8 06 2008

I went to the Sonnenschein Festival in Hohenwald, Tennessee, over the weekend, a curious little hybrid critter enjoying its third year down in the hill country of south-central Tennessee.

Hohenwald is the county seat of Lewis County, in a part of the state so poor and inaccessible that it was, as I understand it, not even settled until the 1890’s.  The thin soil won’t grow much, not even trees of any great size, and so it was one of Tennessee’s last frontiers.  Nothing much is happening there, nothing much ever has happened there.  When the Tennessee Department of Transportation, that infinite cash cow and welfare system for the state’s road contractors, started to build a 4-lane, divided highway between Hohenwald and Columbia in fulfillment of their self-appointed mission to connect all the state’s county seats with these monstrosities, the legislature actually woke up and stopped them, because everybody could see that the expense and environmental destruction involved would be totally out of proportion with any benefit–and that was before $4/gallon gasoline.  That’s how podunk Hohenwald is.

Anyway, the Sonnenschein Festival is, as I said, a curious hybrid.  The city fathers’ original intent was to have a little bluegrass and gospel music and some cotton candy, bratwurst, and knicknacks, but some of the local counterculturalists got wind of the event and signed up for booths featuring solar energy, biodiesel, alternative construction methods, and the like, and suddenly there were two very different festivals going on all intermingled with each other, even though there originally seemed to be an attempt to segregate all the new ideas off in a building some distance from the main festival grounds.

The festival moved, this year, from around the courthouse to downtown Hohenwald, a difference of a block or two, but the struggling downtown merchants hoped it would generate some more business for them.  Lord knows, they need something. The few miles of four-lane that did get built heading east out of town has sprouted a roster of all the best-known names in low-end American chain stores, including a “Family Dollar” and a “Dollar General Store” going head-to-head and a Walmart Superstore that, even without its parking lot, takes up more room than all of downtown Hohenwald put together–and then there’s the empty, smaller building they vacated when they built the “superstore,” sitting out in front of it–good for what?  Green Walmart?  Get real!

The festival got a lot more integrated with the move. The “alternative” booths are no longer so isolated– Green Party U.S.. Senate Candidate Chris Lugo was right next to the Kewpie dolls.  Another new feature of this year’s festival was a full roster of countercultural speakers in what was referred to on the program as “The Strand Theater.”  I have been an irregular visitor and shopper in Hohenwald for twenty-five years, and I couldn’t recall ever seeing a theater there–imagine my surprise to find that one of the town’s famed “dig stores”  (featuring cheap, cheap, cheap second-hand clothing) was now once again a theater, which apparently it had been back before television shuttered so many of the country’s small movie houses.  With the cost of gas to get to the nearest multiplex now rivalling the cost of movie tickets, a local revival was taking place.

I was curious to see whether the townsfolk would turn out for the speakers, and I was gratified to see that, in significant numbers, they did.  Not massive numbers–a couple of dozen at a time, making them about half the audience–but from what I could gather, many of those who were attending are the town’s movers and opinion makers, and what they appreciated and took from the talks will probably be spread all over Hohenwald.

The opening speaker was David Blume, a lively advocate for permaculture and home-brewed alcohol fuel.  He criticized the country’s current ethanol binge as ” bad implementation of a good idea” and stressed that smaller ethanol plants are much better at providing re-usable outputs (such as feed and fertilizer) than the massive production facilities now being built.  He emphasized that there is not one big answer to the fuel crunch so much as a lot of small, diverse answers, and got cheers and applause from the whole audience when he pointed out that, for a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war, we could have provided “food and energy for everybody in the world.  And when everybody’s got enough food and enough energy, what’s there to fight about?”

The next speaker was Catherine Austin Fitts, whose specialty is relocalizing economics and helping people get their money out of what she calls “the tapeworm economy.”

“What good is it to go and protest the war,” she asked, “when your money is invested in keeping it going?”

And she challenged bible-belt Hohenwald with, “Where would Jesus Bank?”…she can do that, she’s a professing Christian.  Significantly, she will be meeting with the county commission on Monday to discuss how to make Hohenwald more financially self-sufficient.  I’m impressed.

Then there was a break for a benefit auction to help raise money for the festival and Green Living Journal, a magazine that I help edit.  I came out of that with a hundred-dollar gift certificate from “Our Nursery,” a local permaculture nursery that specializes in bamboo.

The third speaker was Albert Bates, a veritable polymath from the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm.  He painted a dire picture of the mess we have gotten into, with oil in decline and CO2 on the rise, but pointed out that many small towns are taking stock of the crisis and organizing to meet it–and, once you are organized to meet this challenge, you’re…well, in a much better position to meet it, and less likely to just get sucked under as it alters our society.

“We have used up five hundred million years worth of stored energy in just the last hundred and fifty years,”Albert said, “and the binge is almost over,” adding a William Burroughs line about “Hairless Apes in the Gasoline Crack of History.” On the positive side, he pointed to brain research that shows that optimism chemically primes our frontal cortexes to be better at problem solving than pessimism does, and quoted economist David Fleming to the effect that “localism is at the limits of practical possibilities–but the decisive argument is that there is no alternative.”

It seems that the movers and shakers in Hohenwald are starting to see that, which I find very reassuring.  After Albert, I had absorbed about all the talk I could handle, and I was hungry, so I went outside and strolled the midway, passing over the bratwurst, the barbeque, and the deep-fried snickers bars, until I found an  old friend cooking health-food pizza in a solar oven he had built himself.  I had to wait for the biracial lesbian couple ahead of me to get done fixing up their kids with pizza, but just the idea of a biracial lesbian couple with kids in ol’ whitebread Hohenwald was delightful.  The heat was brutal and the crowd was thin, but I could feel a change in the air.  Out there in the hinterlands, they’re starting to get it.  Me, I’m hiring my friend to build us a solar oven.  It’s time.

music: Greg Brown, “Our Little Town”

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