THE GRASSROOTS ARE ALIVE AND WELL

13 06 2010

Last week I went to an afternoon “event” sponsored by “Nashville Naturally,” which is a partnership between the city, the Land Trust for Tennessee, and The Conservation Fund.  The point of this”event”  was “to help shape the future of Nashville’s natural and cultural resources.” The 3-hour gathering was to begin with an intro from Mayor Dean and a talk by Susan Whittaker of the Tennessee Department of Tourism, followed by time for “breakout sessions” on a variety of conservation and open space-related topics. Being kind of a let’s-get-down-to-basics guy, I had signed up for the “farming and food security” workshop.

But Hizzoner’s speech, followed by Ms. Whittaker’s, almost sent me packing.  Dean spouted bland platitudes, unrealistic assumptions, and unintentionally scary statistics.  He wants Nashville to be “the greenest city in the Southeast,” whatever that means.  He expects that this will attract tourists–from where, and spending what money?  He revealed that tourism and “hospitality” (which I presume does not include the kind of hospitality traditionally offered on Dickerson Road!) is the community’s  second largest source of income (behind medical care…a “sick” statistic in more ways than one!), pouring about fifteen billion dollars a year into the city’s economy.  He didn’t say why he thinks this revenue stream isn’t going to dry up, but I have a feeling he gushes optimism because everybody knows what happened to Jimmy Carter when he told the truth about our energy future–not to mention when Carter spoke the truth  about  the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians–but I digress.  Mayor Dean’s speech in three words?  Blah, blah, blah.

He did give me one set of useful statistics on land use in Davidson County, which I now know has an area of 335,356 acres.  10, 392 acres of land in the county are parks, 22.586 are “public open spaces and easements,” and 24,714 are other kinds of  “dedicated open space.” Inspired by the Nashville Food Security Summit, I once estimated that it would take about 25,000 acres and 5,000 farmers to feed Nashville’s current population.  Based on admittedly preliminary research, it looks like that land is here, or just over the border in neighboring, more thinly populated counties.

Susan Whittaker almost put me to sleep at first; hey, taking on the leadership of a “Department of Tourism” in this economy seems like it would require a passport from La-la land.  Still, amid her zingers about “agrotourism,” “sustainable tourism” and “fostering economic development,” she actually did have some words of wisdom about getting people on the right side of conservation issues.  People will support conservation, she pointed out, if you give them a good reason why they, in their situation, should “buy in” to the conservation proposal, and, in her experience, demonstrating that conservation will improve “quality of life” gets to people in a way that a broader, less personal concern like global warming  does not.

“The thing about ‘going green’,” she said, “is that it makes sense especially when times are tough.”

The longer she talked, the more I liked what she had to say, even at the level of “sure, Pigeon Forge is awful, but that just means there’s so much they could do to improve.”  The best improvement, I think, would be to tear the place down and rewild it, like they’re doing in Flint and Detroit.  But she’s a politician, of sorts, and, like Mayor Dean, she’s not going to bite that bullet until the public and the circumstances put it in her mouth for her.

Still, she’s doing pretty well for being a former Vice-President of Marketing for Dollywood, for cryin’ out loud.  (I think Dolly Parton is kind of cool, but “Dollywood”?)  In response to a questioner who was concerned about the likelihood of an incoming Teapublican administration upending all conservation efforts in the holy names of Profit and Privatization (that’s my language, not the questioner’s!), she suggested that politicians do tend to listen when a broad coalition of their constituents speaks with a united voice.I  To someone who asked what to do when greenwashing is hyped as “being green, ” she suggested that (again, my words, not hers) the twin lights of truth and publicity  are the best way to show which is which.  “Underpromise and overdeliver” she said towards the end of  her talk, and I think that’s an excellent maxim.    You nearly won me over, Ms. Whittaker, but that “sustainable development” bit worries me.

OK, enough about the suits, now for the roots.

Actually, a good many of the “grassroots” attendees were suited and tied themselves, probably reflecting who’s got the flexibility to show up for a 4:30 PM presentation.  Most of the 80 people in the room were male, and all but two were white–and one of the non-Caucasians was Oriental.  Organizers said nearly 160 people showed up for the morning presentation, and I’m willing to bet that proportions at that meeting were similar.

So, there I was, sitting around a table with eight people, mostly white guys about my age, invited to brainstorm about food security and urban/rural farming in Davidson County.  I started out talking about how much compostable material  ends up in landfills (enough to turn out 330 tons of finished compost per week, according to local activists).  Everybody cheered, and suggested separating out the city’s compost and waste paper and running it through earthworms to improve the process, as well as simply encouraging families and neighborhoods to create their own compost piles in backyard and community gardens.  This brought on a slew of further suggestions from my tablemates, such as an “incubation program” to help launch new farmers, a central support system for city gardeners, creating greenhouses at the schools that would grow plants and practice seed saving as an education project that would provide plants and seeds for local gardens, cooking classes to re-acquaint the microwaving masses with feeding themselves unprocessed foods, and food co-ops to provide locally owned and controlled distribution centers for food beyond what local gardens can supply.  We agreed that everybody should be within walking distance of a community garden as well as a grocery store.  That means about one community garden per square mile in the city’s denser residential districts.

Speaking of that, I brought up the city’s current ban on raising chickens and other small livestock in the Urban Services District, and everybody agreed that it had to go, along with the city’s ban on home slaughtering for personal use.  (I’m a vegan, but not everybody is or is gonna be.)

Emboldened, I said the h-word:  humanure.  Nobody batted an eyelash.  “They do that in China, don’t they?” was one comment, as I outlined how the almost certain presence of toxic substances in municipal sewage sludge can be avoided by making it a local production that people feel responsible for and which they are going to use themselves.  Nobody freaked out.  I was impressed.

With the aid of a map showing the county’s prime agricultural lands, we identified the best farmland in the county and agreed that it should be preserved for food production–Bell’s Bend, Cockrill, Neely, and Pennington Bends, Bordeaux Gardens (which are scarcely gardened at all, at this point), the meadows along the upper reaches of White’s Creek, Neely’s Bend, outlying areas in Antioch and Joelton.

And all this time, nobody mentioned sustainable development or agrotourism or tourism of any kind.  We knew we were doing this for ourselves, not for the tourists. Nobody mentioned financial collapse or peak oil or severe climate change either, but I think there was solid, if unspoken, agreement among us that, no matter whether or to what extent those catastrophes happen,  there need to be major changes in the way Nashville feeds itself, and it was gratifying to see a diverse group of people come to the same conclusions about what those changes need to be.  Now, if only the politicians would get out of the way (or actually be helpful instead of being stooges for their wealthy campaign contributors)  and let the people do what needs to be done–because I came away from this meeting feeling reassured that there are plenty of people out there who know what to do, and who, given the chance, will gladly figure out how to do it.

We are going to be seeing more open space in Nashville.  The recent flood, whether it repeats in fifteen years or five hundred, has made it clear that there are places in town that are not appropriate for “development,” and the city is buying many of these from their former owners and will be keeping them open as “floodplain.”  Locations along creeks often have deep, fertile soil and are easy to irrigate when it gets dry.  With the economic downturn, we are going to see a lot less so-called “development” anywhere, and that is a good thing.

I have watched one strip mall-sized lot on a major thoroughfare change its “for sale” sign several times, and I suspect this is because the original developer lost it to one of his creditors, who then himself folded and passed it on to a third party, and so on.  Unfortunately, the lot was bulldozed flat back before the bubble popped, and thus has no topsoil to speak of.  An older home at the edge of this property sits on a small, steep-sided patch of ground about six feet above the level of the never-again strip mall site, and with its raw, eroded slopes it testifies to the violence that was done to the earth in the name of a short-term profit that never materialized.  The land is just barely above the White’s Creek floodplain.  I’m hoping it’s the “high water mark” of the crazy tide of commercial development.  If the people I met at the “Greener Nashville” gathering are any indication, things are starting to flow in a different, saner direction.

music:  Jefferson Starship, “Imagine Redemption

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