Cooking in our own soup

I rested by the fire, my work done for the day, staring into the dancing flames as the autumn leaves glowed amber in the setting sun. I’d just put the finishing touches to my winter camp, on the summit of a mountain a few miles outside the Asheville city limits. My sturdy lean-to, built with dead limbs and branches, will keep me warm and dry come rain or snow. There’s enough firewood around to last me many winters; fresh water flows nearby.

Heeding their ancient instincts, the chattering squirrrels are scampering through the leaves beneath the twisting laurel, foraging for winter food, gathering the fruits of the forest. The many droppings along the trails are clues that the black bears are preparing for their winter hibernation in the hidden caves among the rocky cliffs.

Gentle breezes sweep through the trees, like whispers from the holy spirit. Green and crimson maple leaves, splashed with specks of gold, swirl all around me. The broad, yellow and rusty leaves of oaks and poplars dart to the ground, sounding like footsteps on the forest floor. At night, I listen closely to distinguish the sound of the falling leaves from approaching bears, coyotes or humans.

The other day, a swooshing sound jostled me from my reverie. A red-tailed hawk with a wingspan wider than my outstretched arms swooped into the thicket of trees. For a few brief moments, he perched on the limb of an oak tree right in front of me, staring into my eyes, before flexing his wings and vanishing over the side of the mountain, as mysteriously as he’d appeared.

I know the hawk is the guardian of the skies and a harbinger of messages spoken with a language older than words. And as darkness eased into the camp, I tried to puzzle out the meaning of his appearance and his penetrating stare. I was to find out sooner than I knew.

My friends Kristen and Nick joined me at the camp the next day. We sat around the fire, sharing our goodies and planning our impending expedition to the land of the Tarahumara Indians in the canyons of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. I shared with them the many wonders that await us, not the least of which is clean air to breathe and clear skies unsullied by artificial light.

Early the next morning, after a breakfast of fruit and a pot of fire-boiled “cowboy” coffee, we broke camp and headed for downtown Asheville. As we emerged from the trees into the open vistas at the summit, facing west toward Mount Pisgah, we were shocked by what awaited us. While the morning sun dazzled the Carolina blue skies above us, a brown-tinged blanket of smog pervaded the entire Asheville basin below us, obscuring all the surrounding mountains. Kristen said the ominous clouds reminded her of the suffocating smoke that had saturated Bozeman, Mont., her hometown, during the recent forest fires.

We stood stupefied beside the Blue Ridge Parkway, watching an endless stream of SUVs, RVs, cars and trucks zoom by, presumably viewing the same smog-laden valley through tinted windshields. The sharp juxtaposition of the pristine woods around our camp and the ugly, putrescent air jarred our sensibilities. By day’s end, our eyes burned and our throats had grown raspy from the lethal vapors. Then I understood that the massive hawk’s visitation had been yet another omen alerting me to the toxic plague stealthily cooking the life from all the living beings in our mountains.

In town, I called Bob Camby, the director of the local Air Quality Agency, who explained to me that what the media were calling haze, during the unseasonably hot weather after the peak of leaf season, was due to a lingering high-pressure system and a lack of wind and rain. The stagnant air traps the sulfates and nitrates from the coal-fired power plants and automobile exhausts (now augmented by the seasonal influx of tourists) in the inhabited valleys. Camby added that, under these conditions, “We cook in our own soup, so to speak.”

In the ensuing days, as I reread You Can’t Go Home Again (my favorite novel by Thomas Wolfe), I reflected on the fatal illusions of a boom-time economy and the folly of our misplaced values. The chapters titled “Boom Town” and “The Catastrophe” are haunting accounts of the history of Asheville from 1920-30. Wolfe believed that the rise and fall of Asheville’s economy during that decade was a microcosm of what happened all across America.

By 1920, Asheville’s population had grown to around 50,000; the speculators predicted it would double again by 1930, basing much of their lending and investing on those projections. Between 1920 and 1922, the number of building permits issued each year tripled, and the assessed value of city property climbed 250 percent.

But while the city fathers, the business community and the Chamber of Commerce were promising unprecedented opportunities for accumulating wealth, Wolfe saw only “a spirit of drunken waste and wild destruction [that] was everywhere apparent.” With the incisive words of a prophet, he charged that the truth underneath the facade of prosperity was “greed, greed, greed — deliberate, crafty, motivated.”

The chapter titled “The Catastrophe” gives a gripping account of the final disintegration, when the banks closed and the city government went bust. The economists of the day ascribed the fall to a breakdown of the capitalist system, but Wolfe proclaimed that the “ruin of Libya Hill [Asheville] was much more than the ruin of the bank and the breakdown of the economic and financial order. … [T]he essence of the catastrophe was the ruin of the human conscience.”

Wolfe’s words still ring through these fabled mountains, as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. In contemporary Asheville, the cost of real estate is escalating dramatically. Long-vacant buildings are being converted into condominiums, some of them selling for as much as $250,000. Huge sums of money are being spent to renovate Pritchard Park, and millions more are targeted for the impending “renaissance” of Pack Square. The lion’s share of both the city and the county budgets is going to highly paid, nonelected administrators and to the police and fire departments, in order to protect the “customer base” that puts the most money into government coffers.

Meanwhile, Asheville has been ranked sixth in the nation for per-capita mortality due to particulate emissions. Thanks to the efforts of Mayor Sitnick, some steps have been taken to combat the air-pollution crisis. But the urgent measures needed to ensure our people’s health and well-being have been relegated to the bottom of the budgetary priority list. The top administrators who control the purse strings even scoff at the mere mention of downsizing, economizing and conserving.

Today, I stopped Bapu and his 4-year-old daughter, Amba, as they cruised by me on their two-seater bicycle. They always warm my heart when I see them pass in the streets, so I decided to ask them their feelings about the pollution crisis. Bapu said, “The biggest bummer about the area is the air quality,” but he added that they’ve lived all over the world and still love Asheville the best. They live within the city so they can ride their bikes and minimize the use of their compact car. Amba was quick to say she “likes the bicycle better than the car.” Her father echoed her sentiments, saying he wouldn’t mind if he never got in a car again.

Amba is fortunate to have such a caring and conscientious father. Together, they represent the progressive solution to our dilemma. On the other hand, I’m saddened that the World War II generation and the baby boomers are leaving the next generation an increasingly hazardous inheritance, teaching them that economic gain is more important than our children’s health.

The next generations will learn soon enough that politicians’ promises to clean up our air and water simply vanish into the polluted skies as soon as the elections are over and the winners convene to start appeasing the power brokers who bought them their seats. The children will remember that Gov. Jim Hunt and the state Environmental Management Commission sold them out in 2000, when they betrayed the democratic process and voted to protect the profits of the electric-power companies, rather than heed the overwhelming outcry of the people all across our state who called for reducing NOx emissions from coal-fired power plants to a level that would no longer threaten their lives. The next generation may well ask why these traitors were not indicted for criminal offenses.

Back at my camp, most of the leaves have now fallen to the ground; they will enrich the soil and help ensure future generations of growth, in accordance with natural cycles. Meanwhile, in the city, people frantically fire up gas-powered leaf blowers and riding lawn mowers to clear their lawns of leaves, almost as soon as they hit the ground. City trucks zoom to and fro, removing the piles from streets and sidewalks.

When the wind and rain return to temporarily cleanse the air, the visibility will improve. But Bob Camby reminded me that, even then, the sulphates and the nitrites don’t dissipate. They seep into the pores of our bodies (or, after passing through our mouths and noses, slip silently through our lungs and into our blood). They contaminate the hearts and lungs of the great red-tailed hawk and the squirrels in the laurel thicket. They settle on the playgrounds and ball fields where the kids run and play and breathe deep lungfuls of toxic air. The toxins saturate the earth and will choke the life from the roots of the trees for generations to come.

While the power brokers whore themselves to the almighty dollar, the citizens must rise up with a more determined effort than ever to stem the tide of this plague of pollution that is costing us far more than the profits we reputedly gain. Perhaps the only solution is a total economic collapse, like the one in 1929. Only then will the neglectful and the greedy come face to face with the hollowness of their blind drive for prosperity.

Our children’s lives are at stake. Take a stand: Downsize, economize, conserve.

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