Know your place

About 50 of us went hillwalking near the Asheville watershed last November — educators as well as staffers and volunteers representing many different local environmental groups (see list below). We divided into groups of 10 or so to travel lighter on the land and make it easier to hear what the hike leaders could tell us.

Our group started at the Glassmine Falls overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After admiring the falls, we walked south on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which briefly parallels the Parkway before ascending through a mountain woodland speckled with impressive boulders clutched by the exposed roots of magnificently twisted trees. Up top, we joined the others in enjoying the views and discussing how the forested watershed naturally filters our drinking water.

In Scotland and Ireland, hillwalking is a spiritual practice, author Frank MacEowen explains in The Mist-Filled Path (New World Library, 2002), his book of Celtic wisdom. Hillwalking can be a way to get in touch — with yourself, with another or with all of nature. And though we didn’t think of our ambulatory gathering as such, it definitely qualified as hillwalking in my book.

In our group, we joked about how epithets like “subversive,” “special-interest group” and “radical environmentalist” get applied to anyone who cares about what happens to the watershed. In some circles, “environmentalist” is a dirty word. But think about it: Environment means surroundings. And to me, it’s important to remember and internalize this simplest definition of a complex subject that’s interwoven with all of life. Your surroundings are the place where you live.

We should all know our place. There’s a word in Gaelic called “dindsenchas,” meaning “place stories.” In ancient Ireland, place names abounded. Even a well might have a name, for both water and land were held sacred. The Irish tied prayer flags — strips of cloth called “clooties” — on branches near wells and springs. And in later years, some rebelliously continued the practice despite the threat of religious retaliation. Imagine the delight of a hillwalker rounding a bend and coming upon a well or sacred tree bedecked with clooties.

It seems only natural to want to protect one’s surroundings. And environmentalists are not necessarily antibusiness. My father — who told us stories of his childhood on the farm, who took his kids hiking, and who taught me his love for trees — was a paper salesman.

We all need to make a living, and I like to think that dad, a Republican, would have been one of the rarer ones today who care about the environment. Dad loved children — and not just his own. The neighborhood kids flocked to our porch, where he made them laugh at corny jokes or challenged them to solve riddles by learning to think outside the box. My father also recited poetry from memory. He did it beautifully, and Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue” was a favorite. In the old days, dad told us, a lot more children died due to disease.

And given that, I’ll bet I could have persuaded him to vote for children’s good health by supporting legislators who back environmental laws (such as North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act) and proposals to preserve our forests. I like to think that dad would be proud of me for believing in clean air, water and land; and that, had he lived beyond the 1980s, he would have come to support sustainable forestry versus clear-cutting — and no logging where it doesn’t belong (such as in watersheds). After all, these are some of the few protected places we have left.

Children, in particular, should be given a chance to get to know their place. There were no children in our hiking subgroup, but Ben, our leader, has studied environmental education. I tried to stay close both to him and to a woman who teaches middle-schoolers. It was heartening to see how eager she was to learn more about the watershed so she could pass it on to her students. She and Ben talked about some good environmental programs in the schools, such as Project WET and Project Wild, which help the children learn about their surroundings — their place to live.

Giving kids a chance to learn to love nature benefits not only them but all of creation. And it’s not too late for the grown-ups, either. Acclaimed environmental writer Robert Michael Pyle said: “Ecological ignorance breeds indifference: what we know, we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t.”

It seems strange that even though I live in a natural paradise that’s rich in Celtic heritage, I’ve only recently learned the words dindsenchas, clooties and hillwalking. I wish I could feel confident that the mayor of Asheville, the vice mayor and some City Council members also care about the concepts behind these words, which hold both earth and life sacred.

Let’s work to make sure that all children know their place — so they can carry on the task of maintaining the natural areas that are vital to our health and happiness.

[Carol Diamond chairs the Madison County chapter of the WNC Alliance and works at the Madison County Public Library; her political views do not necessarily reflect those of either organization. She encourages readers interested in learning more about the watershed and recommended planning criteria to contact the following groups: Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, Western North Carolina Alliance, Clean Water for North Carolina, People’s Alliance for Real Conservancy, Friends of the Creek, Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity, Wild Law Sustainable Forests Program, and The Progressive Project.]

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