Mountain Xpress: How did you and Robert Johnson get together for this book? Have you been witnessing similar types of environmental pressures in your respective Jackson and Yancey County communities?
Thomas Rain Crowe: Robert and I have known each other for over twenty years. We were on the board of the Western North Carolina Alliance in the early days of that organization. And we’ve followed each other’s careers ever since. I had a publisher for the book (Wind Publications in Kentucky) and we were looking for a good image to go on the cover. I knew Robert’s work and especially his paintings and drawings of Western North Carolina landscapes and felt that his work would be most appropriate for this particular book of essays on the environment and environmental issues here in the western mountains.
So, I called him up and we started talking. Well, one thing led to another and soon we were talking about a true collaboration using his drawings and paintings not only on the covers, but throughout the book. And we’ve been working, back and forth, to get the right images connected to the right essays, etc.
I’m very happy about this synchronistic collaboration, as it brings a visual context to the book that wasn’t there before. And to have someone as skilled as Robert lending his talents to this project should enhance its attractiveness to potential readers.
Yes, Robert and I have been talking about the environmental issues in our respective counties and are finding many similarities. I think the one thing that almost everyone is experiencing, no matter where they live these days, is the incursion of gated subdivision developments. I know that, here in Tuckasegee where I live (in Jackson County), we’ve quite literally been surrounded by large gated-community second-home developments. And it’s not only altering the visual landscape, but the cultural nature of our community, as well as doing a lot of environmental damage.
Both Robert and I have been fighting to protect our communities from this kind of uncontrolled development, or at the very least to work to minimize the damage these large subdivisions are creating. A lot of this work comes in the form of bringing attention to the issues through his visual work and my writing.
You describe The End of Eden as a kind of handbook for people ready to undertake the “real work” of “grassroots organizing and rallying the troops.” What are some of the ways people can do this?
First of all, by identifying an environmental issue that hits close to home and that is of concern to you, and then speaking up. Speaking up at county commissioners’ meetings. Speaking up at public hearings. Speaking up by writing letters to the editor in your local newspapers. Speaking up by organizing a grassroots citizens group in opposition to whatever the issue of choice is.
And then holding community events to educate all members of the community about the issue and your actions. And, then, just by being persistent with all the various actions you can come up with to shed light onto your specific concern, and to keep it in the news and atop all public discourse. This takes a good deal of time and energy and focus, but in the long run this kind of perseverance by a relatively small group of people can go a long way. I’ve found that even the concerted efforts (if they’re profound enough) of a single person can turn the tides in a given issue. So, the bottom line is: don’t give in or give up, and that one person can make a difference.
Property rights have long been a traditional rural value. Ultimately, developers can’t build massive communities without buying land first. What thoughts do you have on how to balance the rights of longtime landowners to sell their property with the environmental and ecological consequences that sale may bring?
This, as you imply, is a tricky question, and has been the one sticking point with local residents in terms of accepting and/or supporting land use regulations (formerly known as zoning). In response to your question, my best response is to cite what we have done here in Jackson County in that regard. First, we elected a board of county commissioners who (supported) land use regulations for the county. Then we supported their efforts to impose a countywide moratorium on subdivision building—while they and the county planning board drafted their set of ordinances and regulations, defining what could and could not be done in terms of subdivision development. Then we supported their charter of regulations.
In the end, Jackson County now has the strictest land-use regulations in the state. And the local residents have largely come on board, seeing that if they continue to resist these kinds of limits placed on subdivision development, they will eventually find themselves unable to even afford the taxes on their own land, much less be able to build anything new.
Without these regulations the developers will come in, build their million-dollar homes, drive the land values up, and with that the taxes will increase and the local people will be forced to sell their land. And this is exactly the kind of dynamic that these mega-developers from outside are counting on.
The only way to fight them is to have enough restrictions on development that it makes it uncomfortable, if not impossible, for them to come into the county and conduct business as usual. Most of the local people in my community in Tuckasegee were against any land-use regulations. Today, after the fight to establish some regulations and after seeing the kind of problems these gated developments are bringing to the community, most of the local people in my community are in favor of some regulations on subdivision building.
In a commentary published by Mountain Xpress in 2005, you describe the ecological changes you’ve seen: Tomatoes on the vine and hummingbirds at the feeder at the end of October, wet summer followed by two months of drought, and so on. You talk of how you’re staying in bed longer and your mood of resignation. Since then, what are you seeing? How has your mood changed? And what would you say to people seeing and feeling similar things, and perhaps feeling a bit helpless?
Well, I’ve gotten over my momentary bout of depression. But since I wrote these words you’re referring to, things have only gotten worse here in my community, in my county. More developers have bought up huge parcels of land, environmental disasters have occurred as a result of these developments and the global warming crisis has accelerated. Weather is more severe and extreme, which has brought all kinds of logistical problems for people—to the most fundamental aspects of their lives. But to give you a short answer to your question about the feeling of helplessness, I would simply say to people that you can make a difference.
One person, by themselves, can make a difference. I have seen this happen here in Jackson County. I have experienced it, myself. So, start with something small and of a scale that you can manage. Don’t try and solve all the world’s problems by yourself. You can’t. But you can solve some of the problems that are right around you.
Start with a letter to the editor. Start talking to your friends and neighbors. Get started. The hardest part of any enterprise, I’ve found, is getting started. It’s that way with writing. Getting started is the hardest part of writing. Once you’re “into” the story, or the poem, or the piece for the newspaper, it’s easy. So, my suggestion to people is not to let themselves be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues that surround them. But to choose a local issue that is important to them and to simply get up out of bed, or out of the chair in the living room, and get to work! You can make a difference.
How did people react to your book and experience of living in the woods for years? How do you think people might react to a similar book now? That is, do you think people’s environmental consciousness is changing? Their literary consciousness?
I received a very positive response to Zoro’s Field. I think that it resonated with people across the board. There seemed to be at least something in the book that they could relate to or were interested or intrigued by. I’ve literally talked to over a hundred groups since the book came out in 2005, and I’ve enjoyed every one of these conversations. I think that the idea of living close to and in harmony with the natural world and living somewhat self-sufficiently is appealing to most people.
As to the kind of response this new book will receive, I’m not sure, as it’s a very different type of book. It really pinpoints the environmental issues that we’re facing, now, in Western North Carolina, so it’s not all “goodness and light”, as they say. This new book is an attempt at a rallying cry and to give folks a model to emulate, if they so choose, in their own struggles to protect and preserve the natural aspects of the places in which they live. I try and do this in this book by offering examples of the things I’ve written and published for public consumption here in Western North Carolina over the past 20 years—since I left my utopian existence in the woods beside Zoro’s field—hoping that what I’ve written will encourage others to do the same.
And, yes, I do think that the environmental consciousness and literary consciousness of people in Western North Carolina has changed, and expanded, as the various environmental issues we are now facing are so prevalent and are becoming real threats to people’s way of life, including health issues.
You write in such an evocative way about your natural surroundings. To what do you attribute that? If people paid more attention, could we see the things you see?
I grew up in very rural places where there was a lot of wilderness and National Forest Land. So, I felt a connection with the natural world from a very early age. And that connection has stayed with my entire life—the reality of interaction and interdependence between all living creatures and things. There’s a great beauty in all of this, if people would just slow down enough to witness it, experience it, for themselves.
I write passionately because I am passionate about the need to protect and preserve our natural surroundings. This is not something we can take for granted, although for the most part, we do. Without a healthy balance in the natural world, we cannot expect to exist the way we do. We have to make some concessions. There have to be imposed limits to our indulgences. There is a finite limit to the amount of waste and pollution we can dump onto the earth’s surface or into the air. There is a limit to how many people the earth will carry. We cannot continue in this unrestricted consumptive manner indefinitely.
Global warming and climate change is a huge wake-up call. I only hope that everyone is paying attention, is listening, is already doing what they can to make alterations to their lifestyle and behavior.
Yes, consciousness is the key. Education is the key to the masses becoming more conscious. I hope that my passion and my words will inspire at least some folks to pay more attention to these matters and to take action in their own lives to working toward a better balance whereas Nature and human interaction is concerned.