ecology + justice + culture in the american south

Land connections, climate gentrification, & science restrictions

It was a fairly simple question. “Where are your favorite camping spots?”

I launched into stories about the Utah desert, the sunset I watched with tears rolling down my cheeks, the storms and the owls and the red rocks. I talked about the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, the foggy mornings and blue shadows and sticky air. I couldn’t choose; my brain buzzed with the many places I’ve been lucky enough to see in the U.S., the pieces of the sky I still want to sleep under. 

I tossed the question back to my friend. His answer was immediate, firm: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He’s hiked hundreds of miles there, has specific overlooks to visit and special memories that travel with him each time he steps on a trail. There are hundreds of miles left to explore, he said. But it was clear he knows these places well. He believes in them. 

Over the course of the week, I asked a few others about their favorite Southern landscapes. My best friend, who lives in New York City, answered quickly: The Buffalo River in Arkansas, her home state. She tubed there with her family in the summers growing up. Another friend mentioned Florida marshes. My dad said the “rolling bluegrass of Kentucky” where thoroughbreds run. One woman I interviewed for a story talked about the corner she likes to garden in her yard. 

It’s such a joy to hear people talk about the landscapes they love. It’s the minute details they remember: the size and texture of a creek bed or how long a certain rock takes to warm in the sunlight; the histories they know by heart and the secrets they keep to themselves about the best nooks and crannies; the weird encounters with wildlife; the belly laughter that comes when remembering a mishap. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we are drawn to the places we are, what makes a place feel like home. I’ve mused about coming home, about leaving it, about knowing when to move on and trusting when to stay. About the people who know exactly what landscapes they forever want to be surrounded by, about those who have no choice in the matter, about how fiercely people protect the resources around them, even if they don’t want to admit they care about protecting the environment.

A view of the Smoky Mountains.

If you’ve been with Southerly since the beginning, you know how important the decision to move home and make a career out of reporting on the South was for me—and more specifically, how important I think it is to better understand how people in this region interact with their environment. 

Like most Southerners, my relationship with this region is complicated. Many days I am filled with anger because despite the years passing, it sometimes feels like nothing about this region has changed. I felt it when I read about political supporters of ex-coal baronDon Blankenship—who was convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards after the death of 29 miners in a mine explosion—and when I listened to the deafening silence from lawmakers after a white man opened fire at a Waffle House inTennessee, killing four people of color, and a black woman was thrown to the grown and arrested by police in a Waffle House in Alabama. Other days, I’m filled with cynicism about the future: for instance, Louisiana will likely see daily flooding by 2100, and a 61-year-old woman in Virginia will probably be arrested for trespassing because she’s protesting a pipeline in her own yard. Then there are those days filled with a mix of heartache and hope, like when the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery opened this week. The first place of its kind, it memorializes the thousands of black people murdered by lynching and demands a reckoning with white supremacy. 

I’ve found that it’s easier to take these things in stride when you simply, wholeheartedly love the land you live on. The injustices are inevitable, many ecological challenges are likely insurmountable, the reluctance of this region to move forward is frustrating. But it’s home, and it’s worth it to try to figure out why it is the way it is. I feel that the strongest when I scramble up to the top of a scenic lookout in Tennessee, or drive without air conditioning through rural Alabama, or pick blackberries in a backyard in eastern Kentucky, or stand on a pier over a coastal marsh in South Carolina.  I still don’t know where my home will be, exactly—where I’ll stay put, buy a house, sink my roots deeper. But I do know that the more I write about this region—the more towns and parks I walk in, the more people I meet from diverse places and backgrounds, the more I understand how their environment has shaped their world views—the more grounded I feel.  

That’s in large part because of you, readers. Thanks for trusting me, opening this email, being willing to learn about the nuances of the South and teaching me about them, too.

Which that brings me to my big ask: I’d like to hear about your home, and I want to include the anecdotes in this newsletter and on social media so the public can see the diversity of perspectives across the region and understand how important and varied Southern landscapes are. Tell me about the outdoor places you love, and why. Did you leave the South? Tell me why, and what views you miss. Did you come back? Tell me that, too. Do you have a favorite campsite or hike? A place that fuels you? A landscape that brings you peace? A hometown you’re reckoning with? Send me anecdotes or photos by email (southerlymag@gmail.com) or tweet at me.

I look forward to hearing your stories.


Stories worth your time

Eight years after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion and spill, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has “struggled to implement safety regulations that are now under threat of being rolled back,” NPR reports. With a shrinking budget, BSEE has about 130 inspectors responsible for conducting 20,000 inspections each year across more than 2,000 offshore facilities.

Pushback across Appalachia against pipeline developers is inspiring, many activists say, but construction is inevitable. “To the best of my knowledge, when pipeline projects have made it to this stage, they have never been stopped,” WVTF reports. “Even the incredibly brilliant complex and powerful resistance at Standing Rock was eventually defeated. David had better odds against Goliath than we do.”

An investigation by the Asheville Citizen-Times found thousands of fuel spills from home and commercial tanks and gas stations have occurred, and they’re heavily polluting Western North Carolina’s waterways.

Around the U.S., the government’s response to hurricanes, flooding, and other extreme weather is pushing lower-income people—like those in the Florida Keys living in mobile homes—inland. They’re often replaced with expensive homes. Bloomberg dissects what economists and housing experts have dubbed “climate gentrification.”


News flying under the radar

Atlanta leaders want the city to be powered completely by renewable energy by 2035. It’s possible, experts say—but it will take a lot more work.

Nearly half of all rooftop solar potential is on low-income housing, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory data. These maps show how it’s spread across the U.S.

New research shows sunlight makes oil spill dispersants less effective, which offers new insight into the Deepwater Horizon spill cleanup.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt signed a proposed rule to restrict science in EPA regulations by preventing the use of studies that promise subjects confidentiality. As I wrote in Southerlya few weeks ago, the move could impact critical pollution research and erode communities’ trust in science.

The EPA held one hearing in Arlington, Virginia about Scott Pruitt’s proposed changes to coal ash rules. They heard from environmentalists, community members, and lawyers who said that no one has ever voiced concern about coal ash rules being too strict.