appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: January, 2015

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.




Education Beyond Capitalism

On Friday, January 9, US president Barack Obama traveled to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here, Obama announced plans to make an associate degree as obtainable as a high school diploma. Deemed “America’s College Promise,” the new plan, according to Obama, will bring community college tuition down to zero for students.

The plan is smart. As Thomas L. Knapp of notes, community college is cheap in terms of infrastructure — no need to pay for student housing, large auditoriums or research facilities. The plan is also past due. There is no reason higher education should exist in the cash nexus of an advanced technological society.

Obama commented, “education helps us be better people.  It helps us be better citizens. You came to college to learn about the world and to engage with new ideas and to discover the things you’re passionate about — and maybe have a little fun. And to expand your horizons.” This is of course true.

Unfortunately, this is all he had to say about education.

Obama went on to talk about the economy. He noted time and again that an advanced degree means more money and a chance at the famed middle class. The American economy, we are told, needs the American worker. “We’ve got this incredible bounty, the God-given resources that we enjoy in this country. But our greatest resources are people.” Your labor is what will allow the nation to compete in a global economy.

This is not a proposal for the sake of education, but rather for the health and longevity of the state. Your education, as your labor, is a tool of production for the machine of capitalism.

To the libertarian, however, education is an expression of individualism. If we imagine education without the state, we are left with self-directed learning, initiative, creativity, co-operative/mutual labor and robust competition between academic institutions. Education is re-imagined as a lifelong pursuit of one’s unique interests. It is not something to be done once for a 9 to 5.

Of course, imagining education without the state also means imagining markets liberated of capitalism. Actually existing capitalism is a system of control; it subordinates human labor. One must (as opposed to voluntarily) rent his or her body and time to capitalists to earn a living. To ensure economic growth we must continually work so we can spend our hard earned dollars.

In Strike Magazine, anthropologist David Graeber notes that advanced technological societies could, right now, achieve a 15-hour work week. This would, according to Graeber, “free the population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas” — the very reason to pursue an education.

Why hasn’t the 15-hour work week been accomplished? Because free, liberated time renders systems of power useless. The powers state-capitalist institutions hold are not justifiable — they must keep us busy or we would provide their services, education included, ourselves and dismantle them.

Education, for life, should be easily accessible and free. We have the technology to accomplish this. Take for example the Massive Open Online Course, or “MOOC” phenomenon. MOOCs are courses offered online, for free, that are open access and boast unlimited participation. They are proof zero-cost, democratic education is attainable.

Liberated of state, and beyond capitalism, education will evolve. Our societies will evolve. We will have more time to invest in learning, community, family and friends. Obama’s proposal is progressive, but unimaginative — the burden of state capitalist power remains. We can imagine more. We can be free people, in a free society.

The creative, innovative potential of such a society is astounding. I’ll see you at school.






On the Leaves of a Rhododendron

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Some of my fondest childhood memories are with my parents hiking around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One memory is particularly vivid. I was six and on the trail to Abrams Falls after a summer rain moved through the forest. The sun was just again peaking through the canopy. As my folks and I moved along the trail I noticed water droplets on the leaves of a rhododendron. We stopped for a rest next to the woody plant along the bank of Abrams Creek. I sat down, letting my hands feel the damp Earth, laden with bryophytes. I studied the beads of water on the plant before turning my considerations to the creek. My love for nature began young.

In the wild I am always in awe of water. Water, in its many forms, occupies every part of the forest. 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 steal the show. Whether weeping grey or puffy white, when the land is again bursting with life, clouds hug ridges and occupy valleys in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. I once had the holy experience of camping in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina on a late Spring evening at over 5,000 feet. As I hiked to camp I moved across mountain meadows covered in a thick fog, but my destination sat above the clouds. That night around a roaring bonfire, in the company of budding plants and a vast array of newly awakened wildlife, there was a piercing, radiant starry night above, and a sea of clouds cracking with lightning below. All of the heavens witnessed Earth’s wonder.

From the clouds, in the chill of January, snow seems to continually fall over temperate Appalachian forests. In the winter, snow dusts the landscape, coating evergreens and the naked limbs of deciduous trees. When running old trails in this ancient terrain in the depths of the season, ones own breath is often visible as it escapes the lungs. If, like I often do, one follows this vapor in the white landscape, it is hard not to notice the depth of the mountains this time of year. Though peppered in white, something about the winter makes the Appalachians appear dark. Perhaps it is exposed ancient metamorphic rock, thick ice that clings to steep mountain ridges and the bare grey bark of trees, but the color avoids a description. The mountains are mysterious and beautiful beyond words.

My favorite time in the woods, however, is Autumn. Fall air is always brisk, the sky is often a beaming cerulean blue, and it is of no mystery why the southern Appalachians are long described as “smoky.” A thick mist settles in the mountains in the fall and the forest changes dramatically daily. Some of my favorite moments of solitude, and thus my life, are experienced in the mountain lowlands in late autumn. Under the splendor of November hue, on the banks of a stream I am often lost in thought as I watch water carve its way through ancient rock while, at the same time, laying the sediments that will tell future travelers of our place in history. I swear one can feel the terrain, littered with a mosaic of detritus, soaked in a thick mist, and carved by the river continuum breathe this time of year.

Natural places are of incredible importance. John Muir once wrote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” This is a statement of deep ecological truth.

Nature is wild. In the wilderness one is wild. On an early September afternoon a few years ago I escaped for a lone stroll in the woods. I worked my way up and around Curry Mountain, had lunch on a rock in the shade of a great Eastern Hemlock and was making my way back home when I came across two black bear along the switchbacks. They saw me before I saw them. There was a quick dash, a scattering of leaves and I saw the black fur of a cub run down slope – it was then I noticed the mama bear. Standing in front of me some 20 yards away was a rather large beast who was occupying the trail. We stood in silence, staring at one another for sometime until she let out a slow growl. I raised my hands to the air and loudly proclaimed, “I mean you no harm, bear!” She turned and quickly disappeared into the brush.

Knowing they were still near I kept talking loudly to them as I slowly made my way through the switchbacks. As time passed I picked up my pace. Before I knew it I was whooping, laughing madly and running through the woods. I was jumping over trickling springs, tree roots and piles of rock. I was full of joy, my heart pounding furiously. I was myself, simply a human in purest form, all labels stripped away, no worldly burdens — just an animal, wild and alive!

This unbound freedom is possible only in the wild. There await holy experiences everywhere in nature. Whether it is moments of silent, still reflection, or adventurous swimming in the roar of a river, swallowing its current, pelted by rain, breathing hard and laughing under the chill of a night sky with brothers, natural spaces provide us with a liberty that cannot be experienced in urban corridors. Untouched landscapes are the cathedrals of nature.

We cannot truly know freedom, nor understand absolute liberty, without wilderness. The wild will exist long after human civilization. We have only a precious moment on this Earth, the blink of an eye regarding the eons in which we measure geology, to understand boundless freedom. In the wilderness there exist only the fixed laws of nature. There are no economic systems, no political powers, no established authority, but rather an anarchic freedom we are blessed to experience. In open spaces we are free to live, even if just briefly, absent of control or administration from the Leviathans of civilization.

This freedom alone is enough to protect wilderness landscapes, for ourselves and fellow species — nature for nature’s sake. But, there also exist political reasons to protect the wild. In the words of Edward Abbey:

The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny… The value of wilderness, on the other hand, as a base for resistance to centralized domination is demonstrated by recent history. In Budapest and Santo Domingo, for example, popular revolts were easily and quickly crushed because an urbanized environment gives the advantage to the power with technological equipment. But in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam the revolutionaries, operating in mountain, desert, and jungle hinterlands with the active or tacit support of a thinly dispersed population, have been able to overcome or at least fight to a draw official establishment forces equipped with all of the terrible weapons of twentieth century militarism.

Wilderness is needed for human freedom. Wilderness can exist without us, but we are doomed without it. May we preserve wild lands – coasts, deserts, forests and mountains – so we may preserve what makes life worth living: Liberty.

Howl for the New Year

Another year is over. The New Year holiday is a natural time of reflection. When the ball drops and fireworks pop in the early January sky 2014 will be gone. A whole new year of human history will begin. A whole new year to continue our beautiful struggle.

If there is one fact our collective history clearly reveals it is that large, centralized nation-states are the worlds most terrifying institutions. The 20th century alone is testament to this. The rise of fascism brought a premature end to nearly 100 million lives. The rise of the Bolsheviks tells a tale of an increasingly oppressive regime addicted to power. State capitalism and the rise of neo-liberal economics in the west are equally disastrous, responsible for a century of perpetual warfare.

Public intellectual Randolph Bourne once wrote, “war is the health of the state.” In the last century the machines of war reached frightening heights of power. The production of nuclear weapons can end all life as we know it. States may cause the greatest extinction in all of Earth’s history. This — the end of our species and countless others — is a real and looming threat.

The state is a system of power and domination. Such a monopoly serves to institutionalize the creeds of racism, sexism, class division, protectionism, biocentrism and more. This is true even in the most “democratic” of nations, including the United States. Such archism deserves abolition. The state is damned.

Yet, here in the fog, there too exists our beautiful struggle.

There is a great tradition in human history: Liberation. We long to be free. Human action continues to prove that with agency we can do great things for one another. We continue to labor, create, preserve and exercise goodwill.

Our inclined labor will produce a world where the children of humanity will live unbound by chains, where no fire or whip will meet their flesh. There will be no need to pledge allegiance to a nation, but all the reason to imagine a world of real and lasting peace. Not a world of dreamers, but a world of contracts, liberated economics and the splendor of the human condition. The peace of common interest, wildness and mutualism.

We must remember this. We must always remember those who risked and sometimes lost their lives and freedom for such an order. We must remember to love those who raised liberty’s hammer. Those who broke down the walls that caged us. We must remember so light will ever conquer darkness — so liberty will no longer be a simple flame, but a piercing, radiant torch.

We will be free. We will face the world without fear. We will stand together and howl into the face of those who wish to reign over us. We will ever challenge their rule. We will continue our embrace of liberty. Global movements have ignited. Join hands, unite the riot — coordinate and cultivate the free society. As we enter the new year, breath deep, let the winter air fill your lungs. Know that you are an animal, that you are alive and demand your freedom. Damn those who wish to deny you. Stare into the dark night and howl. Howl!

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