The Wild Piedmont

(A short version of this essay first appeared in Heartstone, Spring 06)

This weekend I’ve been reading Jack Turner’s 1996 book of essays, The Abstract Wild. It’s a collection of studied passionate responses to the loss of the wild earth, from the high reaches of Tibet to his own back yard in Jackson, Wyoming. Turner, a climber and former philosophy professor, accepts that the worldwide destruction of wilderness and biodiversity has “spawned a powerful movement to protect what remains of wildness…” But for Turner, this movement does not go far enough. “We must do more,” he argues. “We must examine processes at the heart of modernity that are only vaguely understood, however pernicious their consequences for the wild earth, processes that not only destroy the wild but diminish our experience of the wild.”

With my particular interests (Southeastern piedmont rivers, land use issues, and environmental education to name a few), I tend to wander into such dense snarls of contrariness. I like to walk the edges of ideas about nature and culture, though I usually come back some place close to Aldo Leopold’s famous land ethic when I circle home: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Turner knows Leopold as well. He’s covered what he calls “the nature writer’s canon,” though you get the feeling that one reason the philosopher wrote The Abstract Wild is that he saw that no one had cut quite the same trail through the deep woods as he could. Thoreau, Abbey, Muir, and Berry all had insights into the problem, but they all stopped short of the solutions Jack Turner could articulate through his collective insight. He acknowledges all these masters-and many more. Most powerfully he explains how in his mid-forties, reading the essay on “deep, long range ecology” by philosopher Arne Naess led him to quit his university teaching job and try to find the wild by guiding climbing trips into the Tetons and other mountains all over the world. But in the end the ideas articulated in “Deep Ecology” are too tame for Turner; the human world for him is compromised and ugly, and there is little of our culture that is not guilty of waging war against the wild.

You can imagine how disturbing I found Turner’s central essay-“The Abstract Wild: A Rant,” in which he implicates even “us,” those who believe in conservation and “smart growth” among the pernicious out to wage war against the wild. He suggests that there is no true wildness in what is now being called “nearby nature”-those “green spaces” where we build trails on flood plain acres and marginal woods incorporated centuries ago into development formulas yet still somehow bypassed by malls and subdivisions and interstate highways.

All the land we experience in urban and suburban “green” areas is still at some deep level controlled by market forces and subject to human mediation. Human legal documents set the rules for governing private land under conservation easements-so many structures, so much timbering, so many roads. The legislatures of modern states set the rules for national parks, and when we do visit our national parks all we experience is a “severely diminished wilderness… a caricature of its former self.” National parks, wildlife preserves, sanctuaries, and refuges are, for Turner, really “mega-zoos” created for tourists and always under stress from human use, loved to death. There’s little room in Turner’s reasoning to feel good about national parks, much less land trusts, green buildings and Earthfare grocery stores, because something “vast and old is vanishing” under our very watch.

Turner is not a total cynic. He’s not willing to give the national parks over to the bulldozers, dissolve the easements, and abandon the sustainability movement. He’s glad all that’s around. It just doesn’t go far enough. It answers the wrong questions, and worst of all, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. And what should our response be to the great loss of wild nature? “Our rage should mirror that loss, ” Turner says. Those who truly love the wild earth should get angry. “Anger nourishes hope and fuels rebellion,” Turner says. “It presumes a judgment, presumes how things ought to be and aren’t, presumes a caring.”

As I write this I sit on the edge of a large Piedmont flood plain reflecting on Jack Turner’s “wildness.” It’s still dark out there, and beyond my study windows I can’t see far out into the flat expanse of open space below our house, but I know it’s still covered with big timber and populated with deer, raccoons, possums, beaver, mink, and at least one bobcat. I know that six or eight times a year the Lawson’s Fork pulses out of its banks and claims the bottom land as it has for millions of years. I can hear the river moving through the trees on these occasions from my study window. It’s not wild land as Jack Turner describes it, but for me these 100-year flood plains are a “landscape of hope,” to steal a phrase from Wallace Stegner. I don’t believe we’ve got much chance of recovering the suburbs, of clearing away the blight of 50 years worth of sprawl, but if we can just set all these flood plains aside, and then maybe the wild that survives in them will saturate our souls once again.

I found out last week I don’t have to go to Jackson, Wyoming, to discover people in the Southern piedmont who are reflective and often angry about the loss of the wild in our own backyards. I was invited to speak to a meeting of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, an organization uniting two dozen or so environmental groups from Alabama to Virginia. Formed in 1994, SAFC sees our Southern Appalachian legacy at risk from “mismanagement, excessive road building, and irresponsible land development.” Using support from their members SAFC has created a vision for protecting and restoring land, native species, and the ecological processes of natural lands using GIS mapping and scientific analysis. They call their vision “Return the Great Forest” and use a beautiful full color, spiral-bound brochure to articulate it.

“The Return of the Great Forest” is indeed a remarkable vision and document. Using maps, text, and photographs SAFC promotes the return of values that would recover and protect a healthy sustainable forest which, in turn, could provide habitat and support ecological processes necessary for all native plant and animal species. This Great Forest, running from Virginia to Alabama with the Appalachian mountain chain as its core, would offer opportunities for humans to enjoy these natural areas, and its establishment and support would afford gradual transitions from urban to more natural areas. “Our bequest to future generations,” the SAFC writes, “can and must be a vigorous and well-conceived effort to provide a landscape of sustainable forests that are healthy, diverse, and resilient.”

I’ve been involved in conservation efforts for ten years in the upstate of South Carolina, but I somehow missed this bold vision of forest restoration so close to home. I’ve been on boards of two land trusts, and on my tenure with each there has been little talk of large, region wide planning, little discussion of regional ecosystems or biodiversity, no talk whatsoever of restoring anything ancient and wild. There have been small successes-road plans shifted to avoid surviving isolated wetlands, parcels of land restricted by easement assuring survival of key historical and cultural and biological resources, boardwalks built through beaver ponds, Wal-Mart parking lots landscaped because of large-tract development ordinances. The organizations I’ve supported and helped shape policy for have focused locally and worked one small task at a time to “save” the upstate of South Carolina.

Most of my fellow board members are working citizens in urban piedmont South Carolina communities. Occasionally a scientist will be appointed to a board, but mostly around here those who set the direction of land use policy and practice are government employees, business people, or educators. These men and women care about the changing land uses and the loss of “special places” but often have little knowledge of the natural history and culture of this region, much less the complexities of Deep Ecology, old growth, or Turner’s loss of wilderness.

Many of the supporters of upstate conservation organizations are skeptical of philosophers talking about wildness and coalitions cooking up bold environmental visions. Many who would write a letter to the editor in support of more money for parks would consider regional ideas about wildlife corridors and core wildernesses “fringe” to the efforts of the groups like Upstate Forever, Spartanburg Area Conservancy, and the Pacolet Conservancy that they are willing to support with donations.

Maybe that’s why groups like SAFC have had so little luck so far spreading the vision of the Great Forest into the upstate of South Carolina. There’s little overlap of constituency. “My own perspective on wild nature derives from my experience there and time well spent with hunters, fishermen, naturalists, explorers, mountaineers, rangers, men and women from a variety of other cultures, artists, and wild animals,” Jack Turner writes in the introduction to his book. Turner’s choices for friends and neighbors sound like a crowd most would not recognize in the “core” suburbs of the upper piedmont.

The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and its local host organization, South Carolina Forest Watch, scheduled their meeting for a February Saturday in the community room at Earthfare on Pelham Road in Greenville, right smack dab in the middle of the Charlotte-to-Atlanta I-85 corridor, the mother of all sprawls. I had been asked to be their keynote speaker and so I’d driven over from Spartanburg. I was excited. Our community’s “demographics” won’t support an Earthfare grocery, so my 30-minute drive would serve double duty-a sustainability field trip and speaking engagement. “Bring back something we can’t get here,” my wife Betsy had requested when I left the house.

When I pulled into the Earthfare parking lot I couldn’t decide whether the grocery chain of gourmet food, organic produce, and imported cheeses is an outpost of progress or an “outer station” on Capitalism’s new frontier, like Kurtz’s collection camp for ivory in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When I parked my truck did I become a bold warrior in the sustainability crusade or simply complicit in a kinder, gentler destruction of the earth? One thing was certain: when I opened my truck door I could hear the growth beast growling in every direction on Pelham Road-fast food restaurants, the interstate, new subdivisions. “The Great Forest” was nowhere to be seen.

The interior of Earthfare is comforting though-the smell of organic coffee and fresh-baked bread, soft music, muted earth tones. Walking in it’s possible for a moment to forget about industrial food production and the wide aisles and big box fluorescent lights of the Super Wal-Mart right down the road. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a supporter of the concept of Earthfare, though reading someone like Jack Turner makes me wonder if Earthfare, by locating in a strip mall on Pelham Road, really does much to support that part of me that longs for the wild. In the realm of grocery stores does an Earthfare fall short in the same ways a national park falls short? Is it merely, when all is said and done, a poor substitute for local markets like our great-grandparents would have known? That’s a lot to think about between parking lot and community meeting room, but I had no choice. Jack Turner had set the juices flowing, and I was going to see this one through to the end.

The group was small, maybe 20, mostly young, half male, half female. Almost half those present were employed by member organizations of SAFC. They’d brought plenty of literature and posted maps on all the walls. Like me, they were all dressed for a hike-fleeces in various earth tones. When all the introductions were finished the SAFC program began with an inspiring DVD presentation of music and images by South Carolina Forest Watch member Butch Clay taken off-trail in an “inventoried roadless area” called Rock Gorge in the Chattooga River watershed. Its official designation means that Rock Gorge is eligible for study as wilderness designation, though what Butch calls “the power politics of some local groups” has kept it out of wilderness.

Butch has driven down from Chattooga country, the closest U.S. Forest Service designated wilderness to the Earthfare. The place he’d photographed is wild-a short, deep gorge on the river’s upper reaches reachable only by bushwhacking upstream-and I’ve always held some embarrassment when I run into Butch that I didn’t penetrate this wildness once in the three years I was researching my book Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River. “The Wilderness Upstream,” I called one of my chapters, but I stopped short of exploring Rock Gorge’s secrets and instead settled for a hike on an easy trail across the Ellicott Rock Wilderness boundary. After seeing Ellicott’s 19th century “boundary stone,” defining the corner of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, I turned around and retreated to my truck three miles downstream at the Burrell’s Ford Campground parking lot so I could get back to “town” by the end of my day of research in the woods.

While Butch was showing his DVD I glanced around the meeting room at the large GIS-generated maps of the Southern Appalachian Region-important biological sites, critical watersheds, significant reserves of old growth and potential old growth, currently protected lands, conservation areas. What struck me when I looked at the maps was that my place in Spartanburg was clearly within the gray mass that SAFC considers the “Southern Appalachian Region” study area. Yet on map after map there was nothing significant in the extension of blue forming our outlying region-no old growth, no potential old growth, no important biological sites, no critical watersheds, no significant regional reserves of relatively intact or recoverable landscape conservation areas. We’d been written off-a territory clearly belonging to the vision but ceded to the enemy. It was hard for me to stay focused on Butch’s images of Rock Gorge-one of those “important biological sites”-a full 100 miles from where I’d committed to circling my wagons. I felt like the lost patrol, cut off from any supplies, any hope of survival.

What I talked about that day in Earthfare was my own new writing project-a book-length personal narrative called Circling Home which explores my own backyard-a suburban lot on a creek in Spartanburg, on the edge of a large privately owned flood plain. It’s an accounting of our own attempt to live by as many sustainable codes as possible-green design, green house, green life, but it’s also a chronicle of 10,000 years of human history in a circle with a two-mile radius locating our house in the middle. It’s not a narrative about the wild earth. There’s nothing anyone could call wilderness within 100 miles of our house. Instead it’s an attempt, as Robert Frost once asked, to decide “What to make of a diminished thing”-the Southern Piedmont, an area plowed, logged, paved, and leveled for 300 years.

Mine was a voice I’m not sure the SAFC members were used to hearing from the visionary territory of The Great Forest. As I talked about our place in a subdivision on an impaired piedmont creek we can’t swim in, I described a narrative not of recovery or restoration but instead of attention and acceptance. I told them I thought on the outer edge of The Great Forest, what we call the piedmont, we should listen less to Edward Abbey for our inspiration and more to Henry David Thoreau-the later Thoreau of Wild Fruits in particular. I held up Jared Diamond’s Collapse and explained how the book gives us a 13,000-year perspective and how, even though the bulk of the narrative is about “collapsed” former societies-the Maya, The Anasazi, the Vikings in Greenland, the people on Easter Island-it is in the end essentially hopeful. Diamond believes we can learn to live with modernity-in spite of all the diminishments and devaluations and increasing ignorance Jack Turner cites in The Abstract Wild.

People listened and enjoyed what I had to say. I think they liked the different perspective-with no talk from me about roadless areas, wilderness designations, or critical habitats. They filled out my little “circling home” survey asking them to consider the mile around their own houses-who owns the land, what was the last crop grown there and when was that (for practically every acre of the piedmont was agricultural land 50 years ago), and is there any forest at all within their circle?
After I’d finished my presentation Butch Clay spoke first. He said that he wanted to compliment me on taking my stand in the piedmont but that he was still uncertain there was anything to praise or celebrate or study in this ragged, battered hulk of a landscape, and that he was glad he was headed back to the Chattooga in a few hours and leaving this doomed place behind. That’s not exactly what he said, probably not even close, but that’s the tone of it-to live in the piedmont is to live in a world too close to the edge of environmental ruin. As for Jared Diamond and his global environmental vision, Butch pointed out the door to Pelham Road and said if any of us just looked around we could see the collapse closing in right now.

Whatever it was that Butch said, it made me start thinking about my place in a different way. As I drove home on I-85 I felt as if the scales had been removed from my eyes and I saw interstate in a new way. What I saw out along I-85 wasn’t integrated, stable, or beautiful. The ceaseless flow of traffic from Richmond to Birmingham slices across all the major river systems of the piedmont, creating a virtual “killing zone” for any wildlife moving downstream seasonally from mountains to midlands as they had done since the last ice-age. I’ve always had dreams of black bears reestablishing populations along the Saluda, Enoree, Reedy, Tyger, and Pacolet Rivers. I know though that as long as I-85 flows north-south across these drainages the chances as slim. The wildlife populations below I-85 will always be cut off from their kin to the north-gray and red fox, bobcat, raccoon, deer, possum. I’ve seen them all dead in the south-bound lanes of I-85, trying to head east. Some make it but most don’t. If the Great Forest is going to be pushed east of I-85 it will have to mature without bears. It will remain diminished as it is now. If Aldo Leopold is correct with his land ethic, could all of the choices my neighbors have made in Spartanburg County for 300 years have been wrong?

After I turned off the interstate and headed south toward home I began to feel a little better about my place. I left the interstate behind and negotiated a series of smaller and smaller roads until I dropped down to the creek and parked in our driveway, only thirty feet above the slow flow of the Lawson’s Fork. I was home, and I’d bought back organic cheeses and local sausage and a “green” dish-washing liquid I’d never seen in any Spartanburg store. Betsy’s request would be fulfilled.
Until that day at Earthfare the voice emerging in Circling Home was one of conciliation and acceptance. I thought of the book, when finished, as a voice of settlement, but I understand how some at SAFC might have heard it as a voice of capitulation-caving in to the forces of reality that run parallel to their vision of the Return of the Great Forest. I’m not about to abandon that voice. I don’t see my community that way. We in the piedmont are poised somewhere between wilderness and environmental blight. Our nature is diminished, but our Southern Piedmont culture has not collapsed. There is hope along this fringe of the Great Forest, and I plan to find it and report on it.

I now look to Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild, Butch Clay, and the members of SAFC for one important aspect of my vision of this region-but not for the entire vision. Their brochures have no pictures of the landscapes I find familiar and hopeful. Though they include my place in the Southern Appalachian Region, there are no pictures of smart-growth subdivisions, or second-growth woodlands that have somehow survived the saw, or piedmont creeks flowing boldly to the sea over bedrock shoals in spite of their waters stained red with the run-off from development upstream. I want the vision of the Great Forest to come to reconcile with us, just as I want the people intent on economic development and ignorant of the possibilities of the Great Forest to come to terms with it.

The Great Forest People have an anger fueled by wrongs begun hundreds of years in the past when land use habits were established in the piedmont and on the Blue Ridge mountain front. The SAFC is a group with a philosophy, like Jack Turner, who sees the efforts now underway by land trusts and smart growth organizations as falling far short of what is right and what needs to be done. Though they believe these organizations are sincere in our love for conservation, they also believe the issues we embrace are short-sighted-sprawl, smart growth, whatever you want to call it. The question of wildness is central to the earth for them. It is a radical question-if you take “radical” at its fundamental meaning-of the roots. These lovers of wildness and wild places are not kooks. They are not extremists. They have drawn a line around the Southern Appalachians and defined us-we are still, they claim, the Great Forest. Within the boundaries of who we are now is a surviving remnant wildness and the potential for a great deal more to be restored 500 years in the future-if only we can figure out where it might be. These are people with a deep vision to show us the way, and we need to listen to them if we are going to find a way to survive the next 13,000 years.
But I am not only one of the Great Forest People. I am also from the Big Suburb, one day stretching from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta. In that Big Suburb are the Big Box People, the Children of the Super Slab, the Fast Food Tribe, the Ornamental Conifer Purchased at the Wal-Mart People.

There is a vision at work here as well-though it may not be as bold or striking. The millions of people like me and my neighbors on the fringes of the Southern Appalachian Region are not going to vanish, and most of us are not going to shop at Earthfare or join Upstate Forever, much less one of the organizations in SAFC. If the Great Forest is going to work for us, it better have a boat launch and deer stands and good roads. Like it or not, these two visions have to somehow be integrated for us all-animals, plants, and people-to survive.

Stegner believed the west is our landscape of hope. I hope he was wrong. I hope it’s the South as well. I’d like to see hope someday walking down the watershed of the Lawson’s Fork in the form of an adult black bear, headed right back up toward the heart of the Great Forest. And I’d like to think that the people of the edge of that creek-in suburbs like mine-will be glad to have him there, living in the bottom lands, passing through.

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