A Renewable Energy Walk in the Woods


Narratives rule the work that I do about renewable energy, for obvious reasons. When I find myself in the position of beginning an article, therefore, I can only think in terms of finding the underlying elements of a story thread so as to orient readers to the particulars of a sequence of events. In relation to today's posting, I would encourage readers to reflect on several points that I have developed before:

*the importance of the South in comprehending key social aspects of many issues;
*the avoidance of the primary function of class relations in explaining social and technical matters, whether as policy or as phenomena;
*the unavoidable shadow of color prejudice in events touching on the intersection of Southern, national, and technical situations;
*the central role of capacity in activating community-led policy;
*the important but necessarily limited part that media and culture can play in progressive transformation;
*and other references as they appear below.

Whatever storytelling devices seem apropos in a given context, at times, my own movement through the 'territories' of the text is so odd, or contains so many apparently disparate elements, that I can only rely on serendipity to achieve a sense of coherence. While at times my own skills, or lack thereof, make the difference between a successful effort and one that crashes in flames, at other times the pathway among the events that transpire is as easy and clear as a bright ribbon of river viewed through the crystal firmament of Fall.

Connecting the dots under these happy circumstances, however they happen to present themselves. trips merrily from the mind and fingers of this humble correspondent. So is the case today, in returning to the life and times of the estimable Don Harris, whom I met in person on his sojourn East to participate in a water-power workshop that he led under the auspices of the Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative, thanks to the good offices of Professor Dennis Scanlin.

The inadequacy of 'left' and 'right,' of 'liberal' and 'conservative,' as adequate descriptors of political proclivity, become so transparent in today's telling of the tale that at least a few words on this subject might prove helpful. One problem with such ideation, of course, is that conversation all too often focuses on labeling or other distancing behavior, which not only is inherently irresponsible--'it's not me, it's them!'--but also subverts the relational analysis that is so essential to comprehension.

For example, I would challenge anyone who gets this far in the essay, who is not a colleague or an acquaintance of mine--who would tend to be among the cognoscenti about these matters, to reflect. "Do I know the origins of 'left' and 'right,' or, for that matter of 'liberal' and 'conservative?' I would be ready to stand amazed to have more than a person or two demonstrate such knowledge.

Obviously, learning about such distinctions is only a 'click away,' to paraphrase the Rolling Stones. But once a reader discovers such readily accessible information, what is the use of that? I would contend that a first step is to recognize that the spatial organization of French representatives following the Revolution has next-to-zero clear utility in relation to orienting discourse about today's central issues, for example energy policy, community empowerment, and more.

Furthermore, I would argue that the earliest utilization of 'liberal' and 'conservative,' which we almost precisely stand on their heads in the ways that we employ the terms today, are not only of little utility but also cannot allow a rich comprehension of the values and themes that are necessary to articulate if humankind is to survive its present dilemmas. In such a view, a 'liberal' needs to be 'conservative' and a 'conservative' must become 'liberal,' so the differentiation of the two becomes somewhere between pointlessly impossible and irrationally counterproductive.

In addition, in this context that writers and readers co-create, in which a punctilious attention to the implications that words proffer is critical, the meaning of essay is again useful to consider carefully. We all know that, as a noun, it signifies a stream of writing about some topic of potential interest and consequence. Talking about renewable energy and sustainable business unquestionably 'fit the bill' then.

As a verb, on the other hand, as I've previously noted, to essay means to attempt, in a serious and honest fashion, to reach some sublime level of understanding, insight, reflection, and so forth. The notion of finding "the answer," of achieving complete rectitude in even the most careful and complete consideration of an issue, thereby disposing of the need to study further, is nonsensical. Such righteousness arguably undermines learning about substantially all complex conundrums of the current scene.

Thus, making it up as we go along is the only way to find either 'business better' or a renewable energy policy that leads to sustainable business.

Occasionally, an actor stumbles onto the stage who so perfectly embodies the necessary characteristics, tensions, and historical components of a particular case that a close explication of his life and experience serves to reveal the stories-behind-the story in question, to uncover what looks like the core of the matter under consideration.

I presented a portrait of Don Harris a month ago that suggested that he is such a personage in regard to hydroelectricity, renewable energy, and popular involvement in both energy policy and a democratic manifestation of technological possibility. I met him in person in fairly interesting circumstances that Justmeans readers can share now.


Chattanooga, Tennessee and Rome, Georgia, like any collection of tens of thousands of cousins on the face of the earth, could fill a cosmic library with infinite volumes of lore. Still, such chronicles would only scratch the surface of rich and amazing annals of the human condition reflected in those pages and other mediated depictions.

Furthermore, these two cities--the former a rising 'success story' of the New South; the latter a struggling reflection of the 'rust-belt' amidst the cotton bands of Dixie--flank Lookout Mountain. The human geography and natural and cultural history of this shale and sandstone escarpment includes Chattanooga and Rome as mere chapters, further expressing the scope of any story about a meeting in the center of the mountain's Geological redoubt.

It thrusts up from the surrounding river valleys like a layer cake, sweet and brown and green and interlaced with all manner of interesting and tasty ingredients. What I do here is to proffer just a smattering of details that solidify my perspective about the South and class and community and policy and so on.

Perhaps the most interesting individual event that I uncovered in my graduate school delving of the coal country of Southwest Appalachia involved Chattanooga. There, a nascent collection of organized coal miners confronted a typical manifestation of 'Jim Crow' business practices, the Convict Lease System, in which coal company owners paid a daily pittance to rent prisoners and send them, little trained and poorly equipped, to mine coal, thereby competing with regular workers and acting as a salubrious lid on wage and safety demands.

So fed up with the brutality and vicious class injustice of this systemic upper class SOP did Chattanooga miners become that, against all legal and social requirements of America's Apartheid--from which both Hitler and South Africa learned lessons of social dominance--that they united against it. Not content to let mere words and protest convey their loathing, these miners proceeded to surround the 'jail' where the convicts dug into the mountain, free the prisoners, and burn the facility to the ground before the National Guard arrived to fulfill its mandate of protecting Yankee investments in Dixie.

While this is neither the time nor the place to reflect extensively on the point, one might note that such utilization of prison labor is manifesting today throughout the region, as well as in much of the rest of the USA. Profiting from prisons is a wedge for fascist social relations, which, whether consciously or not Chattanooga's free miners recognized and overthrew. Which side today's citizens will end up taking, in the long run, remains to be seen.

Though a century apart in time and removed in all manner of other ways, a story from Rome at the beginning of this new milennia contrasts markedly with what happened earlier at the other end of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. Marcus Dixon's story represents one of those iconic evolutions of the human prospect that is so bizarre and poignant that making it up would almost prove impossible. Marcus' crack-addicted mother, in and out of prison, left her son's care, as he grew to preternatural size and strength, to her mother, who struggled mightily to provide more than mere sustenance for her grandson.

Marcus played football with unsurpassed passion, which came to the admiring attention of a White coach, whose parents and grandparents had formed part of the rank and file of the local Ku Klux Klan. He and his wife, however, evincing a Christianity at once more loving and open, rejected such bigotry, even as they had to live in Rome, where in High School they watched a classmate shot down and, but for a misfiring pistol, nearly killed because he had had the temerity to date a White girl who was also giving visitation privileges to a White student government leader.

The shooter never faced more than perfunctory consequences for his actions. Perry and Ken Jones remembered this when they met Marcus, whose burning desire to obtain support for developing his talents far exceeded his years or his ability to articulate. As a twelve year old, he nonetheless convinced his coach and his family to move him into their house, where he became not merely a gridiron sensation but a social phenomenon as well worth a biblical chapter in its own right.

He ended up in a sexual encounter with the daughter of a confirmed Kluxer, however, who was not yet sixteen. He faced fifteen years in prison for 'rape,' though he was barely a year older than she was, and the evidence suggested and the jury concluded that the encounter was consensual. Though unconnected in terms of time or details, nevertheless, this interlude--which vastly deserves a richer telling, does create a telling contrast between one end of Lookout Mountain and the other. Perhaps this contrast can help the reader better to comprehend some of what is possible and necessary in these intriguing environs.

Between Chattanooga and Rome, the Tennessee River skirts the Western edges of Lookout Mountain. There, between the coal-mine upheavals that marked Chattanooga's feistiness and Marcus Dixon's imprisonment, cut short by a concerted grassroots and legal effort for something at least vaguely resembling justice, the little town of Scottsboro, Alabama, a dozen miles down the road from the scene of today's encounter, nestles along a section of the river marked by mills and railroads.

And there, nine young Black men, exiting a rail car in the company of two young White women, faced the wrath and 'justice' of Southern White supremacy and color fear. Convicted too of 'raping' the women, who some contended were prostitutes and some believed to be itinerants of the sort common now and then in the American diaspora, all nine of these youngsters, one of whom was not yet a teenager, faced execution for the better part of a decade, before an international outcry and some slick 'lawyering' also managed to free the 'Scottsboro Boys.'

The area is replete not just in telling bits of social and labor history, however, but also in relation to important developments in the history of technology. Brown's Ferry, where the Southern Company built three nuclear reactors in the early 1970's, suffered a partial reactor meltdown that could easily have surpassed the Three Mile Island accident in its impact, having a like potential to stand as a Chernobyl-level incident in North America. This transpired less than three days before a debate on nuclear energy that I had organized, which drew a standing room only crowd to the University of Alabama in the event.

Few people associate the tortured corporate history of PCB's with the South, but both Rome and Anniston, Alabama, thirty miles South of the verge of Lookout Mountain, both suffer the continuing ravages of toxic technology. Gadsden, thanks to the intervention of Johnny Cochran's and other attorneys' legal wizardry, has received a few tens of millions of dollars in settlements, primarily for property claims, and the possibility of as much as another hundred million dollars in personal injury damages, should the appeals--already taking more than a decade, ultimately declare the ravaged plaintiffs worthy of restitution.

Rome has some EPA and ATSDR Brownfields sites, and the Southeast Community Research Center has helped communities document previous damages and organize to avoid future harm. However, the industrial base in Rome--a coal fired electric facility at Plant Hammond, a giant cardboard paper mill at InLand Paperboard and Packaging Plant, and an electronic engine component facility still operated by General Electric, remains tied to industries that invariably pollute both air and water, while impacting workers and communities in the bargain, providing jobs that come with a hidden price tag, but much more revered than any stab at unemployment.

Fort McClellan is another complicated story from down in Anniston, one of the score of Southern communities industrialized in the aftermath of the Civil War by Union generals who fought their battles with the mind-set of shoppers hunting for bargains. Not only did Monsanto's predecessors end up opening one of the nation's first PCB factories there, but the U.S. Army's chemical warfare command, and later much of the biological weapons unit as well, also came to town.

Locals complained, occasionally vocally, but more often tepidly--about the city's reputation as the most polluted community in America. Childhood neurological disorders proliferated. Birth defects and cancer ran rampant. One professor at nearby Jacksonville State University called the area a "Toxic Sacrifice Zone." Then the Army engineered a nerve gas incineration facility there that in the half dozen years after 2002 burned up enough a large portion of the battlefield poisons that the U.S. had agreed, by treaty, to destroy.

I do not provide the connections here that are demonstrable among these events scattered in time and type. However, readers may either accept or reject that I can show such linkages, given time and support to do so. In any event, when one reads of an environmental writer with an energy gig, who is meeting a hydroelectric icon on one of the world's 'roofs,' where a unique ecosystem continues despite tourist 'development' and adjacent industry that brews as toxic a tea as is present almost anywhere on earth, keeping in mind such slices-of-life as background may help keep the whole evolving tale in perspective.


I badly wanted to meet Don Harris in person. And while he found my extolling his virtues in my original profile charming, I wasn't certain that such eulogizing scribbles would entice him further South than his workshop in Boone, where the Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative was sponsoring his workshop and visit. And a trek up there for my sweetheart and me was likely to be hard to swing.

My 'ace-in-the-hole' was the knowledge that the little-heralded Little River Canyon Wild and Scenic River was not too far afield from his likely return to the Western strand. For a 'hydro guy,' such a setting ought to prove irresistible. Thus, when I asked him a month and a half ago, "How many people, do you think, know that the deepest, longest canyon in Eastern North America is in the State of Alabama," i was very hopeful at his reply.

"Really? I'd've never guessed!" And his continuation was gratifying. "I'd love to see that."

Thus, before five o'clock had passed on Monday morning, my game companion and I had risen from the toasty sack and begun to wend our way, via Interstates and lesser traveled Georgia byways, toward the steep approaches to Lookout Mountain. At our breakfast stop at Jim's Cafe, just as dawn hinted at its peach and pinkish paintbrush along the horizon from which we were fleeing, while the massif rose darkly still before us in the nearly new moon moon that dropped over its edge, we phoned Don to admit that we hadn't considered the time change that takes place just at the border of the mountain.

A voice still sotted with sleep answered the phone, the tone of combined befuddlement and fatigue unmistakable. The upshot of the exchange of the next few minutes was simple: "But whatever we decide, it's about tomorrow, right?" Ah, me! A tank of gas added to the carbon surplus, and further sleep deprivation ahead if we were to reconnoiter this tete-a-tete, I could only cackle unprintable hilarity and agree that a seven, Eastern meeting would give us more time on the hilltop.

This unanticipated and decidedly unwelcome setback, as such eventualities occasionally are wont to do, invited a closer investigation of the scene in Summerville, Georgia, whose citizenry included the legendary and crusty barrister, Bobby Lee Cooke, whom I had occasion to do research for a couple of times, to interview once, and to refer to a friend of mine facing life in prison on yet another occasion--Bobby Lee wrangled the situation, a classic screw-up of 'Southern justice', down to a fifteen year sentence.

While the local gendarmerie soaked up their eggs with Jim's biscuits, and a few locals gave our traveling hippie show a bit of a hairy eyeball, we engineered what one might term an accidental encounter with Howard Fenster's transcendent magic. Those not familiar with this self-taught, self-promoting prophet of ethnic equality, social justice, full-bore biblical fundamentalism, and a respect for all God's creatures and all of the beauty and utility of everything in God's creation, should absolutely scroll through the links here and settle in for a riveting, goose-flesh tour.

The choice that this genius made, having only turned to art at the age of sixty after forty years as a laborer for wages and a toiler in the vineyards of souls--seeking companions to join him in loving everyone--to sell his art for top dollar after it caught on, has ended with the treasure trove of Paradise Garden falling to wrack and ruin. Even though it contains so much that could revitalize us that its loss would be tantamount to allowing the pyramids to sink in a swamp, no clear community or family effort at salvation has occurred. This is akin to not having a Don Harris to ply the Southern waterways for power.

Fort Payne's artsy scene also presented a few tidbits, as we wiled away a couple of hours before turning around again for home. The local group, Alabama, has made large--some would say massive, investments in local creative and community infrastructure, in significant contrast to what's happening in Summerville.

Yet another perambulation of the day, up atop Lookout Mountain itself, to connect between Georgia and Alabama, led to a whopping revelation of social ineptitude, from this correspondent's POV. Of course, also possible is that the Nuclear Renaissance, a la the Southern Company and TVA, is actually a grassroots expression of the advantages of being the nation's H-bomb breadbasket and more. In any event, I stumbled upon a recent rejection of wind on the long ridge itself.

The company proposing the project, a Spanish outfit on which I will report more fully in a follow-up story, will likely give up its plan for 120 large turbines atop the mountain. Once more, as the New York Times' front page story today made clear as well, the United States has an apparently local social upheaval taking place in which the interests of the vast majority of Americans, and the expressed desire of a nearly equal number of citizens, becomes a sacrificial lamb to concerns about noise approximately equal to a conversation behind closed doors, a protection of views for the absentee rich, and whatever hidden agendas that Jimbo eventually finds the resources to uncover.

Don Harris' day, meanwhile, in the aftermath of the WNC-REI workshop that had drawn twenty or so participants consisted of a site survey that gave him further opportunities for outreach and substantiation of this ancient technology that is radiation free. He called to report, just as I sat down in front of my computer to look into the sad state of Paradise Gardens, that "we finished up a little earlier than I thought we would" up next to Smoky Mountain National Park," so he had already booked a room at the inn in Fort Payne and would await our arrival in the A.M.

Little River Canyon and other wild waters in Alabama, meanwhile, would have to wait. The dryness of the timber and the visible waterways did not portend well for a visit about hydroelectricity, but I hoped for insights and inspiration on the morrow anyhow.

Perhaps most evocative, especially in relation to what I am discovering in researching an upcoming third article on Depleted Uranium, was a visit to first one and then another cemetery after the first one revealed a graveyard full of tiny headstones. Both my love and I remarked that we had never before seen so many children, and infants, and young people interred amid the occasionally robust soul of four score and then some who had departed. A well known adjunct, about to become better reported, of radiation is infant mortality, spontaneous abortion, and childhood cancer.

That over twenty five per cent of the graves in two small cemeteries consisted of people younger than twenty means nothing, of course, in and of itself. On the other hand, this nation has not invested in finding out about why facts such as these are happening here. I'd never heard of it before. Could radiation play a part? To deny this would be folly. Would wind energy have a similar effect on youngsters. In all probability, to affirm such would be folly.


When Don Harris called on Monday night, he told me that his little sister, who was suffering from heart ailments that might prove fatal, had slipped into a coma. I feared that he would have to burn the midnight oil in his Prius trying to make the ride to Santa Fe in one day, but he assured me that we could meet, if only briefly. He emphasized that he feared for his own coronary health in the lee of his sister's troubles, but averred that "you can't get around it; we're all mortal."

Given this imperative to squeeze as much out of an abbreviated encounter as possible, my love and I, around eleven, decided to follow the westering sliver of moon in the direction of Northeast Alabama. We stopped atop the Little River Canyon overlook in the midst of a starscape like a scattering of snow flakes on an early Autumn field of blackened bracken, with a Milky Way so creamy that it seemed a solid stream of starshine.

Though I ended up awake until almost four, Eastern time, dealing virtually with an annoyance in Atlanta, I was knocking at the appointed hour, with dawn merely whispering at the Eastern hillside where we were headed, on Don's door, which was next to ours after we sweet-talked the night shift into confirming that this was indeed the good Mr. Harris' temporary domicile. In our rush to depart Georgia, I'd left the name of the motel behind.

Don and I ate the continental breakfast together, while my dear spouse snoozed for an additional twenty minutes. We talked of industrial food and industrial inns; Don suggested that he favored establishments with "a whiff of curry," if for no other reason than the possibility for a bit of something non-traditional in the choices of food.

I spoke of the bad science behind the bad rap on butter, and the military meal contractor factory system that stood to gain in a culture that hummed "Everything's better with Blue-Bonnet on it." Our English muffins had butter, thank the stars that continued to glitter in the pre dawn light.

Don told me of his approach to WNC-REI, his amazement at being able to visit Monticello for the first time. "I fully expected a mansion," he told me. "But I'm like so turned on to Jefferson again. All the rooms were pretty small, and you can tell from the layout that the place just sort of grew organically." Later, in looking at what he'd brought along for me to survey from his own community in Santa Cruz County, he stated explicitly that "every real home has to grow; it's like any seed. It can't spring up full blown."

We spoke of Jefferson's hatred of slavery, even though the wealth that he obtained from the 'sweat and blood of the bondsmen,' as Lincoln expressed it, was the literal foundation of the multifarious genius which he displayed in his home. Don returned again and again to some of the points that he raised in these first few minutes: appropriate scale, a willingness to experiment, an ethos in which conservation without exception trumps opulence and excess.

As we returned to awaken 'my better half,' I commented on his limp, noticeable but not seemingly enough of an impediment to cause him to demur from clambering around the deepest canyon in the East. "Oh, yeah, I broke my leg, pretty badly, way before I got into high speed bikes, running nitro for street races all over" Northern California. He chortles, "I was one wild punk kid," suggesting that in more than one case survival itself attests to the miraculous.

We rode in his Prius, my sweetie and I engrossed in the graphical user interface of his worn but still perky Toyota. "Some research says that new owners might be in danger, because they couldn't keep their eyes off of it, I guess," he laughed, as we scrolled through the different functions and data that it could display. Meanwhile, Don had me look at a Pelton Wheel.

The density of metal always surprises me. "It's so flipping heavy," I said, with perhaps a different participle, "It's hard to believe that water could turn it." But I cupped the little finger nail scoops that seemed on first sight as delicate as a manicure but turned out to be as tough as an eagle's talons. "This is it, huh?" I asked.

Don scoped out what I was pointing to and nodded in the rearview. "Yeah, those things have amazing potential to transfer force. It's almost incredible until you see it work." In the fifteen minutes that it took to drive five miles East and rise nine hundred and twenty feet from the valley floor in Fort Payne, Don told again of the early days, when he used a press, "An old aluminum job," to hand craft each wheel and attendant offshoots as a unique project, "until I wore that mill completely out."

"Now we cast them, but you've still got to fine tune each one individually, so that it fits as close to perfectly as we can manage in its housing." This led to a discussion about a prime difference between small hydro and massive projects "like the Three Gorges Dam," where my love once visited as the waters rose to displace, while she was there, as many as a million and a half cousins from their homes.

"It's not only that the big projects are about tapped out"--though maybe Siberia and Northern Canada might still yield some dammable waterways that probably wouldn't be much more apropos to human survival than nukes. "The operating systems of the guts of the power production mechanism are just about totally different," Don tells me.

"I mean, they both do the same thing. But a Pelton wheel, since the water is straight from the source," and often in conditions of high turbulence as the cascades course over rock and clay and whatever else nature puts in the way, "inevitably works in a high grit environment." He pauses to see if I follow. "People find it hard to believe, but that sucker there, when it's about worn out, those thimbles that catch the water are almost paper thin. The whole thing's lost half its weight. It still works, right up to the last, and then, the water just breaks through," having worn away solid steel a grain of sand at a time.

In contrast, a large turbine, churning as a result of water coursing from a reservoir, "where, pretty much, the silt's all sunk down to the bottom," can have a little greater leeway in the interface of its parts, but it can't take even little bits" of flotsam and jetsam that his configurations chew up and send on downstream.

He also began to talk about the social aspects of his life in California, and the political adventures that came his way as a result. Readers will hear more of this below and in a follow-up report about this white-maned lion of the waters electric. He did make one important point for purposes of an enriched apprehension of the social history of renewable energy. "Up there in Humboldt County,and further North, a lot of what happened started up there. And the financing, a lot of it anyway, was coming from pot."

He points out that now, paradoxically, at least some of those same big growers, having invested in appropriate technology, have done a somersault and oppose legalization. "Yep," I respond. "The big dealers and the police and the prisons are the only social sectors with a real stake in the 'war on drugs' any more."

And then we arrive. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, at least in this part of Alabama, have done a WPA-style service to all visitors, using solar on the toilets and parking lot lights, expanding the parking lot without decimating the forest, and employing locally produced materials to craft an expanded bridge, a natural and yet more easily traversed interface with the river, and excellent signage that brings science to a visitor in bite sized bits of narrative.

The dessication of the waterway itself so shocked me that I hunted up a couple of sets of workers to see if upstream dams had impounded more water in order to ease the bridge's construction. "It's been a little dry round here," one of the hard-hatted youths mouthed wryly, as if I couldn't possibly be much denser.

And I'd known that we'd fallen into another of the times--about forty per cent in these parts--when rainfall had sunk below normal. But I'd been up last, before the nerve gas incinerator started in on the Sarin gas, at the start of the worst drought on record, and "It hadn't been close to this low," I assured Don.

He reflected briefly before he said, scientifically, "There's always cycles, even if we can't see exactly how they work," before adding more philosophically that Little River Canyon might act as a metaphor for life now, to an extent, "where there's all kinds of evidence that systems are weakening, whole environments aren't getting the inputs they need to maintain an equilibrium." Just about everything is out of balance, "if we just look at it closely enough."

Even as meagerly as the river, barely a middling creek now, flowed past, however, Don calculated, "very roughly, mind you" that it might put out "the better part of a megawatt if you captured all of it, which you wouldn't want to do of course, but there's that much power there, six, seven hundred kilowatts or so." The drop, over forty feet, accounts for this potential.

I ask about in-stream designs, about getting small amounts of power from various spots, and he agrees that principles of entropy make such smaller point source contributions to a larger grid less than sustainable now, but he adds. "We have barely begun to explore what is possible in the variety of environments that nature offers us."

He is confident that the problem is not of how much but of how consciously we use the energy available. "Heck, I ran a mill and built manufactured goods on a few kilowatts a day when I first started out. We're going to do incredible things," things that Justmeans readers will learn about in greater detail later, "if we just manage not to screw everything up so badly that the overall balancing systems stop working."

With that as a preface, and since, because of his sister's illness, we didn't have a day or maybe more to hike, we bowed to the river deities at the wide falls from which I have heard a roar that rivals Niagara when I approached close enough to feel the water's fury shake the earth beneath my feet, but which today seemed so timid as to seem almost like a tamed pet, though I know the first big storm will rejuvenate the river beast anew, so that the very rock will once more tremble with the crushing force of the firmament.

We wended our way, discussing all manner of matters as we drove, toward an aged TVA facility that was the initial taming of this still 'wild and scenic waterway.' Desoto Falls evoked the multicultural roots of the region more clearly than any number of disquisitions on rising numbers of Hispanics, but all of that will wait for another iteration about the area.


On the ride from the Canyon to Desoto, Don spoke at some length about something I had never heard, or had forgotten because I hadn't been paying appropriate attention. "In the early nineties sometime--most people still don't know anything about this," he paused. "Anyway, there's this group, a tribe, whatever you want to call it, of Native Americans, down in Colombia, way up on the backbone of the Andes and deep in the jungles on the other side, I think."

I noted that I didn't remember anything about this, having followed other stories from Colombia, such as the assassination of trade unionists.
He continued, "Well, these people had been aware of the Spanish, and other Europeans, for centuries," Don said, but they'd purposefully avoided all contact. "They just stayed in the shadows, watched, and continued to live like thy always had. Some of them traded a little bit, especially for metals, but it was always as part of some different group, so nobody every knew about this totally separate segment."

We went around a hairpin turn as if gravity didn't exist, and I pointed out to my sweetheart what racing would do for a driver. Don laughed and kept speaking. "And then, all of a sudden, I don't know maybe 1991 or 1992, these people just walked down from the hills and out of the forests. And they said, 'we had to come out, to talk to you. You're killing the planet,' they said. 'The mountaintops are dying.'"

This admonition fits precisely with what Don has been saying about forests, "especially at the higher elevations, where they're most sensitive to stress." He recalls, "They did a show about it that I'll never forget it: 'From the Heart of the World: the Elder Brothers' Warning.'"

For the next thirty minutes, we discussed the sense of deep ecology's providing us with strong cautions that multiple systems are coming into crisis. The drought at Desoto Falls and all along the glorious Little River, in the three gorges that it has carved out of Lookout Mountain, only the final one of which is the famous 'Canyon,' stand as an analogy to the present pass of humanity. "There's plenty of juice that the system can produce," is the way that Don puts it.

"But we can't keep extracting and extracting, and then piling up the effluents like we owned a bottomless septic tank." Eventually, all the s*** backs up and blows out with so much force that "everybody's buried in waste and toxicity. It's just not supportable any more."

This Elder Brothers' advisory will begin the next installment in Don's story. Readers will also find there some of the most amazing contemporary and modern history accounts from the hidden underside of California that this fairly attentive White boy has ever heard. A few brief precis could note the following, for instance.

*California Cruisin' and Jerry Brown's eternal return: a combination of community's making themselves into a combination of the invisible and the hornet's nest, all the while standing for the culture that Jerry Brown encouraged when 'Governor Moon Beam' became the derisive nickname assigned him because he predicted satellite communications and cell phones.

*Meditations on aging and the possibilities of action: a reflection on how few of the original rebels have sold out, how many of them, and their children remain vibrant and resilient in their work, and how beyond the present paradigm some of that work is.

*Battles real and fake: a depiction of multiple skirmishes that Don led, participated in, contributed to, both in California and elsewhere, especially in regard to Latin America and the assassination of Ben Linder and his long standing support for Native American rights and the empowerment of indigenous American communities.

*The dialectical dance between creativity and codes: a detailed examination of the Santa Cruz County politics of the 'hornet's nest' alluded to above, everything from choices about utilities, zoning, housing codes, and the creative fervor possible, the healthier balance possible, through living in a less-closely-ruled society, especially when those rules almost always support big business and monopoly mastery of everything else.

*The historical underpinnings of progress and relapse: Don's knowledge about the history of technology, a lot more extensive than mine, and how the best possibilities--since they don't serve the established interests, all too often end up abandoned or sidetracked.

*Northern California, and the intersection of technology and rebellion: a detailed look at Humboldt County and environs as a possibly revolutionary model, in that local control continues here in a way that defies corporate predominance at an institutional level.

Don and my sweet wife and I toodled all over Fort Payne, drawing the sorts of stares that old hippies elicit in socially conservative environs. Don smiled and predicted, however, "these are people who I relate to; a lot of them are racing enthusiasts, and I still have my feet in that world." Each stop proved the perspicacity of his insight, as the iconography of fast cars and motorcycles was everywhere, from the magazine racks to the portraiture.

I will write at least once more here about this truly transcendent fellow, whose limp is testament to his two sidedness, his ability to adapt and mix with whatever nature sends his way, even if it's a vibrating bike frame about to rattle apart at two hundred miles per hour, or a crash that would have claimed many another rider's life. I will add more there, as well, about how a Don Harris might fit into a good old fashioned Southern revival.

Don Harris represents a life of privilege. But his is a trek from roots of beneficence to standing at the cusp of three score and ten with a passion still to give back, to have an impact where the travails of empire and war have plundered the planet, to contribute to communities that do not share his lucky start in life.

More so than the lives of Henry Kissinger, the Bush family, Richard Nixon, and like politicos whom our discourse touched over seven hours together, this man deserves a set of biographies like his hero, Jefferson received from Dumas Malone. He insists that "this is really a collective story, now, about so many people who contributed so much, at least as much as me," and I honor his humility and the veracity of what he says about the nature of any cousin's accomplishments.

But Lord Willing and the creek don't rise, I intend to speak at great length about what Don Harris' part in that amazing tale has been. This son of a highly rewarded worker bee, who could have followed a similar trajectory upward but for all the friends who never came back from Vietnam, after his racing mishaps prevented his own service in Asia, has put a life's labor into harnessing water and showing the spirit of water as a reflection of human potential. This is a message which must endure, if our kind intends to persist without brutalizing each other and the Mother who can only nurture us so much longer before she tosses us aside as ungrateful wretches.


The primary point that comes to me from the bizarre leavening that gave rise to this experience is that Don Harris deserves an audience that includes the entire spectrum of the 'workers of the world.' His appeal is so universal that he can unite, as he put it. "the old hippies who want peace and love and universal brotherhood," along with "the survivalist fringe that thinks the only way to survive is to get a hundred guns, a million bullets, and as many bars of gold" as time and thrift permit.

He nods thoughtfully when I suggest that Van Jones' story presents a pointed proof of how important Don's ideas could be in the inner cities, among minority and underserved communities throughout the hemisphere, and I emphasize, particularly among the villages and backwaters of the Southern Appalachians, where even in a drought such as the one still ongoing, water rains down in wild rivulets. He notes that he has intervened in such situations before, only primarily outside of his home country. He also lights with recognition when I mention Vermont as a model.

"In all my travels, and I'm talking almost everywhere in the lower forty eight states," he affirms, "the only place where most people didn't hate their government was Vermont." And we both nod. The reason for that is simple. More so in Vermont than anywhere else in the U.S., the Green Mountain State's communities were the governments, instead of standing outside of the scope of governance hoping for jobs and justice in the context of corporate hegemony and anti-democratic policies all dressed up in the garb of 'freedom.

Other than that, the graveyards of Lookout Mountain beckon--filled as they are with children and infants who met an end to life before it had fairly begun. We do not know, because we have not studied in detail, the full results of the rapine of noxious profits on the region. But we could find out; if we cared about justice--and perhaps, if my ideas about the importance of the South have any merit, if we care in the present tense about our own future, we should find out.

And the policies concerning energy need to expand beyond the capability of unknown outsiders and a few insiders to stop a wind farm's development. A true American Redevelopment and Recovery Act would make the capacitation of communities, including instruction in civil society and the 'we're-all-cousins-after-all' scientific fact that 'races' do not exist, among the central priorities.

Such efforts would focus on understanding the social and technological history that has shaped this nation and the world, through the offices of small, out-of-the-way bywaters of the Sahara-of-the-Bozart. Such efforts ought to clarify the panoply of possibilities for community empowerment that exist in the realm of renewable energies, insuring that Don Harris, before his dotage, has as much full-time engagement as the white-topped sojourner can stand.

And such efforts could proffer lessons in democracy that might make 'business better' honestly plausible, instead of what the present situation maintains, which is a plethora of fast food and other corporate franchises, a downtown where the only late night facility is one of the three bail-bonding companies on the main drag, and a well-meaning and big-hearted country quartet whose statues at city center speak to what they are trying to do, but as of yet without much overarching impact that is visible to a fairly frequent interloper like this humble correspondent.

Of course, the natural beauty and ecological uniqueness of these bear-haunted and foxglove-glen-laden environments also deserve attention. Sulfuric acid and nerve-gas effluents should not be the standard atmospheric fare of the flora and fauna here. Such beauty might have important lessons to teach, as well as containing in its thrall links to what human potential is capable of becoming, even as that beauty blossoms in a rich outpouring of renewable energy and really sustainable business.


Homer, at the end of The Iliad, gives us a carnival's cornucopia of carnage, attended over by universal forces as obsessed with vengeance and anguish as the most bestial of human kin. Similarly, the scribes of the Bhagavad Gita, poignantly cognizant of the feast of unfettered annihilation that has characterized communities of cousins here among us, imagines the leader of the everlasting ranks, Krishna, commanding Arjuna to "do your duty" and initiate yet another epic slaughter to bring about a culling of the homo sapiens herd.

While socially real insights and the wisdom of battle and survival inhere to this moment in these narratives, other ways of unfolding the situations that we confront are plausible. We might reread Joseph Heller's Catch-22, for instance, and see what it tells us about technocracy and anti-democratic forces let loose on alienated soldiers cut off from each other and their communities.

Turning to each other, fraught as it is with knives and betrayal and misunderstanding, is the only alternative to Milo Minderbinder's vision of eternally expanding profits and increasingly expendable soldiers. The author's final imprecation to Yossarian, "JUMP!!" might easily stand as a capsulization of the stories that I have told about renewable energy and finding a pathway to democratic science, powerful local governance, and, in the evolution of such faint possibility, of 'doing business better.'

In any event, these yarns that I have been spinning here, as humble as they are--and I am better aware of their partiality and deficiency than all but a few readers, also make a stab, as it were, at a new sort of textual, narrative expression of human potential. They seek to thrust deep into the past and cast a net as wide as human possibility; they insist on some semblance of science and technology as necessities for human biological evolution; they seek to integrate story with democracy with a mandate that we refuse at our peril, to evince the power to choose for ourselves, rather than permitting the plutocratic theocrats to dictate our devolution and doom.

Color and class and defeat and defiance loom large in any attempt to comprehend a town like Fort Payne, Alabama. American flags outnumber sardonic bumper stickers. The icon of the cross sits atop the cultural heap, flanked by beer logos and college football preferences: "Roll Tide" and the Auburn Tigers predominate, of course.

The potential energy here is as starkly apparent as the five hundred foot average height of the Lookout Mountain precipice that towers above the town, where the vacation properties of Yankees and other interlopers look down alike on the hovels and tidy neat homes of the local folk. That plummet can continue to remind us of Sysyphus, in his repeated and futile abeyance to the demands of Zeus. Or, in the alternative, we can envision a more Promethean future, in which the fires of human creativity burgeon throughout the Southland as they do in the denizens of the outlaws of Santa Cruz County.

Any even vaguely full realization of that electric potentiality can only come to pass inasmuch as the people here, with the assistance of such oldtimers as Don Harris and the intercession of who knows how many local youth hungry for new beginnings, come to terms with the complex contradictions of the history of slavery and the fate of geography. No facile shouting match of anti-'liberal' nonsense versus calls for 'tolerance' and quietude can deal with the dialectic at play here.

While I cannot state precisely what it is, some of its components have shown up over and over in these stories, as they do again today. I'll keep reporting. I'll remain insistent that we honor our own humanity and find ways to choose a sustainable business model, even if it requires an attenuation of profit and an increase in democracy that threatens the rule of cash over every nexus in the land.

I'll stand with Prometheus, whose bold acceptance of his suffering crazed the Olympians and forced even the King of the gods to proffer something like mercy. Confronted by Zeus' messenger with this promise of surcease, if only he forswears further disobedience and recants his past insolence, Prometheus spat out, "I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do as he likes," which presumably meant further eons of his liver's consumption by an eternally relentless eagle. "As for me, I stand for mankind."

Photo Credits
Coal Miners Tennessee