Letters to the editor

Who killed the French Broad as an American Heritage river?

“On a winding dirt road near the top of the watershed, you stand above a tree-thick basin and the slight man in clean mended overalls turns his blue eyes toward you as he cocks his head.

“‘Hear that racket down there? That’s your French Broad. Raises right under the Devil’s Courthouse. Listen!’ He listens. You listen together and hear the distant voice of ‘your’ river. You go over miles of the basin with him and he remembers.”

There were two reasons why the words of that mountain man gave me the beginning of a book on the French Broad. First, he had called it “your” river (it was obviously already his), confirming it as an integral part of the life of anyone who dwelt on its watershed and many who might simply be wayfaring strangers. Stewardship.

Second, he held its life and the lives along its course as central to his knowledge and memory. Heritage.

Stewardship and heritage: personal and universal.

Such a vision of the place we inhabit anywhere on this Earth has never been more necessary to our region, our nation or our world than it is today. My Haywood County friend was not a famous scholar or international tycoon or powerful politician. He did not eloquently articulate an awareness that this river belongs to him and to me — and to neither of us solely and exclusively, even as we belong to the river. But this was the belief and reality of his message, unmistakable and deeply rooted.

What is happening to that vision in our region today?

In recent months, it seemed that we might be renewing it for ourselves and, by great good fortune, calling it to the attention of the rest of the country — if the French Broad could be chosen one of only 10 great American Heritage rivers. Attendant publicity would serve community and state officials well, along with all the public-relations and leadership organizations working to call national attention to the unique assets.

The strength of the American Heritage Rivers initiative for western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee is (or should I use the past tense?) its marriage of heritage and change. Celebrating a past of rich natural and human diversity that we have not always fully realized would provide a foundation for present growth and improvement to inspire a challenging future.

Suddenly, however, this possibility for the French Broad seems doomed. Any congressman who opposes the Heritage designation in his district has the power to kill the application. And so, despite more than 4,000 letters of support from a broad spectrum of the public, and disregarding 78 strong letters from government agencies and varied leading organizations representing a variety of interests, and letters from governors and senators in both political parties, one man can kill the effort of hundreds of volunteers, investments of time and money that cannot be calculated. An even more crucial loss is that of creative optimism and cooperation growing in the river’s communities, as people realized what ideas and effort, energized by national attention and acclaim, might accomplish.

And none of it — to repeat, nothing — involves infringement on anyone’s property rights. Many of the strongest supporters of the French Broad River Heritage designation are/were themselves property owners along the river, ranging from the massive Biltmore Estate to small farmers in some of our economically needy counties.

When property rights, used as an initial political issue against the Heritage idea, was proved invalid, the attack turned to one of “vagueness” concerning each river’s plans and efforts. Ironically, the Heritage program’s encouragement of community control is/was the very feature that should appeal most to those who suspect some nefarious federal intervention of iron-clad plans sent from Washington. Opposition can’t have it both ways–claiming, on one hand, that the grasp of federal government would wield too much power, while complaining, on the other hand, that the government outlines are too loose, leaving too much up to local citizens.

The Heritage Rivers initiative is/was grassroots democracy, with each river’s people deciding their own needs and then designing the best ways of meeting those needs. Advice and funds from already existing agencies and budgets could be called on by communities for assistance in initiatives as varied as improvement of water quality, building greenways, creating heritage signage and celebration along the river, reviving decaying riverfronts, restoring the railroad’s scenic route through the French Broad River gorge linking North Carolina and Tennessee, and a dozen other possibilities.

Initially, however, there is the priceless national publicity and good will to covet, assets that will/would attend any river chosen as one of the 10 out of 126 seeking such a designation.

Hear that voice out there? That’s your river. It is part of America’s heritage, and it deserves to be heard.

— Wilma Dykeman

Readers may make comments to Rep. Charles Taylor, 231 Cannon Bldg., Washington, DC 20515-3311 or by e-mail at repcharles.taylor@mail.house.gov. Or contact President Bill Clinton, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC 20500, or by email at president@whitehouse.gov.

Massacre near Asheville’s sister city in Chiapas

[Editor’s note: The following letter was forwarded to us by Jennifer Morgan in Burnsville, with the request that we publish it.]

[Christmas Day, 1997. Acteal, Municipality of Chenalho, Chiapas, Mexico.] I attended the burial of the 45 victims of the worse act of genocide in modern Mexican history.

When the procession arrived at the small hamlet of Acteal in the highlands of Chiapas at 8 o’clock Christmas morning, the Maya men were digging the first of two 50-foot-long graves. They had cleared away coffee bushes and cut down banana trees and constructed shelters of branches and banana leaves to shade the women and children and visitors and Bishop Samuel Ruiz from the growing heat of the morning sun.

The men dug as Bishop Ruiz and his assistants prepared for a Mass of burial. The men dug as other Mayas carried the coffins on their backs from the trucks on the road, down the steep, rough, mountain path, through coffee trees, to the area that was cleared and carefully smoothed to receive the dead with dignity.

They dug as the 15 small, white coffins were carefully placed side by side before Don Samuel. They dug as 21 more coffins were carried down and placed beside those of the children. Then nine more coffins were carried down holding the remains of the men. These were placed beside the remains of the women. Each coffin was identified with a strip of masking tape on which was written simply: #1 nino, # 2 nina, #16 adulto fem., #39 adulto masc.

The men dug while the survivors chanted ancient Maya lamentations. They dug while Don Samuel, or “Tatic” as he is affectionately called by the indigenous, said Mass and blessed the bodies. They dug while the families put a white chrysanthemum on each coffin and sprinkled yellow chrysanthemum petals on the children’s coffins.

They dug while government employees typed the death certificates on ancient typewriters under the morning sun.

They dug while the coffins were opened one by one for the families to identify the remains. I watched from a distance as some foreign journalists and photographers staggered away from an open coffin, overcome by the stench of a body in its third day of decay. (Embalming is not a custom among the very poor. In normal circumstances, the body is buried within 24 hours.)

It was not possible to identify the bodies torn by machetes. The Red Cross found many of the bodies hacked in pieces and thrown in the underbrush in an attempt to hide the immensity of the crime. The assassins had cut open the stomach of a young pregnant woman, torn her unborn baby out, and cut it up. A baby less than 1 year old survived because her mother covered her with her own body and received all the bullets. One baby was shot in the head at close range.

A survivor who witnessed some of the genocide said that as women and children fled down the steep mountain path toward the valley, armed men shot them from behind. Forensic reports from Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, where the remains were taken for examination, concur, indicating that some women and children were shot in the back and in the back of the head.

Some who reached the underbrush by the river below were discovered by the assassins when the mothers’ babies’ cries gave them away.

The massacre went on for almost five hours on that black Monday, Dec. 22, 1997, while dozens of armed Civil Guards stood on the road above and did nothing, [witnesses said].

A physician in one hospital in San Cristobal de las Casas … said that he had never seen such large bullet wounds. “They look as though something had exploded inside the body,” he said. Anti-personnel bullets that explode on impact were found at the scene. [Guns at the site] have been identified as M-16s, used exclusively by the Mexican army.

Twenty-five victims are hospitalized, some in serious condition. … Many children have been left orphaned. Two little boys were found on Dec. 24 alive in a cave near the scene of the slaughter, but there are still three people missing from the group of 300 refugees who were attacked by men in black wearing red masks, who call themselves “red masks.” There are uncounted walking wounded who have returned to Acteal.

The small Maya men dug, beginning to disappear into the depths of the graves and behind the mounds of dirt they made as they shoveled.

The men dug as the bishop left. They were digging at 12:30 when I climbed the steep, mountain path to my truck filled with Mexican and foreign friends and supporters of the Maya struggle for peace and justice, with dignity, for all the poor of the world.

We left the men digging. We left the survivors to their grief. We left the “People of Corn” to bury their dead according to the ancient Maya traditions. We left them to return their dead to the sacred ground, the same ground that had soaked up their blood three days earlier.

— Maria Darlington
San Cristobal de las Casas,
Chiapas, Mexico

:[People interested in providing assistance to victims and their families can make out a tax-deductible check to Asheville Sister Cities (indicate on the check that it’s for San Cristobal relief). Send to PO Box 2214, Asheville 28802. For more information, contact Ursula Scott, 253-7490.]

City should communicate more

On Friday, Jan. 2, the following streets were blocked off to install air-conditioning units on top of the BB&T building: College Street from Broadway to Pritchard Park, and Lexington Avenue from Walnut Street to Patton Avenue. These streets were closed through Sunday.

There are a number of businesses on these streets, particularly Lexington Avenue. None of the businesses affected were notified of these road closures. These closures have a direct impact on merchants being able to carry on normal business.

To not be notified by the city of Asheville on these matters is unacceptable to us, as taxpaying merchants of this city. It indicates an insensitivity to our needs and concerns. At a time when trust in government is low, such blatant rudeness only serves to bolster the belief that government can’t be trusted.

We demand that the city be held accountable for its actions and lack of communication. An apology is in order here, as well as a promise to stay in communication with citizens affected by similar actions in the future.

— Laura Petritz, Mystic Eye
Richard Shahan, T.S. Morrison
Arot Enriquez, Cosmic Vision
Sharon DeYoung, The Natural Home
Jesse Sproul and James Sproul, Wild Hearts
Judy Powell, Me & My Pals
Dawn Boone, Antiques on Broadway
Pete Apostolopoulos, Mediterranean Restaurant

Conserve electric power

I greatly appreciated Margaret Williams’ excellent story on solar power [“Going Solar,” Dec. 24]. People such as Virginia Dixon and Beck Horne should be applauded for being the pioneers in the much needed transition to solar power, and likewise Dave Hollister, for nurturing solar power in this region.

Our way of life routinely produces systematic and relentless damage to the environment, which we largely ignore or deny. Solar power is one very important response to the air pollution, global warming, etc., that results from conventional electric-power production.

However, if readers are seriously concerned about the environment, they won’t wait around until they happen to have a few thousand dollars to invest in a solar-power system, but will address these issues now by radically reducing their electric-power consumption (and their bill) by taking some of the same energy-reducing steps that Dixon and Horne had to take when they switched to solar. These mainly involve heating and cooling applications — the heavy current users.

Here are a few inexpensive measures that allowed me to reduce my power bill (on occasion) to under $10 a month:

1) Turn off your electric hot-water heater at the circuit breaker, and turn it on only when you need to take a shower. It takes only a half-hour or so for the tank to heat to a good shower temperature. I find that hot water is really not necessary for other uses, such as dish washing and laundry. The next question is: Why heat 40 gallons when you need only two or three for a shower? There are creative solutions here.

2) Replace your electric range with a gas stove, preferably one with electric ignition rather than a pilot light. If your house does not have natural-gas service, you can mount a propane bottle outside and run a line in to the kitchen. With care, I can make a 20 lb. propane bottle (the size you see strapped to the back of campers) last almost six months. A recharge costs under $10.

3) Push your refrigerator out onto the porch. It will use much less electricity in the cold months (you can even unplug it all winter, if you aren’t using the freezer) and little if any more in the summer. Having it outside also discourages excessive snacking and frees up kitchen space.

4) Heat with wood or use a wood stove to augment your heating system. Wood heat with a fairly efficient stove is less environmentally damaging than fossil fuel or nuclear energy, and having to build a fire makes one more thoughtful and conservative about home heating. You can greatly increase the efficiency of your wood stove by building a simple heat exchanger to extract heat from the flu pipe before it goes into the chimney. This only requires $30 worth of stove pipe and a window fan.

— Rusty Sivils

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