Nobody’s Business. Everyone’s concern.

“It’s none of our business,” my wife said in response to my grumbling as we drove down the valley. I wasn’t quite foolish enough to remind her that she had voiced similar complaints the day before.

Over the course of several days we had observed from a distance the progress of a man working on a piece of property that he had just acquired. He appeared to be in his late 60’s, and we made up a story that he was recently retired and a newcomer to the area.

Over the course of several days, every favorite toy of the millennial male made an appearance, including a late model Kubota tractor with attachments and a Husqvarna chain saw and string trimmer. All these fine tools combined to transform a fallow creekside field returning to nature into a lawn to be mowed.

We’ll pick up on the conversation we started last week and declare in no uncertain terms that what the man did with his field, short of burying toxic waste, was absolutely nobody’s business but his own. But then he started playing with the banks of the creek.

First he sawed all the vegetation close to the ground. Next he burned several spots along the creek bank, using some kind of accelerant to start the fire. Apparently the shape of the creek was not pleasing enough to his eye, because he then dug along the banks with a backhoe to reshape the course of the creek.

If you’ve lived here long enough you will know that this is not the first creek in Towns county to be treated in this manner, and if you are at all conversant with Georgia’s environmental laws you could find several violations in the preceding paragraph.

We’re not here today to fight the “nobody’s going to tell me what I can and can’t do with my own property” battle. The ongoing struggle to maintain water quality and ecological health against the onslaught of profit oriented unregulated development is challenge enough, and we’ve made a lot of progress here on that front.

No, the problem at its root is one of perception, and if we can change that perception it would remove a lot of fuel from the economic fire that consumes mountain tops and destroys natural areas. While we may never be able to breach the self absorbed mind set that cuts down the trees blocking one person’s view from the top of the mountain (and spoils everyone else’s view of that mountain), perhaps we can chip away at the image of the manicured lawn as the highest and best use of a piece of land.

Let’s begin by paying our respects to Alnus Serrulata, the humble alder bush native to eastern North America and once quite common along the creek banks of our mountain counties. Alders are nitrogen fixing plants and they improve the soil wherever they grow. Their fibrous networks of roots stabilize the soil in wet areas, and many times in our own creek I’ve seen erosion by high water stopped in its tracks by mats of interlocking Alder roots.

Alders provide a much needed source of pollen for bees and native wasps early in the spring. Alder leaves provide shade for creeks and streams, keeping the water cooler for trout. With the demise of the eastern hemlock due to the woolly adelgid, the role of alders in the survival of trout is more important than ever.

Sadly, no trout will linger in the exposed waters of the creek passing through our neighbors field. Without a proper vegetative cover, heavy rain and high water will erode the creek banks, and the water will run brown downstream from his property. The areas he reshaped with his backhoe may never stabilize, and like several creeks in our area, the addition of unsightly riprap or shot rock along the banks may be necessary.

All of this to recreate the heavily marketed image of unbroken undulations of manicured green. Americans are conditioned to see that image as beautiful and desirable, but it is such a shallow image, and one that ignores the true beauty of a healthy ecosystem. It is the difference between a pallid complexion artfully concealed by makeup and the unadorned visage of a person with the radiant glow of good health.

“Everybody Complains, but Nobody Offers Solutions…”

…Said a wise friend. Alternatives and solutions to environmental problems are available if you look for them. But you have to want to look… So here’s an alternative in the form of an entire company dedicated to offering solutions. We’re proud to call them friends. Check out their good works at Applied Ecological Services.

Humans Acting

Life always conspires to test and challenge our beliefs. There are several beliefs I hold that are compatible with libertarian philosophy. That’s not a political declaration. There’s never been a political party with a platform I agreed with 100 percent. Much of what is presented as democrat, republican and libertarian, I find arbitrary and insincere, and socialism is cute and terrifying like the evil doll in a horror movie.

Where I think the libertarians get it right, not 100 percent right, of course, but mostly right, is in their live and let live approach to government and economic issues. Ludwig von Mises wrote a book called Human Action in which he makes the case that human beings, possessed of minds with a logical structure that is similar for everyone, make purposeful decisions to maximize value. Thus, when people are able to exercise free will, over time the aggregate effect tends to produce the greatest value for all.

Human Action is a masterful defense of human freedom and free markets, and since its publication in 1942, no nation has fully embraced its principles in practice, possibly because the book is longer than War and Peace and not nearly as exciting. In the United States, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have always contended with the coercive powers of government and business in their attempts to maximize their own value.

Libertarians and republicans share a fierce attachment to individual property rights. Democrats and socialists are generally more supportive of public lands. It’s difficult, not impossible, but difficult, to be both an environmentalist and a republican or a libertarian, although some say that Theodore Roosevelt managed it to some degree.

Even a hard core libertarian, however, would draw the line at dumping toxic waste in the creek that runs through their property on it’s way to the lake downstream. Most of us who believe in even the most limited forms of government would acknowledge the legitimate role of a government here in defending the public good, but decades of scientific advancement have not extinguished the conflict between polluters and public health or between property rights and ecological health.

When it comes to property rights, personal choice and free markets, I’m as libertarian as F. A. Hayek himself, but I’m also an environmentalist because I’m aware that we are all members of the same community. My creek runs downstream. The silt from the illegal road on the mountain runs into my creek. The acid rain from the coal plant falls on my timber, and every mountain in the Southern Appalachians.

Nevertheless, there was little conflict between belief and action while I was home on the farm. But when I became a landlord, some of those beliefs were soon to be tested.

“Do what you will but do no harm” was my initial philosophy with our renters in another county. They seemed like reasonable, hard working people, and I had little concern for how they would care for the house.

But the large, wooded back yard was another matter. The neighborhood sits in an area that was formerly known as “Sandy Flats.” There are beaches that would feel lucky to have the sand in that yard. The soil does not hold water well, and during the long, hot summers it takes a hardy ground cover to survive.

To complicate matters, my elderly father, during the last years he lived at the house, loved to feed his birds so much that they had stripped away most of the ground cover, and the sand was beginning to erode during heavy rains.

When my dad left the house and we began to care for the yard ourselves, we took an ecological approach to restoring the soil. We encouraged native plants and grasses to grow, selected for hardiness and drought tolerance. When the leaves fell, we let them remain in place during the winter, which added organic material and improved the tilth of the soil. In just a few years the butterfly population multiplied and we began to see fireflies on the property at night. The heaviest rain had little effect on the stability of the ground. It was a well balanced ecosystem again, and an oasis in a neighborhood of traditional lawns.

Last July in the heat of the summer, our tenants enthusiastically removed most of the ground cover in the back yard and spread some grass seed on top of the sand in the hopes of making the yard look like a ChemLawn commercial. They raked all the leaves in the wooded area, exposing the soil to the hot sunshine. Like so many Americans, they were blind to the ecology of the land under their feet, and fixated on the heavily marketed images that we are programmed to recognize as symbols of prosperity and the good life.

Of course every bit of their grass seed died, and the ground began to erode again during the next downpour.

In an instant I felt more like a big government democrat or a law and order republican than I did a libertarian. I had to take a day or two to cool down and consider my response. Was I willing to lose good tenants who pay their rent on time and fix things around the house? Did I want to curb their enthusiasm for taking on projects at their own expense? How could I respond in a way that would maximize value for myself, and my tenants?

In the end, like a libertarian, I left them to their own devices. Like a democrat, I explained the science of soil management with a short course on ecology. And like a big government democrat or republican, I reminded myself that I still control their security deposit.

In Real Time

We wish a safe journey home to our visitors from the coast who came here seeking refuge from the path of Dorian. No one in the world is more hospitable than our neighbors from the low country, and I’m confident that you found our mountain folk no less welcoming. Our hearts go out to everyone who suffered a loss in the storm.

Who didn’t spent at least some time watching the weather over the holiday weekend, or clicking on the spaghetti models on their computer, or checking the weather app on their phone? Big storms are big media events.

There’s no denying that technology has given us tools for providing life saving information like storm warnings and evacuation notices. That’s not what we’re here to discuss this week.

What troubles us is the ability of media through technology to tap into our voyeuristic instincts. Whenever an event provides sufficient drama, millions of people now watch it unfold in “real time.” If the event requires a bit of extra dramatization to capture more viewers, our information providers are adept at providing that as well.

Drama is addictive, and like any drug, it requires higher and higher doses to provide the same buzz. Witness the constant local, regional and national real time crime and misfortune reports that we barely notice unless the level of drama is high enough. To the normal challenges of daily life we now add a constant exposure to stress hormones injected by our habitual consumption of media.

For tens of thousands of years humans experienced the passage of time much differently than we do today, or perhaps more accurately, we passed through time in a different manner. Time was reckoned by seasons, the phases of the moon or the gradual movement of celestial bodies long before the calendar was invented.

The invention of clocks began the divorce proceedings between humanity and the natural world. The second hand was a tiny but powerful sword slicing away bits of time from our lives with death by a thousand cuts.

For all our ability to measure time in ever smaller increments, however, we seem to have lost time rather than gained it. The general consensus is that life is short and time moves ever more swiftly, and I’ll wager you that twelve moons of our ancestor’s time was considerably longer than our year divided into nanoseconds.

The problem with our obsession with “real time” events is that for everyone watching, those events aren’t real at all. Every advance in communication technology enables us to spend more time in virtual reality, and every advance in the science of marketing ensures that we do so. Our awareness of here and now is surrendered to outside influences, and we gradually lose the ability to host that awareness ourselves.

So let’s look back at the holiday weekend we enjoyed here in the mountains. Did you notice the clear blue skies? Did you enjoy the cool nights? Did you spend your time in the sunshine or in the virtual reality of tropical force winds and rain while you tweeted your thoughts and prayers and posted your concern online? Did your weekend pass by too quickly? I’ll bet you that the weekend was much longer for the people sitting in traffic on an evacuation route.

Civilization in the developed world bathes in stress hormones with a consciousness focused on real time events in virtual reality. We perceive time much differently than our ancestors. How this will change us is as unpredictable as the computer generated spaghetti models of a hurricane.

It’s Everywhere, It’s Safe, And It’s On Sale

Hang on, my good neighbors. It’s going to be a bumpy ride today with some sharp turns. Some of you may get angry, but that’s OK. It’s good for the circulation.

I don’t know your names, but I’ll wager I know a thing or two about you. If you’re like me and the tailgate of your truck is the workbench you use most often; if you have more pairs of boots than dress shoes; if there is a sharp knife in your pocket, a worn out pair of White Mule gloves on your bench and a fishing pole or a shotgun or both in the corner of your shop, then you might need to hear this.

My unscientific survey of anecdotal evidence and years of observation tells me that you are the ones most likely to buy a jug of weed killer at the Low Depot and apply it generously.

There’s that sharp turn I warned you about, and yes, we’re going there again.

If you’re about to stop reading, please hang on for a little bit longer. Chances are that that no one you know and love has fought a battle with cancer. Yet. If you do know someone who has fought that battle, you may be more likely to take a look at the mounting evidence that glyphosate and a number of other herbicides (and pesticides for that matter) can make you sick.

If you want science, there are scores of epidemiological studies available which point to the hazards of certain chemicals. You don’t even have to go that far. Just read the MSDS or Manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheet that is (supposed to be) available in every workplace that uses chemicals.

No, the problem is not science. The problem is one of marketing and “tobacco science.” How many years did Big Tobacco tell us that smoking was safe? They had the studies to “prove” it too. And the marketing. “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.”

Who would have guessed that baby powder could have caused ovarian cancer? Johnson and Johnson didn’t lose a multi billion dollar lawsuit because they were simply mistaken. Like Big Tobacco and Bayer/Monsanto, they lost because they knew better and covered up that knowledge.

Successful marketing by huge corporations works because it impacts us at a cultural level, and that kind of manipulation has been making hard working people sick for decades. We walk into the Low Depot in the early summer and the first thing we see is stack after stack of Roundup. It’s everywhere. It’s commonplace. It’s on sale.

Organizations we trust tell us that it’s safe. We love the BRMEMC here. We trust them to keep the lights on and we admire the heroes who climb a pole or go up in a bucket in the wind and rain and lightning. It must be safe if the power company is spraying mile after mile of right of way. They’ve got the scientific studies that tell us it’s safe, provided by the TVA, and the TVA is part of the government, which we all trust.

The DOT and the GDOT believe that widespread spraying of thousands of miles of road right of way is safe too. And the EPA, which is entirely trustworthy and knows better than the courts, hundreds of studies and dozens of nations which have banned glyphosate, also says it is safe.

It’s everywhere. It’s safe and it’s on sale. But just to make sure that those of us who are most likely to be concerned with weeds in the lawn or along the fence line will not hesitate to pick up an extra jug of spray, we are influenced on a psychological level as well. Only a wimp would be afraid of a little spray. It’s always the tree huggers, the hippies, the communists, or the liberals who are concerned about the environment.

Marketing of certain products has long relied on subtle manipulation of our male egos, and sometimes we are easy marks. I’m reminded of the good natured ribbing I took as a young wildland firefighter when I used my safety gear. It was hot. It was uncomfortable. It was wimpy to use it. But today I don’t have emphysema or bronchial asthma or heart disease like some of my former co workers.

The problem with weed killer goes even deeper. My great grandmother “brush broomed” her yard. With a bundle of sticks or a rake, she would scour away any blade of grass or living thing. There was a practical reason for this. The snakes had nowhere to hide.

But for generations now, marketing has convinced us that our lawns have to look like golf courses. Look at the happy children playing on the ChemLawn. One squirt of spray on the evil dandelion and next thing you know, the puppy is chasing the ball. You’ve got clover in your lawn? Aren’t you afraid of the bees that will come? You know there’s a spray for that, right?

We do things a little differently at home. We encourage native plants to grow. Native plants build and stabilize soil. When it rains, our creek runs clear, but a couple of miles down the valley it turns brown with sediment. We let most of the leaves lay where they fall in October. The leaves add organic material to the soil and we have many times the number of butterflies every summer than can be found on the golf course. Thousands of lightning bugs light up our cove in the summer. Hummingbirds patrol the jewel weed, the joe pye weed, the larkspur, the ironweed and the succession of native blooms that cover the meadow.

Keep spraying that creek bank and you may not need the fishing pole in the corner of your shop. Even corporate science admits the danger to fish posed by certain weed killers. Now we’re hearing that the honeybees are threatened too. Glyphosate impacts their gut bacteria and lowers their immune systems, but corporate science has a good corn syrup to replace the honey on your biscuit.

We live in, arguably, a free society. We still have the right to smoke, but not the right to blow it in someone’s face. We can still buy Roundup and any number of lawn and agricultural chemicals, but the battle lines are drawn and the tactics are similar to the tobacco battle our parents fought. Is it possible hundreds of scientists, dozens of nations and several juries are wrong, and the chemicals in question are safe, or less dangerous than some people think? Sure it is. But how much are you willing to gamble on that possibility?

Tears in the Rain

The final scene of the iconic 1982 science fiction thriller, Blade Runner, is given to Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer who passed away in July. Hauer’s character says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannh√§user Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”¬†

Last week we were working on the gate at the end of our driveway, and the sweat glittered on our brows while we were distracted by the task at hand. A car slowed down and a neighbor spoke to us from the window. We had not seen her for months, and she brought the sad news that her husband had passed away recently.

Our neighbor and her husband were relatively new to the valley, and we had been “meaning to” visit them again, had spoken of it several times, had driven by without knocking when the house looked empty, and had utterly failed to follow up on our good intentions.

I remember how happy he was to have made it to the North Georgia mountains and how interesting his stories were in our brief visit. I’m sure his family will preserve and cherish his memory, but to us, the opportunity to better know our neighbor and share in his life experience is gone forever.

Opportunities are abundant in our lives, but they are ephemeral, and often invisible. When they do appear, they tend to manifest as a “cubic centimeter of chance,” and if we are not alert and agile enough to grasp them, they are lost to us.

I keep with me a few “talismans” of thought to remind me to stay alert. One of these is the memory of an opportunity lost. When my ailing mother asked me to stay another night in the family home at Christmastime, I did not know that it was her last Christmas. I don’t remember what was more important at the time. I don’t remember much of the previous night, which was in fact the last holiday night we spent together, but I’ll always remember the loss of the opportunity to spend one more night.

There is an arrowhead on my dresser that teaches and sometimes lectures me. It was crafted with great skill and attention to detail. The concentration necessary to create a tool of such beauty and efficiency must have been remarkable.

I know nothing of the hand that created it; will never see the face of the person who wielded it or know the stories he could have told. The adventures, the triumphs, the failures, the loves and the fears, the wisdom of the life he lived, all of these are gone and forgotten, like tears in the rain.

But I do remember the day I found that arrowhead. I remember the trip across the mountain to our grandparents house. I remember my grandparents singing in the kitchen and the sweetbread my grandmother made. I remember the whole family spread out across the freshly plowed field, hunting happily for the opportunity of an arrowhead to appear. I remember the joyful shouts whenever we found one.

Sometimes the most valuable opportunity is the chance to make a memory. My arrowhead reminds me to continue the hunt as time plows on, ever alert for the opportunities that may be unearthed.

What Is Important?

Last week there was tragedy in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the communities shaken by senseless acts of violence.

There are patterns we follow in our response to tragedy. I’m speaking now about the vast majority of people who are not directly involved, whose experience is vicarious, secondhand or derivative.

First, there is empathy. Many of us, and an optimist would say most, are sincerely moved by human suffering, and we reach out in thought and in prayer where our hands cannot reach. Some of us upgrade those efforts with something more tangible. We volunteer our time or donate to a cause.

But for an ever growing number of us engaged in the pixel matrix, there are patterns of behavior of questionable benefit to our peace of mind and, in the long term, to our freedom itself.

We have grown accustomed now to the entities which seek to monetize tragedy. News talkers, celebrities, bloggers, and “influencers” posture sympathy and outrage. A news talker tears up while reading a politically charged presentation and it becomes a headline. Politicians seek to bend events to political advantage. There are accusations and recriminations and more headlines.

Meanwhile on social media a similar process unfolds, though our efforts are geared more toward signalling our virtue. Look how upset I am. I changed my profile picture because I care so much. We tweet and post other tweets and posts of outrage, accusation and recrimination. Social media encourages our participation, and profits from it.

The process echoes throughout our various forms of communication until we are distracted by the next event or the next tragedy, or until we are told that it’s time to care about something else.

We assume so readily now that what is presented to us for our consumption is the most important thing there is, simply because it is presented to us. Let’s take a look at some of the “side items,” not considered important enough to be on the main menu:

As Neal de Grasse Tyson pointed out recently, in any given 48 hour period there are 500 deaths due to medical errors. Three hundred people die from the flu; 250 from suicide; 200 from car accidents and 40 from homicide by hand gun.

Between February and March this year, 280 Christians were killed in targeted attacks in Nigeria. Last year, 87,000 women were killed by domestic violence, which remains the number one killer of women around the world. This year 36 million people will starve to death.

We can’t change our profile pictures fast enough to keep up.

There is no fault to be found in empathy, or in any of the emotions we feel in response to a tragedy. However, it would benefit us to remember how much more easily we respond to emotion than to fact, and what a small percentage of fact there is in the information presented to us for our consumption. When we become habituated to a handful of companies and a roomful of politicians deciding for us what is important, we give up a power that we may find difficult to retrieve.

Two Views

“Are you going to the (Georgia Mountain) Fair this year?” I asked a woman at a local restaurant. She shook her head and said, “No. I haven’t been in four or five years. It’s too hot; I don’t like the traffic, and I don’t need another gourd with a flag painted on it.”

“Did you enjoy the Fair this year?” I asked a couple from out of town. “Oh, the kids had a wonderful time! They loved the rides, the “Old Ways” display and the Pioneer Village. My wife enjoyed the photography exhibit, and we got to see Ricky Skaggs. We ended up going back again the next day, and we’re planning to come back next year. You’ve got a really nice little town here. We wish we lived in the mountains!”

“The mountains have been really green this year,” I said to a neighbor. “And miserable,” he replied. “Rains all the time, or just enough to make it steamy when the sun comes out. Can’t go from the house to the car without breaking into a sweat, and the grass grows faster than I can mow it.”

“You’ve got a short memory,” said another neighbor. “Don’t you remember this time of year about three years ago when the ground was so dry it was cracking open? And a few months later we were between those two big fires and the air was full of smoke? Remember the ashes falling out of the sky and getting all over everything? I had a friend who had to leave his house when they evacuated the neighborhood when the fire got too close. You should be thankful for the rain.”

“I really hate the traffic this time of year,” said a local resident in the grocery checkout line. “It takes ten minutes just to get from one side of town to the other, and the restaurant was so busy we had to wait twenty minutes to get our food.”

“Come on down to Atlanta if you think that’s bad,” said a visitor to town.” “It can take ten minutes just to go a block and a half, and every day the Interstate is just like a parking lot. I live only ten miles from work, but I’m in my car an hour each way and sometimes a lot more. And twenty minutes to get served is fast food! Try waiting an hour just to get a table!”

An old man sat outside a country store and gazed at the mountains across the valley. A young visitor pulled up and got out of his car. “What a miserable hot day this is! ” He said to the old man.

“Not too bad in the shade,” the old gentleman replied. “Where you from, young man?”

“From the city,” the young man replied. “We’re planning on leaving soon, though, and finding a small town somewhere to settle in. This seems like a nice little town. What kind of people live around here?”

“What kind of people live where you come from?” Asked the old man.

“Not very nice. In fact, not nice at all. They’re arrogant, judgmental and downright mean. That’s the main reason we’re leaving.”

“That’s a shame,” said the old man, “but you’ll find that folks are just the same around here. I guess you’ll have to keep looking. Good luck to you, young man.”

Later on another visitor pulled up next to the store. A young man got out of the car and said, “Good afternoon sir. Nice sunny day today, isn’t it!”

“I was just thinking the same thing myself,” said the old man. “Where you from, young fellow?”

“We live in the city, but we’re thinking about moving here. What kind of people live around here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“What kind of people live where you come from?”

“Oh, people are very nice for the most part. They’re friendly and very supportive of each other. We’re really going to miss our neighbors.”

“Well that’s exactly the kind of people you’ll find around here,” said the old man. Welcome to the community, young fellow. We’ll be proud to have you as a neighbor!