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Saturday, February 13, 2010

America's Best Idea?

News that an old colleague, Chuck Perdue, is near death prompted me to think about sustainability, conservation, and the US National Parks, the subject of a recent film series by the enormously popular documentarian Ken Burns, who calls the Parks "America's Best Idea." Not yet having seen this film series, I won't comment on it except to say that for the folks living back in the 1920s on the land that became the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the Park wasn't America's best idea; it wasn't even a good one. The federal government forcibly removed and resettled the inhabitants to make way for the Park. Chuck and Nan Perdue's research into the Park removals overlapped with my research in the early 1980s on the families that lived in that region and who were the ancestors of the church congregation that became the core of my book, Powerhouse for God. I wanted to explore the relation between land and life, husbandry and religion, the ecology and human ecology of the region, and how lived traditions enter community life.

The mountain farmers did not leave their land willingly. Park supporters argued that their lifestyle, scratching out a subsistence living from scraggly mountain crops and from pigs running wild in the forest, was outdated and used the land badly. It was a poor adaptation, and the mountain poverty of the people was the result. They could be resettled in modern towns in clean, small houses with garden plots and indoor plumbing. Yet somehow those who were resettled in those modern circumstances felt claustrophobic and did not thrive. They longed for their unbound life in the mountains.

In the name of conservation, then, a Park was created chiefly for recreational purposes, to serve (as it was then argued) the population of Washington, DC who might travel to the Park for a weekend and come back to government work refreshed by experiencing the natural world. Of course, the Park had to be transformed back to Nature; it had been badly used, it was said, by the farmers. Today scarcely a trace beyond an old cellar hole remains. At Big Meadows, a natural clearing in the center of the Park, and a feature that was noted by travelers as early as the 1700s, stands an Interpretive Center, where the history of the land is told. When I last visited it fifteen years ago, there was no mention of the removals.

Today it is the mountaintops themselves that are being removed, for coal. Such removal is consistent with the ideology that Nature is a resource to be used. Wisely used, but used. This was the ideology that drove the Conservation Movement in the US during most of the 20th century; its champions were Theodore Roosevelt, and the Yale man Gifford Pinchot. Of course, along the way, compromises need to be made for the greater good. If a local population must be removed, or if its way of life must become as polluted as the mountain streams after the giant machines slice off the mountain tops, the damage is slight compared to the greater good that comes from the cheap energy of coal that heats the power plants that give us all so much electricity--and if they contribute to global warming, why, technology will give us "clean coal," whatever that may be, at some point before the planet warms beyond saving. So goes the rationalization and justification, but it rings hollow.

In my thinking about music and sustainability, I have wondered to what extent music should be regarded as a resource--a renewable human resource, of course, not a finite natural resource like coal. Does resource thinking about music inevitably put us on the same path as resource thinking regarding natural resources? When heritage and cultural tourism are the outcomes of musical and cultural conservation movements, must heritage organizations inevitably exploit resources? To what extent are people and cultures objectified in these constructions? How are those resources constructed and given value, and in what would their exploitation consist?