appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Wild Waters: I Don’t Much Care For Dams

Image from wikipedia: Ocoee Dam No. 3 is a hydroelectric dam on the Ocoee River in Polk County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. I collected Corbicula below this dam as part of my Masters field work.

Image from wikipedia: Ocoee Dam No. 3 is a hydroelectric dam on the Ocoee River in Polk County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. I collected Corbicula below this dam as part of my Masters field work.

The 1960’s! The decade has many nicknames. A particularly unfortunate one is “The Golden Age of Dams.”

Plugging river systems effectively destroys the surrounding landscape and its wild inhabitants. The waters that rise behind dams serve as an excuse to sprawl industrialization ever more into the landscape — complete with suburbs, shopping malls, roads, billboards and the age-old tourist activities of drinking beer and riding pontoon boats on the open water. And who can blame the tourists? What a show! A grand lake from out of nowhere. The American government, specifically the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed these concrete barriers. Seems they could do anything — anything but avert natural processes.

With all the planning, politicians and corporate executives could not accurately predict river flow, did not take into account the consequences of a booming populations in territories suffering from resource scarcity (like the desert Southwest) , had no idea of climate change and, through subsides and land grants, totally ignored the true environmental costs of their actions. Today, in the wake exists a human and ecological crisis.

Building dams has many unintentional consequences. One such effect is drastically altering the sediment flow through the river system. Before dams came rivers they carried sediment along the entire length of the system, guaranteeing deposition in larger bodies of water. This process constructs deltas. Today, all the sediment is trapped behind the concrete of dams. This fills reservoirs but starves the downstream areas. This concentration of sediment raises the level of dissolved metals, such as arsenic, manganese and lead (among other known neurotoxins) in the reservoir system, raising public and environmental health concerns. Open river systems allow these metals to flow in a dilute manner without such concerns.

Aside from sediment, dams also prevent water flow further down stream. Where there was once free-flowing water, numerous aquatic plants that served as a sink for the resource, and groundwater reservoirs, the area is now low flow. Local aquatic wildlife populations are eradicated, especially freshwater mussels if they are separated from host fish, and water dependent terrestrial species are lost from the area.

It is important to note, that large-scale industrial projects, like dam construction, are all but impossible on a community basis. By paying true environmental cost, and having to use the resources available at hand (or sourced from the market), natural systems would be exploited in a much more sustainable manner. These heavy infrastructure investments are a direct result of state intervention in the market, complete with heavy subsidies making the price of construction artificially cheap.

So, what to do? Step one tear down the dams. OK, then what?

Input reduction is the best all around solution to all environmental woes. As giant corporations, such as Nestle, tap groundwater reservoirs for water intensive projects, as governments shower water intensive big agriculture with subsidies and as capital increases demand for lush golf courses, giant lakes and continued sprawl into landscapes, commons governance regimes offer redemption.

Efficient use of resources is successfully managed in the commons. Technical changes, such as micro-irrigation, can transport water to crops via pipes as opposed to the open ditches used by industry that encourage evaporation. Most importantly, commons governance would demand liberation from the growth mentality. Instead of encroaching on natural lands, it would serve human interest to invite desert flora back into communities. Xeriscaping is landscaping designed to save water. This includes using native or endemic plants. Pursuing wastewater reclamation, or using gray water to water crops as opposed to freshwater from current municipalities is another conservation mechanism that would develop under common regimes. Environmental cost demands the maximum sustainable use of resources. Under common regimes, common markets will work for the optimal allocation, conservation and preservation of ecosystem services.

When resources are cheap, they will be wasted. State decree offsets the true environmental cost of resource consumption to benefit special interests — profit is privatized as risk and cost is socialized to the greatest extent possible. These projects are not only unsustainable, they are maniacal.

Long live the commons.

Long live wild waters!

Forests as Redemption

Photo by Dick Conrad, used under Creative Commons License

Photo by Dick Conrad, used under Creative Commons License

Forests offer human civilization a chance at redemption. It is amazing what natural systems can teach us. When we consider natural systems, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life. The wild functions under the fixed laws of nature. It is competition in a world of scarcity, mutualism among species of different kingdoms, cooperation among the three great domains of life and selection pressures that order the natural world. Looking to the complex order of the forest, a world free of archism is revealed.

So let’s study the forest, then look back to civilization. Let’s craft the commons and a society worthy of wilderness.

Common institutions will allow bottom up governance to develop. From the natural rules of scarcity, a grand conservationist ethic will emerge. No longer will there be islands of forest in a vast sea of industrialism, but just the opposite. The forest will be part of civilization and vast, pristine wilderness areas will rarely, if ever, be occupied by our bodies.

This is radical freedom, the nature of liberty — true, self organized, sustainable progress.

From Hyperbole to Democratic Energy

Photo Credit: www.ecohomeguy.com, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: http://www.ecohomeguy.com, Creative Commons – The Ecological City

The future of energy in the United States is a testy topic these days. Politicians, industry officials and special interests are fighting over partisan policy proposals. All actors are fully engaged in the art of hyperbolic mouth breathing — depraved political theater at its finest.

The Obama administration wants to build a legacy of environmental stewardship and energy independence. Not so easy in the current market, as these two tasks seem ever at odds. Regarding stewardship, the administration has put its political clout behind designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness. This would liberate the landscape from oil and gas production, road construction, clear cuts and other industrial follies. However, the administration also proposes opening upsections of the Atlantic coast for oil exploration for the first time in US history. This would expose previously protected territories to industrialization and the risk of disaster.

Regarding ANWR, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) says this may be one of the largest conservation measures “since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.” Opponents, such as Marita Noon (executive director of Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy), liken the move to Obama siding with the Russians in America’s new Cold War: “The anti-American accusation may be a bit of hyperbole — but, then again, maybe not. When you connect the dots, it seems clear that President Obama is doing Russia’s bidding …” Apparently, Noon missed the Atlantic coast memo.

Regarding Atlantic exploration, DOI’s latest five-year plan calls for the government to lease southern coastal waters, and new areas of the Gulf of Mexico, to industry. In a flip-flop, industry officials celebrate the move while conservationists remain stunned, dismayed and angered.

The media narrative around these proposals is business as usual, focused mainly on what these proposals mean for Obama’s environmental legacy, the jeers and cheers from congressional Republicans and Democrats on their respective sides of the issues, and the wishes and concerns of industry giants and deep pocketed green groups are thoroughly detailed. Once again, the country’s energy future lies in the hands of those with access to the halls of power.

What’s missing from this narrative? The most important of social forces: You.

The market left has little regard for the vertical nature of the narrative. We envision vibrant social co-operation in the absence of centralized authority. We believe in competition between polycentric institutions and federations under democratic control. In short, we believe in the horizontal. Let’s look to one another as we craft the decisions that will cultivate the future of our communities — energy policy included.

In this libertarian order environmental stewardship and energy independence will not be at odds. Market actors will conduct cost/benefit analyses before harvesting resources. With the new burden of true environmental costs (such as the destruction of an ecosystem in the event of a disaster) a market mechanism for conservation will develop. It is in our best interest to have resilient, healthy ecological communities because the ecosystem services they award are far too important for the cash nexus.

The free society will be built by spontaneous order — by individuals with agency over their labor. Energy will be democratic, with decisions made based on community needs and natural limitations. The energy demands and environmental concerns of today are indeed great, but if we work together we can meet the challenges of the 21st century. So let’s begin our labor, leave behind the hyperbole and build democratic energy.

Citations to this article:

Grow the Grass-Roots

Photo Credit: uwyoextension.org - Creative Commons

Photo Credit: uwyoextension.org – Creative Commons

Of all the complex environmental problems the world faces today, the elephant in the room is climate change. If current predictions are correct, our posterity faces famine and drought, land loss, natural disasters, political instability and (if the hippies at the Pentagon are correct) increased warfare as resources are strained. So, how do we address the issue?

State progressives suggest classic command and control policies. Their authoritarian spirit is so commonplace it’s no longer shocking. Society is but a marionette to the high liberal — and climate may be next.

The United States National Research Council, an arm of the very well-respectedProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published a two-volume report (Climate Intervention Is Not a Replacement for Reducing Carbon Emissions; Proposed Intervention Techniques Not Ready for Wide-Scale Deployment — Feb 10, 2015) arguing for development of a “portfolio of activities” to combat global change. The Council suggests climate engineering as an approach. As indicated by Clive Hamilton at The Ecologist: “In other words, rather than presenting climate engineering … as an extreme response to be avoided if at all possible, the report normalises climate engineering as one approach among others.”

Climate engineering is deliberate interference with the climate system in hope of curbing global change. Such a proposal is potentially disastrous. Climate is incredibly complex — to think we can manage such an integrated system is foolish. Numerous unintended consequences will surely follow any attempt to hack the climate.

To be fair, the report notes the serious risk in climate engineering, but still suggests the US move forward with major research programs to investigate various forms of climate manipulation. This state approach is riddled with incredible dangers. Luckily, social forces offer an inspiring alternative.

A holistic, global sustainability movement has roots going back to the early 1980s. Looking to the market, it places less emphasis on legal solutions and focuses on liberty. Among the root causes of environmental degradation are institutionalized social and economic woes. Realizing this, activists for a sustainable future seek the liberation of markets, reclaiming the labor of individuals from the corporate arm of the state.

The sustainability movement is built by local community action groups, as opposed to the deep pocketed “green” organizations stalking DC’s halls of power. Sustainability is a local movement. There are no defined leaders, only activists and practitioners. After all, if the coal fields, for example, are to resist power and domination from the coal industry, then why tolerate such ethos in the movement? Activists are not concerned about positions of privilege — horizontal themes define grass-roots activism. The goal is not power, but instead a healthy environment, thus healthy communities. As the sustainability movement grows, it continues to develop new strategies and approaches to further the goal of preserving the environment for our generations that follow.

State approaches to environmental degradation remain vague, hypocritical and, with the prospect of purposefully altering the climate, maniacal. If you care for the natural world, instead of empowering the state, turn your back on it. Grow social power instead. Find a local group and get active in your community. No matter your skill set, I guarantee your labor will be appreciated. It will no doubt be meaningful. Salvation does not lie in the hands of the powerful, it lies in liberty.

Citations to this article:

  • Grant A. Mincy, Grow the Grass Roots, Alliance, Nebraska Times Herald, print edition, 02/20/15

Wildness as Praxis: Evolving the Urban Corridor

Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Gay Street, from South Knoxville heading downtown.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Gay Street, from South Knoxville heading downtown.

In the November of 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, thus changing the way natural scientists viewed the world forever. In this text, Darwin describes the idea of descent with modification and brilliantly illustrates the concept of natural selection: The gradual process by which heritable traits express themselves, if at all, in a population based on reproductive success and environmental pressures. Amid the scientific jargon, there exists grand prose that capture the incredible workings of nature. One such passage comes at the end of Origin:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us……There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

What Darwin captures with his rhetoric is the incredible way everything works together to form the living Earth. Behind the simplest of actors lies an infinite and beautiful complexity — billions of years of life, ancient worlds and time our civilizations will never know. Darwin is correct, there is grandeur in this view of life.

It is interesting to consider the interactions of life out in the wild. Microbes liberating breathable oxygen, annelids and nematodes churning the soil, fungus bonding to the roots of plants and feeding them nutrients, trees providing canopy habitat for numerous fauna and so on. There is mutualism everywhere in the wild. When we think of evolution the old motto “survival of the fittest” comes to mind. This is a bit unfortunate. Darwin did talk of competition in his book, but, as the above passage signals, he also provides lengthy descriptions of mutualism and symbiosis. He regards many of the relationships among species, such as the moth and orchid, as cooperative, complex and wonderful. It is considerations such as these that also caught the deserved attention of another famed evolutionary biologist: Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin was an interesting human with a rather lengthy curriculum vitae. In addition to his biology credentials, the man was also a Russian prince. Growing up he was fascinated with the French revolution and studied anarchist theory. Above all, he was a lover of nature. Considering the lengthy bio, it is pleasant to think of this man reveling in natures beauty while reading about the splendor of liberty. One can almost picture the bearded fellow, studying Darwin’s book and anarchist literature in the great out-of-doors. After all, there is no better place than the natural world to discover liberty and one’s own wildness.

Kropotkin’s anarchism grew with his fondness of the wild. The prince saw mutualistic relationships everywhere in nature. While conducting field research in Siberia he wrote:

I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it, that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution…

In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.

At the time, Kropotkin’s ideas were rather radical. The narrative of the day described evolution as the product of strict competition among species. Kropotkin did not waver from his views, however, and argued mutualism was just as prominent, if not more so, than competition. He was, of course, correct. Today there are hundreds of papers published annually that describe the cooperative relationships among all kinds of living organisms — all three domains and all kingdoms are represented. Kropotkin found hope in the natural world. He wanted to contribute to the understanding of mutual aid to shed light on human cooperation. This was his labor to save humanity from systems of power and domination — to render such institutions useless.

Like a countless number of people, I too find beauty everywhere in nature. I am an advocate of wilderness preservation for what open spaces can teach us. I do not mean the information found in stratigraphy, though rocks do tell the greatest tale ever told — they have crafted their story for some 4.6 billion years, after all. I instead refer to nature for nature’s sake. When we take time to contemplate the natural order, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life.

There is a humbling and awe-inspiring liberty in the wild — freedom from the industrialized, mechanized, technicalized order of human civilization. Wilderness is an open system. The interlocking, ancient mechanisms of biology, ecology, geology, chemistry and physics operate in unison. There is no administration in the wild. Wilderness is a place to discover truth, a place of challenge and a space for tranquility. Wilderness is a means of escape, it allows us to re-imagine the human condition. I speak of the danger, the splendor, the solitude, the adventure, the comradeship and the truly liberating experiences awaiting us in the great out there. Wilderness allows us to discover our individual wildness.

I do not mean to paint a picture of myself as a rugged, wilderness individualist. Nothing is further from the truth. I am an urbanite, as are most of us these days — for better or worse. I truly enjoy our cities and the benefits they award us in a post industrial, technologically advanced society. I especially enjoy baking soda tooth paste, beer can chicken, beer, the internet, libraries, college campuses, the farmers market, food trucks, taverns (the best of human institutions), Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a good protest, the theatre and other such conveniences. My family and I live in Knoxville, Tennessee and are just a mile from the urban center — a quick stroll on the bridge across the Tennessee River and we are in the square. I enjoy walking downtown as the activity awards the perfect excuse, no matter the time of day, to stroll inside a watering hole, order a pint or a shot of Tennessee whisky (Hell, why not both?) and relax the day away.

The troubling thing about cities, however, is they are enclosed. There is limited neutral space in the city proper, though the city center should be rich in common place. Most venues are spaces of capital exclusions and barriers to entry exist everywhere — “Do you have any money, sir?” Even the geography of the city is affected by enclosure, creating spaces of privilege and spaces of disparity, blocked apart by neighborhoods, zoning laws and manipulated by the gentry. If only we would organize a strong movement for the commons. Should all members of the community not have, as first proposed by sociologist Henri Lefebvre, a “right to the city” — a space shared in common, free of capital restrictions? Urban sociologist David Harvey elaborates:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

In order to claim this right to the city our cultures will need to evolve. How do we imagine this evolution — how do we proceed and function as an adaptive unit? How do we craft mutualistic relationships among individuals and neighborhoods? How do we advance pro-social behavior? Yet another evolutionary biologist, Dr. David Sloan Wilson, has pondered these questions for a few years. The focus of his work includes genetics and, sometimes controversially, cultural evolution. He is fascinated by the idea of an altruistic city and suggests we pay attention to Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom. For Wilson, Ostrom’s ideas of commons governance offer a way to get there. In an interview, for NPR’s On Being, Wilson explains:

Her contribution was to show how groups of people attempting to manage their common resources, such as farmers or fishermen or forestry people managing forests, how they’re capable of managing their affairs pretty well, but only if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are very conciliant with what we know from an evolutionary perspective about pro-sociality and cooperation.

Human beings are social animals. As such, we are fond of organizing in groups. According to Wilson, the social environments we produce directly affect our biological fitness (fitness is the product of interactions between different groups and of individuals within a group). This idea, that groups are fundamentally important to the human condition, paves the way for the emergence of a fairly controversial subject in evolutionary biology – group selection. If evolution works on individuals, organisms and groups, argues Wilson, then groups and symbiotic communities can become higher evolved organisms in their own right.

This is particularly important for human beings because the cultural transmission of traits can quickly escalate behaviors throughout an entire group. Evolutionary biologists who study cultural evolution acknowledge just how important cultural selection is to human evolution. Cultural selection can potentially produce very large implications for our societies — socially, economically and biologically.

An example of such progress is found in the Dudley Street neighborhood of Boston. Economic woes in the 1980’s left much of the neighborhood vacant. The city government of Boston sought the classic neo-liberal fix to the urban corridor: Gentrification. The neighborhood was to be converted to a space for hotels and offices that would serve downtown Boston. Community members organized the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, however, and developed a land trust to take democratic control of the land and guide re-development. This stopped such gentrification in its tracks, as explained by Yes! magazine:

A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit organization governed by community members that stewards land for long-term public benefit. CLTs protect land from the pressures of the real estate market, as the land is never resold. It remains part of the commons…

Through its governance structure, the land trust balances the varying interests of homeowners and the broader community in the land.

What’s developed in the Dudley neighborhood is not only a reclaiming of the commons, but also a reconnection with nature. Among the affordable housing, town common and community center there too exists a community greenhouse, public gardens and several urban farms. The agrarian life in the city, complete with habitat and niche space for numerous critters — absent of capitalists, commissioners and central planners.

There are many other examples, all over the country, around the world, of social power advancing past the authorities. Each unique. That is really the beauty of it all. Who knows what may happen with reclaimed space? Commons governance is as spontaneous as the freed market. These ideas depend on you and me — it is up to us to decide how to live our lives. We just have to take that first hard step toward a higher evolved society: Democracy. Anarchism will be our method.

So, what does all of this talk of urban space and common property have to do with the wild? Governance in urban corridors has sweeping consequences. Urban governance impacts not just us residents, but also, if not more so, the natural world. Cities are population centers and population centers drive policy. Cities are also mechanized, industrialized and centralized — they are highly inefficient and removed from the wild. Their demand for resources is great. Power lies in the city – we, the urban population, need resources. Our demand for energy and commodities impacts the natural world — global biomes are exploited for the means of our consumption.

Cities place demand on their sites and their hinterlands. Urban sprawl and demands for energy call for the excavation and reshaping of natural lands. In the search of coal, oil, gas and timber the policy of growth levels mountains, fills valleys and wetlands, buries streams and plunders forest. The neo-liberal city paves roads for the sake of roads, builds malls, subdivisions, manicured lawns, factories and churches for the sake of growth. From the city center, and out into natural lands, wildlife populations are killed. Earth’s current great extinction, the literal end of entire species of flora and fauna, is a result of central planning — the backbone of urban development and growth economics.

Reclaiming the commons in our urban corridors can change this. In a libertarian social order market actors will conduct cost/benefit analyses before harvesting resources. By paying true environmental costs market mechanisms for conservation will develop and naturally cap resource extraction at its maximum sustainable yield. It is in our best interest to have resilient, healthy ecological communities because the ecosystem services they award are far too important for the cash nexus. Because of this, wilderness will be preserved once more. Gone will be the maximum utility of resources we see today. Respect for natural boundaries will also limit the amount of sprawl into the landscape. In the commons, land is not a commodity, but a connection — a place of labor and heritage

One thing is certain to me: If our cooperative, libertarian spirit is to defeat the authoritarian nature of the powerful we must champion a grand, renewed preservationist ethic. The idea that human utility of resources is superior to an entire species or ecosystem, that we would favor extinction to preservation, is nothing but extreme totalitarianism. Such an ethic flies in the face of liberty. Such power holds no place in the permissive, free society. Civilization needs wilderness. We need to know and experience natural lands. We need to shed the “social” we, every now and then, for the “wild” we. Just having wilderness exist, a place totally free of the Leviathans of civilization, keeps the very idea of liberty alive. A whole other world is out there — we can run to it so long as we protect it. Wild lands are the cradle of all life, the bastions of existence and the cathedrals of creation. To plunder such grandeur defiles the very concept of civil society.

I am ever grateful to those who labored for the preservation of wild lands. They were able to keep the spirit of liberty alive. I personally owe them a great debt. I have experienced much in the wild — built memories and lasting friendships. I have grown in solitude in the forest and have learned more among the rock and tributaries than any classroom instruction. I have explored wild lands with such a close friend I can only refer to him as a brother. I proposed to my wife along the banks of the Big South Fork on an overnight trip into the country. We now have a beautiful child with whom we hike the woods with weekly, just to babble the afternoon away. My heart bursts with love in the wild. Out there, I continue to discover who I am.

I love my community, but my heart aches for the places I have been. There is no way to describe the experience of standing in the summer rain of a mesic cove forest in the Cumberland Gap. Watching the sun set over the ancient ocean rock of the Badlands, feeling the wind on ones skin out on the prairie with the Grand Tetons on the horizon, watching ocean waves crash into arched rock on the Northwest coasts, standing among the towering Redwoods, sitting among sage brush and rolling desert hills and the many other experiences that await are moments of nothing but radical freedom.

For what it is worth, I encourage you to get out there. I encourage you to breathe deep of the sweet, lucid air. Run the ridges, bag the peaks, make your way to the most amazing view. Sit a while. Smile. Enjoy the untouched wild. Get lost in thought. Peer into the forest canopy. Experience your wildness. Be an individual. Stand naked, with all worldly burdens stripped away. Get dirty. Be bone weary. I sure will.

A Night in the Big Horns

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never had a bad time in the wild, even when absolutely miserable. Some eight years ago I earned the opportunity to travel the great North American West with a young group of geologists and environmental scientists. One of the early stops on our month-long adventure was among the rock and sediment of the Big Horn Mountains in Northern Wyoming. It was June, but under western skies at elevations over 9,000 feet, there is still plenty of snow and ice pack around. We spent the day among the anticlines, synclines, thrust faults and paleosols looking for signs of ancient life. And these signs were abundant. Especially, if I recall correctly, ancient plant life. With each outcrop we moved to other geologic periods. We were there to discover and explore the remains of Paleozoic and Mesozoic flora and fauna – a few fleeting hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth. Even had a snow fight or two along the way.

As the “work” day came to a close we made our way to camp, set up our tents, rolled out our sleeping bags and began our preparation of the bon-fire. Fire is a necessity in the Big Horn’s anytime of year. Temperatures, at such elevations, continue to plummet into the lower 20’s and often even cooler. With the fire soon roaring, the night young, and our trip new, we settled in around the blaze to get to know one another a little better. We filled our bellies with loaded mashed potatoes, a good, warm, carbohydrate laden meal for the chill awaiting us. As the hours went by, beneath an array of twisted lodgepole pine’s, we had plenty of laughs, built the foundation of long-lasting friendships, nipped on some whisky and enjoyed red-wine — boxed of course, only the best.

Later into the night, as fresh snow dusted the grounds, those of us dedicated to the flames of the dwindling campfire, and equally to the flames of whisky in our bellies (never go to bed early, you may miss something), a harsh reality set in. The wine bladders froze, we were uncomfortable and a whole new day awaited us in just a few looming hours. We were to push further west toward the Bear Tooth Mountains of Idaho. Bone weary, we extinguished the fire and made our way to our tents, none of us knowing each other well enough just yet to keep each other warm on such a cold night.

I am not privy to the exact temperature of the evening, but frozen wine bladders do not bode well for optimum sleeping temperatures. Ahead of me was the most uncomfortable night (for years to follow) of my life. To say I shivered would be an understatement, to say I cursed the chilled air would make delicate of the actual turn of events. Sleep came in short bursts, the product of pure exhaustion and nothing more. The cold readily found a way to snap me out of whatever light drifting relieved me. I moaned and prayed for the night to end. Of course it did. In the morning we crawled out of our tents, warmed up a deserved breakfast, packed up camp and moved on our way. As miserable as I was, however, I rank my stretch in the Big Horns as one of my favorite experiences out in the wild.

It’s good to test your mettle every once in a while.

Consider the Microbe

Photo Credit: Oregon State

Photo Credit: Oregon State

All too often, in our considerations of the wild, we overlook the simple, microscopic life that lives in absolute abundance around us, in us and on us. The microbe is the foundation of all ecology. These prokaryotes, the simplest of cells, allow for the sustenance of life. From the inferno of the Hadean Earth, they enabled all the great radiations of life. The microbe will craft worlds our civilizations will never know. American micro-biologist Carl Woese, famous for classifying the microbial domain Archaea, is quoted by the New York Times:

It’s clear to me that if you wiped all multicellular life-forms off the face of the earth, microbial life might shift a tiny bit . . . If [on the other hand] microbial life were to disappear, that would be it – instant death for the planet.

We should be humbled by this order. Behind such a simple existence lies an infinite complexity — a beautiful bounty, billions of years of history and a wonder that we will never truly understand. For this, and many other reasons, I am amazed by and adore the natural world.

I am an advocate of wilderness preservation for what open spaces can teach us. I do not mean the information found in stratigraphy, though rocks do tell the greatest tale ever told — they have crafted their story for some 4.6 billion years, after all. I instead refer to nature for nature’s sake. When we take time to contemplate the microbe, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life. The wild functions under the fixed laws of nature. It is competition in a world of scarcity, mutualism among species of different Kingdoms, cooperation among the three great domains of life and selection pressures that order the natural world.

The wild inspires the imagination. How different our world could be. If only we practiced in the same bottom up tradition.

Be Free, Young Wild!

Blue Ridge Mountains of East Tennessee.

Blue Ridge Mountains of East Tennessee.

With crack of lightning and thunderous boom, from dark, weeping clouds, falls a torrent of water. Plummeting from the vivid horizon towards the lush, ominous hue of green Earth, the cascade crashes into a mixed canopy of poplar, oak, hemlock and spruce. A rich, harmonious chorus fills the brilliant forest. A howling melody of pattered rain pails the rhododendron, showers the fern, soaks the detritus and beads the moss before saturating the damp, introvert woodland floor. Beneath the soil, among mycorrhizae, annelids and abundant microbes there is a pull downslope, a burst from a spring and the rush of a high country stream. Along twists and turns, crags and ridge, falls and flow there is a longing for, and final jubilation with, the communion of rivers roar. Among carved rock and knotted limb, the journey across the watershed begins long toward the basin. What a great, dangerous adventure! Nothing but a dizzying wonder awaits beyond every fall, rapid and maelstrom eddy. As clouds recede the Earth breaths a mountain mist, illuminated by the sun, that instills natures heart breaking splendor. Oh, be free young, wild torrent! In wildness may you travel deeper still! Rush along your crooked channel walls, carve the valley, shape the open plain, welcome the delta, bask in the sea, rise to the heavens and fall once more!

The Politics of the Last Great Wilderness

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Obama administration is turning heads by proposing new protections for large portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR is often referred to as the “Last Great Wilderness” because it boasts 19,286,722 pristine acres of truly wild Alaskan land.The U.S. Department of Interior says this may be one of the largest conservation measures “since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.”

The term “wilderness” brings much imagery to mind, depending on the reader what is to be visioned. Be it twisted crags, meandering streams, bountiful flora and fauna, immeasurable mountains, purple horizons, deep canyons, a liberating, if not eerie, openness or any of nature’s endless bounty. The wild truly inspires the imagination and for good reason — we are, after all, wild beasts ourselves. I don’t know how wilderness is envisioned as anything but natural splendor. However, the maniacal bureaucrats of states and corporations always find a way to perplex me.

To administrators “wilderness” is political terminology — the highest level of protection available for “public” lands. Wilderness, in this context, loses its luster.  The wild becomes envisioned as mounds of paperwork, number crunching, political calculation and resources for capital. And that term “public” is equally perplexing. Last time I looked this administration, as all before it, leased natural lands out to oil, gas and coal companies while “merrily fiddling the taxpayer,” as recently reported by Newsweek. Yes, be sure to enjoy your public lands, just don’t trespass on industry property.

Regarding the ANWR proposal, sit back and watch the depraved political theater unravel before your eyes. This move for conservation depends on congressional Republicans. There is no chance the GOP will approve the wilderness title. Bloomberg notes Alaska Republicans are going ballistic and oil industry officials are up in arms because the move would keep billions of barrels of their black gold buried. Always the political chess player, Obama knows he can pander to his base and simultaneously boast his support of U.S. natural gas production which is curbing the nation’s demand for oil. At the very least he can prevent drilling for two years. Depending on his successor, the measure can either be swept aside or carried forward — we shall see what 2016 holds.

But, even if Obama gets the “wilderness” designation, a future executive could reverse the title if national lust for oil deemed such action worthy. NPR reports Fadel Gheit, oil expert at Oppenheimer & Co., predicts the president’s action will not change the outlook for developing the ANWR reserves significantly, stating: “It will make life more difficult for the industry; it will put another hurdle — but technology will always bring the hurdle down.”

So, there you have it. ANWR is, eventually, doomed.

Or is it? Need the future of wild lands be tied to the state’s definition of wilderness?

The forests, the coasts, the rivers, lakes, across the prairies, down in the canyons and up in the mountains there exists a grandeur that’s irresistible to those who experience it. Civilization needs wilderness. Wilderness displays true liberty, freedom beyond the wildest dreams of human kind. For we cannot know our wildness, until we live it. In doing so we will long to preserve it ever more.

Wilderness need not be tied to the bureaucrat. Authoritarian nature has no choice but to despise and fear the wild. The permissive society, however, open, libertarian and good could never reduce the great poplar, spruce or caribou to data or decades of legislation. We imagine wilderness as it should be: Absent of executives, legislators, generals and commissioners. It’s time we imagined ourselves this way.

An Ode to Yellowstone

Photo Credit: Happy Tell Us

Photo Credit: Happy Tell Us

On Saturday, January 17, the Yellow Stone River, perhaps the most celebrated aquatic system in North America, was heavily contaminated by nearly 1200 barrels of oil. Al Jazeera America reports the leak’s environmental damage stretches from the river to surrounding farmland in Glendive, Montana.

Particularly, the report tells the story of Dena Hoff, now experiencing tragedy at the hands of the oil industry once again. Al Jazeera notes: “When an oil pipeline burst in July 2011 and poured 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River 200 miles upstream from Dena Hoff’s farm … she felt disgusted. When it happened again … she felt terror.”

She felt terror for good reason. Benzene, a carcinogen, made its way into the municipal water system. With the stench of diesel heavy in the air, disaster and uncertainty once again lingered over this small prairie town. It was not until Friday, January 23, that the town’s folk could once again cook with, bathe in and drink water from their own faucets.

Industrial disasters are particularly damaging. The uncertainty and terror experienced in Glendive mimics emotions felt by the Elk River, West Virginia community who experienced a slurry spill last year, or the countless rural communities above shale deposits that have lost their water to thermogenic bacteria linked to natural gas extraction. These atrocities continue despite growing and substantial scholarly researchthat notes severe environmental and public health concerns regarding the lack of oversight to such resource extraction.

This uncertainty leads to the production of quiescence.

But quiescence be damned. We need not accept the rule of the corporate sector, nor the desires of a few hundred bureaucratic suits in a congressional chamber.

The work of famed economist and political theorist Elinor Ostrom demonstrates that democratic governance is not only possible, but ultimately desirable. A growing consensus that we should not be subject to hegemonic institutions is growing like wildfire. In fact, ideas of adaptive governance and stakeholder approaches to natural resource management are now the norm among professionals practicing policy and conflict resolution. Ostrom, and the people she inspires, demonstrate that with agency we can re-imagine and manage the commons.

This is good for our communities. The commons redistributed power to where it should naturally lie: With place. Place connections are incredibly important. From the currents of Yellowstone to our still canyons, the great plains, mountain hollers and everything in between, land is legacy. Resources of course must be exploited, but with polycentric decision-making human beings will not be subject to the wishes of the state, but instead to community needs. Here, resources will be distributed by environmental pressures and a grand, renewed conservation ethic will emerge. We can reclaim the power that is rightly ours and build a society worthy of our future generations.

As good as adaptive governance is for us, just imagine the implications for the natural world. Vast landscapes no longer viewed for extraction, will instead be felt as a connection — an equal in governance.

I offer this ode to Yellowstone: You will continue to carve the land. Under the big sky and ever southward, from the mountainous north and across the plains, your currents will sing, your ice will whisper and your mists will eddy your banks. You will evolve wild and free, bound only by the depths of time. May your power be great, your adventures long and your liberty untamed.

 

 

 

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