indigenous people, the Na’vi, are a pre-agricultural hunting and gathering tribe, so the population is nicely distributed between the forests and the seashore. There are no anti-zoning zealots yet, no private property partisans, no real estate magnates in this world where all land is held in common, and in trust.
Pandora is a more-than-human world, with not even a hint that humanoids might be the be-all and end-all of their particular evolution. For the Na’vi homelands are sacred. They aren’t a “resource” to be put to “wise use.”
On Pandora the wisest species is a tree. John Muir, American’s early 20th Century preservationist prophet would like what he sees on Pandora. The Na’vi homeland is like Muir Woods on steroids.
When I left the theater I was a little stunned. Did I really have to go back into my world and leave Cameron’s behind? Couldn’t I stay on Pandora where I watched the Na’vi hold greed and exploitation at bay for two hours and forty minutes against the relentless rush of a modernity I knew all to well?
But we all know what happens with Edens. Cameron will probably create sequels to his Pandoran triumph of good greens over the bad military-industrial complex.
Maybe he’ll write a script where industrial tourism arrives from Earth and the Na’vi become raft guides on all their endless free-flowing rivers. Maybe Pandora will become a galactic Costa Rica in AVATAR II?
Or maybe AVATAR III will feature a starship of earth missionaries arriving and a subtle battle will ensure for the souls of the Na’vi. The missionaries will not cut down the sacred Tree of Souls, but merely replace it with another idea of divinity, a book, and a creed.
AVATAR is good entertainment, but I’m not so naive as to think the past can triumph over the future. We go to the movies and then we come home. We might dream of Pandora, but live in the real world.
I’ll have to admit that my ideas about change have been moved around a great deal, prompted by flying half-way around the world. What I saw in China created a dramatic contrast to my own backyard.
In China I traveled for two weeks in an area called “the Golden Triangle,” an aggregate of large industrial cities in the Yangtze Delta. In an area just barely bigger than South Carolina there are 80 million people, and one third of China’s mighty gross domestic product is produced there.
As I visited Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Yiwu I often considered my own small state with its 4.4 million people. I thought often about our environmental history and how we’ve already lived our nineteenth century here. The Industrial Revolution with its dramatic resource plundering and profound pollution has now mostly migrated elsewhere and left us to consider other ways to employ, empower, and bring prosperity to our people.
I’ve always felt we were moving too fast, hurtling into development willy nilly with little regard for water quality, air quality, and habitat destruction. I now have a very different world scenario to contrast to South Carolina.
I’m not willing to back off of my roots as an environmentalist. I believe that the United States has shaped the best legal system on the planet for assuring environmental protection and preservation. I believe in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Occupational Safety Health Administration.
What I saw first-hand in China is that on the world stage things don’t always move at our democratic pace. In a vast one-party system like China’s, capitalism can act like a virus. Cities can spring up overnight. Rivers can be dammed. Animal species can move quickly from abundance to extinction if the central government decides their habitat is needed to bring prosperity to the people.
When I returned from China one of the first things I did was walk on the Glendale Greenway Trail. I noticed right away that things I’d come to count on at Glendale Shoals had changed. There was a beach where there had not been one before. The surging current below the dam had actually moved boulders around.
While I was away the Lawson’s Fork flooded for the fourth time since November 15th. In mid-January two days of rain brought the river to its highest level in close to a decade. I was sad to have missed it. Wind is exciting, heat and cold are fun to talk about, but lots of rain-and how it changes local river levels-that’s my idea of weather.
There was one rock the size of a big dog house rolled out onto the rocky shoals. It had come to rest right there after traveling from some place upstream. Another boulder bigger yet had flipped in the current, offering a tall blade of rock for the water to carve around.
I’ve heard that when the rocks start moving during a flood it can sound like a bowling alley on the stream’s banks. I’ll bet Glendale sounded like that-the sound of a changing landscape.
I tend to think that change is (and should be) gradual, that the world naturally makes tiny adjustments over long periods to shape our landscape. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould helped to change that perception. He talked abut “punctuated equilibrium,” that idea that things can be stable a long time and then one event can create lots of change almost overnight.
Big floods can be one of the agents of punctuation. One of my friends has christened that round boulder at the shoals “John’s Rock,” and every time I see it I’ll think about China, and about big changes in a short period of time.