Cry me a river

Concerned about Western North Carolina’s immediate and long-term future? A Land Imperiled: The Declining Health of the Southern Appalachian Bioregion (University of Tennessee Press, 2005) may not make you feel better, but it will give you a much better handle on the situation — and perhaps inspire you to take action.

Compiled by professor John Nolt, who teaches philosophy at UT-Knoxville, the book is a state-of-the-watershed report on the Upper Tennessee River Valley. Ten of Nolt’s colleagues are also represented here; their expertise ranges from solid-waste management to water and air pollution to ecology and forestry, as well as energy systems and even sociology. The geographic area examined includes most of WNC plus a small swath of western Virginia, five counties in north Georgia, and the eastern third of Tennessee.

“The book did not originate in my academic work,” Nolt told Xpress. “I moonlight as an environmental activist, and the book emerged out of the activism. The original version — What Have We Done? The Foundation for Global Sustainability’s State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains (Earth Knows Publications, 1997) — was put together under my guidance.”

The first edition, Nolt explained, “had been widely used as a text for regional high-school and college courses in environmental studies. With that in mind, we added a chapter on the region’s environmental history, a chapter on future scenarios, and an introduction that explains the ethical theory that structures the book.”

Starting from the premise that a healthy system — whether it’s a single cell, a whole human body or an entire watershed — is composed of healthy parts, Nolt and company proceeded to examine the bioregion piece by piece. The picture that emerges is grim. And while much of it is hardly news, the details — concerning both how we’ve wrecked the river basin and how we might salvage what remains — are telling.

Air quality has plummeted in recent decades, both in the upper atmosphere and in the region’s valleys. And since water in the mountains arrives by air, the river’s ultimate source “is not pure,” the book reports. “Dotting the Ohio and Cumberland valleys to the northwest and along the Tennessee Valley are the tall stacks of coal-burning plants. … The effluent from these stacks is nearly invisible. It is not the thick, black smoke of early industrialism but a hot, diaphanous billow of oxides of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen.” Add to that the output of thousands of industrial smokestacks and millions of cars and trucks both in and upwind of the area, and one can’t help but hear echoes of the ’60s-era folkies lamenting, “What have they done to the rain?”

Once our water falls, it is dammed, silted, stagnant and polluted, in some places actually requiring artificial life support. The Tennessee Valley Authority has installed oxygen bubblers to replace the natural aeration once provided by the waterfalls and cataracts of free-flowing streams. Radioactive waste from the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons factory and elsewhere fouls the sediment above some dams. Salamanders and frogs are disappearing for reasons that are poorly understood at best, and native fish are dying out throughout the watershed due to pollution, lack of forest cover and siltation.

Wildlife habitat is being fragmented by logging, highways and urban sprawl, and animal populations have been skewed due to human intervention. Deer numbers have exploded, while predator species have all but disappeared. Introduced game fish outcompete native species. Most songbird species are dwindling in numbers, and all bat species are in decline.

The region’s forests, which have more or less recovered from the logging that occurred before the big timber operations moved to the West in the last century, are now the principal target of the domestic pulp industry. Mixed deciduous forests are being replaced by monocrop tree plantations, and forests at higher elevations are in steep decline due to air pollution.

Energy use is rocketing, due to both population growth and increased per capita consumption. Any form of energy generation entails environmental costs, and the effects touch every facet of life in these mountains. As Nolt writes, “In the process, we set loose social, ecological and even geological forces that we only dimly understand and have neither the knowledge nor the will to control.” Mountaintop removal by the coal industry, impounded rivers and radioactive waste constitute the barest tip of the looming iceberg in our energy sea.

Comprehensive and detailed, A Land Imperiled is also highly readable. The numerous charts, graphs and tables deemed necessary to document each section of the work are clearly explained but don’t get in the way of the narrative, which poignantly expresses the authors’ pain over what’s been lost. For the river called the Hohohegee by the Cherokee, the book concludes: “It is too late. The Old River is lost. The sparkling blue current that once rushed through deep forested gorges and over wide, rocky shoals now lies buried by hundreds of thousands of acres of deep, permanent flood.”

Yet this isn’t a compendium of unrelieved gloom. Nolt emphasizes that the choices we make today can have an immeasurable effect on the future, for good or ill. In a section titled “Future Prospects,” the team has laid out likely scenarios if we pursue “business as usual” or adopt “proactive sustainability policies.”

And as he writes in his “takeaway message”: “I remain optimistic. … There is a growing momentum that will inevitably create a massive paradigm shift. I encourage more people to shift from discussing the principles of sustainability to acting on them.”

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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