On the West Virginia Floods

Disasters, large and small, are only as damaging as we allow. Gone should be the days where the publicity surrounding calamities focus on the seemingly uncontrollable winds, rivers, and rains that kill and destroy. I do not speak of dams and other man-made pseudo scientific “cures” for the disasters. No, I criticize the very real and human decisions that cause the harm often associated with natural events.

Two weeks ago more than a foot of rain fell on West Virginia, east of Charleston, in the area surrounding the Monagahela National Forest. Anybody aware of the delicate balance between slope and rain runoff in the Appalachian Mountains should understand the destruction such an inundation can cause. If the mountains were left alone–if their integrity withstood human colonization, urbanization, and resource extraction–this flood would have still happened. But the mountains are not the same.

The area surrounding ground zero of the disaster suffered the ills of modern excesses. Mountain Top removal built up the beds of rivers and streams. The scalping of peaks shortens the natural path of rainfall to the streams. The trees and topsoil removed in the process prevents the absorption of the runoff before it hits the waterways. The result is that the rainfall rushes faster and unhindered into the rivers of the valleys. Add to to that the ongoing cutting, paving, and widening involved with roadways and new construction. Each cubic yard of concrete that replaces natural soil and levels the curvature of Appalachian topography damages the region’s ability to handle downpours.

I argue that floods are much more than a whole lot of water. Disasters are much more complex than single day events. Inaccurate weather predictions aside, there are many, many moments leading to the “Big One’s” that indicate whether our society is capable of survival. Often, however, we either choose to ignore the warning or manipulate political, social, and economic systems to ensure that some suffer while others are safe. The latter method is simply spawned by greed.

Yes, money, too, causes natural disasters.

And the ones who want the most to bamboozle the majority of us are those who could really do the most good if they weren’t so goddamned “evil.”

Furthermore, organizations like FEMA mainly serve the general public’s need for a clear conscience. On one hand, we generally want to know that we will be taken care of in times of need, such as disasters. On the other, we do not want to sacrifice the sliver of our tax dollars that goes towards the government to protect us. This is especially true for those who have a distinct distaste for taxes and federal involvement. All is fine for anti-taxers who safely criticize while sitting on top of mountains.

But there was a time when the wealthy among us put their money and employees to work for the greater need, such as during the devastating floods of the summer of 1916. Those floods killed more than 150 people in the same area that was devastated in West Virginia. But the major issue with the involvement of big business in these affairs was their racist and elitist objectives.

All minorities suffer more during disasters due to intentional and systematic negligence. The decision about who benefits from any recovery attempts is almost always left to people of a different class and financial situation than those who lost everything, which was often not much to begin with.

Like then, the worst hit of this disaster are everybody small enough to live week-to-week, or day-to-day. This, because of a slop of socio-economic planning, includes the majority of West Virginia. It is false to ask why it is that a disaster in West Virginia damages so much and kills so many.

The right question is why does so many, with so little, live so near to that much danger?

And once the water subsides and the floating, enflamed houses disappear into an abyss of ash and mud, we should also ask why so little is actually done? Because long after the water returns to its banks and media vans head to the new “Top Story,” the people of West Virginia will remain in some of the most impoverished conditions in the nation.

Despite the devastating power of rivers at flood peak, regardless of the demolition caused by landslides, aside from the lingering smell of shit, kerosene, and pine, the disaster of West Virginia is social and economic.

Rivers simply have the good fortune of occasionally uncovering the messes we create.

A Cold, Rainy Way

It’s cold. In fact, it’s freezing.

I checked my “spanking new” iPhone and the app told me it would be 60 degrees today. It lied.

My feet are soaked. My face is tingling with abrasion and my books are moist. My shoes, my socks, my backpack, my umbrella, the papers within my backpack, my books, and the very essence of the materialism in my life are wet/drenched/soaked. My body, even the parts which were wet, is dry.

Believe it or not, I love rainy days. Everything seems to breathe. My romantic sense of nature is fulfilled by the relationship between water and life. In a drought, there is little else a tree is more thankful for than three days of rain.

I am amazed and altered by the power of rain. Like all forms of water the energy it holds can be manipulated but not overcome. We create contours in our pavement to divert its flow. We build reservoirs to store and utilize its energy. We hide under umbrellas and other retardants. Still, it affects our moods, driving abilities, and plans on a small scale and creates disasters such as mudslides, floods, and infrastructure damage on the grandest. Although I am subject to it, I admire the tenacity and strength of rain.

It was easy for most of the afternoon to ignore my discomfort. Music and friendly conversations were sufficient in my distraction. Once I stepped off the bus a mere block from my home, the wind and the rain with its icy disposition swirled around me and I succumbed to the full realization of myself. I could not help but to focus on my condition. Cold, wet, and lonely I walked and waded toward my front door.

There is a University-owned pasture across from my apartment. A dozen horses live within the fields and fences. In the mornings and early evenings the scene is picturesque. For a few moments each day I realize why the pastoral landscape is so often romanticized by both artists and academics. For those moments I forget the lack of diversity in a fenced in field. I forget the ecological nightmare farms wreak on our world. For those few moments I am an average human being; I forget what I know in order to feel.

Above the field a flock of birds fly briskly through the air. They sway then swoop. They lift and drop. In unison, they seem to act the same as on any other day. We humans, we silly primates, do not. What separates us from the rest of our animal brothers is not the ability to adapt and thrive on the planet we are contained within, it is our ability to separate our minds from our natural predilections. We are excellent at lying to ourselves and others.

I closed my eyes to forget myself. At once I was a part of the world surrounding me. The wind blew, but I could only hear it. The rain fell, but I could only smell it. The cold penetrated the cells of my body but I only felt content.

Birds sing the same songs in winter as they do in spring. If only we would do the same.

Mistakes

Sometimes mistakes lead to a change in the route home. Sometimes you pass on foot what you intended to drive by. As a person who cherishes routine and the expected, these times can be hopelessly frustrating. However, such a time happened to me while heading home last Thursday.

I have a five minute window of time following my last class to catch the three buses which head toward my apartment. I believe sarcasm and malice are behind the design of the bus routes which have them all pick up within three minutes of each other at the UGA library. I have waited, because I know myself very well, for the day that I miss my opportunity for a speedy and comfortable mass-transit ride home. That day was Thursday. As I looked at my tri-folded Athens Transit route map, I realized the next bus would not come for another hour. I had a choice. Wait the hour patiently while reading about the fall of the Aztec Empire, or take the next bus as close as possible to me and walk the remaining distance. Perhaps because my last class of the day is “On the Road,” I opted for the latter in hopes of a small but certain adventure.

I took the East Campus Express bus which dropped me off at the I-Fields parking lot. This left about a mile for me to walk home. I am a runner. The idea of walking one mile, or even five, is not intimidating to me. Generally, I welcome a good bit of exercise. I began my walk with the intention of looking everywhere around me as I went. I had never walked this path before. It was new, faintly exciting, and I enjoyed the prospect of having some quiet time alone and outside.

As I walked, I began to feel something crunching under my soles. I looked down and noticed something which stirred in me a list of contradicting emotions. The crunching was the sound of hundreds of acorns bursting under me. These were no ordinary acorns. The tops, or crown, of them are spiked and cover half of the nut, unlike the small, more subtle crowns which cap the more common white, red, or black oaks throughout Georgia. I looked above me and could easily identify which type of tree had dropped this very early sign of fall. The culprit was the sawtooth oak tree.  As a student of nature, I absolutely love trees. They are my favorite part of any day. However, as I looked down the sidewalk at the path ahead of me, I began to get angry. I saw thousands of acorns crushed and scattered throughout the sidewalk. The anger did not come from the dread of walking over the nuts. The anger came as I realized that every tree down this street, on both sides, were sawtooth oaks. They were planted by the city. I have no doubt they are carefully maintained and manicured. However, they are an invasive species of tree to America. Originally from China, the sawtooth oak drops its acorns earlier than any other oak in Georgia. I picked up a handful of acorns and continued walking.

As I walked, I began to think about my anger. Where does this come from? Why, since I chose the study of Environmental History, can I not enjoy a walk outside without getting angered by some small thing? The answer is that nothing is small to me. I see these acorns as trees, thousands of them. Sure, they were crushed under my Skechers, this time. What about the ones which take root, long before the white, red, or black oaks drop their seeds? What chance will they have in the span of a millennia to be as fruitful as the invasive sawtooth? We cannot comprehend a thousand years as humans. If a tree comprehends at all, time is a smaller scale for it than it is for us. This sight brought back all those doubts about humanity’s intelligence as a collective. We are willing to wipe out entire species of animals and plants for the sake of a few ornamental species. We have proven this to posterity time and time again.

As I walked, I broke apart the acorns and tossed their carcasses aside. I felt no anger, especially toward the oak. It is a fine and majestic tree. It is no less capable and deserving of a beautiful Athens address than any one of its citizens. However, it belongs in China and its acorns belong to Chinese squirrels. The burrows surrounding the oak trunks give proof to the squirrel’s duties. Like every other acorn, with the exception of the white oak, the squirrels bury sawtooth acorns for a later harvest. I can only hope that the squirrels keep their intentions and remember to dig every one of them up, consume them, and continue the dominance of our own native trees in the rolling Georgia piedmont.

As for me, sometimes I feel doomed to be angered by things which no one else cares about. I was walking behind a fellow student on North Campus. He reached out to the shrub to his right, picked off a handful of leaves, thumbed them for a minute, and then cast them to the ground. I thought, “What a waste!” He didn’t think at all. This scene will play out in my life on scales both large and small. I am certain of this. I am also certain that my heart will be full with unbridled passion for everything which breathes until the day I can no longer.

O’ Wilderness, Faith Where Have You Gone

Some shout at the environmentalists, “Why waste time saving trees when people starve and nations are crumbling?”

I say the same cause for the crumbling of nations and starvation of their people is the cause of the eradication and abuse of our wild neighbors.

An underlying ignorance is woven throughout our American culture.

It is our worst attributes in excess.

I read recently about how Theodore Roosevelt stood in the face of his father’s friends and some of his own family to set aside millions of acres for preservation, never to be touched by the axe again. He was a man whose fortune was tied directly to the exploitive practices of the pioneers and yet he knew better and did better.

I found myself in awe. I felt like I was reading about a foreign hero. But no, this was an American president. His motto for conservation was, “I so declare it.” He did so because he knew it was right.

The act of doing what is right in America is endangered.

Edward Abbey once stated that, “The purpose and function of government is not to preside over change but to prevent change. By political methods when unavoidable, by violence when convenient.”

Men who pray together lay together. Their relationship is full of the means to justify a Heavenly end. This sometimes leaves little room for earthly needs.

Roosevelt, despite denominational affiliation, was not a religious man. In fact, he detested the religious bigotry which held the nation’s government in its grip during his life. He appointed men from catholic, Jewish, and Protestant beliefs out of the belief that anyone can have upright morality and integrity despite religious affiliation.

Religion is not evil. It is not, alone, the cause for all that is wrong with our country. It is the weapon at the hands of men who would rather advance themselves over their neighbors. It is the justification for their calloused actions.

Our Protestant nation defined success as financial excess and equated Godliness with success. Christianity is a religion built around a homeless carpenter who instructed his disciples to tend to the sick and lost with these instructions:

“You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.(Matthew 10: 5-14)”

As with the case of every religion, there are Christians who choose to exaggerate the words of god to fit their personal will.

The Puritans, pioneers, and conservatives in American history used religion as the means to justify the eradication of our wilderness. This same method was applied to civil rights, poverty, economy, and defense legislation.

As long as our political foundation is the “prevention of change” to religious morals, based upon the exaggeration of religious commandments, America will not prosper.

Edward Abbey once stated, defiantly and with much criticism, that, “A patriot must always be ready to defend its country against its government.”

Some may take that as a call for rebellion. I take it as a call for perspective. The days of the general public having like-minded representatives in our state and national capitals are gone with the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and even Nixons. For decades we have read the newspaper and disagreed with the actions rolling down on us from capitol hills.

We read ideologies and believed yet ignored the facts.

Each representative is corruptively obligated to their own interests to the point where ours has no bearing. We simply have no effect on our government.

Thomas Jefferson once stated that, “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

At the very least our representatives should fear the loss of their jobs in the case of public displeasure with their performance.

Roosevelt stood in place, behind a podium of unpopularity among his peers and after three like-minded presidents before him were assassinated for their revolutionary ideas. He did so with the support of his countrymen, those who put him in that position. He proclaimed, “I so declare it!” He did so without the fear of any man, besides his late father. A father who instilled in him the tenacity necessary to carry out what is right for its sake, and sometimes its sake alone. He did so. And his image is one of strength, wisdom, and foresight without religious affiliation and with political ambiguity.

It is understandable that present and future leaders will call upon the ghosts of our past heroes to link themselves to greatness. We must not be confused. The greatest of Americans were acknowledged as such during, as well as after, their lives.

I know this not from personal experience. In the nearly three decades of my life, our country has not provided a single example of such a hero.

I have never been more grateful to be a student of history as I am now.

Wilderness and Passion

There is something wild in each of us.

In everything that breathes there is something to tame. Children eat with their hands first. They crawl before they walk. They spit before they speak. They scream before they write. If it were natural for these activities to reverse in order it would be so.

If these, and other, natural behaviors were left alone without construct or criticism, the child would be deemed antisocial, feral, wild, or deviant. Each of these terms are different ways to say someone is “different.”

Each of them are labels given by the majority of a group to describe the minority. Like every other instance of similar labels, they are slurs and judgmental in nature.

From urinating in the woods, which is fair to say nearly every man and a good many women have done freely, to fist fighting, there are very wild compulsions in being human.

We are taught, molded, and formed into creatures who neglect their wildness.

We do this to gain acceptance into society. What is society? There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of definitions which can be given. All I know for sure is that society is a product of man. It is designed to be the foundation of all desires.

If one desires to have thirty subordinate wives there is a society for him. If another wishes to bind another in slavery, there is a place for them.

Within each society is a set of rules, morals, ethics, values, or mores. These standards are designed to promulgate the core desire of its society.

The American society prefers a suit to jeans and a clean face to a scruffy one. We cover ourselves from head to toe in manners, perfumes, and clothing masking our true nature from each other.

In our most intimate relationships, these carnal boundaries are crossed time and time again. This leads to a deeper love and understanding between us than otherwise possible.

Passion is wild.

Our efforts suppress our wilderness and our wildness and dilutes passion. We cannot forget that it was an unbridled passion for the freedom to express and protest which led to the greatness of America. Countless mobs formed at the dawn of our independence. Instances of tar and feathering and royal officials ridden out of their homes on rails attributed to the passionate atmosphere surrounding our revolution.

This passion, this wildness, derived from the lessons learned from centuries in the wilderness give definition, meaning, and pride to our nation.

Much of Nature

When I drive down the freeway I often watch the hills as they roll on either side of me. Rather than focusing on their present, barren, condition my imagination soars with ideas of how they must have been.

Instead of forty foot billboards I see hundred foot Chestnuts. I see oaks as big as houses and cane as tall as pine. In my imagination there are no fences, hogs, or cattle. There is only wolves, mountain lions, and buffalo. My heart and mind throw back to a time when the Georgian hills were home to both predator and prey. When the coyote only knew the west and the west had no knowledge of the pioneer.

If God exists we have cut the fruit he has sown and planted our own version of a forest. We turned oak and hickory communities into crops of invasive pine and grass. We chose which species to protect and forsake those we deem insignificant.

We plundered what cannot be replaced.

Somewhere on this road there is a soul with a different imagination. One amazed at the amount of open space left in the Piedmont. One who sees opportunity and industry. The modern pioneer sees eighty foot pine and imagines hundred foot buildings. He sees fences, hogs, and cattle and imagines a parking lot. He does not know this land once belonged to buffalo. He does not seem to care. He seeks progress as defined by his father and his father’s fathers. He is the American spirit. Pure and unaltered. He is enterprise and prosperity. He is old and dated and his peak has naturally passed.

As our oil runs out and our world rattles on we will see what we have done and act appropriately.

We will run back to nature like times before. Like a withered old maiden, with her humble, wise, broken, and aged body, she will accept us once again. And weariness, restored by Gaia’s grace, will cease.

We crawled out of the wilderness, walked head-high within the light of “civilization,” and ran back to the forests when we had nothing left. Like a child straight from the womb, we are both scared and comforted by darkness.

If God exists he is as much of nature as he is of us.

Wilderness Artificiality

The other day my wife and I went for a run. The challenge was to run six miles outside. It was a rare feat for both of us.

We chose to run in downtown Jefferson, Georgia. We started near a park which has a Boy Scouts home on the premises.

This park is a tribute to wilderness artificiality. It holds, in esteem, a conference center, boys and girls restrooms, a baseball field, and, as its central focus, a stocked man-made pond. The ducks who live on it are invasive and mix-bred. The trout are born on farms and sold to the city by the lot. The trees are young and scarce. There are not enough oak to provide squirrels with summer storage, which leaves them to gnaw on unripened pecans until their bitter center is breached and they are tossed aside.

This is where boys learn skills, understanding, and civility through connection to the “wilderness.”

As we ran on the uneven streets of what once was known as Thomocoggan my mind began to wander. At the artificial pond, full of artificial fish sought by artificial pioneers, a father’s day weekend fishing rodeo was being held. Families trickled in with coolers, bait and tackle, and lawn chairs. Signs from major sponsors were hanging on field fences and music played loudly from a local radio station mobile unit.

I was caught in the middle of a fight between both sides of my heart.

I missed being young and doing similar things with my dad. Nostalgia and self-serving sadness coursed through my veins and arteries.

I also mourned the loss of our nation’s collective innocence. We are innocent when we are closest to our youth. The difference between knowing better and not is time and effort. Over time we have grown apart from our natural innocence. As 21st century Americans, we do not know our wilderness heritage. We do not remember our youth. We do not remember where we came from. We have no clue where we are going.

In our youth we fished from holes in the earth which were naturally made by a tremendous amount of water and pressure. We did so to provide and survive. We did so with whatever tools our culture provided. In our youth we sought species for sustenance which existed in a single community for millenia without manipulation by man. Species which depended upon theirs and other kinds to survive. A community without breach in which every part had a complete and equal role to play in its overall survival and prosperity. A community so unlike ours that it scares me.

I swear to you now that when plucked from their original habitat, in our youth we feasted upon larger, and most likely better tasting, species of trout than what currently resides in man-made ponds in the center of wilderness artificiality.

Whether we admit it or not, we are a part of a greater community in which every part is to play an equal and complete role to ensure the overall survival and prosperity of the whole. Like an overworked mother or father, a piece of plastic, or chewing gum, we are being stretched too thin to fill the roles we have adopted. Roles which once belonged to species which left or were forced out by our ancestors.

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