May 06, 2003

Now Showing: Sunset and Clouds

or Cultural Tourism in the Southern Mountains: What's For Sale?

We're teaming up on this one. Fragments first duo-blog... see the end of this unusually long opinion piece for a link to my topic partner today... Lisa of Field Notes.

Promotion of cultural tourism is, in a sense, a form of advertisement proclaiming that culture is for sale. [...]The mountain commodities that tourists want to possess might turn out to be some of the things we Appalachian folk cherish most, and communities throughout the mountain south are making difficult choices right now about who they are, what is precious, what is for sale. They are considering the cost of being transformed for the price of jobs and county revenues as their culture is offered up for public view, purchase and consumption...

I was in this frame of mind last week and penned the paragraph above as I completed my little study of cultural tourism in Floyd County. That same day, I picked up my most recent copy of a favorite regional magazine. Inside the front cover was a full page advertisement that I presume is supposed to make me want to 'go see' the mountains of North Carolina. The advertisers wanted this scenic image to speak a thousand words that say 'come, stay, spend'. To me, the billboard in the picture sends a different message, although I have not been able to say what that message is exactly, nor can I say just now why it has gotten under my skin in such a way. Here is the image; take a look at it if you want this piece to make any sense at all. Now showing: Sunset and Clouds. It bothers me. Why is that?

I think I know this mountaintop in the picture. It appears to be Bald Mountain where the Appalachian trail follows the North Carolina-Tennessee border. The view from the top is truly spectacular in all directions. Several years back, I hiked about five miles to the crest, climbing a thousand feet or more to get to the bald mountaintop; the purchase of the experience with my efforts made it all the more spectacular and memorable. What I didn't realize as I surveyed the world from this high place set apart from the busyness of men is that a huge chunk of mountainside here was in private holding and had been 'developed' up to the very edge of the Appalachian Trail. I remember the feeling of profound disappointment that came with this discovery. It had seemed that I was in a sacred place of natural solitude. But I wasn't a three minute walk away from the nearest television set. This may seem sort of trivial, but it was my first reaction when I saw the the billboard on the mountaintop... this image is dishonest, not what it seems.

But then, isn't advertising all about seeming, illusion, and inflating expectations? I am generally resistant to the idea of being 'marketed'. Call me a 'reluctant tourist'. And I'm especially vigilant when it comes to buying into advertising that sells the places where things make their homes -- people, plants and animals. In much of the marketing of mere mountain aesthetics, things portrayed are not as they seem, and in this perhaps lies the heart of my unrest with the Clouds and Sunset image. You might want to be aware in this regard that North Carolina's state motto is actually "Esse Quam Videri"... To be rather than to seem. Yet here and throughout the southern Highlands, in regard to tourists' expectations as they encounter the natural world, it is often the seeming that takes precedence over being.

As a nation we are becoming increasingly detached from the natural world, accepting ourselves as separate from and independent of place, each of us easily-exportable to whatever state or city we can find our comfortable and accustomed amenities. Clear it, pave it, air condition it, put out a few token indoor plants (plastic is fine). Turn on the (whatever) and tune out. We are fast becoming a comfortably cocooned nation of illiterates with regard to the natural world. For too many, the interest ends at the TV viewing of 'nature' from the comfort of our Lazy Boys or from car windows at selected scenic overlooks along buzzing interstates between burgeoning cities. In our vacationing, nature is often reduced to a packet of Kodachrome travel postcards of mountaintop views that give us the warm fuzzies. They ask nothing more from us than to view. We may not really care, for example, that just beyond the edge of the picture is a massive stand of Fraser Fir trees dying from the effects of acid rain caused by the 'cheap coal' that is turning Kentucky and West Virginia into a national sacrifice area. There are other trees. We'll just get more. It's fine as long as things mostly 'seem' to be postcard perfect while we're vacationing there. Ignorant of the real thing, we'll readily accept counterfeits, substitutes, nature illusions. And too bad about the trees, really.

This disconnect with nature is happening even in our universities, where field-related courses are dropping from curricula at an alarming rate. Biology departments are moving whole cloth to mathematical modeling of natural systems: "computational biology" it is called. We don't need to do systematics studies in the field, to collect, catalog and appreciate actual plants or animals anymore. We can just get genetic samples and understand it all in this most objective, quantitative way without getting our boots muddy. The whole of nature is coming more and more to be nothing but the sum of the parts. Those rare hold outs who used to be called 'naturalists' who comprehend the natural world with any kind of holism and find their voice from the midst of it, are growing fewer and fewer in number. And this broader, deeper kind of knowledge and the caring of the natural world no longer resides in Everyman. Our grandparents could name the trees, read the seasons in the grasses, knew when and where to go to find herbs to eat, heal and delight. They understood their absolute dependence on woods and field and this led to an appropriate awe and reverence for the created world. Our children, sadly, are not likely to know or comprehend either the forest or the trees. They may neither know nor care to know that the natural world is being impacted by their ignorance, ambivalence or voracious consumption. Thus the whimpering end of anything resembling stewardship.

Nature it seems is still big business, despite the fact that it's relevance for man and comprehension of it have been reduced to mathematical formulae and base-pair sequences and it's perception trivialized by pith-helmeted TV Aussies mock-wrestling with 'deadly' reptiles. People still love 'nature as scenery' and come to the southern mountains in a huge wave to consume it as a rustic peep-show. In North Carolina, the Blue Ridge mountainsides are being bought and sold and 'developed' at alarming speed. From both the east and west facing slopes across a single valley full of shopping centers below, summer residents from Florida peep at each other from the decks of their expensive faux-Swiss chalets. They are loving the mountains to an suffocating high-density death. They have come to live in the unspoiled mountains as adverted, but being is different from what it seemed to be when they were looking at glossy brochures back in Florida.

Mountain communities hungry for tourist dollars are throwing up cheap look-alike motels and franchised fast foods to accommodate their new visitors. Since so many tourists tire quickly of scenery (if you've seen and photographed one tree/stream/mountain, you've seen'em all), Hill-billy Carpet Golf and Thunder Road Go-Cart Tracks provide entertainment and all the accustomed comforts of urban home towns are being offered, changing forever the culture of many tourism-altered mountain towns. The mountains themselves and the natural ecosystems that they have engendered have become reduced to an icon of place, a mere backdrop, a facade, a token of a former time when the natural world was far more to us than a featured showing of sunset and clouds. We have become nature spectators and can turn it on or turn it off as we chose.

There is a difference between seeming and being in the southern mountains and with regard to our vanishing cultures, natural and human. It would seem there is still so much of the forests and mountains left in the southern Appalachians that man is at no risk of using them up by building roads and chalets and shopping strips without limits. It seems from a distance like these are the unspoiled Hemlock and Fir capped ridges we saw here when vacationing as a child, even though entire species (including these two) are disappearing, both dying at least in part by manmade causes. It seems like it doesn't make any difference if we understand the ecosystems and the cultures we are offering for sale as long as people are finding jobs and incomes out of the transaction. And if you only come here as a transient spectator without any care to understand the people and their place in the world, it may seem that it's all just a theme park sideshow full of stereotyped characters and props, with lots of country-cute souvenirs for the neighbors back home. Now Showing: Rural Farmer and Cows.

Caveat emptor. Be a careful tourist.

Lisa Thompson was kind enough to give me her reaction to the Sunset and Clouds image. I met Lisa via Rebecca Blood's "Blogs about Place" where our weblogs both reside. She writes eloquently on nature-related issues (and other things) over at her weblog, Field Notes. She shares her reflections regarding tourism imagery from a more geographically-detached point of view, writing from the coast of California. I was interested in getting another opinion and appreciate her words. Go see what she has to say on this topic (05/06/03 if the permalink doesn't work ). We'd both love to hear your comments.

Posted by fred1st at May 6, 2003 07:59 AM | TrackBack

What you've written about the marketing of your beloved Appalachians makes me think about the eco-tourism movement. So many areas of the world are moving in that direction in joint ventures that allow indigenous people to continue to make a living without degrading the precious few natural resources that remain near their homes. Instead of hunting tigers, say, they become forest guides for tourists who would like to see or photograph a tiger.

On one hand it's brilliant. Nature is preserved. But at what cost? I suppose it would be possible to retain a healthy natural relationship with the land in that case, but it would require vigilance--at least in the west. Our western model would turn the forest and the tiger into products to be packaged, glossed and sold.

Perhaps we will learn from watching people whose ancestral ties to the land are intact and vital, as they alter their relationship with those lands and become its stewards. Maybe they will do it differently, in a way that doesn't degrade the land and disconnect the people from its daily influence in their lives.

There's a movement afoot (if you peel back the layers) to turn to indigenous traditions to glean wisdom about how to live more fully connected lives here and now: lives that are rich in spiritual and natural connections--lives that value spirit over commerce.

I'm hopeful. Don't we have to hope?

Posted by: Lisa Thompson at May 6, 2003 09:28 AM

I take hope in the results of a Harris poll on tourism that shows both a signficant shift in the number of people who travel to experience culture (ecotourism, heritage tourism, historical tourism, music or crafts trails and the like) and an concommitant increase in the number of such tourist who demand to come away with meaning instead of mere entertainment.

Yes, we do have an opportunity in our generation to direct our travel experiences and vacations toward an end rewarding for the traveler and perhaps in the end, a benefit to the places visited if touring results in a deeper appreciation for the complexities of communities... both human and plant-animal.

I am not encouraged in this regard, however, when I travel through such places as Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. If you've been there (or some place like it, you know what I mean).

Posted by: fredf at May 6, 2003 09:48 AM

Lisa and Fred,

Thank you both for sharing your posts. I look forward to reading more of them. I live I Knoxville, TN, which as you probably know, is very close to the Smoky Mountains and to Gatlinburg, the country-bumpkin tourism capital. Having a natural experience in the touristy parts of the Smokies is almost impossible, but I don’t think many people even notice or mind. You are right when you suggest that the artificial experience is all that most people even think to want. Yet I guess that I’m guilty of desiring an “experience” from the Smokies too. I live in (and enjoy) an urban area, yet I want to stay tied to the mountains. I want to escape into this connection on a day hike or a mountain picnic even though I know how shallow that escape, and therefore that connection, is.

My husband’s family is from Polk County, TN. It is a beautiful county that is still rural, although whitewater-rafting tourism is huge there. The people there are facing many of the issues you raise. Many of the elderly people know the names of the trees and the rhythm of the seasons—they grew up in a culture tied to the natural world, as you discuss. Yet, I think it is important to point out that they came up in a culture that compelled this knowledge upon them and that their tie with the natural world didn’t serve only to foster a connection to nature for its own sake. They grew up with knowledge of the natural world because they had to succeed at farming and because of their proximity to it.

Our current urban and suburban cultures compel different sorts of knowledge and experiences upon us, and the connection to nature is easily lost. I enjoy the culture into which I have been born even though I feel that “connection” missing. Other people, however, don’t feel anything is missing. They aren’t bothered; their thirst for the “wild” is completely satisfied by “Ripley’s Appalachia.” I can’t judge them for that. We are all born into our own times and those times place boundaries upon our perceptions. Yet, people overcome boundaries through experience. I understand what (I think) you both mean about the drawbacks and dangers of the commercial and mental compartmentalization of our world. I would be interested in reading more specifically about what kind of tourism you think will reverse this rut. (Lisa discusses her ideas a little in her comment to Fred’s post, I think). Also, current modes of tourism not only “box up” nature, they endanger it. Yet, I think the only way to help us all overcome our mental “boundaries,” our tendency to see nature as a vacation destination or a glitter show, is to actively remove them by visiting and really getting to know the wilder places. We’ll only become more detached and more apt to see nature as a commodity if we are discouraged and prohibited from going near it as tourists. I think different tourism models are needed. Many people would still prefer the Gatlinburg model, but some would love an alternative. And with the influence of a happy few, change would happen, gradually.

I’m sorry to have written such a long comment, but you tickled my brain. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

Posted by: Wendy at May 6, 2003 11:01 AM

The quiant California foothill towns solved the tourist problem years ago...they took in cranks heads and bikers...drives middle America off pretty damn quick.

Seriously, there isn't much one can do about the expansion into rural areas...we've been doing it by inches for 300 years. I recently posted an excerpt from the Arcata Eye ...many small rural California towns like Arcata have made the transition from logging or fishing to eco-tourism fairly well...but they have a large Green movement as a result of the 60's communes.

Conversely some of rural folk aren't exactly the best stewards of the land either...paying little attention to use/abuse of chemicals, planting invasive non-native crops,and the affect of their farming practises on surrounding wildlands and streams.

I think you have to do what you can as one person, one family...but when something is seen as progressive it is almost impossible to stop.


The Last Resort

She came from Providence,
the one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang
heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams
like a refugee
Just as her father came across the sea

She heard about a place people were smilin'
They spoke about the red man's way,
and how they loved the land
And they came from everywhere
to the Great Divide
Seeking a place to stand
or a place to hide

Down in the crowded bars,
out for a good time,
Can't wait to tell you all,
what it's like up there
And they called it paradise
I don't know why
Somebody laid the mountains low
while the town got high

Then the chilly winds blew down
Across the desert
through the canyons of the coast, to
the Malibu
Where the pretty people play,
hungry for power
to light their neon way
and give them things to do

Some rich men came and raped the land,
Nobody caught 'em
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and Jesus,
people bought 'em
And they called it paradise
The place to be
They watched the hazy sun, sinking in the sea

You can leave it all behind
and sail to Lahaina
just like the missionaries did, so many years ago
They even brought a neon sign: &Jesus is coming&
Brought the white man's burden down
Brought the white man's reign

Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here

We satisfy our endless needs and
justify our bloody deeds,
in the name of destiny and the name
of God

And you can see them there,
On Sunday morning
They stand up and sing about
what it's like up there
They call it paradise
I don't know why
You call someplace paradise,
kiss it goodbye

Posted by: feste at May 7, 2003 12:10 AM

This is a related reply from where I wondered about 'blogs about place' and issues of man in the landscape. I thot it was pertinent if not directly about the sunset and clouds image, so am pasting it here:

It's a category I'm deeply interested in, and one which we're trying to explore over at Feathers of Hope. Blogging is a great medium for writing about place: you will never run out of material, and over time the fragments from your posts will build up into quite a portrait of the place you have ties to.

I would love to see this category coalesce more as a genre. Working collaboratively like you and Lisa have done in your DuoBlog today is a good step towards this.

Posted by Numenius at 06:22 GMT, May 7, 2003.

Posted by: fredf at May 7, 2003 07:45 AM


Posted by: eMule at January 14, 2004 12:51 PM

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