life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

look ma, no profit

and how predictable was this? i can't believe last year i was still sweating over the tyranny of permits. tee-hee-hee....

When "For Sale" is A Sign of Hard Times

would probably wax silly over all this, but am up to my eyeballs in housing figures & poverty statistics. so will have to postpone all that fun. but until then, folks, just remember: how the mighty do fall. just make sure you aren't underneath the shadow when they do.

post-election day blessings to all.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

the fate of prometheans

dunno why we are sometimes surprised at what is, after all, pretty predictable: people often attempt to shoot the messenger who brings ill news. when we are talking about development & hypocrisy, well, we are taking aim at some pretty deep pockets. and they aren't going to give up that wealth without a fight. they engender criticism from those who are merely pointing out the obvious, that the emperor is wearing nada, but this often merely gives them the opportunity to gather the support structure that they created around them, to point the finger back at us and yell, "bad, bad, attitude! shame on you for trying to make us see the truth when these good people have already told us what to believe! that rampant overgrowth pays for itself, and we like our megahouses and our clothes dryers and false hopes and family vacations! you would do better to come & get some yourself! and stop crying sour grapes!"

prometheus was a mortal who stole fire from the gods, and gave it to humans, to cook with, to keep warm, to smelt ore into metal. in payment he was hung upon a rock, and every day an eagle came and ate out his liver, which would grow back overnight so that he could only look forward to living in eternal agony for his pains to better mankind. his story is a metaphor for those who seize upon knowledge and cry out the truth, only to be shown the door, hung from a limb, crucified, or worse. for us, knowledge is power, truth is beauty, and we feel compelled to bring this all to the masses like so much warm milk, but for many we are only the harbingers of disaster, the reminders of the great unknown, and are unsettling in the extreme. we force people to see what they do not want to acknowledge, for to recognize a problem for what it is means you may have to change, to find a solution. prometheans do not understand what the big deal is, we are only trying to help. but the fact remains that most people just do not want our knowledge, they would rather live in continued ignorance, tacky bliss.

ah, none are so blind as they who refuse to see. and so, i recommend, in places and situations where the quiet truth cannot be pointed out verbally, work within your successes. success does beget more of same. one victory at a time. hard-won, perhaps, but valid nonetheless. save your energies, do not let them hang you off of that cliff and erroneously point out your errant virtues as a warning to all who would be like you. in other words, cast not thy pearls among swine.

the word for today at is "obfuscate." one of my favorite words, in fact. as in, the purpose of most diatribe is to obfuscate and confuse. it is one of the best ways to win control over the masses. point the finger at government. muddy the issues. emotionalize your stance. another favorite word is, "onus." as in, the onus is upon us. the onus of all this mush, this fuzzy lethargy of people who depend upon the status quo, and refuse to budge. it is true that those who depend upon a system are doomed by it. so let them go. concentrate, welcome help and assistance from whence it comes. do not condemn those who cannot see without a big, flashing neon sign pointing the way. i'd feel sorry for them, and am grateful that i'm not among them (i don't think).

being a beacon for those who are looking for a way out of this mess is far easier and more gratifying.

vote well today.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


interesting development on the no-oil power front:

Tidal energy companies stake claims

watch this space for more information as i find it. hopefully this type of power won't be as onerous as the wind turbine mess in appalachia.

it seems britain has already begun experiments with marine energy. a group in scotland is charged with exploring its potential, and a british group also performs research in this area. a new york times piece from august also sheds some light on the situation, which has apparently attracted investment from the big energy corporations like ge.

so. so far no greenpeace backlash, but maybe because there is no conclusive evidence yet for a technology still in its infancy. imho, future energy technologies & distribution will be downsized and regionalized depending upon geographic influences and availability. this may be just one of myriad ways people adapt in order to get work done. but we'll keep you posted.


this weekend i was honored to be asked to help out at the annual archaeology society of south carolina field day, held at santee state park, near the I-95 exit. this is an assemblage of archaeologists (duh), scientists, researchers, and modern-day practioners who demonstrate the very lifeskills the scientists write about, the researchers explore, and evidence of which the archaeologists dig up & catalogue. it is a unique event where children & their parents & other visitors can literally help to dig up, screen and examine point flakes and bits of pottery on one side of the park, and a short distance away, actually view and take part in the making of such objects along with a skilled demonstrator. there were also stations with crayons & coloring books, a video tent (showing excavations around the state & interviews with those involved), as well as opportunities to buy books, tee shirts, mugs, research papers, and also to sign up to attend one of the excellent university programs, volunteer opportunities, and other events this state has to offer in the field of self-examination of our own origins. the organization is duly supported and populated by its share of wealthy patrons predominantly residing on the coast, whose agenda of course includes environmental activism and historic preservation, worthy causes all. fascinating, especially when you consider the outsider's view of our measly existence, as evidenced by stereotypical presentations of the southern lifestyle on television and in the news media. i'll refrain from posting links to such uneducated, ethnocentric idiocy (i'm sure you can find plenty yourself, should you really need to), but i am actually a bit grateful for a recent slap in the face from someone i'd otherwise considered pretty knowledgeable on the subject of the downsliding of development trends into the murky waters of greed, deceit and overall tackiness.

sometimes we all need a wake-up call.

last year i felt inclined to start this blog, but without a clear focus as to what i would write about. up to now a bit of earth has had the expressed desire to talk about land use, but no clear purpose or direction as to how to talk about it. howsomever, after the aforementioned slap, and the run of yesterday’s experiences, i think i’ve figured it out.

as a planner, it has been my habit for the past 15 years at least to mentally analyze every settlement, small town, or rural habitat i’ve come across. as i approach such an area, i look for evidence of the inhabitants in such visible cues as signage, pedestrian paths, and architecture. sometimes i can see obvious caretaking such as fresh paint, colorfully vegetated vistas, and numerous happy, or at least contentedly pre-occupied, people. sometimes the evidence is not so obvious.

on the way home last evening my husband, the archaeologist, took me thru a by-way he said he’d long wanted to show me. it was the tiny town of elloree, “where agriculture is alive and well in south carolina, thank you.” according to him the downtown used to be a desolate, angry place with only one claim to fame: duke’s barbecue. he was devastated to discover that duke’s has been replaced by a chinese take-out place. i was delighted to discover that the visual evidence supports the conclusion that it is recently a recipient of main street funding. a planted median divides main street, and sidewalks and seating follow either side. there were plenty of people out, all walking about with apparent errands on their minds. from the visual evidence, the predominant income level seemed to be less than 20K per year, and probably averaged about half of that. also, i saw few white faces. several folks hung about the doorways of this or that eatery or bar, talking together or not, but none of the angry desolation he’d described from driving thru in former years was at all visible. we drove up and down the main quarter, and then retraced our steps back to the intersection with our homeward road. my husband seemed to be holding some happy bit of news to himself –and then he pointed out his secret: there, around the corner about a block off of main street, was a small converted wooden livery stable, the words, “elloree farm museum” painted neatly beside the door in big red letters. hah –so the people were smart, too, and proud of who and what they are. how very cool.

we drove north the short distance out of town, the landscaped yards bordering graceful, slightly shabby early 19th century edifices of the old money-wealth now occupied by silent, single daughters or perhaps a similarly small remnant of the family. none seemed empty yet. here and there were a very few new brick homes in the populist architecture that claims its roots in sprawlivisions. at least here they didn’t seem quite so ugly, but maybe that was the fault of the waning light. as i looked ahead and beyond the yards, there seemed to be a ghostly glow surrounding this north end of town. hubby started pointing, “look, look…” and lo and behold, i then beheld the source of this town’s continued existence: fields of cotton. the scent of defoliant teased our nostrils and we slowed to watch the harvester crawling among the plants, to count the truckloads of what had already been baled, to smile at the workers waving and directing each other there under the rising moon.

a field of mature cotton in moonlight is an awesome thing; its beauty literally takes your breath away. it looks like a coverlet of snowy ermine interspersed with intricate blackwork and bordered and interlaced with the tracery of thick rows of dark trees. the plants follow the curvature of the earth, and are rimmed and intersected by undisturbed areas which follow the local hydrography. while the rows can stretch for what seems like miles, they are carefully planted only in the adaptable soils, common sense prevailing and avoiding the myriad streams and wetlands that embroider and criss-cross like unto a quilt. while we can regret the fact that the fields are not planted (yet) organically, the fact is that it is still quite labour-intensive, although not nearly so much as even twenty years ago. many south Carolinians –black and white –even my age (mid-forties) have told me that they remember earning money in their teenage years picking cotton. we are grateful for the fact that crop rotation and no-till methods prevail, and we know that after the harvest, the dross will be sown in peanuts or soybeans, followed by corn or perhaps rye or winter wheat, and the cycle will continue at least into the foreseeable future, as long as people wear clothes, use hospitals, and write on paper.

so. what will we do when the oil runs out? we will adapt, and move on. as humans, that is what we do –best, i might add. here in the hinterlands, far from the rot and waste of the urban landscape, little will change. it is what is, and will be. as i said, not too long ago harvesting & planting was done by hand. it is still in recent memory.

work, in the end, is a prayer, or so says baha’u’llah. i think this is an apt observation. prayer goes a long way in negating the need for therapy. work negates the need for expensive exercise programs. books, conversation, handwork, and games all negate the need for television and other forms of electronic stimulation. the occupations of our minds and hands from previous days indicate that we already know this. we look forward to celebrating the fruits of honest labors: the candles that our friends made of deer tallow and beeswax light our path, we keep clean with the soap that we barter for sewing with other friends & neighbors, woolen garments ranging from the decades-old lovelies Jason brought back from ireland to the scarves, shawls & caps amazingly crafted by Rachael from her own drop-spindle & knitting needles. too, the doe in the freezer will be (among other things) Christmas dinner, through the winter we will dine on the turkeys from our woods and the chickens from the lower pasture, the pecans from the grove, jam from the grapes from the arbor, fat carolina road-stand peaches canned along with sweet memories from warmer days, sauce from the tomatoes that still abound in the greenhouse. rosemary, oregano, mint, and thyme hang drying in the herbary. from our field-roving hens we still collect at least a few eggs every other day, even as the days grow shorter and darker. winter sets in, and our activities lessen. it is time for rest, relaxation, contemplation, the enjoyment of the fruits of warm weather labors, and we will reflect and write about whatever comes to mind, as we await the turning of the seasons and the arrival of spring, when the cycle begins all over again.

so i think henceforth, this blog will catalog evidence of the fact that we are already ready for the future. in fact, we welcome it. we are thankful for what federal and private funds enable small localities to spruce up their appearance, but by and large, i see no evidence that any of these places are dependent upon the hand-outs, or upon the oil economy. they have a vitality complete unto themselves. many are too poor to have partaken of the glut of wealth from the past two decades. and still they flourish, in the simple, honest, and steadfast ways evidenced by time to be most enduring. fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. i see it much too often, and so instead of bemoaning the twilight of a bloated existence, i am singing and dancing. i am praising it to the skies, and my children and friends with me. amen.

even so come, lord jesus.

Friday, November 03, 2006


i've been recently taking the time to review this blog and have realized that --aside from fixing the broken image links (now having been done!) there may be a bit of clarification in order.

i live in two houses, actually, and have for over 2 years now. this is necessitated by the rather complicated custody situation with my three youngest angels and the fact that my heart --and my husband --remain employed elsewhere. the two houses are located about 1 1/2 hours apart. neither, sad to say, is my full-time residence. this situation, a ridiculous one, really, isn't likely to change anytime soon. my children's school is in one state, my husband's work in another. so we have our "cottage" (also known as 'the hidden house,') and the caretaker's house on the "estate" --and i commute about 2-3 times a week between the two. on days i don't have my children, i am of course in south carolina. on days i do, i am in north carolina. i have a place to do my work at each, and in the words of one of my friends, i certainly am "quite adaptable." it helps that i have always considered home a place of the heart, and not really tied to any physical location.

i also refer from time to time to my small hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and also to a favorite past abode, located in Summerfield, NC, where I still maintain friendly ties.

also, traveling back and forth between our two houses has given me an opportunity to observe firsthand the revitalization --some might even call it rebirth --of commerce on at least two very small carolina backroads towns. i'll try to write about those in the context of southern development as a whole very soon. they do demonstrate some surprises, certainly... and perhaps are more indicative of the rebirth of southern culture as a whole, in spite of what some wise-assed yankees may think. there are dualities to be discussed in the realm of "the real south," and "the south that is visible from the casual vehicular vantage point." but as far as that goes, if what you see from the interstate keeps you assholes up nawth, so much the better.

but as to my home duality: i hope this helps to explain a bit about the actual situation of "home" as written about in "lawn no more," "backyard view," and "travelling mercies," vs. the location of the power outage i was writing about in "recommended reading." i realize i haven't actually written about the estate as "home," and yet, most of the writing in this blog has actually taken place there, and all of the pictures of scenery, trees, and landscape have come from there. the two are very different homes. both are rural, one much more so. and yet, the fact of this duality is not a bad place to call home --in itself it defines home as restful refuge, and not place. but to be more clear in the future i'll try to put a reference either to "the estate" or "the cottage," somewhere in the text.

more --and hopefully clearer --ruminations soon.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Your southern adventure

(An open letter to James Howard Kunstler, in response to a recent entry on his blog - to read, check archives here,) and scroll down to October 30, 2006).

Dear Mr. Kunstler:

Am trying to clear the calendar in order to make your visit to eastern NC on Nov. 6th. Your writings are always good for at least a giggle --if a somewhat exasperated belly laugh fails me. I appreciate your cutting insight and you do often hit the nail on the head regarding the glaring stupidity of many public policies & land use decisions.

As a land use planner by education & experience, and a native of the Commonwealth, and by that I mean Virginia-the-mother-of-all-states, I have always been somewhat mystified by the actions and tastes of our neighboring states. To be exact, I am from "southside Virginia," and not a native of that OTHER state, namely NOVA or Northern Virginia --which is actually a northern state and is not recognized as part of the Commonwealth by the rest of us. I began my planning career in the mid-80s in the most extreme southeast corner of Alabama, then worked my way thru rural Georgia to the Golden Isles, then up to the sprawling pock-marked metropolis that is Charlotte. Ugh. This city is certainly the apogee of Yankee-fed money-lust.

Although I share many of your opinions and some of your conclusions about southern culture, you really don't know what the bleep you are talking about. The myths and the reality are one here... Centuries of poverty gave us time to develop a deep and abiding love of the only thing we had: our inner and outer landscape. Most of us, you see, were very used to hard work. The smallest minority of us ever owned slaves or have ever been able to afford to pay someone to do our work for us. If we didn't work, we didn't eat. And believe it or not, many of us see the link between air conditioning and the influx of foreign culture --and in defiance we raise our cardboard paper fans with biblical sayings printed on the back and wave them silently in total bliss from the porch swing. The softness of a southern summer evening where the breeze is only a whisper is something too fine and ephemeral for most of you to ever even recognize, much less appreciate. What that does to one inside is akin to the deepening of the soul's ability to negotiate between money-based comfort and the control of one's own destiny. Whether you are talking about a shrimper out of Darien, GA or a tobacco farmer in Brown Summit, NC, you are talking about a culture that is steeped in tradition, a deep love of the satisfaction based in the fruits of labor, and an extreme distrust of outside influences. And you forget how much this was upended in the mid-19th century, and how you Yankees still tend to prove us right time after time. We see you, compared to us, as short-sighted, blighted individuals absolutely unconcerned for what you see around you. You cannot appreciate our scars and wounds and are too quick to point out our faults and foibles without a shred of concern or understanding as to what those scars and wounds stand for. If any of you would simply live anonymously among us for a time, you might come to see the subtler, substantial beauty that is the South. You might come to appreciate our deep concern and respect for our neighbors, that is entirely different from yours. Concern and respect do not even mean the same thing here as they apparently do "up Nawth." And so, again, I would offer that you just have to live here, silently, and observe. The south of William Faulker, Flannery O'Connor, Pat Conroy, Eudora Welty, and Lee Smith is not a vast, ugly, bank-supported empire. It is a natural landscape teeming with life and culture --and that is something you Yankees cannot change, not with all your money and your influence and your offers of "knowledge and assistance." I have gotten to where I would far rather see an honest 1970s era mobile home or concrete block farmhouse community out in the country than the cobbled-together false community of the subdivisions around Charlotte. God damn subdivisions after all --thank you so very much, Mr. Yankee. What a lovely idea those were!

Oh --and also, if you ate at any Mom & Pop diner out on the four-lane, you missed the point completely. Southerners do not reveal their secrets and their best selves to just anyone, even less to any Yankee with attitude who happens to drive into town. What makes you think you experienced anything in particular at that dive? Unless the town you visited is vastly different from most, no local eats there unless half-starved and against a wall, I assure you. First reason --they are too expensive and second, the food tastes terrible!! Those restaurants are for TRAVELERS, and they developed in the fifties by people like my great-grandparents who realized that hungry people from out-of-town on a long car trip to the beach or Florida will eat just about anything and pay lots of money for it. REAL home-cooked food is nearly always served waaaaaay out on on a dirt road in an old tumble-down shack or big Victorian whose last paint job was before the Depression, and is not accessible to anyone but the locals. Fact is, you got what you expected --and they got your money. That is the point. The cheap plastic icons of which you speak were put there after the advent of the automobile, but the south you saw was not the real South. You have to live here to know that.

One reason you see so many poor land use decisions here in the South, is that we still have lots and lots of land to waste --unfortunately for us planners. This isn't going to change for the foreseeable future --and yet, here in the South we have no city as ugly as Waterford, Connecticut --where my appalled southern eyes finally saw the truth of what rampant capitalism does to a landscape. God, what an ugly town --miles of concrete and dirty black asphalt --and not a tree or green blade of grass in sight. I high-tailed it back here as quick as I could fly, and have tried my best to warn my fellow southerners about what living conditions the Yankees are used to. They don't believe me. Here we still have trouble visualizing what our cities can and actually are turning into --where you can literally reach out your kitchen window and turn on the faucet in your neighbor's kitchen. Most southerners do not believe for an instant that these tract-home developments will abide for long. And correctly, many predict they will be "filled with 5 Mexican families each," before the next decade ends. Still, my frustrations are similar to yours --the love affair with quick fixes, the dirty old boys (and now women, too) in the smoky civic backroom making deals with developers so that Uncle Andy can retire in peace to the beach. While we may not be able to understand the cultural difference that you Yankees bring down here, namely, your absolute unawareness of how CROWDED you are --this, we sincerely believe, will be the downfall of the Yankee in the south. Eventually the market for living on top of one another will just dry up! Living so closely squashed together is anathema to our very culture --the Southern psyche must have room to breathe and shoot the neighbor's pigs to keep them from running rampant thru the garden --oh, and instead of going to therapists, we blow away the errant beer can or two on the fence with a .357 magnum. It is ultimately why TNDs and "urban planning" fail here. Having attended public hearing after town meeting after community information session for my past 18 years of public life, I see it over and over again. The locals see too many changes happening way too quickly and they rise up and say "No." No culture can assimilate the rapid changes that have taken place on the local level in even the past 5 years. I have seen that the locals do eventually realize what outsiders want to change --which is their very IDENTITY, and they do take back their towns and prevent any more change for a period of several years, until the locals have a chance to catch up. And then they do it on their own terms. They set up baseball diamonds, rejuvenate the canopies over the sidewalk on Main Street, plant trees and polish up the Confederate Memorial in front of the courthouse. In other words, we do get it. We just don't necessarily always do it the way you Yankees do. We like where we live, and in the end we'd rather remain an honest Third World Nation than subscribe to the soul's selling out offered by Yankee industrialists. While a few decision-makers at the top often can be bought, by and large the southern people themselves remain true to their culture. "Bloom where you are planted," pretty accurately describes our mindset. Not "Get thee to Dothan," or any other frame of mind involving leaving the place of your birth and going elsewhere to try to change what you really can't address in your neck of the woods. Because all in all, if you really liked it, you'd stay there.

No personal offense intended --and thank you for letting me get that off my chest. Looking forward to your next column, and perhaps I'll see you next Monday.

Best regards,
Susannah B. Smith, AICP
Principal Planner
Adair Fox Planning, Research, Advocacy & Design

"We are only the trustees for those who come after us." --William Morris