A paean to unpretty meadows.

I don’t remember where I read that our conservation ethos is biased in favor of pretty places. Maybe it was Muir. Maybe the comment was actually about wilderness. Either way, it struck me as an unethical approach to conservation. Similar, in a sense, to deciding which kids should receive life-saving treatments on the basis of their good looks.

I’ve seen this ethos hard at work in the case of Hurricane Creek, where some folks say the Eastern Bypass will be a boon for development. Then, behind a cupped hand, those same people whisper that Hurricane Creek is “a working class creek”– and obviously “it’s no Cahaba River”. To preserve a wild area requires the discovery of some rare lily. Some impossibly perfect beauty. Because only the pretty people are worth saving. Only the tourist dollars count.

Which leads me to a poem. The poem inspired by the desire to honor a meadow, regardless of its economic value to so-and-so apartment magnate. To honor even the un-pretty meadows. To ascribe value to even the unsexy lives.

Today, the awesome Matrix Magazine published the poem in question– “I Don’t Think We Should Use Words Like Meadow Anymore”. Here’s the first stanza of my paean to unpretty meadows:

Like historic preservation which aims to preserve the antebellum mansion without an eye for the dogtrot cabin made from nearly-extinct longleaf pine, conservation can be driven by the desire to save what rich people believe deserves saving. Preservation can be a way of maintaining social status. Certainly, the choices made by state historic preservation commissions determine what our children are allowed to value of the past. So it’s debutante balls and fainting couches and Scarlett O’Hara swaying at the top of a staircase. Most developers do very well for themselves and usually, they are the ones who have a money-making plan for the meadow or creek in question. Oh Progress, thou art a fine and wealthy god indeed. A god of brass placards and community development. A god to which our politicians appeal again and again behind closed doors and in open chambers– the god to which some consecrate the awful tornado of 2011.

Speaking of tornados, there’s this book you should read (edited by Brian Oliu) titled, simply,Tuscaloosa Runs This. I’m about to start quoting from it. I’m about to agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Beck Grace (and perhaps the whiskey-scented ghost of Walker Percy) when he writes:

In other words, I may live here and hike here and dream my way through life here but I’m always a foreign entity. My “ain’t” lacks a certain spittle. My “cain’t” never could. So I’m not trying to be one of you so much as to feel and understand you– to savor your BBQ ribs beneath a steel-plant infused sunset. Maybe even tell a true story.

Which brings me to the post-tornado story. A true story that’s jam-packed with traffic and development. When Tuscaloosa Runs This was published in 2012, the development hadn’t quite begun. But a Camus-loving prophet by the name of Erik Wennermark nailed it. Probably not because he loved Camus but let’s face it, Camus called it over Sartre every time and he had the grist of a good prophet. Three years ago, Erik wrote:

Did he say the word “life”? Because I feel like that’s what we were talking about. I feel like maybe I was saying a pretty life isn’t the only one worth saving. A lifeless box is not an upgrade. A massive four-lane bypass is nothing but an opportunity to expand the craven, pathetic strip mall style deeper and deeper into the woods. Then over the creek. Forget grandmother’s house because that place was 1,000 square feet and we need bigger houses. Faster cars. Blah blah blah you know where I’m going.

The fact is simply this: I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to imagine my hometown covered in highways and byways and neighborhoods abandoned for the latest prefab “community”. I don’t want to smile and pray to Progress. I don’t want to call rampant, ridiculous consumerism a “blessing”. I don’t want to lie to you and pretend I’m a satisfied citizen of this.

Because…… there are meadows. And because there are people who care about life. And because there are children who might care about life if they grew up in a town saturated with life. Not just roll tide life and tailgating parties but trees and creeks and slippery rocks. Simple, uncomplicated, naturally-existing life. Unpretentious, unpretty, un-manicured life. Yes… WILDlife.

There. I said it.

Before I go wash out my mouth with soap, you should know there is a beloved meadow in Northport, Alabama currently under siege. You can sign a petition to preserve it here. And I can thank Amy LeePard for caring about life. And I can thank Roxanna Bennett for her sailor’s mouth and the wide-open heart beneath. Thank you to all who work to save meadows– and to all who publish poems about meadows to conserve or preserve the unpretty-perfects of the world.

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