Issue 2:1 | Non-Fiction | Thomas Rain Crowe
THE NEW NATURALISTS
(The Southern Appalachian Mountains Are The Place To Look)
by Thomas Rain Crowe
"Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty
and grandeur is not to be described. Countless forest-clad hills,
side by side in rows and groups--all united by curves and slopes
of inimitable softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens of
our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture!"
—John Muir (Travels) of his first impressions of the mountains of western North Carolina
With issues such as development, zoning and land-use legislation, toxic waste and air pollution almost constantly in the news these days here in western North Carolina, I’ve been thinking about this business of the desecration of the environment, and who it might be that is going to lead us out of this self-destructive paradigm that was set into motion with the Industrial Revolution and has continued to gather momentum in the last century and a half with the rise of free-market capitalism. Where are the "dirt-doctors," the "earth-healers"? I keep asking myself. Where are the great charismatic voices in government that might begin the work of turning things around? And if not in government, then in the culture in general--where are our leaders? It seems that when looking in all the obvious places, there is no one addressing the really pressing questions of our day: overpopulation, development, preservation, free-trade capitalism.
It seems to me that it has always been the naturalists who have led the way toward a more progressive thinking whereas questions of balance and sustainability are concerned. That it is the nature writers who have positioned themselves on the front lines of the myriad battles to save and preserve the environment. And through their writing, have sown the seeds that would sprout as ecological movements, private foundations and governmental programs focused on the long view whereas the welfare of the country’s and the planet’s landscape is concerned. Past generations have looked to the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Burroughs, Muir, Bartram, Kephart, Leopold, Carson, Eisley....and then, even more recently, to writers like Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder, and, finally, to the South in writers like Wendell Berry of the Kentucky Appalachian backcountry and farm communities (who has written exquisitely on local culture and community for the better part of a lifetime in such books as The Unsettling of America and The Gift of Good Land), and Thomas Berry ( a North Carolina native, who, in his books The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work, has captured the imagination of the whole environmental movement with his elevated message of spiritual ecology). Following in their footsteps, is a new generation and a new breed of gifted Southern nature writers.
"If you would learn the secrets of nature,:" Thoreau wrote, "you must practice more humanity than others." That credo, more or less, sums up the ethos of these "new naturalists." They are not only talking the talk, they are walking the walk. They are not only writing an engaged prose and poetry that evokes the spirit of "The Old Naturalists" and their tenants for a sustainable future, but are quite literally engaged in a kind of activism that is, at once, journalistic and/or literary and biographical. They are, through their work and deeds, inspiring, organizing and participating in non-violent "actions" and activities that provide alternatives to community apathy and destruction of natural habitat.
While most of the writers of name have and continue to come from the northeast, mid-west, or west coast, the South has "risen up" to give the other sections of the country a run for its money. Here in the mountains of the Southern Appalachians--in and around the area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park --alone, is an exceptional group of dedicated, if not devout, 60s generation nature writers worthy of national attention. In a region where the issues of air pollution, water quality, extinction of floral and faunal species, and loss of traditional cultures are front and center, this handful of remarkable writers are not only making a mark on the genre of environmental non-fiction, but are making a difference.
This group of "Southern Nature" writers is anchored in Athens, Georgia by the Southern Nature Writers Gatherings and the University of Georgia Press. Seniored by such voices as those of Jim Kilgo and Franklin Burroughs, are a younger cadre of eco-activist writers and poets who have joined ranks with their elder kinsmen to form a Southern Nature Writers contingent that has served notice and is setting the Southeast, if not the rest of the nation on fire. Writers such as Chrisopher Camuto, Bill Belleville, Janisse Ray, John Lane, Roger Pinckney, Susan Cerulean, Jan DeBlieu, Dorinda Dahlmeyer, Ann Fisher-Wirth and Julie Hauserman being essential to this southern brigade.
Recently, a few of this elite group have gotten well-deserved recognition from their leadership as well as their work and are singled out, here, as if standards to hold up to the rest of the country and its various writers and regions. If there is anyone who has embraced and embodied the writing of Thoreau and Kephart it is the recluse of the group, George Ellison. As someone who has lived for some time without electricity and running water over in his Swain County, North Carolina home--in a cabin only approachable by foot--his knowledge of nature lore and Native American history in this region is approaching the level of being encyclopedic. His newspaper columns, his frequent nature-walk workshops, and his contributions to the living folklore of the region have been and continue to be invaluable in educating the public about its past as well as it’s invasive present. His stamp appears on two of the seminal tomes of Southern Appalachian cultural history: Mooney’s The Myths of the Cherokee, and Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, for which he has been bestowed with the honor of being asked to write new, updated Introductions.
Just next door, in Jackson County, whitewater enthusiast, wilderness and recreation writer and poet John Lane has taken up summer residency in a remote cove off John’s Creek Road in the Caney Fork section of Cullowhee in a beautiful traditionally-reconstructed one-room saw-mill shack built by fifth-generation Macon County native Keith Monteith, and is actively involved in water and land development issues in the region, while writing a book on the Chattahoochee River. His journal-entry book Weed Time, which was written in the environs of Whittier while living up Camp Creek Road at the old Jim Smith nursery, is a snap-shot, or better yet, a petroglyph of place-based awareness. His investigative journalism work in behalf of ecological issues here in the mountains and down on the other side of the "Blue Wall" in the South Carolina piedmont in Spartanburg County are written, thoughtfully, in attack mode, leaving no stone unturned. While his journalistic work is clever, aggressive and geologic, his poetry written here in and about these mountains is equally, in the other direction, gentle, sensitive, fluid.
Waking in the Blue Ridge
In the animal light of early morning
dreams persist but I am quickly
victim to the world’s precision --
how oaks become one
in a web of blue above,
and the fox bursts
toward the nested quail,
or in tricks of color
where they could not be.
All this in the hour
before breakfast, in the heaven
of unnoticed verdancy and light.
And then there is Christopher Camuto, whose writing on fly-fishing, red wolves and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the stuff of supernovas. His rise to prominence as a Southern Appalachian nature writer: meteoric. His whip-cracking intellect and inspired vocabulary have been a wake-up call for other writers and for readers of regional and natural history. His combined mix of an autobiographical and objective writing style is the next best thing to "being there." The visual images he creates with language go way beyond being merely "photographic." They linger and last in the mind’s eye--for months and years on end. His book Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains (just re-released by the University of Georgia Press) is, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written about western North Carolina.
I think of the virtues of the animals that became the
founding spirits for the Cherokee clans. I think of the autumn dance of
white-tails in the rut and the delicate way bears walk. I think of the
stillness of trout, of the silver of moving water. I thing of the masks that
animals wear that became the masks of those dancers, of the way men learned
to drum on hollow logs like grouse, to pipe like wood thrush, to weave like
spiders, to fashion baskets light as spruce cones, to scream in battle like
ravens, to hunt like wolves.
Janisse Ray, a native Georgia "cracker," who is struggling to save the southern Long Leaf Pine, as well as her family farm, from extinction, is the author of the award-winning book The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Janisse is the youngest of our regional cadre of new naturalist writer/activists, but may be the rising star of the group. Her charisma, her immutable will, her strong sense of the feminine, her gameliness and grit coupled with a very disciplined and poetic relationship with language, makes her the kind of show-stopper the environmental movement needs in order to bring attention to important issues. Not only has she turned many heads in a nature-writing literary world dominated by men, with her striking good looks, but has turned heads with her dexterity and integrity in such poems as the following from her collection titled Naming the Unseen which pays tribute to the place of her origins:
When I am dead, put my bones in Georgia
that made them. Give back the calcium,
phosphorous, the holy manganese that serve
me well -- keepers of this unruly flesh.
When I am dead, let me honor land that
struck fire within and offered to hot and
hungry air a skeleton pieced of earth
that holds me aloft in the spinning and
spiraling of this world. The elements of
bones compel me. I return time and
again to feel her soil, wondering what I
search for, what hauls me back: ossein of
day-myths, compound of marrow percolating
subterranean veins, debt that will be freed.
In addition to these high-profile, rising stars of the "Southern Nature" cadre, there is an ever-expanding core group of cultural and environmental activists here in the mountains working alongside one another to create some sort of bioregional awareness as well as a sense of responsibility for our regional ecosystem. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the beast-of-burden of this movement was a publication called Katuah Journal and its loyal, hard-working heart of pro bono editors and writers. Espousing the values, ethics and hands-on particulars of the Bioregional and Green movements, Katuah’s main emphasis was on teaching and its mainvehicle was the newspaper--which, until its demise in the early 1990s, had a focused mixture of articles on plant lore, environmental issues, gardening and farming tips, regional geographic history, Native American culture.
More recently, however, the movement for a sustained environment has been enjoined by anthropologist/writer/activist Harvard Ayers at Appalachian State--whose work in books such as An Appalachian Tragedy: Air Pollution and Tree Death in The Eastern Forests of North America (Sierra Club) and Polluted Parks in Peril: The Five Most Air-Polluted Parks in the United States as well as his work in behalf of clean air coalitions here in western North Carolina has been influential, if not essential to the recent passage of the ground-breaking "Clean Smokestacks Act" which passed the North Carolina joint Assemblies in June of this year, setting a precedent for the
rest of the country.
What do all these writers have in common? They have all, at some time, if not often, appeared in the pages of a visionary news weekly that is the brainchild of founder and publisher/editor Scott McLeod, called The Smoky Mountain News. The team of staff writer Don Hendershot and publisher Scott McLeod have made The Smoky Mountain News a much-needed addition and mainstay to the more conservatively traditional and "old school" papers that fall short in claiming to be the environmental voice of the people in the western mountains. The Smoky Mountain News, with its diligence and thoughtful writing, week in and week out, on the subject of the environment, has served to not only educate but to focus attention on the many issues here in the region whereas the health and balance of things natural are concerned.
While the amount of work to be done in cleaning up our environment here in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains might, at times, seem overwhelming, these "new naturalists" and others like them are, I’m convinced, equal to the task. This is a focused and dedicated bunch who have taken on the heavy yoke of unchecked "progress," "growth" and "development," and with strong shoulders are pulling the ecology wagon in which the rest of the nation rides. "May it continue"....as the old Cherokee ceremonial chant goes: this nature-activist tradition, this beautiful place, and these people who live here well.