Voluntouring Students Find Floyd VA

This will be the third year that SustainFloyd has had a role to play with visiting students from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. It will be the first year I have been involved with VolunTours, and I am looking forward to it, and envious of the week-long experience that these 25 young people will have after they arrive at the Ecovillage tomorrow.

I’ll have a part in their orientation after dinner on Saturday, and then we will spend three hours together in Celebration Hall on Monday afternoon–a block of time that is more than I would have chosen for anyone to listen to the sound of one voice, but there it is. We’ll make the best of it.

One of the main outcomes the staff is hoping for is that these students gain a deep and clear understanding of their place in space and time; that they better understand the Appalachian mountains and especially the Blue Ridge; that they gain a sense of “Appalachia” in cultural context including the stereotypes versus what they experience on the ground in Floyd County; and that they see with new eyes with regard to their relationship to the natural and human community in light of the ties to the land. Sense of place is the beginning of this process. It goes on beyond that to become connection to and allegiance to place–the soil, air, water, forests and people of those places.

I will try to keep in mind that, when I was 20 years old like these students, I gave no thought at all to a grounding in such things. I wish someone had offered me, as I hope to offer these guests in Floyd, a way of seeing myself in place and time that points in the direction of what I call “a personal ecology.” It would have given me a framework upon which to hang so much of my photography, my writing and my sense of who and why I am.

I’ll share a Prezi with them I call “A Biology Watcher’s Look at the Anthropocene” starting with the “Great Acceleration” in 1950 and the first Earth Day in 1970. In another time block we’ll take 10 minutes for a “visual essay” of personal landscapes and nature scenes from the Southern Mountains and talk a bit about writing, photoessays and “nature deficit disorder.” And I’ll hope to direct their thinking towards eco-empathy and a future where the human economy is once again founded on a healthy ecology.

Interesting to note that participating students have the choice of these locations: Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, San Diego, Santa Fe/Taos NM and little ol’ FloydVA. Here’s how the local program is described:

Appalachia region, Virginia

Deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a rural community is proving its resilience by celebrating and strengthening its culture and its natural and historic beauty. This is a place where small-town values and creative community collaboration are thriving. Meet micro-enterprise advocates, support food security and self-reliance initiatives, visit the Floyd country store, enjoy the lively folk traditions and music of Appalachia, and meet with community leaders and families that have championed these initiatives together through Sustain Floyd.

Time and Space, and How to See a Tree

For local readers  in Floyd County, you might have read this essay in this week’s paper. Except for the very important “bit.ly bundle” at the end. This was omitted when printed. What can I say? It is sort of important, so I encourage you to follow the link, especially for the time lapse imagery which is quite stunning and fully relevant to the rest of the essay. Good grief.

Vultures in Space
Image by fred1st via Flickr

Browsing the web one recent morning, I discover a “space exploration” site that displays two images side by side on my monitor. On the left is a region of space viewed with the visible spectrum of light that the human eye can see unaltered but for magnification–what you would see through avery powerful backyard telescope. The image includes a hundred fine points of light–stars and galaxies of various distances and ages–and a dozen more prominent, flaring silver dots set against a pure black vacuum of space.

Then, in striking contrast on the right, the same region is shown as a composite of visible, x-ray, gamma and radio wave days-long exposures.

There, around the very same shining stars and galaxies of the first image appear vast swirling columns and clouds of ruby-red dust, jets of exploded star-stuff and streams of massive energy, heating gaseous elements to an incandescent glow. The effect of this image seen through the instrument’s computer-enhanced eye is mind-boggling.

But after my initial thrill at the magnificence of such cosmic grandeur came the thought that this second image was somehow not real, a kind of counterfeit, a bit of high-tech special effects. Through the portholes of a future starship in deep space, travelers would see blackness and white and faintly blue and red cosmic objects–and nothing else. So the seeming something else of the enhanced picture did not ‘really’ exist. And yet, there it was in front of me.

This common human bias–that our perceptions show us the whole of “reality”–makes our universe much simpler and far less rich and complex than it, in fact, is. Our blindness comes from a tacit assumption that only that which our senses detect is real and the measure of “what is.” Seeing is believing, the old axiom holds.

You have only to go on a walk with your dog to be disabused of this false notion of reality. “What is” to his nose is quite undetectable by yours, and therefore, it does not exist for you. So why is he pulling you along so frantically? He would tell you “smelling is believing.”

The animal kingdom is rich with abilities of perception, ways of knowing, that reveal true realities in our shared worlds. There are a multitude of fact-detecting abilities among birds, insects and fish that go some distance beyond our own wonderful but limited human-scale senses. Reality with a capital R is wider and deeper than we know. We see through a glass, darkly. But maybe there is hope.

Let’s stand in the midst of a forest where you may at first only see a mash-up of nameless standing timber–so many board feet of inanimate wood–lovely perhaps, but mere shapes. How much richer a walk there will be if we can see a tree as a creature no less alive than ourselves. Let’s momentarily immerse ourselves in the reality of a single oak.

Our perception stops at bark and leaf, even though, beyond our senses but not our knowing, cellular nano-scale chemical factories are at work down inside the living tissue in chloroplasts, cambium, root tips and shoots, ceaselessly manufacturing the substances necessary for life. Our most powerful nanotechnology can not come close to duplicating a plant cell’s abilities.

Now consider our tree in time. It has lived here for 75 years. This tree’s distant kin have dominated your slope for countless human generations. Until the past century of logging, this tree’s ancestors lived as a virgin expanse of massive trees almost impossible to match in today’s fragmentary forests.

Go back far enough in time, the mountain chain under our feet–and the oak’s–was barren rock pushed tens of thousands of feet high, as colliding continents lifted up the early Appalachians. There was a time when “oak” was a future potential not yet present on the earth scene, a tree yet to have a family tree.

But we live with this other human impediment, another limitation that keeps us from comprehending the grandeur of the apparent ordinary. We seldom appreciate the time-lens view of present moments and places because we are burdened with the conceptual blind spot of the perpetual “now.” This peep at the whole of reality through a tiny keyhole of the present moment makes the reality of time’s flow as invisible to us as those cosmic castles of glowing star stuff. But again, maybe there’s another way to see.

For those who are adequately curious to follow this reality thread a step farther, finish this mental exercise at your computer. And you may never see a tree or a moment or a star in the same way again.


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Our Great Outdoors: What Makes Here a Special Place?

Buffalo Mt from Hale Road
Image by fred1st via Flickr

The America’s Great Outdoors Initiative aims to develop a new strategy for 21st century conservation and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors. Conservation ideas and personal stories about special outdoor places are being collected from the American public. They will incorporate our ideas and stories into a report outlining a revitalized national conservation plan that benefits all Americans this fall. Here is my story. Why not send in one about your special place?

A five-acre sliver of floodplain pasture opens a ribbon of sky in steep forest, deep in this remote valley carved over the ages by two jump-across creeks that meet a hundred yards from my desk. I am not a native here in this county or on this piece of land, and this parcel of mountain slopes is not really unique for this part of the Roanoke and New River Valleys in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia. But I have a deep bond with this particular place because it is and because it is not special.

This land–a place my wife and I feel had been waiting for us all our lives to find, finally, at 49–has become special because we know it well: every tree, every moss-covered boulder and bend of the creek through every season. I have made memories cutting firewood here to warm us through hard winters. I have walked on fog-shrouded mornings in that sweet-smelling pasture among the giant hay bales that make our valley a kind of organic Stonehenge for a few days every summer.

I’ve tasted the fruit of it soils and my own garden toil, know by heart the sound of wind in winter whistling through reeds of oaks and tulip poplars on the ridges, and know where to look for the first bloodroot each spring, when to expect the first Louisiana waterthrush or scarlet tanager to call each summer. I love this space in particular because work and play, daydreams and tears, great expectations and front porch conversations with family, friends and neighbors have happened here. This, over time, has made space into a place of the heart.

But I love this place, too, in the ways that it is not special. Where our boundary ends, this country goes on, to the next and the next parcel, over more than 300 square miles of the county that are little changed in use or appearance over generations. The forest belongs to family farms, a patchwork of small woodlands, each with a kindred nature to my own small forest, that others know as well as I know my own. Cattle graze peacefully on a thousand terraced slopes and free-flowing streams run swift and clear. Our economy draws heavily from the soil, and from our Appalachian traditional musical roots, and the outstanding arts and crafts studios that visitors come here to experience.

Unlike many rural places, this land has largely held onto its former character and charm, its agrarian qualities, its pace, scale and authentic rural nature. We are pleasantly distant from the noise and hurry of interstates, rail or air traffic. Change has come slowly, and much thought is directed now toward an intentional and durable future that preserves what is precious in our shared home place so that we can continue to live the “progressive life in the slow lane.”

We have pride in all the things we have–and in all the things we don’t have–in this tapestry land-and-peoplescape that make Floyd County uniquely livable. Our homes are widely spread across the rolling, high plateau of the county, whose largest town of less than 500 boasts a single stop light. We love our own places, but we celebrate our shared natural belonging here to the larger landscape of southern mountains. Neighbors we don’t often see in our coming and going are reliably there when we need them.

It is our sense of belonging to and of responsibility for the landscapes of our lives here that make this southern Appalachian region of southwest Virginia a special space of special places. Those of us who live here understand that to carry forward its prosperity and its character will require finding a balance of sustainable economies, right-livelihood for our young people, and preservation of that which should remain unchanged so that this land-relationship will go on unbroken, so that our special spaces will be the legacy of our children’s children–nameless meadows, wetlands, woods and forests not known to many but cared for and very special for sure for those whose lives are cast on this stage.

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