We Are All Local


French Broad River, Madison County, 1978.


In 1978 my friend John Rountree and I made a canoe trip the length of the French Broad River. We called it The River Trip. We started just outside of Rosman and ended at Lake Douglas in east Tennessee. John had received some monies from the Tennesse Valley Authority and Mars Hill College to do a photographic survey of the French Broad and I was along for the ride. The French Broad was a mess in those days. We passed numerous industrial plants dumping raw effluents, cows wading, defecating, and dying in the river, and remote areas used as community dumpsites. In Madison County in those days many families straight-piped directly into creeks that emptied into the river. 


Barnard Park, French Broad River, Madison County, NC 1989.


This problem of water pollution wasn't isolated to the French Broad. Rather, it was a national issue and most everyone remembers stories of the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio spontaneously catching fire one summer day from all of the industrial waste. So, in 1972, under Richard Nixon's administration, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Altogether, this has been a good law for the land that has benefited all of us. In Madison County, over 50,000 people raft the French Broad River annually and trout fishing is now estimated to be a $384 million dollar industry in western North Carolina. The River Arts District in Asheville is now a nationally-known destination for art lovers and beer aficionados. All made possible by the quality of our water.


To the Swimming Hole, Big Pine Creek, Madison County, NC 2011.


So now I read that the new Administration, especially the EPA director, wants to roll back regulation and eliminate the Clean Water Act. They want to make it okay once again for industries to dump their waste into our rivers and streams - places where we take our children and families to picnic, get cool on hot summer days, and fish. 

They say this is about Freedom and jobs. But for me, the reasoning behind this way of thinking is pretty evident - it's about money, more money in the hands of their benefactors, their industry cronies, and their friends. They act like they are populists, working for the good of the common man, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Every common man knows that only a fool would foul his own nest, yet that is exactly what this new administration is preaching, or selling. Our nests get fouled while their nests get feathered.


Seldom Scene - At the Rock Cafe, 1979

At the Rock Cafe, Marshall, Madison County, NC 1979

This photograph was made under the auspices of a Photographic Survey Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts awarded to me through Mars Hill College. Prints from the grant period are now housed at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. This was a period of time when our leaders and our citizens understood the role the Arts and Humanities play in our lives. They teach us about life itself - knowledge increasingly threatened by the present political and social climate in our country.  


Your Own Place


At what point in time does a place become your own? Is it when you finally finish paying off the mortgage and have the deed of trust in your hands? Is it when you realize you love it so much you will fight and die for it? Does it take living on it for a specific amount of time before you know it is yours? Is it when you've birthed children on it? Or buried a family member in it? Perhaps the better questions are: does a place ever become your own? Is it possible to ever really own land?

When I was documenting the construction of I-26, I had a conversation with Richard Dillingham, a seventh generation mountaineer who at the time was curator of the Rural Life Museum at Mars Hill College. Richard described to me his evolution on the subject of land ownership in the wake of so many people losing land to eminent domain for the new interstate highway. During an archeological dig prior to the road construction, Dillingham said, a 12,000 year old clovis spear point was discovered close to the land that had been in his family for 200 years. The realization that people had inhabited his family land for thousands of years put his own family's ownership of that same land in perspective for him. He began to understand we never really own anything – that we are mere stewards, charged with the responsible management of land entrusted to our care.

When my daughter was a child, I would often tell her bedtime stories of a young Native American girl who visited our land hundreds of years ago. I would talk about how that girl, and her family, had stayed for short periods of time hunting game and berries, and perhaps even hid from soldiers during the Great Removal. I spoke of how that girl, like my daughter, had played in the woods and creek, slept under the stars, and drunk water from our springs. It was a story based on the facts of pottery chards and broken arrow points found along our creek bottom after plowing. It's doubtful that Native girl of my imagination thought of this place as something she owned, as most Native peoples eschewed ownership of land. But I wonder if she thought of this place as hers. Did she, like my daughter, hide in the crevice of the big rock and find secret places in the woods? Did she come to feel at ease in our forest, even in the dark of night, and during the storms of summer? Did she have a sense of care for this place, knowing in turn that the place would care for her? And is this reciprocal nature of care and time the true measure of when a place becomes your own?