Narrative 2: “I got an early flavor of nature just out the back door. Now all that is completely gone”

I moved here in 2003. It’ll be 13 years in September. I grew up in a rural part of Cobb County in what’s now considered Metro Atlanta, where my family has been for generations. I was part of six generations in the mountains. There were very few relatives left by then, though. Most of them ended up farther south trying to find work after the Civil War. There was just a general diaspora out of the mountains and my relatives fled. Back in the 1850s they were all up in these mountain counties, but by the early 1900s they were all just doing working-class jobs in Metro Atlanta. 

I grew up with relatives who fished, so my early outdoor experiences involved fishing. My father and mother had rural roots, but they weren’t the kind of people who took us out camping. Then my parents got divorced when I was young and my father moved off to another state, but I had a buddy in school whose father was really into hunting and this guy started taking me with his son. We’d go squirrel and rabbit hunting and when I was 13 my mother got remarried and my stepfather was an outdoors, hunting-fishing, camping at the lake kind of guy.

I also got an early flavor of nature just out the back door, now all that is completely gone. It was Cobb County so you would have to see it to believe it 40, 50 years ago. I go back home and I don’t know where any of these places were; there’s nothing left of these places where I grew up, landmarks, creeks– My family originally had 500 acres on the Chattahoochee River in south Cobb – not direct family, but my ancestors. Now it’d would be worth a gazillion dollars. It’s all malls and the new Braves Stadium. My mother’s still there. She sold the whole place we grew up in. It’s just homogenized America. Now she’s in a cul-de-sac.

I developed my own interest in nature, though, which was more of a deep ecology kind of thing, not just hunting and fishing. I was fascinated by wilderness, places like Alaska and the big iconic wild American landscapes that most people think of when they think about wilderness. Yellowstone, the Arctic, Denali – that stuff just fascinated me as a kid. As I got older I kind of dropped hunting and fishing; I just didn’t find it that appealing. I pursued the wilderness thing more. I just started taking trips up there whenever I could. I’d go out and just hike the Rockies. I went out and hiked some of the Pacific Crest Trail when I was in my early 20s. And I was always up here in the north Georgia mountains, hiking almost every weekend. I got fascinated with bigger places too: I went out to Nepal for a few weeks in 1986. It’s the craziest thing in the world: I never made it to Alaska. I’ve been to Nepal, South America, all these places. Alaska? It’s like this other country in my mind. I can’t believe I haven’t been. I said I was going this summer, I was going to do it last summer… Every year it’s been something. I want to do this crazy Gates of the Arctic-Brooks Range trip, just stay out a couple of weeks and have a big wild experience. See the Fjords. God I’d love to do that.

My parents got a second divorce when I was in high school and I had to work pretty much all the way through. I got out and I was self-supporting when I was 18, and I just had to keep doing jobs. I bounced all over the place after high school, taking night classes. Then I’d occasionally get some part-time job where I could take day classes. I went to work for IBM when I was 23. I had worked in a print shop so I had some graphics background and I applied at IBM knowing they had a graphics department. At that point, I had maybe the equivalent of two years of college, but they hired me. They paid for my college, so I stuck with graphics and I kept going to school on their dime. I ended up getting out of graphics and I went to work in their marketing department, but I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t stand that corporate culture. I hated every day I was there. I just quit one day – just literally walked out, turned in my notice on this great job.

But then I went to work full time for a mason. I’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff. I was actually a stone mason for this guy for like 2 years, and every weekend I was outside. I worked weekends and sometimes evenings just doing basic rock work. I enjoyed rock work a lot. I just didn’t like working for this guy. He was inconsistent, had drug issues and all kinds of stuff. But I loved the work, and at one point if I could just do masonry, you know–

Finally, when I was 28 I got my bachelors at Kennesaw State. I was a late bloomer; I just couldn’t figure life out. I knew I wanted to keep plugging away until I got a degree, but I was never in a situation to facilitate that. Then I went to graduate school and finished my masters in history while I was working at a lumber company of all places.

You know, I always wanted to do outdoor work. But for whatever reason I got a degree in history because I was really into the liberal arts. I was taking all kinds of crazy liberal arts courses in college all the way through my 20s, and one day I was like, “I’ve got enough hours in History and English. I’ve got to decide.” So I picked History. I went on to graduate school and did a master’s in Asian History. I was always fascinated by Asian History, but I kept my hands in the outdoors. I backpacked, hiked a lot.

Then I got into my PhD, which I didn’t finish. I was originally working in British labor history, which is crazy, but I ended up meeting two environmental historians, Ben and Kathy Black. I was doing a lot of work up in north Georgia volunteering with this environmental group on the side. Then one day I just got a call from Ben. He and his wife had seen my year’s worth of comments on a Forest Service project and they were starting a new organization working on land use issues in the north Georgia mountains, so I met with them and they convinced me I should actually be doing a dissertation on environmental history. I’d never advise that to anyone: I changed my dissertation to land use in the northwest Georgia mountains over a 200-year period. I started with the Cherokee removal and the old Survey General’s surveys of the Cherokee Nation in the 1830s, the land lotteries, into the Civil War all the way into– I just did this deep dive into it all, and I got burnt out.

They started a new organization up there so they convinced me to become their first director. I had to do something; I had son who was living with me most of the time and I was just like, I need a job. I mean, I knew I wanted to do this kind of work… and then the lucky break. Well, I consider it lucky. So I got out of the research field and got into the activist field on the very area I was doing my dissertation work on. I just never completed the dissertation.

Eventually, Kathy and Ben got divorced, which was horrific to witness – so I went from that job to another conservation organization in Gilmer, Georgia. We were focused on this one ranger district in north Georgia where we were fighting some horrible TVA powerlines being proposed. It was community organizing work – crazy, ugly, brutal kinds of stuff, and the Forest Service was just clear cutting the hell out of that place, converting it to loblolly pine. We used to call that area the red-headed stepchild because the Forest Service kept it under the radar as a sort of sacrifice. Driving from Atlanta to Chattanooga, it’s basically all the public land on the west side of I-75; most people don’t even realize there’s anything there. It was a unique physiographical province separate from the Blue Ridge so it had its own set of endemic species, its own kind of forest systems– yet the Forest Service was cutting it. I used to hike and rock climb there, and I just got tired of seeing it ravaged.

We’re probably in the middle of witnessing the obliteration of place-based consciousness in a lot of ways. I don’t know what that means for people, for the future. I think there’s a lot of power in place-based thinking and connections to the land, personally. I grew up with those connections and I go back to Georgia and I’m like, “God! How do you do it?” It could be anywhere, you know?

So I was in Gilmer about 7 years. It was unbelievable watching the place get so developed and my wife and I were ready to get out of there. Then one day I just got a call from this woman in Washington who wanted me to start up an Appalachian office of the Green Alliance here. I jumped at the opportunity. I had been a member of the Alliance for years, so I had worked with her in different capacities. In a lot of ways, I got started in conservation because of them. They had a forest watch program back in the ’80s in the north Georgia mountains and I went to a volunteer training in 1986 or something, and that got me involved in different forest issues. So this woman, I trusted her and I felt like it could be a good fit.

Now I’m the Green Alliance’s Regional Director. We probably spend 90% of our time right now on this new forest plan. The Forest Service is creating a new 20-year management plan right now and the whole forest here is up for revision. 1.1 million acres, a blank slate, what do we do with it for the next 20 years? We’ve spent a lot of time mapping potential wilderness areas. That means inventorying areas that qualify under the 2012 planning rule for wilderness planning. We looked at road density, maintenance levels on different roads; it was a huge effort. The Forest Service had came back with an inventory of about 200,000 acres, we knew it ought to be around 350,000, so we spent a tremendous amount of our own time ground-truthing all of these roads. We were able to get the inventory up to a little bit over 350,000 acres.

Then we do outings, take people out to places we want protected. Just this Friday we have an outing out to Fires Creek in Clay County. This area has a unique population of this one particular plant, a mountain camellia, which is a state-listed imperiled species. It’s magnificent, and this time of year it’s in full bloom. This area is the biggest area of roadless acreage we have in western North Carolina and the population of mountain camellia just happens to be in there, so we’re taking people in. We can show them maps of the area, we can point at geographical features of the land, and at the same time we get them out to see an incredible plant for the day.

Then there are times we do a lot of volunteer trail work. There was a program started out of this office called the Southern Stewards, and they’d be out doing trail work all summer in the wilderness. They outgrew our capacity to manage them and we spun them off into a separate 501c3 two years ago but we’re still getting funding to them. My assistant and I both volunteer with different trail clubs. I’m on the board of the Trail Society and she’s really active with the Hiking Club in Fenton.

Once spring gets here I love to get on the Little Tennessee. I fish and paddle that river a whole lot, and I lead trips for several groups each year. I do a trip for the research station, lead outings for the Plant Conference, and I take people down from Owl Bridge to Old Bridge and I do a cultural landscape talk. I love doing that kind of stuff. Some cultural history, some natural history, botany, ethnobotany… We talk about around the mound down there. So the river starts taking up more of my time in spring because I really get into it. My wife and I both love that river.

What did the river look like 500 year ago? A thousand years ago? That’s a big mystery to me. Those damn banks weren’t cut like that. You didn’t have 10-, 18-foot cut banks, so it’s like, what was there? Was there this great, meandering stream with natural ebbs and oxbows in it? I’m sure it was just so different than now. There’s just a lot of great mysteries about that place.

The river runs cleaner now. When I first moved here the Nender tract was just a party zone. We used to call it Club Nender because you’d go down on any given summer night and it was a big party, no regulation, no law enforcement. It was all owned by Duke Energy. Road side camping– on a Sunday morning there’d just be piles of garbage everywhere. The state came in and bought the tract, closed down all the illegal off-road vehicle trails, shut down riverside camping – all of a sudden you’ve got a cleaned up environment. I can remember talking to an old-timer who grew up on the tract. This guy lived a back-woods, true Appalachia, poor working-class life, and he told me that the river today looked better than it ever had. He said, “Back when I was a kid this thing ran red all the time.” They had probably just clear-cut the shit out of this place, no erosion/sedimentation laws, and agricultural practices were even worse for all I know.

It does seem like the river clears up quicker. You get a little sedimentation, turbidity, and all that after a big rain event, but it just seems like the river clears up quicker and it’s not as red. I can remember a few times after we moved here it rained and the river just looked like shit for days– just this nasty orange color. Over the last couple of years when it has rained pretty hard and it was a little better, a little more chocolate brown. I used to spend a lot of time in up in northwest Georgia where the Conasauga River’s headwaters’ rivers are – a 34,000-acre wilderness with sizable streams – and you could walk down to the river after a 3-day rain event and it was running clear, just working perfectly. Then you’d walk right out of the wilderness boundary, go five miles downstream and the river looked like shit. Land practices are key, and land practices in the county have gotten better. The Land Trust has made a pretty significant impact with some good working easements on farms, keeping cattle out of the river and seeing those banks rehabilitate and revegetate.

There are exceptions; there are still some bad problems in that watershed. There’s still bullshit practices like cattle in the river – people just refusing to keep their cattle out, basic private property rights bullshit. “Nobody’s going to tell me I can’t do this, therefore I’m going to do it.” The same with those truck farms up on the highway. If those things can ever just get a little more conscious of the impact they’re making, I think we’d be a lot better. But those people have been around– Off the record, Jimmy Rydell- that guy doesn’t give a fuck. You don’t have to plow right down to the river; you can lose 20 feet of riparian buffer and not have to get that many more strawberries this year.

Before the economy collapsed, it was horrible. Development was running rampant – no controls, no zoning; people were allowed to do pretty much anything they wanted. It was horrible to watch. I watched them punch all those roads up on the mountain where they were putting that big subdivision, miles and miles of roads. The year after they started, I was biomonitoring on Dalton Creek and it was the biggest drop in an IBI score in that watershed ever seen. It went from excellent to poor in a year or something.

So you were watching these crazy things happen with no regulation. Then all of a sudden the economy tanked and every bit of that shit just came to a halt. Now you feel like there’s this reprieve but you know it’s not going to last forever. Groups like mine are trying to get ahead of that right now, trying to take advantage of the fact that the market hasn’t recovered yet and buy as much land or put as much under working easement as you can. I don’t want this place to get trashed. It’s hard enough to see things like Walmart come in and put in these ridiculous, ugly developments that didn’t have to happen- to watch the town grant a variance so Walmart could put that damn thing there. You see what appears to be leaderless– The town, they’re just holding this place back.

There’s a big private property rights component here. The Landscape Initiative interviewed folks a few years back and they interviewed this prominent local and it’s priceless – he’s got incredible local knowledge; his family is probably one of the oldest Anglo families in the county – rode in on a gun hot on the Trail of Tears – and it’s the most bizarre conversation. He can’t even make sense of his own worldviews with them. They ask him like, “If you could have your way in western North Carolina, what would this place look like?” And of course, he puts himself in this ideological trap because if your worldview is there should be no regulations, there should be no way to enforce how public lands are managed, or if you can’t even own public lands, how do you answer that question? In that worldview, whatever happens should be okay with you. If they put a toxic waste dump right next to you, you should have no problem with that. Property rights. So he got really stumbled up trying to answer that question. The pressed him on it a little and he just couldn’t figure out how to still make sense of having a perspective on the future with his bizarre intellectual arguments about property rights.

It’s very hard to live here sometimes. I’ve had way too many unpleasant experiences attending county commission meetings: anti-wilderness resolutions getting passed and very vocal anti-wilderness people in the community. I hadn’t been living here long and I was invited to be on this planning board sub-committee. We were charged with coming back with some recommendations on steep slopes and I was the token environmentalist. Well, the first meeting, even though the commissioners had charged us with coming back with proposed ordinances, the sub-committee – mostly real estate people – decided that their recommendation to the board was no ordinances. I just sat there stupefied. I went to one meeting and they basically voted to end to committee. That was it.

The county has changed some in the time I’ve been here, not a lot – off the record, not enough. Locals here irritate the hell out of me. I can’t stand the, “We’ve got more right to be here than you do” mindset. Wait a minute. There was another group of people here before you, who had rights you didn’t mind trampling on. If your grandparents moved here you’re still not– Three generations and you’re still not–

That’s the hardest thing for me about living here, working for the Green Alliance. I feel like I’ve become the face of this controversial thing. I hate that wilderness has become so controversial, and for whatever reason you end up labeled. It’s wearisome. I’ve been attacked publicly; I’ve gone and had miserable experiences when my wife and I just went to have a drink somewhere. I’m tired of that. My wife can talk to anyone about anything and be fine – she’s fearless in that way – but my stomach has gotten weaker over the years. I love the landscape, I love the place, I love the natural history, the features, and culture, but as far as the people go I have a very hard time living here. My wife and I are very lonely people.

Except we love it. We write and both of us draw a tremendous amount of creativity from the landscape – just from the landscape itself. People don’t feed that at all, not one bit. If anything, they take away so much from us sometimes it’s hard for us to live here. But my wife and I are still very much in love with the place. It’s fantastically beautiful; we’re both into the outdoors, we’re both into birding, we garden a lot. I raise a lot of unusual plants – my wife and I both are creating this place within a place.

We’ve tried to do what I call food-scaping. We’ve got a blueberry patch of about 20 plants, and we’ve got a raspberry patch, which is just incredible. I love fresh raspberries. I’m going home this afternoon to pick blueberries. All our blueberries are starting to come in right now, big thumbnail-sized berries and we’ve got some that are still a long way from coming in too. They’re great. Our high bush are coming in right now. I put in a couple of sweet cherry trees probably five years ago, and the raccoons got every one of them this year. The coons got there as soon as they started to ripen, got the cherries one night and they were gone the next day. What are you going to do? I bought a bag of cherries at Ingles.

And our garden is about 20 feet wide by 30. In the past, we’ve tried to grow a typical garden: grow a little of everything and watch it all die. For the past 3 years we had such bad cucumber and squash that we just gave up on it. The pollination just wasn’t happening. The plants seemed to come up, everything flowers, but no fruit. I’ve noticed that off and on for a while. I don’t know if that’s– It was a stupid kind of scenario, so this year we went really simple: planted this big patch of corn, planted a bunch of beans in with it so it all grows up the corn stalks, and we planted 12 tomato plants whereas last year we planted 35. We fertilized a little bit with cow manure, compost. We also got rid of our tiller. I bought a broad fork so we’re doing everything by hand, which is a lot more work. I’m not putting up with a gasoline tiller breaking, starting and stopping, fighting with the damn thing and feeling like shit for having to use the thing. So I worked with the broad fork, broke up the soil, dropped in the seeds and forgot about it. And we walked away from it, don’t care what happens. We thought, “We’re going to do a lazy garden. Some years we’ll really get into it and this year we were just too busy.

The way it ended up, the garden sucked. The tomatoes were horrible and the corn crop was miserable. I couldn’t figure it out. I mulched the hell out of it, I put manure in it – this year I added composted cow manure to it, not just leaf matter. We grow organically, so we’re not putting all the crap on these plants. We’re leave them up to their own devices and water them as best we can. But it’s hell, organic farming. There’s a reason all these mountain people use herbicides and pesticides – that’s how you feed your family. They don’t have time to screw around with trying to grow five tomatoes out of thirty plants or something.

And then I did some craziness. Playing around with climate change, I planted these big Asian orange persimmons – about two dollars apiece in the grocery store. They’re outside of their zone here, more-or-less. But I’ve got a friend down in Rabun County, Georgia who’d been having some success with them, so I put in two of those. Last year the frost got every one of them early, killed every flower on the tree. It almost killed off the trees – dead branches falling, smacking things off. This year has been a miracle year. I’ve got a big crop of those. When I say a big crop, I mean a couple hundred maybe. Three years ago we got a couple hundred of them I guess. Climate change has been pushing in a little bit for that particular species.

The deer absolutely hammered us this year. That’s an ongoing problem, the deer here in this county, they’re everywhere. I had more problems with deer eating beans– I had deer eating just about our entire crop. We have an eight-foot fence, but they get over it. And these late frosts have been brutal. We’ve had super late frosts and lost our entire blueberry crop. That makes me more cautious. I put off planting now. It’s too risky to try to put stuff in. Unless you’ve got a greenhouse or something you’re taking a chance. It’s just too much work to take a chance on. I’ve just gotten more careful about it all. I’m not going to put in a bunch of stuff because I’ve lost too much. It’s just better to wait.

And now we’re going to have elk. Somehow an elk got up into Bunsontown. It is no more. A guy shot an elk and got away with it. He actually shot it, said was damaging his corn crop. People there had already named the thing, Joe the Elk or whatever, and this guy shot it without a permit and he didn’t get prosecuted. They’re getting out of Smokey Mountain National Park. There was one seen up in Howard last week at the Country Club, so they’re traveling further and further out of the park now into private lands, getting into people’s gardens. What the hell is going to happen with elk? That’s a huge animal! You think about what deer and cattle do to the grass line and to native plants. Fuckin’ put native elk in there without a predator, you know?

Latino Appalachia is this uncharted territory, you know? It’s growing. What are those people thinking of this place? They must have a really interesting perspective on it. One friend, he’s been here now for years. I call him a friend now. He was working on a horse farm down the road from me one day, weed-eating, and I just pulled up and said, “Hey man, you for hire?” Once I started hiring him, everyone around started hiring him. This was years ago, and my wife and I have gotten to be pretty good friends with him – go and have drinks, you know? He lives up Gem Mine Road and to me this guy is one of the most interesting characters. He’s lived through it all. He’s been the migrant farm worker, he’s been the coyote victim, he’s been everything. He hasn’t seen his family in Mexico now in I can’t remember how many years. He’s got 5 kids down there and he lives like an absolute monk. He takes all his money and just sends it. I’ve taken him to town before so he could send money. He doesn’t drive. You go pick him up and carry him if you want him to work.

I do think the Hispanic population it was a lot higher probably 10 years ago. You used to go by the gas station in town on any given day and there would be 20 to 30 folks standing outside waiting for work. The more I get to know these guys – these other two guys who’ve been working on our house for the past couple months– One is 30; he moved to the states when he was 14 as a migrant farm worker with his older brother picking strawberries and tomatoes. His parents just left. They were here for 6 months and it was the first time he’d seen them in 14 years. It could be a side project of mine someday, to really dig into that Latino culture here in Appalachia. I’m sure there are lots of people doing research on that kind of thing right now.

In spring, the one thing that takes over my mind – takes over my being – more than anything is birding. Once the neo-tropical songbirds start getting here then I like to bird. I used to be really into plants. I’m still into plants, but I just got really into birding probably a decade or so ago while I was in Georgia. And I can’t really remember exactly what prompted me. I guess I was just out with some good birders one day and it just opened up my world. I started paying attention to the sounds in the forest and I really got into it. I lead some birding trips in the spring – I’ll do that usually for the Green Alliance. So the month of May and early June is pretty-much birding. I think I led three birding trips this year. I led one for the Mountain Club; I led one for the Trail Society. Spring is just prime time birding for me. Honestly though, birding is a huge part of my life year-round.

With climate change, the southern Apps are supposed to be this stronghold for many bird species because we’ve got enough topographic complexity – enough different elevation gradients – that they can keep on moving up and up. I’ve been keeping records on this one place called Cartooga the last half dozen years or so. It’s this high-elevation spruce bog – a 4,000-foot elevation bog. There’s no other place like it. I first heard about it when I first moved here. I think a friend might have told me about it and I went out there to explore. Then over the years I started leading birding trips there.

But a lot of other birds are going to be gone in 50 years because they’re moving further and further north. This year, I hadn’t heard a black-throated green warbler by spring’s end, which was just weird. That’s a really common southern Appalachian neo-tropical, a predictable spring migrant. We have a scientist on staff in Maine, and in spring he was getting black-throated greens up there everywhere. Well, it finally started showing up here in June. Was I just not getting them around here? Who knows? But I didn’t hear them nearly as much this year. It was late, and that to me–

Another unusual thing I noticed this year is wood thrush seem to be doing great. If you look at Audubon’s data on wood thrush they’ve been declining and my wife and I have never had a wood thrush at our house. We just had wood thrush this year, and that’s been pretty cool.

Ruffed grouse, that’s another species that’s in decline. They’re declining at the southern end of their range and that bird will probably be gone from here in the next 30 years. If you’ve talked to any Ruffed Grouse Society people the solution to all the world’s problems is to create more early successional habitat. I grouse hunt every year and there are none there either. The last two issues of Grouse Notes, they’re like, “Why are grouse declining everywhere even when the habitat is there?” But the Society says cut it, cut it… cut it to save the birds. We don’t know if that’s the case. There’s a lot going on in winter habitat too; we don’t ever talk about that. 90% of the golden-winged warbler’s habitat in Columbia has gone; it’s disappearing in Nicaragua. We just take that off the table and say, “We’ve got to create more habitat here.” Sure, why not? Let’s try. The Alliance isn’t opposed to cutting timber; we’re about protecting the best big wild places and about managing with good solid science where it makes the most sense. We believe in doing what it takes to save a species even if it means going into a wilderness area to do it.

I do a lot of hiking. In the dead of winter, I’ll lead hikes for the Mountain Club or the Trail Society. I learned a long time ago to lead the strenuous hikes because I like smaller groups and if you lead a strenuous hike you aren’t going to have 25 people show up. But there’s a disconnect. The average member of outdoor recreation groups wasn’t born here. The Mountain Club is weird because there’s a history of local participation; maybe because it’s the age of the club. Some of them were born here – mountain people who got into hiking for whatever reason and go out all the time. But then in other groups, I’d say that’s right.

There’s also a youth problem in conservation orgs. The hiking clubs, they’re an aging group. You might have a handful of people who are in their 40s – their 30s occasionally – but you show up and most are retirement age. We’re not recruiting youth either. The last I saw our average member is like 72. Younger people, they’re doing their own thing. When I was coming up in this field everyone hiked and backpacked. Backpacking was huge. I don’t know many people who backpack anymore. A lot of people are more into mountain biking, snowboarding, kayaking… adventure sports, adrenaline sports. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not value judging here, but I’ve noticed the clubs keep getting older. The fastest growing recreational use of this forest is mountain biking. Hiking is still number one, but mountain biking is getting big in western North Carolina. Traditional things like hunting keep going down. The last stats I read I saw just 2.5% of the recreational users were hunters. That’s really low. There’s an enormous spectrum of people who come to this forest now.

In the past decade, the biggest change I’ve noticed in the forest is rhododendron is dying off. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve been out with a lot of good botanists who are noticing that now. It’s isolated, but it seems that when you find it it’s in big areas. There are sections on the Appalachian Trail here in the county where you can walk for a mile or two and every bit of the rhododendron along the trail is dead or dying. I haven’t seen a paper yet, but one botanist I talked to speculated that it was prothera, a water-borne disease introduced through cotton farming. It has spread everywhere now; you can get it through landscape plants and it attacks root systems. Then there’s some theory that it’s a result of clear-cutting a hundred years ago, that rhododendron jumped in at the first opportunity and it’s maxing out its lifespan. We don’t know enough about its lifespan. It could be. But I’ve seen the die-off in all kinds of forest types, all age-classes.

Then of course the hemlocks, the biggest one. The hemlocks dying has been one of the biggest plant tragedies in my lifetime. Watching that happen has been unbelievable. And since I’ve lived here red spruce got infested with the southern pine beetle, which had never happened before. Seeing red spruce at a certain elevations get attacked by a species that ordinarily wouldn’t attack it—Cartooga: a lot of the red spruce up there died last few years back. I think it was the year we had bad drought.

I’ve seen multifloral rose way in on trails now; stilt grass – I’ve seen that new places in the woods. And I’ve found privet way out. When I first moved here, not at all. You walk out in the woods now and you’re down a trail a mile in, it’s just kind of ubiquitous and you go, “Oh wow, there’s multifloral rose.” I was on the East Fork Trail of Shining Rock a few weeks ago, and we were probably about a mile in, and there was this old home site with a patch of Japanese knotweed the size of this room. I don’t think I’d seen any before that point, but here was this big patch of knotweed, which you could tell was expanding like crazy. You think, “God! How’d that get here?” Well, someone walked in with a pair of hiking boots with seeds on them, or maybe some bird shitted seeds out up there. There was an opening there with some sunlight so it was able to establish itself, then it was off to the races. It’s just going to go and go and go. I’ve seen that everywhere.

I don’t know where this planet is headed. Fifty years from now this forest could be a loblolly pine plantation for all I know. Everything is moving north, it’ll keep getting warmer, we’ll keep having invasive-exotic problems all over this forest– The more we open it up, the more we cut it, the more they come in. Nature abhors a vacuum more than ever these days. And so I think we’re just going to keep seeing this forest filled with things that have never been there before and we’re going to keep seeing more and more serious problems as a result of those changes.

The woolly adelgid is a good example of that. They’re an introduced Asian species that just came in through a nursery in Virginia, I think it was. All these damn nurseries and imports. You know, the human consciousness has not changed enough to where they’re okay with that, to accept that. I don’t know how long a particular ecological consciousness will last, if we’re on the tail end where a new consciousness might happen. All these new books coming out now on the anthropocene idea, that this is the human world now, and we’re going to have novel climates, a novel forest, and get used to it. That’s one path, to just accept and say, “Okay, I’ll live with my novel climate. I’ll see paulownia in the woods and I’ll be okay with that.” I bought an old mountain farm, and it was completely covered with multifloral rose and mimosa when I bought it, and 13 years later I’m still fighting those species. Should I just give in and live with them? To a degree, I’ve had to. Ultimately we’re the most invasive species on the planet. We are the invasive-exotic species. We are the real problem. We’re not going to admit that. We’re going to focus our attention on other species and try to fix those without fixing us. It’s not mimosa, it’s us. We can spend all day trying to eradicate that shit; it’s not going away.

I think the big question here is climate variability, which is what seems to be the biggest problem we have – like not knowing what to predict in the way of climate. In western North Carolina storm intensities have increased like 30% in the last few decades – higher, heavier rainfall over shorter periods. I live down a two-and-a-half-mile gravel road and we have a POA that has to take care of it. It’s a nightmare. We’re broke. We put in 18/24-inch culverts never thinking there’d be rain events like some of the events we’ve had – absolutely mind-blowing events where every bit of roadwork we just spent thousands of dollars on is gone.  I’ve had to watch our POA fees go up twice since I’ve been there, and I’ve pushed to increase them again because I see us running out of money all the time. We weren’t broke when we first went into this. There’s no such thing as a hundred-year deluge anymore because they come every five years. You can’t size your culverts right for that. And we keep getting more and more record days over 90 degrees. That to me is a clear indication that we’ve gotten something going on. We’ve had crazy, freaky, super-cold weather too, at the same time. We could have a foot of snow or whatever. One year you’re having record rainfall and all of a sudden you’re having record drought. It just seems like that’s the new norm: there is no norm.

It is hard knowing what the hell will be going on with the climate here 1,500 years from now, but whatever it is it’s going to be weird as shit and we’re going to be dealing with something different. And I don’t know if we’ll adapt until we absolutely have to. Most people are just going to wait until it gets so bad, like we usually do as a species. It was only after Katrina that we fixed the levies, and it’s like we haven’t had enough severity here yet to make people start to think that way. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” is the way it feels to me from the county commissioners. I don’t think there’ll be lot of community discussion about it or visioning at the local level. I don’t think we take it very seriously. For those of us who do think about it, we’re learning to live with it and wish that people would learn about it. It’s the issue of our day. It’s an enormous problem, and yet it’s not.

So what’s going to happen there – our road is a great example of it: How many years in a row do we spend thousands of dollar so the gravel can wash into the river? When does it become so obvious that we’re pissing away money that people say, “Oh, we need to pave the road, put in some big culverts, and do a better job maintaining them.” Wherever your mind is on climate change, the pocketbook says this is a problem. That’s unfortunately what gets people motivated. But I think if you’re living closer to the natural world, spending more time in the natural words, and thinking about the natural world, or reading about the natural world, then it all is more obvious to you than your average person who is just going to work and that’s not their job to worry about or think about it.

I’ll butcher the quote, but it’s something like, “To live in today’s society with an ecological consciousness is to live in a world of wounds.” And I think for anyone who’s got a deep connection to nature, you can’t live on this planet and not live in some state of grief. I don’t see how you live on this planet today without feeling like, wow, we’re fucking things up pretty bad. I see that all the time; I see all these changes.