Losing the war on Terra

Earth Day approaches, may the gods help us, and I brace myself for another round of inspiring secular sermons on the uses of electricity and bicycles and permaculture.

This year, however, there may actually be some good news in the War on Terra. Woodfin has rejected a low-sulfur-diesel-fired power plant (though the cynic in me suspects that this ain’t done yet). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for regulating CO2 emissions. The powers that be in city government have approved the plan for Beaucatcher Overlook Park. We may even have reached the tipping point in the debate—both locally and in Washington—over global climate change.

Meanwhile, spring has arrived in the mountains, and until the recent arctic blasts, it had been a particularly beautiful one. The forsythias boasted more blossoms per square inch than they’ve had in recent years, and the lilacs’ scent was deeper and brighter. The temperature had reached record highs, and the fruit trees were heavy with blossoms (the pollen count was high), promising a good fall harvest. Alas, global climate change, in the form of “dogwood winter,” has blighted the promise of spring and thwarted the hopes of apple and strawberry farmers.

Weather aside, however, I wake most mornings feeling uneasy. Maybe it’s because my work commute forces me to watch the continuing ravaging of Reynolds Mountain. Or perhaps it’s something closer to home. I live in one of Asheville’s oldest neighborhoods, where property values have soared in recent years. People congratulate us on our “investment,” but what do higher property values do for folks who are committed to their neighborhood and don’t plan to sell in order to turn a quick profit? Raise property taxes, that’s what—and open the floodgates to speculative land acquisition and rapid development.

Infill housing makes more sense in neighborhoods like mine, where longtime residents were displaced to make way for a through-town expressway, vivisecting a community and leaving a legacy of vacant lots. Better another little clapboard house slapped up between the existing ones in a former mill village than the foolish, steep-slope development that’s become so popular—and prominent—here lately.

Still, as vacant lots are filled in, the character of neighborhoods changes—sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Back in the day, my neighborhood included little grocery stores, churches, businesses along the river. Most houses had a garden plot where vegetables were grown to add to the cook pot or to can for winter. Many residents kept a few chickens for eggs and meat. There was a line in the back yard for drying clothes. It was an unremarkable blend of rural and urban living that could be found in most small towns in America. You could fish in the river, spend the morning cutting kindling, then catch the streetcar uptown to see a movie.

And because I grew up with stories of this place, I’m nursing a special Earth Day dream this year: the ruralization of our urban areas. It’s a radical change in the lives of city dwellers that I already see creeping in on the edges of some Asheville neighborhoods.

These ideas have been the bane of some local interfaith meetings, where I’ve nagged the pastors of large urban churches to let their big yards grow wild or plant sustainable, organic gardens. Why bear the expense of mowing when all that land could shelter wildlife or feed the hungry? Having neighbors with gardens of food, herbs and flowers could benefit our constant quest for genuine community. Maybe we could at least slow down the endless war on our ecosystem by creating communities that nourish humans and the planet. Wangari Maathai and Jane Goodall have done it in Africa; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to try it here.

Meanwhile, we’ve planted our own urban garden, which looks like a miniature farmstead. We have fruit trees and berry canes, herbs for eating and for medicine. The pea vines are reaching for the sun, and there are vegetables to share. My neighbors’ yards, too, resemble little farms in the moonlight; admiring them, I dream up phrases like “the ruralization of urban areas.”

The enormous houses on Reynolds Mountain continue to rise, and just across the river, the obscene pillaging of Richmond Hill Park is nearly complete. Not to worry: We can simply shift our Earth Day outrage elsewhere. Because there’s always something else—some new environmental disaster, some new way of fulfilling the commandment in Genesis to take dominion over the land and use it up.

Me, I’m planning to spend this Earth Day dreaming old dreams of food grown in the back yard, of neighbors sharing eggs and tomatoes. Maybe I’ll even plant a tree.

[H. Byron Ballard is a writer, bookseller and urban farmer who thinks of herself as Asheville’s village witch.]

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