National Journalists Gain Appalachian Awareness

To open the Society of Environmental Journalists eighteenth annual conference in Roanoke on October 17th, co-chairs Bill Kovarick and Ken Ward acted out a fruit-toss visual lesson in local pronunciation: Apple. Atcha.

“That’s how we say it, and welcome to Roanoke in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia.” With that, several hundred journalists and guests from across the nation were welcomed to our beautiful part of the world.

The week’s sessions focused as much on possible solutions as on the problems we face. Many experts in their fields expressed the conclusion that very soon we “need home runs, not base hits” to put in place viable energy alternatives and reduced carbon emissions policies and practice on a global scale.

Speakers educated conference attendees during every meal, on bus rides to field trips, and at back-to-back sessions from Wednesday breakfast until Sunday noon. So while a full account of the time is impossible in this space, I want to share with you some memorable personalities from the conference.

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has offered energy efficient alternative technoogies for years; the market may finally be ready to listen. Lovins work has long been where we must soon go–to lighter cars and more energy efficient buildings. See his description of tomorrow’s Smart Garage.

In 2002, Lyle Estill, co-founder of Piedmont Biofuels, turned a little cooking oil left over from deep-frying turkey at home into a million-gallon-a-year business converting used fats and oils into fuels. See Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia, farms in much the same way his predecessors would have a hundred years ago. In a recently rediscovered farming practice, he fattens 200# pigs to a finish weight of 300# inside temporary fencing that contains them in oak forest.

The acorns give the meat a unique and desirable taste–so much so that the 800-restaurant chain, Chipotle, takes all the Polyface pork it can get.

Salatin encourages environmental writers to use their voices to increase the public’s “educational footprint” toward new understandings of the way we produce and consume products from within local “farmsheds.”

Roanoke was chosen for this year’s Virginia-tech sponsored conference in part because of its proximity to the sites of major environmental concern in our region and the nation: mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

Mining executives among the speakers saw the greatest good in producing as much coal as possible for the lowest possible costs–at least in dollars. Others saw coal’s costs measured in other ways, holding the opinion that post-mining mitigation (making the land like it was before) is nothing more than “lipstick on a corpse”; and that you “cannot regulate an abomination.” The long view and hope of many is towards a “post-carbon economy.”

The personal cost and human impact of current coal-extraction methods was expressed most eloquently by Wendell Berry, cultural and economic critic, prolific author and Kentucky farmer. At the final Sunday morning Author’s Breakfast, Mr. Berry read an essay he had offered months earlier on the Kentucky capitol steps.

He considers MTR the “moral equivalent of genocide” whose end is permanent loss of place and culture. In the light of the failure of lesser measures of “non-violent insistence” to bring about an end to these atrocities, Mr. Berry expressed a reluctant personal willingness to “stand in the way of destruction.” I highly recommend the youtube record of that speech.

As a life-long resident of the Southern Appalachians, I’m gratified that, as these hundreds of journalists and other visitors return home from their brief time in southwest Virginia, they will know much more than how to pronounce the name of our gentle mountains.

They have appreciated our music and our culture; and from their comments, they were impressed by the kindness of the people here and by autumn’s peak of color in the Blue Ridge.

SEJ journalists now have a richer understanding of our deep bonds of connection to place and have experienced in some small way “the infinite private suffering” of those whose mountaintops and creeks have disappeared.

And every time they turn on the lights back home, they will know in new ways why there will never be such a thing as “clean coal.”

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Nothing Ordinary


I know this from my photographer’s experience: any image I take is one of a kind. Each composition—in light or in words—is unique. The light will never be that color from that angle on that exact configuration of barn, tree or wildflower ever again.

And this: that we too often take for granted the extraordinary senses of vision and hearing, touch and smell that are our gifts—opportunities given us by which we could know the familiar beauties too often missed or dismissed in our hurried lives.

We have so little time in the present and there is so very much to take in and share. There are wonders all around. From our everyday lives, these familiar things may seem unremarkable to us. But in these precious instants in time, if we keep our eyes open and our hearts ready to know it, there is nothing ordinary.  ~ from the Author’s Note,  Slow Road Home.

Click image for enlargement in black and white.

Turning the Page: What Comes Next?


Certain days feel like pages turned, and surprise! A new chapter begins–characters, settings and plot take a sudden shift–and you can’t say exactly why the day and days to come feel so new and fresh or where the story leads next.

Certainly our stage props have changed such that, in our week away, the forest disrobed to reveal an open fence of vertical trunks where before we left it was still swathed in an obscuring curtain-barrier of red-shifted leafery.

The garden needs no attention now though I’ll be out there later today winterizing the tiller and mowers. I’ll miss it, and it will be a relief, though wood gathering takes its place.

The winter’s wood is already dwindling from a couple of early fires the wife insisted on (though not today with temps expected in the 70s–far too warm for November.) Yesterday I cut into some oak with the saw, and to be sure, the smell of it has done its part to trigger the page-turning toward what lies ahead.

Plot development? Not so much that I can read it very clearly from here. Upcoming, the Forest Watch event at Hollins on Saturday. (And if anyone reads this far and comes to that event, the FIRST person to ask gets a FREE set of notecards.)

And several good things are coming together on the photography front–even so far as to anticipate a small bit of income to re-invest on something like Lightroom (I hear there’s a learning curve–great for long winter days indoors!), a polarizing filter for the 18-200 lens, that sort of thing. I’ll be telling you about some of the places where you can find my photos coming up soon.

What pages are turning with regard to future writing? Will I repurpose “book two” or pitch it “as is” to the couple of somewhat hopeful outlets I’ve been exposed to since SEJ? Will I re-up for another year of newspaper columns or is that too much time for too little return of readership, reach or revenue? And whither blogging, so changed as it is from the first pages. To blog is more and more like a shout from the front porch just to hear the echo off the barn. I realize my rhetorical questions are mostly for me to consider alone. And yet…

One never knows where the first page of a new chapter will lead. After all, we’ve never read these pages before and thankfully, can’t turn to the back and see how the story ends

Sun-Food Agenda: Future’s Food Footprint

Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, IndianaWendell Berry Image via WikipediaI expressed my hopes recently that Mr. Obama might encourage the earthcare values lived and written by Wendell Berry. Then the next day, I finished reading Michael Pollan’s NYT letter to the future “Farmer in Chief” and thought how different our world could be if we did nothing else but to reassess from the soil up our agricultural relationship with the planet.

And on Hoarded Ordinaries (thanks Lorianne!) I find Obama has understood the ramifications of the “omnivore’s dilemma” where changes to that failed system of bigger-hammer agriculture will help us nutritionally as much as politically. What energy issues could be more radical and in need of change than how we grow, ship and eat the food that sustains (or damages) us?

Below (from an interview with Time mag) is a snippet of Obama’s wholistic expression of hope for healthier foods, buildings, cities, transportation. What he grasps–in a way unfamiliar among our generation’s politicos–is the paradigm shift (read: change) that will be necessary to the very survival of our species. Whether he can make the kind of Manhattan Project for the Sun-Food Agenda (and in other sectors as well) happen in four years remains to be seen. But we can start. We can hope. We can work to be the faithful stewards Mr. Berry and Mr. Pollan encourage us to be. Yes we can.

There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil.

As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

Interesting to note that McCain faults both Obama, and indirectly Pollan, for their ignorance of how Big Ag really works. No paradigm shift in view here, just biz as usual.

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