The concept of the absolute carrying capacity of the land, as the natural limit on human development activity, is somewhat foreign to most of us who live on or live close to the frontier. Its not a clear enough line for us to see. People [seem to make a habit of] [are all the time] falling thru thin ice, looking for their limits. Besides, White People have only lived on the Olympic Peninsula for about 100 years, and much of the landscape remained pretty much as god left it as recently as 40 years ago, so its all happened in less than 2 generations. The American Southeast, on the other hand, has suffered under the brutal yoke of man's domination for nearly 300 years, and nobody noticed that the flexibility of the natural environment was exhausted a long time ago. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, it is virtually impossible to find a place where past human activity does not appear to have been the primary force shaping the face of the land.
In the course of driving thousands of miles thru the rural southeast in November 1990, it became [clear] [inescapably apparent] that humans have been exceding the carrying capacity of the land in the southeast for at least a century. Now, the combined factors of the recently imposed but still largely misunderstood desegregation of society, and a major change in rural America's role in the global economy has resulted in an unprecedented and socially destabilizing urbanization of many of the rural South's formerly agrarian communities.
The industrial revolution, beginning with the introduction of the cotton gin, propelled a gradual shift from the labor-intensive economic and agricultural system based on [traffic in and exploitation of] human slavery to an isolated, essentially local industrial economy based on growing cotton which was cultivated and harvested by hand, but was processed by machines and made into textiles. This industrial pattern produced profound population shifts, but it evolved gradually and I think it can be seen as a single process which dominated land use patterns in the south from the introduction of slavery until the beginning of the civil war.
The yankee industrialization of the south that followed the civil war and continued unabated thru 2 world wars, until the middle of this century, forced a shift from a labor-intensive agricultural economy based on cotton and saw-timber to an increasingly mechanized economy based initially on textiles and later on paper. This system has finally deteriorated into a bank-based economy, resulting from the general realization that the return on an investment in industry or agriculture was both riskier and smaller than the return on an equal investment in federally insured banking. After a decade of this ..... , all that remains of the south's agricultural and industrial base is a highly mechanized, cash-poor export economy which is based primarily on 3 ....... [socially damaging] institutions: harvesting the last of the south's nonrenewable hardwood forests, on a mechanized forestry which fears recycling because it produces paper and cardboard packaging materials, and the manufacture of explosives, munitions and other specialized light industry, most of it for military markets.
America's industrial development has always been based on exploiting the availability of extremely cheap imported labor, beginning in colonial times and the days of slavery, and sustained by each successive wave of immigration, from Western Europe and Ireland, Eastern Europe, Mexico and most recently from Southeast Asia, but after the Civil War, the South remaining largely aloof, a closed system, because its economy was based on the land and the land was already full of people.
The impact of the migration of the south's most ambitious rural black workers to the industrial centers of the north, to find employment for "white-peoples' wages" in and around the automobile factories and steel mills probably would have provided the economic force to raise the wage-scale and destroy the old order in the south, but the government intervened. In the late 1960's, the externally imposed Civil-rights movement combined with the Cold War's escalation, first in Cuba and Latin America, and then in Vietnam, which forced a return to a military-based economy on the nation-at-large, and sent many of young rural blacks to war, did it instead. Of all these factors, in the south, the imposition of a national minimum wage recieves most of the blame for detroying the old order.
Something had to give, and 20 years after civil rights, things have definitely changed, but they have not necessarily changed for the better. The rich are still rich, perhaps even richer than they were before, as a result of deregulation of the banks and other tax breaks they have been given by the federal government, but now their businesses are closed or closing and much of their land lies fallow. The poor are still poor and oppressed. The supposedly livable minimum wage has done little to raise the standard of living for the poor: there are simply less people working. Now, there is certainly a lot more crime and there is probably a lot more hunger.
From the viewpoint of the deposed ruling class, CIvil Rights and the Minimum Wage Law have severely and irrepairably disrupted traditional, potentially sustainable patterns of agriculture and industrial employment in the south. Insensitive and unjust as their old institutions may have been, they were dismantled by a force that people see as being less sensitive and at least as unjust, and in the opportunity that was supposedly created by their collapse, nothing but nostalgia and crime have grown up to take their place.
Comparing the plight of the working class Black People in the old south, and their economic woes in the aftermath of the imposition of civil rights, with the condition of workers in Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of their industrial economies, especially Poland following the rise to power of the Solidarity movement, is both inescapable, and troubling. The Gdansk shipyard is now unionized, but the drydocks are empty and the cranes and machinery stands idle: the workers now have a union, and after this week's election, they officially control the government, but they do not have jobs. 20 years after Civil Rights, there are Black Police officers in Selma, but few would say it is a better place to live.
I visited one place where a young black family lives, an old, run-down "nigger-place" out in the country, where Carter's uncle, who is rich and owns thousands of acres of idle farmland, keeps some of his hunting dogs in fancy cyclone fence kennels. The young black family who live here takes care of the dogs in return for part of their rent, and the dogs seemed to be doing O.K.. The rest of the place looked pretty bad. [photo] They had a few cows wandering around, but the fences were a wreck. It didn't look like anyone living there really felt like it was their home. The house needed a lot of work and there was no garden. Outside, in the front yard, the tenants were washing their car, a new Ford Taurus. This offended Uncle James, because it symbolized the shallowness of their values: this car was too new and too fancy and it was clearly above their means. They should, he seemed to be saying, be putting their time and money into fixing the fences on this piece of land, into plowing and planting, not into buying a fancy car. And you couldn't help but see that although he was right, it wasn't ever going to happen, not even if he gave them the place, which wasn't going to happen either.
The Old South's land-based way of life has been largely superceded by ghetto life in sprawling slums that have surrounded and in some cases penetrated to the core of the major urban hubs. The contents and occupants of the houses appear to flow seemlessly into the yards and streets. The climate helps: even at Thanksgiving, it is over 70 degrees in the afternoon. The sidewalk and even the parking strip is just part of the house with no roof over it. It is no more incongruous to see the street filled with toys and trash than it is to see the porch covered with tires and pieces of automobiles. In the industrial zone, where the residentila slums meet the fraying edge of the dominant economy, low-rise buildings made of bricks or cinderblocks, their walls covered with graffiti, with breakin-proof iron bars or even just thick sheets of painted plywood chained across the windows, serve as the centers of ghetto commerce. In the land of warehousing and light industry: of brake-shoe reliners and carburetor rebuilders and nameless 2nd floor businesses, the pawnshops, taverns, car-lots and used furniture stores seem to outnumber the houses. And still, the churches are everywhere. A sect for every preacher, a preacher for every block, or maybe for every 40 souls. Splinter groups continually subdividing and reconvening into ever more esoteric refinements of the old time religion.....
On the southside of Atlanta we sat in the car and watched while predominantly white construction crews remodeled a sprawling low-income housing project that looked like something from East Berlin, like it too, had been built in the wake of WWII. No one was living there. The old 3-story flat-roofed brick buildings were getting corny little pseudo-victorian peaked roofs, white-columned porches and awnings over the windows. The interiors seemed to be getting a lot of new cabinets and fixtures. The entire project was surrounded by miles of 12' high cyclone fence, topped with a coil of razor wire, and posted 'no trespassing'. [photo] The whole project felt enough like a prison that it took me a while to figure out that the fence was not there to keep the residents in, but to keep the building materials from disappearing, at least until most of the work was completed.
The big cities are booming, still living high on the S&L money, but the small towns and minor cities, at least the ones that are not blessed with Trident Submarines or Major Airbases, or built around paper mills or large-scale retirement communities appear to be dying of starvation, surrounded by the ruins of the plantation system. Even active military bases are no guarantee of economic stability any more. Since WWII, entire cities have grown up [to suck off] the soldiers, and now that most of them have been dispatched to the middle-east, the towns are going into shock, car-lots clogged with 1991 Probes and Barettas none is there to buy.
In the Great Depression of the 1930's, Carter's family in the south did fairly well, especially compared to the rest of the country. The people there did not go hungry because they lived in a land-based economy, and were still connected to a 200 year old tradition of agriculture. Cottton was still king, but growing cotton did not really compete with or preclude the local production of the food they ate. Even though money became scarce, there was still land and collapses in the industrial sector did little to undermine the Old South's willingness or ability to produce food its own. This is no longer the case. The economy of the New South is based on money, not on land. People who raise money live on the interest the money grows, not on agriculture. So the people with money stopped planting the land and the people who planted it for them have moved off the land, into the cities. Now, when the banks appear to be on the verge of collapse, the stage is set for hard times.
We headed north-west from Ft. Deposit, Alabama, a very small town about 50 miles south of Montgomery, which ........ during the Civil War and still serves as the ........ for the Alabama National Guard. Hoping to find the last bastion of the Old South, we were driving the narrow roads that wind thru the agricultural heartland of Alabama. It is an amazing landscape, a beautiful patchwork of pine trees and hardwoods and fences and mansions, but the Old South has finally given up. Thousands of acres lie fallow and forgotten. The great brick plantation houses stand dark and empty, their doors and gates hanging open and abandoned. The dozens of 'nigger houses', the tiny tin-roofed homes of the share-cropping families that once supported these plantations are simply collapsing, ungracefully returning to the earth. It looks very very spookey, at twilight. In fact, it looks like a science-fiction movie of the world after the "ultimate solution" or the neutron bomb or perhaps The Rapture that Watt and Reagan were so sure was coming to wipe our sins away, that they did all they could to make it happen. It looks as though people simply left things lying where they fell, and walked away. Cotton is no longer King in the rural south, because the land is too burned out to grow it competitively, and because the black people aren't compelled by the institutions of slavery to grow it for free any more.
The impact of this total collapse of the agricultural system and the resulting consolidation of land ownership in these once-thriving communities has been profound. Most of the land now belongs to a very small number of people. I have not done the research to back up this claim, but the way it looks now, there could be as few as 20% as many land-owners controlling the rural south as 50 years ago, reversing 100 years of land reform. There is simply very little agriculture going on these days. The soil is so badly depleted, prices are so low, and the cost of labor is so high that very few growers are planting crops at all, and only the huge agribusiness concerns can afford to mechanize the process enough to grow cotton or cattle competitively. Over the past 15 to 20 years, many of the owners with money or access to money have completely given up on cotton, and have planted their fields with pine trees. This is a mixed blessing. It is stops erosion, and it provides oxygen, and eventually it will produce income, but it does not improve the condition of the soil and it does not produce food.
The only other crop that appears to be doing well is soya beans. At least Soya is a legume and adds some nitrogen to the soil. On my tour of Selma, we only passed 3 industrial plants of any real size that appear to be thriving, and one of them produces Soy Oil. The other plants are based on extraction, not agriculture, and produce building bricks and hardwood flooring. The Howard Brick factory is one of the largest in the world, and has 5 railroad tracks running thru the plant. There are huge open pits southeast of town where they mine the red clay and they use natural gas to roast it into a variety of forms on modern automated production lines. The small parking lot at the factory attests to the efficiency of the operation.
The ..... Hardwood Floor mill produces parquet flooring from the ancient Live-Oak shade trees that once made plantation-life possible and from the Pecan orchards of the abandoned plantations, orchards that are no longer being harvested. Basically these forests are being mined, like the old-growth forests of the northwest. The trees are hundreds of years old, and the lands are being replanted in Pine, not in Oak or Pecan. The uneven boards and waste material from these operations are assembled into shipping pallets for material-handling in factories and warehouses. Because shipping materials are rarely recycled the demand is steady and business is probably booming. This was another plant where the parking-lot was small compared to the train siding and the bone-yard of tree-carcasses.
Corning Glass pulled out of town a year ago, leaving over 800 people out of work. This was a real blow to Selma's economy, and last month there was considerable excitement that some of these people are probably going to be getting jobs soon, in a plant that is making light camoflage uniforms for operation desert shield.
In many of the smaller places we visited, from Asheville, N.C. to Ft. Deposit, Al. the only new building in town, or at least the only one that had fresh lines in the asphalt parking-lot was the combined Army-Navy-Airforce-Marines recruiting office. In the larger cities, the other new building was a newer more lavish home for the bank. The pattern of development in the cities of the south, like Charleston, S.C. or Savannah, Ga. or even Selma, Al was a little different from the West Coast cities I know, because it took hundreds of years longer to unfold. The plantations were built first and they supported the centers of commerce, the warehouses and banks and slave auctions and the homes of the merchant class. The next round of development produced the railroads, the houses of the upper class, and the Great Churches which would probably rival the cathedrals of Europe had there not been so many sects competing for the finite resource of souls and capital. Then came the Civil War and afterward, the factories and meat packing houses. In the wake of the First World War came the mansions of the Nouveau Riche Aristocracy, who had profited so richly from the war in Europe, providing uniforms and blankets and money and munitions, and to honor the dead, built their own cathedrals to the business of war, the Great Banks, many of which rival the Great Churches in both their architecture and their excess with acres of polished marble and granite and glass.
After WWII came the industrialization of the rural south, and with it the department stores, and ...... and another exodus of rural blacks, this time into the cities of the south. This propelled the most recent stage of development in some cities, the malls and 'planned communities' of tacky plywood and roll-roofing suburbs, as the middleclass white families abandoned the residential areas surrounding the downtown core to the blacks. Now, in the cities that can afford to maintain yuppies, the downtown cores are still being rediscovered, reclaimed and gentrified.
A few of these cities are incomparably beautiful. Charleston, located on one of the finest deep-water harbors in the world, is a monument to many years of unusually enlightened urban planning and is filled with the most consistantly attractive collection of architecture on the continent. The 'historical district' remains virtually unscarred, at least externally, and extends for about 20 blocks inland from a large and very comfortable old park or commons along the waterfront, with a commemeration to the dead heroes of the Civil War. The park has telephones and drinking fountains and plenty of benches, but there are no public restrooms in this part of town. The downtown lots are quite small, but the buildings are generally built 3 stories tall, and many are L-shaped, wrapped around gardens and courtyards. Decorative plaster and concrete moldings and filials are everywhere and decades of unabashed competition encouraged the manufacturer of wrought-iron gates and doorways to reach unprecedented levels of lunacy. Cobblestone streets, paved with grapefruit-size river rocks, rather than the quarried and cut paving stones we see on the west coast, slow traffic to a more human scale, and the narrow streets discourage automobile use even further: people walk because there is simply no place to park.
The area around Charleston was hit hard by Hurricane Hugo in Sept 1989. Much of the suburban area a half hour's drive to the north was severely damaged. 65 foot fishing boats from the intercoastal waterway were deposited in people's backyards, up to a half mile inland. Some are still there. Entire suburban developments were cut off by blackouts, flooding, broken trees and washed out roads. Some of these suburbs were without roads for weeks and without electricity for up to three and one-half months, which forced susburban neighborhoods, places that had previously been little more than pockets of concentrated human population resulting from the economics of building houses in subdivisions, to pull together into functioning communities. Neighbors became friends. A surgeon's wife we talked to told us how she and other people with gas ranges turned their homes into community kitchens, their gas-powered hot water heaters turned their bathrooms into public shower-houses. As the emergency evolved from acute into chronic, their houses became progressively more and more public, and eventually people admitted that things were not about to return to normal, and actually adjusted their living arrangements and the patterns of their lives to match the new reality they faced, moving in with their new-found friends and neighbors. Freezers were sealed and their contents labled. Then, they were opened and consumed one after another, depending on the nature and probable expiration date of their contents. The food these freezers contained was simply separated into eat immediately and eat later and all that could be salvaged was consumed as community property, without regard to its prior ownership.
Some people bought gas-powered portable electric generators, to run their radios, TVs and lights. Thus, even some of the TVs became centers of focussed community activity, as various factions would join together to watch the evening news, football, saturday morning cartoons or afternoon soaps.
These people were in fact very very lucky. In most parts of the world, disasters like Hurricane Hugo are quickly followed by even more devastating epidemics of Typhoid and Cholera. The water-supply becomes contaminated by the sewers. Charleston is still supplied by wells, not reservoirs, and miraculously, Charleston's municipal wells never got contaminated, or at least that is what we heard. We saw an awful lot of bottled water getting consumed, and although we were told it is to remove sodium, not coliform from the water, Cullyspring reverse-osmosis is definitely big business in the area.
The electrical power distribution system is not buried underground, and a great deal of it was torn down by the storm, and buried under the broken trees. In the immediate aftermath of the storm the roads were entirely impassible. As a result, the Electrical Utility was unable to get its crews out to deal with the tens of thousands of downed power-lines, and many people were electrocuted, some fatally. There was no obvious way to know if the wire in your front yard or across your roof was live, and often these wires were completely hidden under great piles of broken trees blocking roads and driveways, and people ran into them by surprise, in the course of clearing their driveways. Wires that were known to be dead and safe to handle would suddenly and without warning become live when someone miles away dragged a hot one across them. It was clearly a nightmare. Venomous snakes were transported into the heart of human settlements, too, which sounds pretty bad but it was probably a lot more difficult for the snakes to adjust to than it was for the people.
The most serious hurricane-related injuries that we heard about were the accidents that befell many inexperienced people who cut themselves while trying to clear their yards and driveways, using the truckloads of chainsaws Sears and Montgomery-Ward brought into the area.
The eye of the Hurricane touched down in the forested land about 30 miles north of town and scalped it like an army of gigantic space-aliens with weed-eaters the size of Port Townsend. The Great Wambaw Swamp, a primal wilderness area, managed as a wildlife refuge in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest was literally devastated. Eighty-year-old Pine trees were snapped clean as matchsticks, broken 30 feet above the ground. Now they stand there, their tops on the ground, the last two-thirds of the trunk sloping upwards to the break. The wole tree is thoroughly dead, but still connected. Some of the younger Oaks and Beeches survived, losing only a few limbs, but many of the great old trees lie shattered, split down the middle.
This great swamp was once a dark place, haven for many species of plants and animals once native to the region. Back before the Civil War, it was a plantation, but the planters never returned after the war and the land has been working its way back to a natural state for most of the last century, the wounds and disruptions of the past slowly healing. Most of the area around the Wambaw Swamp turned back into a cotton field in just a few hours: who knows where the creatures have gone. We saw quite a few artificial habitat experiments, especially nest-boxes on steel pipes, put there for cavity nesting birds and waterfowl, but we have no idea if they are being used.
Since the storm, the loggers appear to have been having a hay-day. In the name of salvage logging, to clear out the shattered trees, vast areas of the National Forest have been clearcut, at a Pyrhhic (Carthaginian?) level of ..... that makes the clearcuts we see in the northwest look environmentally sensitive by contrast. The land is stripped all the way to the soil, as though a housing project or shopping center was going to be put there. The material the timber companies do not want gets piled and burned. A grassroots environmental group called the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (probably typical yuppie enviroscum) located in Charleston has gotten a court order blocking the cutting of live hardwood trees in the Francis Marion National Forest.
In the wake of the storm, Charleston S.C. is in the middle of an enormous renovation. A simple pocket-calculator estimate indicates that at least a billion dollars is being poured into the historical district this fall, and the rumor on the street, what we got in reponse to a series of direct questions in a downtown restaurant and in several stores, about who was paying for all this development, is that alot of this money is the Hurricane Hugo Disaster Relief money, even though the downtown area was not really hit by the hurricane. It seemed like nearly every block had several buildings with major work going on in them, whole interiors being torn out and replaced. We saw a few broken windows, but it does not look like the primary motivation has much to do with rebuilding the downtown community after the storm. It seems like the storm merely set the stage for another changing of the guard. With only a few exceptions, small shops no longer exist downtown. These shops and houses have already been or are currently being turned into modern yuppie offices for realtors, lawyers and accounting firms. The money flowed from the U.S. Treasury into the vaults of Charleston's banks and then trickled down the street for a block or two. 30 miles north, the real impact zone remains largely as the storm left it.
This appears to be the real land-use disaster, and not just in Charleston, but thruout the south, and actually all across America. At this point, it seems like the real scandal of the S&L and impending collapse of America's banking system is that these bankers financed the latest round of suburban development at all, not that they did it with junk bonds. The inflation and interest the American people will pay to rehabilitate the commercial banking system is dwarfed by the cost of restructuring this completely unsustainable and cancerous pattern of growth, based on the lie of cheap gasoline and the waste of endless commuting.
Of all the scams, since Manhatten Island was traded to Henry Hudson for a handfull of glass, thru the conspiracy between Firestone and Westinghouse which replaced our cities' trolley-cars with trackless, rubber-tired transit busses, only the leveraged-buy out junk-bond debacle, that traded America's industrial base for mauve and gray carpets, ever-bigger BMW automobiles and industrial-strength cocaine habits, rivals the gutting of America's cities and trading them for suburbs and shopping malls.
The businesses on which the residents of Charleston depend have been forced, by high rents and miserable parking and ultimately, by a lack of customers, to move out of the down-town core, to the malls, and these shops have been replaced by a very specialized service industry that exists, for the most part, simply to serve the banks. It has nothing to do with Hurricane Hugo: the trees are not shattered, the buildings are not roofless, but thru the miracle of creative accounting, the suburbs remain ruined and roofless, while the roofers and renovators are all downtown, and appear to be in hog-heaven. They are driving around in 1990 or newer pickup trucks, sporting brand-new ladder racks and toolboxes, painted to match, simply bristling with brand-new tools and ladders. Its a boom alright, but somehow it seems like a small consolation to have a 580 Mercedes in your driveway in downtown Charleston, if you have to drive 5 miles thru impossible traffic to get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk.
Savannah, by contrast, is in an advanced stage of urban decay. We took the back way into town, at rush hour. Driving down a 2 lane arterial that leads past auto parts stores, faceless warehouses, dozens of gas stations and hundreds of used car lots it was obvious that this had once been a neighborhood, until urban sprawl in the 60's and 70's crowded the families out. The front yards are full of cars and pickuptrucks, and the few suburban houses that remain are now rapidly becoming simply sub-standard. The road is about to be widened, to accommodate the horrendous traffic, and most of the houses are losing their front yards. They are for sale. The suburbs end abruptly at the ***
The historic waterfront district down on River Street, which was, in bygone times, the center of the slave-trade in the south, has been tricked out to serve the tourists, with restaurants, tee-shirt shops and confederate nostalgia emporiums, but with the exception of the yupped out area around the University, the rest of downtown is on the skids. There is a dismal filthyness to many of the streets, and there are too many cars and not enough parking.
The downtown Police precinct is set up in a department store that was probably the J.C. Penny's store 10 years ago. The facades on many of the shops along ..... Ave. still look like they should be selling Florsheim shoes and ...... Jewelry, but they aren't. Those places have all moved out to the Malls South of town. So have the restaurants and the grocers. We did not see bicyclists or even many pedestrians. You have to ride the bus or drive a car to get food...
We only saw two faces of Savannah. Our tour guide was a woman our age, who is married to Carter's cousin. They do not have children, but he is a PhD theologian, who serves as the administrative assistant to the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of ........ and in many ways both of them chose to join our parents generation long ago. We stayed in a great old 2-story brick house on a street with enormous oak and sycamore trees arching across obscuring the sky. We rode around in an enormous new Chevrolet luxury car, ***
In the Suwannee River Delta, north of Cedar Key, Florida, we found a few scraps of what the region used to look like. Wildlife refuges in the Southeast are generally a little disappointing. I'm sure refugee camps in Campuchea or Ethiopia are even worse, but it is a matter of mistaken priorities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seem to justify their ..... of the cut-over land that has been turned into nesting and breeding ground for wildlife, by the access these areas allow to birdwatchers and to the men who hunt there.
The idea of an area that is managed by leaving it alone, a wildlife refuge actually devoted to the plants and animals who chose to live there, does not appear to be marketable. Nature Conservancy has acquired a sizeable stand of cypress swamp, a few miles north of the town of Cedar Key, adjacent to a Fish & Wildlife managed wildlife refuge. To the advantage of tourists, and at the expense of wildlife and native plants, they had put in a brand-new road-width trail, covered with woodchips, which leads to an elevated boardwalk built from pressure-treated douglas fir imported from the pacific northwest. This trail began at a paved parking-lot at the edge of the wildlife refuge, and ran all the way to the river.
The road part of this trail was constructed from fill imported from somplace else, but still serves to alter the ovement of water thru the area, or would, if there were enough water. The level of the Suwanne is between 4 and 8 feet below its "normal" level. In the Okeefenofee Swamp, 100 miles to the north, the level is nearing an all-time low, and human access to the part of the swamp traditionally used by guide services and other tourist-oriented concessions has been suspended. There are ....... acres managed as National Park, ...... acres managed by the by the state and ..... acres managed by Fish and Wildlife service. All of these areas have been closed, at least to the general public, to some degree.
The low water level has made the impact of more than a century of short-sighted human management activities inescapable. Much of the swamp was logged during the first quarter of this century. First, hundreds of miles of canals were dug, either to drain the swamp or to float the cypress out. Fresh-cut, the cypress logs do not float, so trees were ringed, and allowed to die and dry standing, before they were cut down, so they could be floated out thru the canals. Unfortunately, before the trees dried enough to float, the cypress market collapsed, leaving thousands of acres of standing trees which had been killed by timber companies who went broke before the trees were removed; and the ecological integrity of the cypress forest was severely damaged. Obviously, the continued presence of these canals seriously effects the movement of water in these swamplands.
The next round of logging left a network of hundreds of miles of roads. Most of these roads were constructed using local materials, by digging two ditches, each about 12 feet wide and 4 feet deep, one along each side of the road-to-be. By throwing the excavated products into the space between the ditches, they formed a dike about 4 feet above the swamp, which still serves as the road-bed. These labyrinths of dikes and ditches probably changed the drainage patterns in the swamps as dramatically as the canals that preceded them. The water level is now so low that in many areas, the only standing water is in the ditches, and the only big trees grow along the roadsides, watered by the ditches. Occassionally, the roadbuilders encountered areas too low to bridge using the ditch-and-dike methods and large pits were dug, bigger than municipal swimming pools, to provide additional fill material. These pits became ponds and pools, and eventually, tiny lakes.
As long as the water is deep enough to fill the ditches and connect the ponds, the labyrinth of dikes controls the flow and distribution of water, and thus, to a major extent, the movement of fish and other animals. Most of the time, they seem blithely ignorant of their situation, but when it gets dry, these controls becomes confining, and the situation can change from normal to critical very quickly. The dug ponds, once they are cut off from the ditches that lead in and out of them, turn into closed systems, and the food-chains that operated within them are distinctly unsustainable, once the doors are locked. Basically, the big guys eat the little guys, who can't escape. Then the big guys, unless they are big birds, or reptiles and can walk across the road to find dinner in another pond, starve to death, and get eaten by vultures. End of story, except for microscopic species. End of tens of thousands of years of uninterrupted biological diversification in one dry summer.
The drought in the Southeast is now in its .....th season, and a lot of species are probably in serious trouble. We drove into an area where only authorized personneI are allowed, and saw lots of pipe and culvert lying around, which certainly could been used to help mitigate some of the problems the animals are having, but saw no real evidence that the human managers are really attempting to prevent or reverse this drastic reduction of species diversity. In fact, given the primacy of Hunting as a justification for the existence of these refuges, the simplification of habitat seems to be nearly an agenda item, at least with the Fish & Wildlife people we met. In the ....... Refuge that adjoins the Nature Conservancy Property north of Cedar Key, the managers who evicted us from the deeper areas of the swamp, did not come across like conservation biologists. To the contrary, they appeared to be the very same men who had grown up poaching species into oblivion, simply equipped with badges, uniforms and more reliable pickup trucks.
We had picked up one of the most inadequate maps we have ever encountered, at the north end of the refuge, and following the map, proceded south, trying to get out to the River, if not the Gulf. We tried several roads that branched west off the main arterial, but none got us close to the water. Typically these roads branch twice after the arterial, and then, at the next intersection come to a "tee" which is chained or cabled or gated in both directions, to prevent vehicular access. According to our hikers' information map, these gated roads, entirely indistinguishable from the roads on the other side of the gate except for the lack of recent tire-tracks, are the official hiking trails, open to hikers, hunters, and bicyclists. We walked for several miles thru this logged over wasteland, patches of young mixed forest of cypress and pine finally beginning to colonize the marshy prairie of grasses and shrubs. Once, we got to some running water, to a place you could launch a boat, but we were investing a lot of time without getting any deeper into the swamp, or closer to the water of the gulf. The whole place was littered with human debris: disposable diapers, Aluminum beercans, plastic popbottles, candy wrappers, potatoe-chip sacks, cigarette packs and styrofoam. After a while, I began to get frustrated with getting nowhere.
Some, but certainly not most of the roads we had encountered were represented on this map, none of which appeared to take us where we wanted to go. As a result, we had at least the ghost of an excuse for driving into an area that any fool could see was clearly off limits, when we finally found an open gate on a road that really seemed to be heading somewhere. At the end of this road is a cabin, located on an island, the highest piece of land in the area. We never got to the cabin. The road got narrower and narrower, and began to grow a green stipe down the middle. It was looking like it would soon be just 2 ruts running into the woods when we got to a sign that said "AREA CLOSED ... DO NOT ENTER". At this point I stopped, so we could think about it before proceding. Off to the right, and we could hear the sound of an engine, and the sound of gunshots. I rolled down the power windows, so we could hear better. Both sounds were coming our way. It was obviously getting to be time for us to leave, but there was no place to turn around, so we began backing down the road, approximately as fast as our Ford Tempo seemed comfortable going. Before long, a metallic blue pickup truck bounced into view, carrying three men in the cab and towing a large equipment trailer. It was a U.S. Fish & Wildlife truck, and it caught up to us just about the same time we reached a fork in the road, where we pulled off next to a pile of pipe and culverts, to let them pass. They stopped too, so I got out to talk to them, to ask about where we were and to tell them about the gunshots.
After I saw the trailer and heard it clanging, I had begun to imagine that the gunshots I had heard might in fact have been the sounds created by the bouncing of their empty trailer resonating with my own endless anxiety, but now, standing next to the driver's side door, I could not help but notice that the guy sitting in the middle had a semi-automatic shotgun in his hands, with the butt resting on the transmission hump, and besides, the road we had just backed down was really awfully smooth.
I made a pretty convincing case for our being harmless and ignorant, curious and lost, in approximately that order, and asked them to show me where we were, handing them the atrocious map we had been using. They kind of snickered at the Wildlife Refuge's Visitor map, obviously put there for hikers and birders by people who considered hikers and birders to deserve to be lost, if not eaten by 'gators. After digging around in the cab of the truck for a better map, which they couldn't find, the driver admitted that our map was so bad he couldnt show me where we were, cuz almost none of the important roads were printed on it. He then suggested we drive 5 miles, back out to the highway and pick up a couple of maps at one of the hunter's self-registration boxes, if there were any left, or get one from their headquarters, 15 miles to the north, if there weren't, because the hunting maps were a lot more detailed, and showed all the roads that were open. They also suggested that in the future, we'd better stay out of the areas with gates across the roads, even if the gates were open.
These three were not conservation biologists, or even the more pragmatic combat biologists who have colonized the public lands in the northwest. They were not college-educated intruders from Minnisota, they were ordinary rednecks , local guys who had grown up in or around this refuge, back in the '50's when it was still private land. Now, equipped with government uniforms and game warden's badges, they were out poaching the king's deer, just like their families had done for generations.
They were willing, if not anxious to talk, though. Since we hadn't seen any alligators or water moccassins yet, I was still determined to find a road that would take us into to a wetter part of the swamp and I kept the conversation going long enough to learn that the road we were on lead eventually to an old homestead cabin, and that the cabin had once been used as their office. Since their new headquartershad been built out by the highway, the homestead was used to warehouse their culverts and plumbing supplies and maintenance equipment and that the threat of theft and vandalism of thier stuff was why the road was gated and the area around the cabin was closed to the public. They also told me that the island around the cabin was the most beautiful place for miles around, and I believe them.
These guys were not really talkers, or at least did not much care for talking with strangers, and although it was apparent that they were intent on making a full day's work out of a trip out to the cabin to pick up a trailer, it was also clear that they had better things to do than sit there with the engine idling, talking to me about how my abysmal map wasn't worth the paper it was printed on or speculating on how burying some culverts might help mitigate the disasterous ways the combination of their elevated road system and the critically low water-level was impacting wildlife habitat and species diversity.
Most of all, these guys made it clear that they were not going to drive past and let us stay at the turn out, they were going to wait while we turned our car around and then follow us back to the main road, so they could lock the gate once we were safely on the other side of it.
That was a conversation I wish I had recorded, but didn't, because by that point in the trip I had gotten out of the habit. For over 20 years, I have carried the most sophisticated portable tape-recording apparatus I can afford. Over the years, the quality of the tape transport and electronic part of the system has steadily evolved and at this point, the microphones are usually the weakest link in the chain. This time, my system was based on a voice-activated microscassette recorder with a high quality external microphone. I carried the recorder in my jacket pocket, in the low-threshold "ON" mode. The machine was connected to a tie-tack omni-directional condenser microphone mounted on the collar of my sweater, with the microphone's power supply and switch located in another pocket. Walk around with your hands in your pockets, switch on the mic and the tape rolls. This system was purchased to increase the power of my telephone answering machine, and to allow me to take notes like time, date and exposure information about my photographs, but it conveniently allowed me to record, without being noticed, almost anything I could hear, simply by reaching into my pocket and switching on the microphone, which raised some very interesting ethical questions.
At the beginning of the trip, I made some suruptitious tape recordings of the people around me engaging in a variety of discussions, in an effort to capture the spirit of the place thru the rhythms of its speech. There is a serious price paid for such recordings: recording, like photography, is a job. The recordist or photographer is an aggressive, active observer of the world, but cannot be a participant in the world he is recording. In order to produce high quality recordings, I had to play the mute, and abstain from the conversation, because of the close proximity of the microphone mounted on my collar to my own larynx. This meant that I could not guide the conversation, and in effect, that I could not both find out what I wanted to learn and make a listenable recording. This is actually a minor technical problem and it is not insurmountable, but there is another aspect to the problem which does not have a technological solution.
I abandoned the practice of making spy recordings for two reasons, the first being technical. The other, more important reason I quit taping people is that there is no proper audience for these recordings, regardless of their quality. There is no audience because it is nearly impossible for me to provide an adequate context for the people I have recorded. Their attitudes and their speech, however foreign and awkward and bigoted and naive and flat-out wrong they initially appear to me, must be assumed to be almost completely functional, given the context in which they developed. Absent this context, recordings of colloquial speech can serve little purpose beyond fueling the mockery of other cultures that is the hallmark of regional chauvanism. Obviously these people could not survive out here on the frontier of the global economy, not with the language they now use, but as I talked with them, it became equally clear that I could not survive in their world without it. I believe I could capture the substance of this speech honestly in a conversational situation, you could watch my own patterns shift during the course of a conversation, as my speech shifted to mimic theirs, but the mechanical problems of capturing a conversation in which I am an equal participant remain largely unsolved, and most people find a microphone sufficiently intimidating that both their spontaneity and their conversational skills are significantly impeded by its presence. Next time, I think I am going to experiment with mounting the mic on my cuff, or in a wrist-watch case, and using the camera tripod, or carrying a cane to keep me from moving my arm.
Photography poses similar problems. Taking a good picture takes time. Like travel, it takes knowledge of place and it takes planning, but it is often a waiting game, a slow and methodical process quite different from travel, and it rarely benefits from movement. Given the limited amount of time available, and the high price of travel, this time becomes quite valuable, and the importance of any bout of photography has to be weighed against the ground that could be covered, and ultimately, the things that can be seen by travelling faster or lighter. The camera leads to an increased awareness of certain kinds of detail, standing in one spot and looking thru a tiny little glass hole for something that is small enough to get on film and still big [important] enough to take home. I got a 24mm lens for this trip, but it is still too narrow. Travel without the camera gives a chance for a much wider view. Moving over the land and actively observing the way the world changes over distance or over time, brings an awareness of a different kind of process. Consequently there is a conflict between the need to stay on the move, and the need to stop and become absorbed by a place, and engage in the photographic process, during any particular interval of time. DeWitt Jones has a joke about how a pair of small binoculars are the ultimate point-and-shoot camera: they allow you to crop off the disturbing part of the view in front of you, just like a zoom lens, and they write the image directly on your optic nerve, instantly, with no muss, no fuss, and no film.
On the panhandle coast in western Florida, wedged in between the tee-shirt shops, the condominiums and the waterslides, they have drive-thru daquari stands. You sit in your car at the drive-up window in the low, pink cinderblock building, order a marguerita or a dry martini in a plastic glass, and drive away with a drink in your hand. It seemed to say a lot about the panhandle culture, but I never figured out how to exploit it photographicly.
Much of the coast that doesn't belong to St. Joe Paper Co. appears to belong to the military. The military bases add a slightly sordid aspect to an already soiled landscape. Their principal support from the civilian sector appears to take the form of car-lots, bar-rooms with enormous aryan cheesecake cuties airbrushed onto the outside walls, "all you can eat" family-style restaurants and no-tell motels. This exploitation-based economy gives the area a "frontier" feel, and there is a subtle undercurrent of hostility in the way people drive. An unusual percentage of the cars have "turbo" branded on their tails. There are also a lot of out-of- state license plates and almost all the cars have military parking stickers on their bumpers. The traffic moves abruptly, it sort of lunges forward in a pack, like when the flag falls at a race-track, when the stoplite turns green. At least that's how it feels at night, when the neon is blazing and the vampires are on the prowl.
Most of the little panhandle towns were either supported by the military of by paper-mills until the late '70's, when the visionary land developers started to build planned communities just past the outskirts of these towns. Their planned communities were designed as closed systems. Not only do they have their own restaurants, supermarkets, movie theaters and shopping malls, they have their own municipal water supplies. The one thing the designers totally forgot about was access. Lemming-like, the architects embraced the ubiquitous land use pattern of californication and as a result, most of the stores, restaurants and golf-courses are generally located on the wrong side of the highway from the residential areas, so everyone has to get into a car and drive, no matter where they are going. They have not built golf-cart tunnels, pedestrian skybridges or automobile overpasses. Cars are such a fundamental part of these people's lives that they have not even bothered to paint crosswalks on the pavement.
Destin, Florida has one of the loveliest white sand beaches on the entire panhandle coast. Aside from the cigarette butts, it is clean. The city fathers put up signs saying that they are prepared to fine people $500 for walking their dogs on the beach or cutting down the sea-oats that grow between the beach and the highway. No fine for cigarette butts or gin bottles, though. Still, there is no sewage outfall, no reeking papermill, even the ubiquitous airforce base is inland, 20 miles to the northwest, so the planes are a ways off the ground before they hit the beach. There is a low-lying barrier island across the bay, called St. ...... which shelters the coast from the waves crashing in from the gulf. [where did this white sand come from?] The blazing white crescent of beach runs for miles, sloping gently out into the bay, turning the water an entirely un-earthly shade of turquoise. The water is warm, almost as warm as the air, and you can wade 100 feet or so out from the shore before it gets over your head. The waves are soft, they do not crash, or push you around. You just stand there, almost entirely comfortable, waist deep in the Gulf of Mexico, and feel the waves gently suck the sand from under your feet, burying you to the ankles. The passage of time takes a holiday. The problem with this beautiful beach is the sharks. Not the sharks in the bay, which we did not encounter. It's the town itself that is infested with sharks.
We went to a Pak & Ship shop, a UPS franchise, on our last day in Florida, to send our camping gear back to Port Townsend. After we were all done stuffing the boxes with crumpled paper and sealing them up with tape, he determined the price, which was just about double what we'd paid to send approximately the same gear from west to east. Carter asked the guy if he would take a check.
"Sure I'll take a check" he said, and then, looking her in the eye, solemnly added "Just as long as it's not a local check."
This is quite a statement to make about the livability of your community, I thought. He's telling us that you can't trust the locals, cuz they are out to get you: not just to get the tourists, but everybody. After the tourists go home, the money gets tight. The more prosperous brazilian bathing-suit shops, 1-hour photolabs and all the windsurfer rentals close for the season, and the only stores left are the ones that are so marginal they can't afford to go somewhere else. The winter wind bangs the door behind the last tourist, and suddenly, its the law of the jungle. During the off-season, your most important survival skill is obviously your complete lack of ethics.
We watched a crew building a new house on the lot behind the place we were staying, and I'm glad it was not my house. We had plenty of time to study them because they would start work before we got up in the morning. These guys would spend 10 or 15 minutes studying the plans, and then drag a sheet of plywood into place and put a couple of nails in it. You can tell when someone is pounding nails by the sound of the impact. The first blow is sort of light and tentative, to set the nail. The next two are very authoritative, and the pitch rises with each impact as the exposed shank of the nail gets shorter and shorter. The last blow is usually too hard and too loud, as the hammer smashes into the wood, burying the nail below the surface. Once you know how to listen, it is easy to tell how much progress the guys are making. between 5 and 10 nails ought to go in every minute. On this project, the progress was almost neglegible, in spite of the fact that the house itself was a fairly straightforward ersatz cape cod victorian beach house replica. The whole neighborhood was covered with them: It seemed like they shouldn't have even needed to look at the plans. You could probably have seen dozens of variations on this design just standing on the roof and turning slowly around. Scanning the horizon to the west, north or east, there was almost no other kind of house to see, really.
Mostly they spent time banging on things other than nails. Beating things sideways to make them fit, or beating things free, to be nailed down somewher else, if they were placed so wrong that no amount of hammering was ever going to get them to fit. There appeared to be 4 guys on the crew, and up here, those 4 guys should have been able to get the frame of that house up in a couple of days. They bashed and banged from morning to nite, and in the 2 days we were there, they got the studs for one wall up, and the floor joists and the plywood down on a small upstairs porch. That was it.