Uncommon People and the Common Good (Essay)

As we Americans experience another period of societal and cultural upheaval (aka change), a few reflections on the lasting legacy of a few committed individuals who were also determined to change the status quo.

I spent more than a few miles on this tour reflecting on all the natural splendors I've visited in the southeast - swamps, maritime forests, barrier islands, salt marshes and other natural and geological oddities. Over twenty years I have amassed quite a passport book of out-of-the-way treasures of the southeast and south Atlantic coast, even when I leave out the many stunning lands in the southern Appalachians, a region where I have spent considerable time on repeated visits.

There is of course a maelstrom going on right now in Washington on several dozen different important issues, some of which will have profound impacts for many years to come. As I traveled the interstates and 4-lanes to and from shows with brief detours to scenic places, I found myself thinking about a phrase that has been enshrined in our nation's DNA essentially from the beginning, the notion of a "common good".

It's not hard to find examples all around of how we have collectively committed laws and resources to a common good - the interstate highway system certainly ranks high on the list. Our national defense, shared regional resources like water and air, safety and emergency preparedness, and the notion of public lands all seem to fit the bill to my mind.

But in these many places that I have visited, there is another common thread. More often than not, these places were preserved by the work of one person who lived and loved the landscape they called home, learned to value its special qualities and to see it as a vital part of a larger ecosystem. Someone working doggedly to convince others of the intrinsic value of a place, building a coalition within a community and a region to advocate for that value, and doing the political legwork - and often compromise - to codify it.

Many preservation efforts to date back to a time when capitalists and oligarchs ran monopolies and controlled much of America value of community and neighborhood coalitions wealth, and yet they worked towards these goals and set aside these places that we enjoy over 100 years later. To preserve a place before it was all clearcut, drained, dammed, mined or in some other way compromised beyond recovery. In most cases, human history and activity are intertwined with the nature story.

I visited South Carolina's Congaree National Park, one of the newest in the system. I walked the long boardwalk through the woods and swamps, including barefoot over a long stretch where a few inches of swamp water covered the boardwalk. I tried to imagine what Harry Hampton had seen and felt, as he dedicated much of his adult life to the preservation of the Congaree. While we may be more familiar with famous preservationists like John Muir, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who battled for decades to build support for the Everglades National Park, America's conservation story is full of lesser known but equally committed individuals.

It is hard to reconcile those experiences and ideas with the recent push in Congress to designate federally-held lands as having $0 value. I'm sure that they have more than a little intrinsic to the people who live there, particularly in the gateway communities but also to those who fish, hunt, camp, boat and otherwise recreate. And for those mountain lands that are the headwaters of many urban watersheds, providing drinking water supplies for tens of millions.

I drove past an enormous solar array in the South Carolina upcountry. For anyone who has worked out in the hot summer sun in the south, there surely is plenty of energy to be harnessed with a modest amount of effort and expense, and a whole lot more gently on the landscape. As I filled my gas tank for $1.87/gallon in South Carolina and $2.25 in Florida, it was hard to imagine that we somehow have a shortage of cheap oil and gas. And that sacrificing swaths of publicly-held land for drilling, fracking and mining is the only way to address it.

Those public lands, the common good. Something for all of us, at very little real expense to any of us. But once they have been compromised and degraded, their special qualities a thing of history, they have been at great cost to each of us. I'd prefer to be a little forward-thinking for the future, and perhaps truly "conservative," and  save those special qualities for others to enjoy decades from now.



For the curious, here are a few of those little and large treasures I've explored and enjoyed in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida:

  • ACE Basin Nat'l Wildlife Refuge, Edisto Beach State Park & Botany Bay Plantation - Edisto SC
  • Amelia Island and Little Talbot Island State Parks, Jacksonville FL
  • Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain GA
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore & Ocracoke Island, Hatteras NC
  • Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Sandy Springs GA
  • Congaree National Park, Gadsden SC
  • Cowpens National Battlefield, Cowpens SC
  • Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve/WMA, Hollywood SC
  • Everglades National Park & Big Cypress National Preserve, south FL
  • Four Holes Swamp/Francis Beidler Forest Preserve, Harleyville SC
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore, Gulf Breeze FL
  • Hunting Island State Park, Beaufort SC
  • Morrow Mt. State Park, Albemarle NC
  • Ocala National Forest, north-central FL
  • Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge/Stephen Foster State Park, Fargo GA
  • Perdido Key State Park, Gulf Beach Heights FL
  • Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, Pritchardville SC
  • Wm. Umstead State Park, Raleigh NC

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