appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Spaces of Peace

Peace on Earth and goodwill to all — in a world of conflict, ’tis the season of peace.

A season of peace it is. Thankfully my family and friends are safe, happy and (mostly) together. I greatly enjoy the Christmas/holiday season. Winter has arrived in my scruffy town of Knoxville, Tennessee. The weather is cold. Mist and fog are a constant these days along the southern banks of the Tennessee River. Church bells chime as trains whistle forlorn across our Old Sevier neighborhood. Lights decorate this southie community, glasses clink at our local watering holes and children laugh and play in their newly constructed public waterfront park. We maintain a cautious optimism regarding the gentrification. At night we huddle in around our bright trees full of clunky figurines and bulbs, drink egg-nog , sing carols, eat too much and watch holiday themed movies.  It’s cozy — no better way to put it.

We enjoy silent nights in our world of conflict. On every continent, save Australia and Antarctica, wars rage. I don’t know what war is, but I know there is too much of it. I know there is far too much violence in the world. There are the armed conflicts of states and the ideas of terrorism; rising poverty and wealth disparity; climate change and environmental degradation; the crimes of humanity and our creeds. Though ominous I find comfort in my belief these threats hold no candle to the better angels of our nature.

At times, however, I am very worried about the future. But, only at times. When wrought with despair, I think of all the good in the world. I also think of times of solace and spaces of peace. Places that allow still reflection. I think of the wild. I find great peace in the untouched cathedrals of nature. Agrarian and Appalachian author Wendell Berry, in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, describes these moments best:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

With this in mind, I am saddened by a recent move to reduce the size of public lands throughout canyon country. On December 4 in front of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, the head of state noted he would drastically reduce the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. He stood in Salt Lake City and declared: “No one values the splendor of Utah more than you do and no one knows better how to use it.”

But, that’s just it. Who will use it?

In moments like this it is important to peer through the linguistic trickery of politicians. The administrators view wilderness not as canyons, rivers and mesas, but instead as political terminology. This is not a reduction of state power. Instead it is the first step in a transfer of power to unaccountable private tyrannies.

If this were a true reduction of state power, a gift of property back to all the people of Utah, a system of Adaptive Governance and Collaborative Management would be put in place. Democratizing public lands in such a fashion requires autonomy from the heavy hand of government. All stakeholders, user associations, collectives and individuals with a desire to engage the democratic process would be called to the management table. No such thing is happening. Instead it is only the politically connected who stand much to gain.

The people of Utah, and the rest of us, will see the wilderness, our wilderness, enclosed and scarred for capital.

True shame. The desert country of Utah is something special. Incredible sedimentary rock formations weather and erode in the harsh desert climate. The horizon in all directions grows, builds, but does not peak. Instead the rock flattens across a great wilderness expanse. The horizon is crowned in a strange majesty, the marvelous wonder of the arid plateau. The terrain is carved by water, allowing a great testament to life. Even in the solitary, desolate, bleak world of scorched sun life persists. Wildflowers bloom, plants survive, the fauna carves out a life in a land of surprising form and color.

As a lucky younger man I was able to ramble around this wilderness with friends. I’m lucky enough to know the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the high desert. It was some nine years ago on a road trip across America I discovered canyon country and the Utah Desert. As the United States burned from a financial crisis, in a time of transition, my  fellow wanderers and I lived on the road and in the wild. It was October. Under western skies, among sage brush and rolling hills, there was already a bit of snow and ice pack around. Our trio arrived in the desert at night. I was driving, one of my buddies was standing through the moon-roof of my trusty, cross-country proven, 1993 Accord (Norma Jean) howling into the otherwise quiet night. We set up a modest camp, drank whisky and red wine then passed out under the stars.

We spent the next 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 marine life — perhaps even Cambrian in age.

As the 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 on such a trip anytime of year — but especially on cold western nights. With the fire soon roaring, the night young, and our trip new, we settled in around the blaze. 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 upon the foundation of our life long-lasting friendship, nipped on some whisky and enjoyed red-wine — boxed of course, only the best.

The paradox of protected lands is that they remain ungoverned spaces of refuge and human liberty — free from the Leviathans of modern human civilization. Authoritarian systems have no choice but to loathe and fear the wild. If we lose the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the high desert we will lose a piece of openness and freedom itself.

A new preservationist movement is needed now more than ever.



287(g) Threatens Human Liberty

There we stood, just a group of Knoxvillians rolling into the July 4th weekend. It’s June 30th at 9:30 am. Rain patters and dampens the Scruffy City. We stand across the street from the City County Building in the thick ambiance of Knoxville. Trains whistle forlorn on a gray morning, cars and city trucks hustle and bustle about while church bells chime in the background. There are 18 of us from all different walks of life. We stand in an inter-generational meeting, some of us people of faith, university professors, community college professors, Knox County school teachers, retirees, lawyers, laborers and even a young one donning a “Change the World” t-shirt. We have gathered on this humid and weepy morning out of collective concern for our great city and neighbors.

The concern? Well, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently approved Knox County’s involvement in the 287(g) program. Term limited Knox County Sheriff JJ Jones looked for participation in this program with no input from the public and has yet to make a statement regarding the effects this new government authority will have on our neighborhoods. In fact, he simply refuses to publicly acknowledge Knox County’s approval for 287 (g). The sheriff claims he needs more details before he is prepared to talk to all of his constituents and local media about it. Perhaps one shouldn’t hold so much ignorance when inviting the long arm of the state into Knoxville? I digress.

As reported in the Knoxville News Sentinel, 287 (g) will deputize local law enforcement officials to act on behalf of federal immigration authorities in exchange for federal training of local officers and funding to the Sheriff’s department. The long shadow of Washington now lays over our town and only our town. Knox County is the sole jurisdiction in the state participating in this federal government program.

Huddled in a tight circle a number of us discuss our different concerns regarding the bill. It is an expensive big government program that will lead to big government waste of local dollars. The program invites federal law into local policing, making it harder for everyday Knoxvillians to shape law and policy. It jails suspected immigrants for minor charges, like a busted headlight, thus perpetuating institutional racism. The program often leads to indiscriminate deportation of people who pose no threat to community safety. 287 (g) encourages racial profiling, another form of institutional racism, that in turn erodes trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement. Worst of all, 287 (g) falsely portrays the entire undocumented community as a danger to society.Our communities will become less vibrant. We will lose an incredible amount of knowledge, labor, culture and human potential.

Well, time to cross the street to speak with our elected official. Each of us enter the City County Building, remove the contents of our pockets and walk through the police scanner. Some of us have further scanning to go through, pesky belts and steel toed boots always set those buzzers off. One by one we go through and congregate with one another on the back wall to stay out of the way of folks carrying on with their daily duties. Once through, we are ready to migrate toward the office, but instead standing in front of us is an armed Lieutenant of the law. Standing casually behind him are two other armed officials, one in the normal regalia of law enforcement and the other in a suit. A quick scan of the area actually notes eight officers standing all around us. We will not be meeting with the Sheriff or any members of his staff today.

The Lieutenant is nice, if not a bit timorous, and asks if he can take a message. Meghan Conley, who works closely with Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN), steps up to schedule a meeting with the Sheriff or at least a member of his administrative staff. The Lieutenant tells her that the Sheriff and key members of his administration are absent from the building. Meghan then asks why we cannot proceed, odd to be stopped in the lobby. In the past Meghan and others could at least get to the front desk to leave messages. The officer informs her that because there are so many of us we would be restricted to the lobby. Still odd. There are 18 of us, in the past 25 people entered the office. He again asks for a message – well, how about 18?

We are handed memo paper and fish for pens and pencils. Each of us write our individual concerns in a note for the sheriff. I over hear Meghan inquire about the acceptance of Knox County into the 287 (g) program. The Lieutenant with a chuckle responds, “Ma’am, you probably know more about the program than any of us.” Imagine that. Not only is the public at large in the dark over the effects of the program, but the officers seem to be as well. The lack of transparency is staggering. Not only is Sheriff Jones remaining silent, his deputies are in the dark while his office stops concerned citizens in the lobby with law enforcement. So much for reasonable governance.

When finished writing our concerns we thank the officers, who in turn thank us back and we exit the building. Law enforcement does not leave the hallway until we have all exited the building.

As the Independence weekend rolls on and out this experience brought me pause. The nation celebrates the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, the inalienable rights of the constitution, the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The central holiday of the summer revolves around the revolutionary principle of human liberty.

A society rooted in liberty would be free from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life. Increasingly in this country we see that we do live with and enjoy degrees of freedom, but that said freedom is not absolute. As the years roll on, more and more, we are confronted with the fact that there currently exist aggressive barriers to achieving a free society and that said barriers are institutionalized, protected and upheld by over reaching government power. On this July the Fourth weekend it is important to remember that human liberty is an incredibly important ideal and it will not be maximized by ICE agents in our neighborhoods. It is important to remember that legality and justice are not identical, that patriotism is not allegiance to government or obedience to law, but rather defending and advocating moral positions even in spite of law.

John Adams believed Independence Day would become a great anniversary festival. He was right. On the fourth folks celebrate with pomp parades, sports and games, the cracking of rifles, the blaze of bonfires and the pop, flash and fizzle of fireworks. It is a fun day, a great day — full of cheer and a collective expression of solidarity. It’s a day we celebrate independence and human liberty. This past holiday I was troubled. I hope we can come together, differences aside, and really think about what it means to live in liberty.  Does 287 (g) represents the ethic? Should a concerned group of peaceful citizens be ignored and denied the right to sit at an elected officials table?

Information Ecology: (fo)Rest in Peace

Photo Credit to the Sierra Club Article Move Not Those Bones:

Photo Credit to the Sierra Club Article Move Not Those Bones:

In an age of excitement and uncertainty it is comforting to know that we live in an era of mass communication. At this point in human history communication costs are incredibly low and, with the help of the Internet, such communication is truly global in scale. Even better, information spreads with ease.

The nature of this phenomenon holds incredible implications for society. Human communication plays a vital role in elevating voices and progressing social movements. As the voices of the world are elevated it becomes apparent that there are shared, global struggles. As we work locally we can feel solidarity with human beings we may never meet – a most powerful notion. The smallest of actions can cause a global cascade in the dawning age of information ecology.

With all this in mind I turn my attention to the forests of Spain. The past week I’ve read a great deal about the ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula. Extending across the northern region of Portugal on into the Spanish wild are a series of mountain ranges rich with flora and fauna. These mountain forests host arguably the greatest biodiversity in all of Europe. Regulated by the Mediterranean these far-away ranges are defined by a humid climate in the warm months, chilly winters and an abundance of precipitation year round.

I can imagine these forests, their detritus decaying into the damp soil from a deciduous canopy of oak, ash and hazel. I can imagine a solitary walk under the Mediterranean sun, rounding cool and warm slopes further decorated by beech, birch and fir before letting loose to bald meadows riddled with wild rose and blackberry. The colors are as lucid as the taste sweet. I hope to visit this Iberian forest some day. Perhaps even shake the hands of those in the Spanish Forest Firefighters National Association (ANBF) who fight both fire and law to protect the landscape.

In 2015 Spain’s Congress of Deputies amended the language of their Forestry Act. The new language now allows developers to build public and private infrastructure, such as neighborhoods, schools, business complexes and recreational centers, on burnt ground. As a result of this rule change, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) notes that now 55% of the forest fires burning this unique ecosystem are human induced. These wild lands are no longer protected. Deforestation leads to urban sprawl.

Members of the ANBF are not sitting idly by, however. They are using legislation to combat the new legal decree.

Under Spanish law new infrastructure cannot be constructed within a 500 meter radius of a cemetery. The ANBF are invoking this inconsequential piece of legislation where woodlands are ablaze, registering the burnt woodlands as cemeteries. They have deemed their campaign (fo)Rest in Peace.

ANBF spokesman Iñigo Hernandez, speaking to The Independent, took the idea world-wide. In his interview he noted that no bodies will actually be buried in these graveyards. Rather, these cemeteries are simply symbolic, a weapon used to halt arson. Hernandez explains: “Creating cemeteries in burnt areas aims to discourage the intentional burning of the forests. Allowing the building on burnt down forest areas leads to fires started intentionally, which result in the destruction of natural ecosystems, where animals, trees and plants live.” The ANBF hopes the forests will regenerate in peace.

I did not know about any of this until the ANBF sent me a personal email. I was sitting in the faculty lounge, drowning out conversation behind me, reviewing my emails and thinking of the day’s lecture. I took pause when I opened their message. The firefighters asked for help. They asked I share their mission so as many people as possible could know what was going on. As I read their email I felt their urgency and was immediately sympathetic to the cause. When I read about their action I felt an all too familiar twinge of sadness, then I sat back in my chair and smiled. A similar situation is unraveling right here in Southern Appalachia.

Here in the valley and ridge, strip mining is the region’s number one cause of biodiversity loss. The Appalachians are a temperate deciduous rainforest laden with beautiful, endemic flora and fauna. In fact, the Appalachians are the most diverse temperate forest on the planet. Here too registering family cemeteries protects a most fragile ecosystem.

Strip mining occurs in rural Appalachian communities. These communities experience some of the worst poverty in the United States. Many of the cemeteries throughout coal country are old family cemeteries. Thus, they are not federally registered. Without such distinction, many of these family graves are blasted away for resource extraction. Many families have to be accompanied by industry personnel to visit the buried because the graves are near company property. Community organizations are in a push to register these cemeteries, rendering mining operations invalid. This allows the dead to rest in peace and keeps the forest whole.

I suppose I could have been angry when I read the message from the ANBF. Beside myself that all over the world natural heritage is plundered for capital. Nevertheless I was not angry; I was happy. Here, oceans apart, communities and organizers share the same struggle. Even more, similar tactics are proving successful at protecting place.

There has been a constant push throughout human history to question and block the illegitimate forces of power. Now, in an era of low communication costs and emerging technologies, we may see enhanced cultural and social evolution, a stronger push to decentralize and the emergence of small social networks that can cause big changes in how we live our everyday lives. Information technology is beginning to impact our neighborhoods, cities, work places and our governance.

An old mantra of movement building asks us to think global but act local. Today we can all be global actors. We are connected – in short, we talk. We resist. We win. In the immortal words of Howard Zinn:

The good things that have been done, the reforms that have been made, the wars that have been stopped, the women’s rights that have been won, the racism that has been partly extirpated in society, all of that was not done by government edict, was not done by the three branches of government. It was not done by that structure which we learn about in junior high school, which they say is democracy. It was all done by citizens’ movements. And keep in mind that all great movements in the past have risen from small movements, from tiny clusters of people who came together here and there. When a movement is strong enough it doesn’t matter who is in the White House; what really matters is what people do, and what people say, and what people demand.

Rebuild the Old Wastes



Peace on Earth and goodwill to all — in a world of conflict, ’tis the season of peace.

A season of peace it is. Thankfully my family and friends are safe, happy and (mostly) together. I greatly enjoy the Christmas/holiday season. Winter has arrived in my scruffy town of Knoxville, Tennessee. The weather is cold. Mist and fog are a constant these days along the southern banks of the Tennessee River. Church bells chime as trains whistle forlorn across our Old Sevier neighborhood. Lights decorate this southie community, glasses clink at our local watering holes and children laugh and play in their newly constructed public waterfront park. We maintain a cautious optimism regarding the gentrification. At night we huddle in around our bright trees full of clunky figurines and bulbs, drink egg-nog , sing carols, eat too much and watch holiday themed movies.  It’s cozy — no better way to put it.

We enjoy silent nights in our world of conflict.

On every continent, save Australia and Antarctica, wars rage. I don’t know what war is. Having never experienced battle I cannot fathom the situation. But, I can reflect on the human experience. I’m a husband and a father. My wife and child are the most important people in my life. I think of our cozy home, its warmth and what it means to my family. Then, I force myself to think of Aleppo, Syria. Syrian families are dreary and sleep starved, terrorized, wondering if they will live to see the next day. Wondering if their small child will ever realize their own potential as a human being. I think of bombs rocking adjacent buildings, the loud blasts and roars from military vehicles, screams of those trapped under rubble. But, it is too much to try to consider the unthinkable.

One of my favorite things in life is carrying my child. When he is sleepy, the boy clings hard to my neck and rests his head on my shoulder. When in a good mood, the boy makes a host of silly noises and gives high-fives or fist-bumps. When sad, he asks for kisses. He is warm, loved and alive. For many fathers in Syria these moments are taken from them. They cling to their loved ones, but the loves do not cling back. Instead they are limp and lifeless. Murdered.

The image is horrifying. At times I am very worried about the future, the world the child will inherit. But, only at times. When wrought with despair, I think of all the good in the world. I also think of times of solace and still reflection. Agrarian and Appalachian author Wendell Berry, in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, describes these moments best:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I don’t despair long. Struggle will always exist, but it’s imperative humanity find a way to struggle through social change without war. To do so we must think about war and challenge the legitimacy of those who call for such incredible violence. War is enacted by those caged in authoritarian principles who often underestimate the complexity of reality. War is a sweeping, simple solution to complex problems. War destroys the lives of everyone involved. Everyone, every child of humanity, deserves liberation from the dehumanizing ideology of war.

There is far too much violence in the world. There are the armed conflicts of states and the ideas of terrorism; rising poverty and wealth disparity; climate change and environmental degradation; the crimes of humanity and our creeds. Though ominous, these threats do not accurately reflect the entire spirit of humanity.

In our world of conflict it is important to remember the better angels of our nature. For we are many. I find it important to think of the people in my life. Whether family, friends, colleagues, mentors, peers, the woman who always gives us stickers at the market, whoever: all of these actors, including myself, are vulnerable to the surrounding world. We are all beings who grow and adapt in a complex physical and social environment. We are social beings and depend upon each other for survival, be it through our close personal relationships or our overlapping and intertwining cultures. As our species evolved the mechanisms of selection favored competition, but just as importantly cooperation, pro-social behavior and mutual aid. The human is competitive but cooperative, deeply rooted in the principles of mutualism.

We are not purely selfish agents. In each of us lies the intellectual and emotional capacity to build, alter or deconstruct strategies and institutions. Each of us will no doubt get a few things wrong, but our ideas will also be revolutionary, appropriate, helpful and right. We are social, individual, emotional, diverse, harmonious, contradictory, faulty and ultimately complex. We are all under the sun together. We are all mortal. This is what is so appealing, so hopeful, about the human condition. Individual actors, their small acts, build our common empathy and can change the world.

We can rebuild the old wastes and restore our home.

Smoky Mountain Resilience

Picture taken from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Taken after a hike with buddies in May of 2016.

Picture from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Taken after a hike with buddies in May, 2016.


I’ve lived in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for most of my life. I cannot thank my parents enough for taking me on excursions to the park. Among the parks wild waters, forested canopy, steep slopes and rugged terrain I learned at a young age to respect the natural environment. This respect has matured through my years. Such maturity makes it difficult not to reflect on the past and think about the future.

In August of 2016 the National Park Service turned 100 years old. In its centennial year the service undertook initiatives to get folks out-of-doors to discover the parks. These lands are much more than places for recreation and vacation — they are fundamental for the health and survival of human civilization. Wildness, danger, emptiness, excitement and adventure are experienced, in purest form, in the wild. It’s good every now and then to think about the Leviathans of today and know that we can run away. In the grand scheme of things we are small. Natural processes have no regard at all for human activity (thank God).

A personal agenda of mine this birthday year was to get my son 100 miles of trail behind him in recognition of 100 years of the park. The idea came in summer. I re-discovered the forest in 2016. I’ve always loved the outdoors, ever since childhood. But, with a small child of my own and pressure from work I missed out on a lot of good wilderness time. So I was happy to get back into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a few excursions. Most notably I got to hike with my Dad, my wife, some good friends and eventually my son. Hiking with the boy changed my life – but, that’s a tale for another time. I also got to hike with the park superintendent, Cassius Cash, and trail guru Christine Hoyer a couple of times. I owe my 100 miles to those two, they encouraged our family to do it. The boy and I finished in early autumn, just before the fires.

Disaster struck the Appalachian wilderness Thanksgiving week on a beloved trail. The Chimney Tops are a very popular hike in the park. A short, but very blistering hike to the summit of the Chimneys is a worthy adventure. At the pinnacle there is an inspiring panoramic view of the park. This year, though, a record drought struck the southern United States. The classic temperate rain forest went without water for months. The land was dry but autumn was still brilliant. The forest floor was littered in a beautiful blanket of leaf senescence. On Thanksgiving week, the drought conditions and littered under-story on the Chimney Tops trail collided with a few matches. The blaze began, but no one knew the extent of the damage those first simple flames would reap.

One of the worst natural disasters in the history of Tennessee unfolded because of those few matches. To date, over 10,000 acres of forested habitat within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park burned. Outside of the park boundaries over 6,000 acres burned. 14,000 people were evacuated from the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Sadly, 14 people lost their life.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to describe such a calamity. To see this happen to anyone, anywhere is nothing but horrible. To have such an event strike a community and wilderness I truly love is beyond sad — it’s oddly lonely, helpless and terrifying. But, for what it is worth, it is important in our grief to remember the wild. The Smoky Mountain wilderness is mature, radiant and full of wonder. The ecosystem will respond to the damage and recover rather quickly. This is mountain resilience. In fact, the forest is already recovering. Since the wild-fire, rain has come back to the region. Once again we witness the beating heart of the forest. Water travels the vascular tissue of the forested trees and transpires over the entire valley and ridge. The wilderness is once again breathing, creating the mist and climate it’s famous for. This resiliency is important — it can inspire the human animal.

So, how do we appreciate such resiliency? How do we preserve wild lands? How do we protect species? How can we encourage new generations to leave human dominated landscapes and experience wilderness? The answer is to keep going ourselves. To keep sharing our stories. To explain what it means to truly be wild. To understand that we cannot understand humanity, our own wildness, our own resilience, until we experience the great out there. This is of fundamental importance. Without teaching these lessons to new generations we risk losing everything that connects us to natural splendor and each-other. Without the hearts and minds of the next generation such splendor could be lost forever. To care for and protect the wild is to care and protect each-other, it is all our community. We are part of our ecosystem.

So, in this time of disaster let’s tell our Smoky Mountain stories. As the forest transpires, as communities rebuild the region prepares for a long winter. Spring is coming.


Spring in the Appalachian Mountains is hard to beat. Winter transition in the ancient terrain is spectacular. During the cold months snow dusts evergreens and the naked limbs of deciduous trees. The rich summer canopy lies as decaying detritus on the forest floor. Ancient metamorphic rock is exposed. Dark in color this rock shadows the mountains. Ice is everywhere, enhancing the deep green of conifers. Characteristic steep slopes are marvelous, frigid, ominous, dangerous — wonderfully desolate, humbly beautiful. The terrain reminds the human how small they actually are. Good for the ego. We wrap ourselves around silly definitions, official terminology and mock importance in civilization. In this Appalachian wilderness, any wilderness, the human is simply another isolated animal. Simply wild. Happily alive.

Seasons change. In March the lowlands burst into life. Spring! A truly invigorating time to be in the Appalachian wilderness. One is still just another animal, but no longer as isolated. Other’s begin to stir from their winter slumber. We share the forest with a number of beasts — mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mollusks, insects (particularly present in the summer) and so on. It’s all good and well to flip over rocks and look for salamanders, or study the canopies of trees for migratory songbirds. But, for me, the real story of spring is that of our genetic cousins: Plants!

One of my favorite factoids regarding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is that just one acre of the forest holds more plant diversity than the entire continent of Europe. This is not lost. The resilient nature of the forest will serve witness to the power of natural systems. Our communities can find inspiration in succession. Spring wildflowers are truly an amazing spectacle in the Wildflower National Park. From the grey ground a wonderful mosaic breaks through the Earth. Soil erupts in the mesmerizing hues of purple, blue, white, pink, pale yellow and the virgin green stems of ephemeral flowers such as the hepaticas.

The brilliant dance begins. Spring is a truly extraordinary time to witness the cyclic relationship between life and season (phenology to the experts). The early trillium, for example, grow into life perennially just to disappear in a few short weeks. The plants gather energy from the sun, soak in seasonal mist, reproduce, relax for a spell and are then dormant again not halfway through the season. The forest canopy is blooming. The mighty poplar, the maples, the birch, the devil’s walking stick (brave yet holy name here in the belt, human is beast) and the paw-paw, to name only a simple few, begin budding. This will shade the forest floor. The ephemeral under-story buds have grown to understand this and sleep. They wait once again for their time in the sun. Thus are the workings of the wild. Pulses of life and dormancy, resource partitioning, mutualism, competition — natural splendor.

Other flowers will continue their bloom of course. As the forest canopy buds a light green begins to decorate the landscape. The dogwoods are an early April favorite with their beautiful whites and purples. Herbaceous plants, the rhododendron, mountain laurel, flaming azaleas and many others will wake to life later in the season. Ah, another season of change in the wild. Spring really invigorates the soul and entices the deep evolutionary urges of all animals who breathe deep of the sweet lucid air: Let me tell you about the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees, and the moon up above… And a thing called love. Thanks, Jewel Akens.

Then there’s the water. The Smoky Mountains earn their name. I am always in awe of water. Wild waters are truly nature’s greatest spectacle. Water, in its many forms, occupies every part of the valley and ridge. Head water streams, the products of tranquil rainfall, violent storms and frigid snow-melt travel the river continuum and trickle into one another. These tiny trickles evolve over the watershed and form the communion of rivers roar. Water occupies the soil and rock, seeps from springs and puddles the damp forest. Water falls from clouds who themselves travel the temperate woods producing a dense fog. The forest is always soaked.

Clouds are among my favorite forms water takes. There is nothing like standing on a green mountain bald on a cool spring day — the clouds are great entertainment in the ecosystem. Whether weeping grey or a fluffy white, when the land is again bursting with life, clouds hug ridges and occupy valleys in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. The forest flora absorbs this water from rhizoids and roots, utilizes the resource for food production and transpires the molecule back to the environment where clouds again form and the cycle repeats. The forest creates its own climate with this biotic pump. The landscape is indeed alive. The molecule of life deserves our careful reflection. Clouds rewards us with feelings of loneliness, nostalgia, adventure, love and life.

Seeing that I live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it would be irresponsible of me not to go for a few strolls. One early May 2016 morning my best friend, a couple of his buddies and I paid such a visit.

Day Hike

Time to pack. Day hikes are a great escape. When only a few hours permit (we live in a culture that demands we work too much) the day hike is a much-needed mini-vacation. Day hikes are just long enough to shower the human spirit with natural wonder, share some laughs, see the sights, feel relief. The forest is largely a place of freedom. The mountains are a place to understand liberty. So, to absorb all of this, the body must be properly nourished. A good breakfast is needed, but more important is fuel for the mountains.

Food is needed for a day hike. Obviously, the body needs energy. I like food for purely hedonistic reasons in the wild — it just tastes better out there. Interestingly enough, being totally nude feels natural and sex feels better out there in the wild too. Primal! I digress — now back to food. Venison summer sausage, extra sharp cheddar cheese, some fruit and good bread are my preferred sources of sustenance for day escapes. With food and a couple liters of water in tow it is time to meet my fellow travelers and hit the woods.

City slickers. I leave my home in scruffy south Knoxville and head to the quaint town of Maryville, Tennessee to meet up with my best friend, Steve McQueen (true story) and a visiting pair of his medical buddies from George Washington (smart man, my friend). After a quick introduction to Carlos (Mexican) and Lou (Afghan from South Carolina) I learn my fellow travelers are politically incorrect, crass and love to joke. A good day lay ahead. We are off for the forest around 10:00 am.

On the way up we stop for beer. Carlos grabs a tall Modello and Lou a tall Budweiser. Myself, I go for a tall-boy of Busch at 25% more! Plus, Busch has a grand advertising campaign that may toy with my subconscious: “Busch Beer. Head for the mountains.” Well, the mountains are calling and I must go! Thanks, John Muir.  Steve McQueen is driving, naturally, and he claims the tallest drink of all: Sobriety. He arms himself with Gatorade — a product of the swampy University of Florida. We live in Big Orange Country. Go Vols!  We drink through the quiet side of the Smokies and pitch the cans. As we travel towards Metcalf Bottoms along the Pigeon River the booze kicks in. We biology types relaxed and make fun of each other. Long live a good laugh at oneself.

Feels good to travel mountain country. The landscape is beautiful. Traffic is light. As we pass the Chimneys trailhead we see our first black-bear of the day walking alongside the road. We slow to admire the beast, a cub, but do not stop. Mama may be around, plus it’s bad etiquette. We are human, after all, visitors in the bear’s home. Onward to Clingmans Dome.

Clingmans Dome rests at 6,643 feet making it the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area offers a good shock to the system. Temperatures are extreme at such an elevation, often 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the mountain lowlands. Plus, Steve and I wanted to bring his visitors for the views and the unique spruce-fir rainforest that decorates the terrain. We are not disappointed, at least I’m not.

The day before our visit an intense rain showered the region. Remnants of the storm were still around. Bring on the clouds and mountain weather! We stand in a sea of clouds. Some are a deep stratus grey in color and seep along the forested mountain ridges occupying hollers and deeper valleys. Others a magnificent puffy cumulus that appear almost golden as they bathe in rays from the star of life. It’s damn cold. I pull on a flannel shirt and don an outback hat. There are four tasks at hand: Relieve ourselves of the beer we drank, eat a snack, climb to the observation tower at the top of the dome, and then follow the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald.

Once our biological needs were fulfilled we begin our half-mile hike to the lookout tower. Now, a half mile is not a long trek, but it’s a steep half mile. Steve and I outpace Carlos and Lou. We have a good time reminiscing and telling more bad jokes. Brotherhood. Then we ascend into the very clouds we were just admiring. The temperature drops even more. When the weather permits ones view from the tower can stretch for 100 miles. On this day, however, about 20 feet. I laugh. This is the weather I like best — blustery, cold, grey with bursts of light. It’s elemental. Perfection.

Once the lads catch up we scramble down from the tower and hop on the Appalachian Trail to the mouth of Forney Ridge to begin our descent towards the bald. Again, a mesmerizing view. Clouds hugging ancient rock.

This first section of trail trods through a relic of the last ice-age. A unique spruce-fir rainforest typically occupies the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The temperate zone is a deep green with beads of water clinging to the needles of evergreens. Their color is exacerbated, deepened, darkened, by the grey of the day. The weather is cold and wet, flowers decorate the ground. A natural spring gushes. McQueen stops and cups his hands in the ice-cold water and takes a few big gulps!

“So rugged.”

“Part of my allure as a mountain man.”

“You’ll catch Giardia and shit for days.”

“How do you treat Giardia anyways? An anti-biotic?”

“No. Giardia is a Protozoan. I won’t catch it anyway, no poop in spring water at this elevation.”

Biologists. No need to worry about the hiker’s sickness. This wild mountain spring is clean enough to drink on the east coast. What a miracle. I immediately regret not getting a sip myself. But, city slickers. We didn’t bring any rain gear and walk right into a thick cloud. Mountain mist begins soaking our clothes. Water droplets splash as they chorus across the terrain. We move fast, eyeing the trail and make our way to the bald. The deep green gives way to an open grassy meadow. Tiny spring flowers, strong in numbers, illustrate the gray afternoon. We stand in silence for a good while and breathe deep the cold, Earthy air. We bathe in a thick cloud. We cannot see the rolling valley and ridge ahead of us for the fog is too thick, but we know it is there. We feel connected to the terrain.

“Thanks for the great view, assholes.”

Onward. We trek the uphill hike back to Steve’s car and make our descent from the dome. As we pass New Found Gap the skies part and we are awarded the most amazing view. We are mostly silent, studying our surroundings. We make our way towards the lowlands and pass Laurel Falls. Then it happens. A traffic jam in the forest.

Most traffic upsets me. It’s especially irritating when one is visiting wild lands. But, the Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in Uncle Sam’s territory. This isn’t such a bad thing. It’s actually exciting that more people want to explore the wild. There is one type of tourist that bothers me though: The motor tourist. Driving around in safe metal cages. Windows rolled up for climate control. White sneakers and white socks. Fannie packs and sun visors. Giant cameras. Now, I am pretty libertarian so I should support people getting enjoyment out of the land in any way possible — and I do. But, I am also a mountain hugger. One can only enjoy the land, her flora and fauna, if the land is understood — if “wild” is not an abstract idea but something one seeks to understand.

Just beyond parking for Laurel Falls a young black bear is treed. Hovering about 30 feet over the forest floor, tucked between limbs of a poplar, the bear stares in horror at the most terrifying, arrogant animal in the park: Homo sapien. Motor tourists are hopped out of their metal chariots, sun visors and Fanny packs in tow, and stand flashing pictures of the obviously distressed beast. Traffic is thick but the crowd is thicker. A ranger blows her horn as she directs people to leave; “Get back in your vehicles and move on!” Totally ignored she radios for back up.

Ignorance. The ranger is not there to protect the people who have treed the poor animal. She is there to protect the bear. If desperate enough the beast may leap from the tree and pick a fight with some tourists. If this were to happen the bear would be euthanized. A terrible scenario. I care more about that goddamned bear than I do any of the people who gawk and cage him. I wish more people would just experience and learn from the forest, it can teach us much.

We travel along and stop at The Sinks for a jaunt along Meigs Creek. We flip over rocks in the cool mountain waters and search for salamanders. We run up and down rocky slopes and through mountain laurel canopied walkways. We feel the sun on our backs and the mud on our skin. We trip over roots and marvel at rhododendron.

Resilient Mountains

Civilization needs wilderness. We need escape, liberation from the tones, dials, servers and hustle of our official titles. We thrive on the lonely, beautiful danger. We can find solace and comfort as the forest rebounds, as it buds, grows, blooms and showers. Without the anarchic wonder of the great “out there,” without the timeless shadows, our mind essence, the rivers roar, the childlike laughter, the burst of the heavens and even fires crackle we forget the bursting sensation to live freely. That is why we go to the wild — to experience and understand our wildness! The forest is resilient, and so too are we.

My advice to the next generation of preservation enthusiasts: Hike. Place one foot in front of the other. Note the geology. The small, well-rounded pebbles that crunch beneath your feet have an incredible story to tell. A story of deep time. A story of eras and eons perhaps unimaginable by our kind. A place in history we can truly never know or understand. Move onward. Feel the crunch of gravel, soil and Earth beneath your toes. Hike. Climb ever upward. Advance toward the clouds. Breathe deep. Become exhausted. Feel your heart pound in your chest, feel the pulse in your temples. Let your legs burn. No matter what, keep moving. Let the ridge flatten out. Take note of seasonal colors. Note their change. Recognize and wonder at your surroundings. Struggle across knotted limb. Experience how the ecosystem changes from mesic cove forest to spruce-fir temperance. Climb. Breathe deep into your lungs. Be tired and bone weary. Sweat. Come alive. Listen to the world around you. The roar of a bear is freighting, the croak of a dozen frogs at night is eerie. The crickets and cicadas are melodic. Take it all in. Hear the wind as it moves the leaves of trees. Sit in solace. Learn the chorus of wild waters. Bond with your fellow human. Create memories. Love deeply, as deeply as humanly possible. Laugh a little, too much, not enough. Yell. Holler. Weep. Do what the heart commands. Rejuvenate your soul. Escape. Rejoice. Be free.


Owl of Athena


The Owl of Athena awakes from her slumber to view a sea of ominous clouds stretching bleakly across the horizon. As dusk falls she contemplates the current era of human civilization. Her thoughts are tragic, questions abound.

Who are the masters of humankind?  Who owns the Earth and all her wildness, order, breath, and water? Who will defend her and uphold the rights of nature? Will the masters of humankind continue their dominance and lay waste to the commons?

Impending environmental calamity and the prospects of state violence should be clear today to any rationale person. Climate continues to shift as greenhouse gases are continually pumped into the atmosphere to secure the economic interests of power. Global air pollution is responsible for one in eight total deaths across the Earth. Water resources are on the decline as carcinogens leech into the public water supply and as plastics fill the ocean. The soil is worn, acidic and over utilized by powerful industries. Entire species are going extinct, on par with the extinction rate that terminated the Mesozoic. These are just a few examples of environmental calamity, yet all expose the fact that human life and ecological communities are viewed as disposable. But, pay no attention — these environmental issues are non issues, environmental calamity is simply hyperbole.

Thus systems of power and domination continue their war on both households and the Earth. Aside from economic violence, systems of power command wartime violence. In wartime the environment is a silent casualty. Land resources are contaminated by pollution or vaporized by bombs, forests are laid to waste, states or warlords plunder the natural resources of occupied territories, management systems collapse, and entire ecological communities are lost. As widespread and devastating the environmental consequences of war are, the human connection is truly tragic. Human life, especially that of children, is lost thus denying humanity of innocence and the pursuit of happiness. Families must deal with unimaginable loss, terror and uncertainty. In a world of violence refugees are displaced. They are forced to migrate across Hell just to be pushed into national borders and subjected to regulation. Again, we see that human life and whole ecosystems are regarded as disposable. But, pay no attention — war is a necessary evil needed to protect the national interest.

All the while the Owl of Athena asks her questions. As we build systems of power with our vote the masters guide states as they see fit. Elections allow them to lay claim to their perceived right of domination. Even so, challenges to the legitimacy of such domination raise dissent against these masters of humankind.

Social movements, especially those organized by indigenous communities, labor for the protection of wilderness. As wilderness is protected authoritarian power is reduced. As a result there is habitat and thus refuge from centralized domination as the commons are protected. This refuge is important for the health of households and the Earth. The environment is protected when humanity owns a piece of it, meaning the commons are local. In the local, we do not look to our peers and observe a disposable being, nor do we do look to our natural heritage as waste. Human life and ecological systems are instead nurtured because all life is precious.

Today, more than ever, human civilization faces complex wicked problems. So ominous is the horizon, in fact, the intellectual community is beginning to ponder human extinction — another casualty of the hegemonic environmental crisis. As war rages in the very cradle of human civilization, as natural systems are continually subjected to economic interests, we are faced with a decision.

We can continue to place faith in, and labor for, the masters of humankind. We can continue to turn our backs on our neighbors as we legitimize systems of power and domination. Or, we can join our peers locally and enhance a worldwide struggle to protect human life and the commons from the ravages of natural plunder and war. We can face the world with resolve and push for decent human survival. We can protect both households and the Earth for they are our common possession to defend or let destroy.

May the owl stretch her wings and take flight so her wisdom shines through the clouds. May we realize our human potential.

Song of Minerva


There currently exist two very real and ever wicked threats to human civilization. Those threats are a looming environmental crisis and nuclear war. As different as the two appear, these threats are not isolated from one another — they are congruent.

The growing environmental crisis is well documented, but the root ills are not well understood. The leading environmental issue of the day is climate change. Climate is at the forefront of environmental discussions between policymakers and rightly so as it is a complex global issue. In public discourse climate is linked to the burning of fossil fuels and the need to empower, and thus imperil, human civilization. As such, popular solutions to the issue are top-down incentives to cut emissions and boost green energy. All fine and well, yet we miss discussions of habitat loss and depreciating ecosystem resiliency. Conversations that note the ethics of species extinction and the plunder of fragile ecosystems are rare. An extension of this problem is that human communities and individuals themselves are trashed.

The environmental crisis is linked to the idea that life is disposable. It is okay to cut down a forest or shorten the life of a child to strengthen the economy. This is not hyperbole, for if it were communities like Cancer Alley would not exist.

Threats to global peace and dwindling stability among major nation states are well documented in the public arena, though the root causes are obscured. Wars are fought for power and control of resources. The mightier the state, the more resources its economy demands. It is here we see the congruent nature of environmental crisis and prospects for global war. Those of us living in the West do not consider the horrors of war as often as we should. Our populations are largely sheltered from wartime violence. Such quiescence is dangerous. The current horizon of war is particularly ominous.

In the very cradle of human civilization an endless war rages. The United States and allied forces have long flexed military might over the Middle East. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is unique, though, as this military engagement is now active in six different countries with no end in sight. As a result of Western invasion the terrible ISIS regime is spreading calamity, uncertainty and fear across the war-torn region. Furthermore, most obvious in Syria, the Middle East is grounds for a strategic chess match between the West and powerful states in the East. Notably, tensions between the United States and Russia are at their highest since the Cold War. This demands pause; as tensions rise it is important to remember that the United States and Russia control 93% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. This chess match between powerful nation-states exacerbates instability in the region. As a result the frequency of regional skirmishes, between Pakistan and India (two nuclear states) for instance, are on the rise and this too enhances the nuclear threat.

This horizon of war is linked to the idea that life is disposable. Systems of power and domination organize violence and lay waste to “others” to secure their status in the world. If need be their own citizens will be sacrificed for the cause.

Though the horizon is ominous, I am hopeful for the future of humanity. Civilization was born as we know it in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, spread across the fertile crescent, evolved during the age of ancients in Greece and further Rome. All the while, humankind has balanced existence between powerful systems and the ever beautiful idea of liberty — this balance reminds me of the story of Minerva.

Ancient Rome’s King of the Gods, Jupiter, dreamt his own child would challenge his rule and overthrow him. When Jupiter learned he had impregnated a Titaness, he swallowed his lover whole in fear that the unborn child would displace him from the throne and rule over his kingdom. In the belly of the king, the Titaness forged weapons for her child, protected her and saw that the child would live. The child was given the name Minerva and she grew into a powerful woman. Using the weapons from her mother, she pounded away at the head of Jupiter. His headaches grew so severe he had his head split open — Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, emerged from the hole in the king’s head with a glorious song.

Perhaps it is time to question the legitimacy of the rulers of humankind. Are systems of power and domination necessary for human life? Do we, as individual actors, hold the wisdom to solve the complex wicked problems we face as a species?

The work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom and those who follow in her footsteps note that free people, organized voluntarily, usually work together in a cooperative manner. The cooperative capacity of human beings opens the possibility of polycentric governance — the ability for governments and market actors to interact with community organizations. Instead of confining a population to a “rule of the land,” inclined citizens could truly engage decision-making so that civic sector institutions can influence policy. The ramifications of this idea are huge.

Wicked problems such as climate change and armed conflict are incredibly complex. Is it wise to depend on top-down policies to tackle such problems? The implications are global in perspective, this is true, but it is important to remember that both of these threats have regional and local impacts as well. Top-down solutions cannot take into account such complex systems. Ostrom would argue a better way to solve such crises are to allow local and regional policies to influence external governance.

Under polycentric decision-making complexity is built into policy, thus there is variance in the system. Think of how natural selection operates — the more variance in a population the better chances a population can survive changes in the environment. The same concept applies to human governance and systems of adaptation. With such complex problems facing civilization, more desirable policies can be selected. Centralized authority ultimately builds simple solutions, at the cost of human life, for complex issues. Individual actors, when brought together, can build complex solutions for wicked problems. At the local level, life is not disposable.

This turns the “Tragedy of the Commons” on its head. Existing power structures are the true tragedy and right now we are stuck within their systems. One can only wonder what thoughts travel the mind of the Goddess of Wisdom as she ponders this age of human uncertainty. Surely she hopes individuals will work to control their own fate.

If we are to meet the 21st century with arms wide open, to laugh, love, trade, enjoy the wild, find comfort and meaning in existence, it is time to lay claim to power. May we break through the crown in a brilliant, powerful voice and sing the song of Minerva.

The Ecology of Play

My son, Elijah, and I playing in Flat Fork in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee.

My son, Elijah, and I playing in Flat Fork in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee.

Special note regarding this piece. This story first appeared in a book edited by my colleague and friend Nick Ford. The book is entitled Abolish Work: An Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia. You can purchase a copy here, at

Off the southern slopes of Bird Mountain in Tennessee the headwaters of Flat Fork emerge. The waters trickle into one another and build momentum as they carve into ancient Cumberland rock. The waters trickle through a lush, damp hardwood forest of Poplar and Hemlock as they twist and turn on the long journey to the Emory river. Fish and insects, coyotes and numerous other animals lap up these waters of Flat Fork. All is normal, until the mist of Frozen Head State Park. Just next to campsite 1, the monster growls.

With crooked fingers and twisted grin, the monster picks up stones and hurls them into water. Splash! Roar! Growl! Laughter fills the forest. The monster is a child at play.

Play is a rather interesting phenomenon as it is not easily defined by biology. On the one hand, it burns a lot of energy on seemingly meaningless activities. Why burn energy if not at risk to a predator? But that is the catch — just because activities seem meaningless, at the heart of the matter, this is not true. When exercise is involved, for example, be it by running, jumping or moving stones in a creek, play increases motor skills, muscle mass and even the oxygen carrying capacity of an organisms blood. Play is pleasurable, as it stimulates the central nervous system. Play is self-directed, free from the confines of what we may call “work” — tedious chores that need to be done. Play is a spontaneous leisure time activity, but is also emotional. Play brings mostly joy, but can also bring frustration. Thus, play is also a bit of “labor” — a task we are inclined to do.

There are  three methods of play: Locomotive play, social play and object play. Locomotive play involves movement for movements sake. Examples would be tag, hide and seek, climbing trees and other activities that enhance locomotive skills. Social play involves juveniles or adults of the same age engaged in activity together. There are usually rubrics or rules involved, along with a bit of imagination and creativity in a group setting. This of course enhances social bonds and strengthens community relationships. Object play of course involves objects — pots and pans, ukulele’s, drums and other musical instruments, ABC blocks, Jenga, kitchen tools and so forth. Object play allows those involved to master certain skills. All three types are distinct, but all three can be mixed and mingled, enjoyed between juveniles and adults — again advancing the social and individual capacities of those involved.

Play adapts and changes over time. We are perhaps programmed to think only the young play, but this is not the case. Adults play with the young, and adults with each other all the time. Some of this is pure leisure activity, sometimes it is physical, sometimes cognitive. The only difference is that as the animal matures, play becomes more intricate as activities advance.

Whatever the types of play are, or the age of those who partake, play is at its core an inclined, self-directed, recreational activity practiced in leisure time. So what is it that limits play? Of course, it is the discipline of a complex society — a society that requires work as opposed to labor, schooling for skills as opposed to lessons for knowledge and innate interests. It is this “working culture” that denies children and adults alike both play and their inclined labor. For children, we sit them in desks, inside classrooms where teachers lecture. As for adults, many of us, no matter how free or rewarding the job, spend a lot of time on mundane clerical or manual tasks. Each setting is at odds with our urge to play and engage in self full-filling labor.

This has numerous ill effects on society, especially regarding the young. From an evolutionary standpoint, lack of leisure time is dangerous. Play, especially rough and tumble play, is a homologous trait shared by all mammals — humans included. This is because play enhances social ties, develops the social brain and even deeper brain functions by generating new scenarios to make fun.

Though adults have fully developed brains, working culture reduces the individual’s ability to labor on self-directed projects, enhance social bonds and engage ones community. Work reduces the amount of leisure time we have to play with family — especially our children who simply long to play with us. With more leisure time our families, communities and natural environment will be better off.

Personally, I have many leisure time activities that, depending on my mood, I love to partake in. Sometimes it’s watching movies or sports to decompress. Sometimes it is laying on a blanket outdoors with a beer and a good book. Perhaps it’s sitting next to a mountain stream or gazing into the forest canopy to simply think. Sometimes I hike or trail run. Sometimes I choose to labor during my leisure time — by writing for example. Sometimes, my favorite times, I will mix labor and play.

Sunday afternoons are spent with my family. I’ve mastered the art of jazzy smoked chicken and I love preparing meals for my wife and child. On a perfect afternoon, with toddler in tow, we will listen to music (perhaps some Everybody Knows this is Nowhere — great album!) chop onions and celery, mix them with select herbs and spices and dress a chicken. The child loves to “help” as we cook and laughs as he enjoys snacks and watching to process. Soon the chicken is on the smoker. With classic rock in the background, “beats” is what the boy calls music, we will have a dance party as the protein unwinds. Perhaps we will kick a soccer ball around, perhaps play “air plane” and fly across the yard. But, no matter what, we play, bond and love.

When it’s time to pull the chicken it’s back to the labor of the kitchen. Undoubtedly, more vegetables will be chopped as the meal comes together. I greatly enjoy the method. As I slice plants to enhance a meals flavor I talk to the child and tell him all about the process. He watches and listens intently as I describe how cooking helped us become human. When carving time comes the boy is right by my side, devouring bits and pieces of the protein as the process goes on. It’s fun, and my favorite way to pass the time. Cooking is an enjoyable labor of love, an opportunity to play with the child and riddled with human liberty. The Sunday meal usually takes between five to seven hours to prepare. That is five to seven hours of free liberated time, a full days activity, spent on inclined labor and play.

So what of our communities? If play enhances social bonds, then this leisure time activity will also enhance the common good. I see it happening in my neighborhood right now. Community members have come together to cultivate new markets, community spaces and family friendly events. Long economically depressed, the neighborhood is on the up. Numerous “neighborhood cleanups” have been organized. Even a “Bio-Blitz” or two have occurred in the neighborhood to identify local plants. These activities are fun, adults and children alike create games on these days. Who can identify the first Cornus florida, or arrange acorns in the shape of a butterfly?

It’s community play. Adults and children alike, of all different ages and social backgrounds, get to know one another. As a result I see community members helping local business partners paint or build their shops, free of charge. Locals are also pitching in their labor to build trail systems around the unique South Knoxville Urban Wilderness. With mattock, Pulaski or shovel they manually labor on the trail. Trail building is actually a lot of fun, and there is a great sense of accomplishment once the activity is completed. Whether pitching in for local markets or trail-work, these are soon to be places for us all to congregate with one another, to talk about how the neighborhood is on the up. Spaces to laugh with one another, share a beer or a meal, and tell stories. They are local institutions — places we can come together as a community in our leisure time to play. Now, imagine what a free society, one that works less but labors and plays more, could accomplish.

Of course the natural environment, whether acorns on the playground or truly wild spaces, is crucial for a society to play. Personally speaking outdoor play has had a huge influence on my life. I actually think it was time spent with my parents in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, playing in streams and learning about the Appalachian environment, that instilled my life long wonder of natural systems.

Such natural splendor is in trouble, though, as we experience Earth’s sixth mass extinction. I think a large part of the current extinction is due to a human crisis — the loss of play and removal of children from the natural environment. It is the young, and future generations, who will need to protect ecosystems. As todays young lose touch with nature, future generations may not get the chance to experience her grandeur.

This is sad, because nothing compares to outdoor play. I, of course, do not disparage indoor play — instead I love it! But, outdoor play is fundamentally different and comes with its own unique sets of values and experiences. The greatest joy of nature is that natural systems are truly anarchic. The natural mechanisms that craft the great out doors are free of human dominance and the Leviathans of modern civilization. As we lose species, as habitat is lost, it is heartbreaking to think the young, and those yet unborn, will never experience the excitement of a bio-luminescent bay, or simply throw rocks into pure mountain streams.

Sad as it is, a child at play in nature is becoming a rare occurrence. There are many reasons as to why. The world is becoming more urbanized as more and more people move to the city. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, and can actually be good for environmental purposes, but urbanites tend to work long hours. This means there is less time for leisure. With notable exceptions, urban landscapes are gray with little of the natural environment present.

Parenting has shifted as well. The culture fears strangers much more so than in the past (though major studies indicate crimes against children, such as kidnapping, are plummeting). Spaces of capital exclusion exist all over urban landscapes, as commons spaces shrink in number. The aforementioned structure of indoor schooling and of a childs time come to play as well. As a result, it is the indoors that occupy the work and leisure time of children and adults alike.

As detrimental this disconnection is for adults, it is a great dis-service to our children and all future generations. Contact with nature stimulates creativity in children. Take the work of now famous education specialist Edith Cobb, for example. In her essay, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, she noted that children who had grand experiences in the natural world between the ages of five and 12 experienced greater cognitive development than their peers who did not. Plants and animals, Cobb argued, are among “the figures of speech in the rhetoric of play … which the genius in particular of later life seems to recall.”

Play is more creative outdoors. The fantasy that develops in natural landscapes requires more time and imagination to evolve because natural systems are far more complex than the standard human dominated landscape. It is not just fantasy and role play that guide the activity, but also reason and observation of the surrounding ecosystem. The argument could be made that forcing children into desks and making them study so much is counter productive — that the key to a childs enlightenment is actually play. Let them run, the wild animals, through the woods and across tall grass. Let them chase fire flies and gaze into the piercing night sky with wonder. Let them sit on a log and watch the clouds go by. Let them be still and think about the world.

The sad thing is, most of us inclined to protect such experiences are those of us who spent a good amount of time in the natural world as children. Why fight for something if it was never experienced?

Play is of fundamental importance to human civilization. So too is wilderness. How can we truly know ourselves if the wild is lost? How can we ever be free? Systems of power and domination have no choice but to loathe and fear the anarchic ecstasy that defines the wild. So without it, without the delight of play in the great out there, how can we ever understand human liberty? How will future generations ever know humanity?

Forest Schools and Montessori approaches to education, programs such as Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, local nature centers, urban forests, a rejuvenated celebration of wilderness and other methods of reconciliation ecology will help us all reclaim our commons. They will help us all reclaim our right to the wild and thus the possibility of truly understanding ourselves. In the final analysis, alternatives to work and restored time for leisurely activities are essential to a life worth living.

Play is liberation, our great hope.


Comments to the Bureau of Land Management — May 26, 2016 in the Tennessee Theatre.

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Bluegrass for the Long Haul


A recent article in Kentucky’s leading paper, The Lexington Herald Leader, discusses the down-fall of coal in the Bluegrass state. The statistics reported are alarming. Overall, the industry is at a 118-year low as more than 50% of coal jobs have disappeared over the past few years. In a region laden with poverty the hits keep coming.

There is a bright side though. With the fall of coal, the industry’s mono-economy will be shattered. Markets will be freed. A new economics is on the horizon.

Coal industry history in Eastern Kentucky is as dirty as the rock itself. With the expansion of the railroad and rise of extractive industry in the early 1900’s, coal became king. Company towns littered the Appalachians. Workers were paid in company scrip and they shopped at the company store for overpriced goods. Union organizing was discouraged by armed company personnel. Violence was common as Appalachia industrialized. Coal flourished in a state-supported mono-economy. Later, the mechanization of mining, especially throughout the 1970’s, exacerbated the loss of labor in the region.

“>The industry is a system of power and domination. Today, as the system fails, new markets and social power are on the rise.

One such example can be found on Ky. 7, a two-lane road in Eastern Kentucky. Here, a booming artisan market (300 strong) known as Antique Alley is flourishing. Kentucky native Megan Smith, in another article for the Leader, writes: “Entrepreneurism is awakening, plans are unfolding and the arts are gaining strength, despite the decimation of the area’s economic lifeblood: coal.”

Local Bonita Adams, owner of the Kentucky Proud N&S Farm goat’s milk products, is part of this economic transition.“We are trying to realize our potential and put some things in place that will draw people down Route 7 to help bring a little income to our local artists, crafters and musicians,” Adams said. “I hope that opportunities arise for our people. I am not thinking big business; just small ones with big personalities and talents.”

As coal declines social power emerges. And why wouldn’t it? Appalachia is not destitute. Never has been. But now, in a post-industrial landscape, it can truly thrive.

The mountains, full of fern, trillium and wildflower, rhododendron, poplar, oak, spruce and eastern hemlock are breathtakingly beautiful. Water trickles, eddies and carves across ancient rock throughout the valley and ridge. The purple horizons are often smoky, soaked in clouds as the temperate forest produces its own mist. The wildlife is splendid. Appalachia is a living place, a great cradle of biodiversity.

Time will only tell what will come of Appalachia. But, free land, free of the administrators and their maniacal ideas of “progress,” “industrialism,” and “economic development” will provide cultural and supportive ecosystem services to let the region thrive.

The forest can be a place of recreation, physical exertion and reflection. As ecosystems recover from industrial trespass, biodiversity will bounce back. This will bring tourism, restoration ecology and biological education to the region. Local knowledge of the natural environment, rooting ginseng and herbs for example, will develop sustainable markets. The mountains themselves, their biodiversity and climate, will inspire art (good old foot stompin’ bluegrass!), culture and scientific inquiry.

Appalachia is on the verge of a great revolution. The mountains can be a common place — community owned and democratically operated. It’s been a long road, and the journey isn’t over, but as locals are empowered the land inches ever closer to liberty. The Bluegrass State proves it. Appalachia is rising. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.

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