Curator Sam Burnham
“We must learn to grow like a tree, not like a fire.”
Those words jumped off the page at me as I was reading Wendell Berry’s assessment of the economic mindset of modern America. It is a brilliant, perhaps even perfect analogy that not only highlights the direness of the situation but also the urgency that demands our response.
Let’s take a look at the analogy:
Down in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina massive live oaks stand where they stood before Columbus sailed in search of trade routes. Their roots grasp deep into the fertile ground with a complex network that serves not only as a strong foundation but also as a siphon for water and nutrients. The large trunk separates into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of branches and then sprouts leaves that turn sunlight and water into food. The tree is home to moss, bugs, birds, frogs, and who knows what all else. These trees stood before our great-grandparents were born and they’ll likely be standing when our great grandchildren die. They’ve survived hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and man. It has been a slow a steady process from whatever conveyance placed an acorn in that spot to the mighty behemoth that stands today but it has been steady, reliable, dependable.
On the other hand, a fire moves fast. A fire in a house can easily spread. A flashover can engulf an entire room in seconds. It destroys everything it encounters, breaking matter down on a molecular level and turning a house into soot, smoke, and ash. As it grows, it consumes the very fuel that gives it life. The more fuel present, the more potential for growth. The more growth achieved, the less fuel available. Once the fuel is gone the fire will falter, fall into decay, and then wither away with a whimper. It’s impressive, it’s rapid, it’s powerful, but it’s not remotely sustainable. Whereas a live oak could stand for a millennium, a house can burn to ash in a matter of an hour, if that.
So we look at this analogy on an economic level. A sustainable growth model would have a complex root system. Reliable, various, and diverse sources of income and asset growth would abound. The model would bring in more beneficiaries as it grows. Just as bugs, and birds, and frogs find solace in the tree branches. Businesses in cities and towns would make things, sell things, fix things. Stores would sell fresh food, likely grown nearby in the rural area. People would own their homes and property. Cities would obviously still have more options and options that aren’t available in smaller locations but towns would have a local economy. Boarded up main streets would be a rarity, not the norm. The economy would perform well everywhere. That is tree-like growth.
With the fire model, you see explosive growth. The stock markets set records, large corporations experience record growth. But we are already seeing vast swaths of the country that have been consumed by the economy. Rural towns that once had 10, 15, 25 businesses - stores, restaurants, repair shops, doctors offices, etc - now sit void of anything, save perhaps a gas station that also sells a few food items. Often these towns are “food deserts,” with no place to buy fresh food within five, 10, perhaps even 25 miles. Here we find the irony of people suffering malnutrition while living on arable land. Basic services are found in the cities, not locally.
Under the fire model, commerce has fled to the city. It often takes the next generation of townspeople with it as the young follow opportunity. As the cities thrive they might stop to ponder ideas of how to help the suffering rural areas but they don’t ponder it long. What goes unnoticed is that the city infrastructure is beginning to crumble. Streets and bridges are wearing out. Older neighborhoods are falling into disrepair. You can only add so many lanes to a highway and the more you add, the more you need. Politicians might slap a fancy stadium bandage on it but the fire model economy doesn’t care. It’s burning hot in the fuel rich city but as rents rise, wages fall, companies downsize, and the tax coffers dry up, that fire begins to want for fuel. But there isn’t any more. Automation replaces people. People without jobs don’t have money to buy the wares automation produces. You can raise the minimum wage all you want but once a person is replaced by a machine, the minimum wage is irrelevant.
The fuel the fire model economy consumes is people. People are only seen as resources. They are slots in a schedule and the fewer you need, the better. Customers are just money. Relationships are irrelevant. And if we can move the whole operation to another town, another state, another country to make more money, then lock the doors and let’s go. Companies with a vested interest in the community will not do this. Not ever. Never. Not once. But a company that only came to town for the incentive package offered to them will drop your town like a hot potato just as soon as a better offer pops up.
Once the fuel is gone, the fire economy goes out. And that is the end.
Maybe we still have time to change models, maybe we don’t. I have no specific insight to judge that one with any certainty. But I do know this, a healthy economy is healthy in more places than just in the city. A healthy economy meshes the urban, the suburban, and the rural together and they all share the same integrated relationships we see in the tree. We saw this model work, to varying degrees of success, in America from the founding fathers up until World War II. An honest look will reveal that the change was explosive, the fire took hold quickly and burned hot. It has already consumed most of this country. The rural areas are mostly spent. The inner cities of our huge metropolitan areas aren’t faring much better. The suburban areas and wealthy neighborhoods in the cities are still burning pretty hot. But it isn’t sustainable.
We cannot trust the government to fix this for us. Big business and big government are two heads of the same monster and it doesn’t matter which party is in charge. Washington is too far away, too disconnected, and too invested in the fire model to be of any use. No, we have to fix this ourselves. Our only hope is to see ourselves as customers rather than consumers (like the fire). We have to be responsible about our purchasing habits. We have to make decisions that are healthy for our local, state, and regional economies. We need businesses that have a sense of place, an understanding of home, of people, of relationships. Do business with your neighbors. Encourage the type of economy that digs its roots deep into the local soil rather than just scorching the earth on its way through.
This model of the tree fits so many of the problems we face today - economics, politics, education, culture. But for today think on the economic ramifications. The government isn’t going to fix it. Big business isn’t going to fix it. If it is going to be fixed, it will be average folks who care about their homes, neighborhoods, and neighbors. It will be customers, not consumers, citizens, not taxpayers.
Sam Burnham, Curator
The South is an abundantly diverse place. The South has a twisted and ugly past. These two facts compliment each other. One would likely not exist without the other.
This is a holiday weekend in America. It has been for quite some time. Even before the advent of the MLK holiday this was a holiday weekend across the South. With Robert E. Lee being born on January 19, 1807 and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson being born on January 21, 1824, many Southerners were celebrating this weekend before MLK rose to prominence.
In recent years there has been a nasty trend of denigrating Lee, Jackson, and anyone else found to be in anyway affiliated with the Confederacy. We are expected to ignore any merits attributable to such people. Slavery and the Confederacy's acceptance of it are supposedly enough to erase any and all virtue of anyone who advocated or fought for Southern independence. These two men, specifically, after more than a century of respect and admiration from people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, are now labeled as traitors because they refused to side with Washington, D.C. and take up arms against their families, their friends, and their neighbors. How that amounts to treason, I'll never know.
In a nation as diverse as America, with the history we've survived, with the evolution our society has undertaken, it is ill-advised to delete parts of the story. Sure, it might make us feel better about ourselves to highlight the shortcomings of great men. It might make us feel powerful to cast down the monuments that were built for them. But were are only harming ourselves. We are shrinking our story, editing our history, and trying to delete the parts that we don't like. But in doing so, we delete far more good than bad. For all their faults, our society does not currently produce enough men of the character and integrity of Jackson and Lee. And that is the real reason they have come under assault. It is shameful and it has to stop.
So when a figure like Martin Luther King steps onto the scene, a man who, taken on the whole, had serious flaws and faults, as we all do, he should not displace the great men of the past. While pointing out his flaws today will bring accusations of racism, the pens of his contemporaries were more free to point out his flaws. But if we only focus on his flaws and refuse to honor his virtues, we miss the progress we’ve made as a society. We should honor such a man. The point in honoring such a man is to give him a seat among the figures of American greatness. To tear those historic figures down doesn't elevate a man like King, it places him on a lower stoop. If no greatness came before him, did he really do much to rise to where he arrived? Did he merely take a place beside men of no virtue?
In this struggle to remember all the great men this weekend symbolizes, a sense of rivalry has grown. Some of those who would honor Jackson and Lee denigrate King. Some of those who would honor King denigrate Jackson and Lee. That perpetuates division and doesn’t honor anyone. It only cheapens any commemoration that is held.
On this holiday weekend, it is ok to memorialize Jackson, Lee, and King. It is ok to pick and choose to remember or ignore any combination of the three. What is not ok is to dismiss the achievements, the scarifies, and the character of men who obviously had it. Do not slander the great men of our past. Learn from their virtues, learn from their sins. Let their examples be way markers and guides as we progress as a nation. The American experiment is more than just an idea. It is a journey. Every mile is important and we forget that at our peril.
Throughout the Deep South in these winter months you’ll find one of the great traditions of Southern Culture. I can think of few activities that can match it for social and historical value. It’s built from brush britches, heirloom shotguns, well trained dogs, and quality time outdoors. It’s a tradition that’s making a comeback and bringing an indigenous species with it.
There are sounds in nature that stand out from he others: the hoot of an owl, the gobble of s wild turkey, the repetitive song of the whippoorwill. The call that gave the bobwhite quail its name is one of the best. It is a call that lets you know you’re out in the country. That low “Bob” followed by the rising tone, almost like a question, “white” was once far more common in The South. Development, industrial farming practices, poor habitat management, and predation nearly wiped out quail in the southern wild lands.
In the past, small interconnecting farms protected large and numerous coveys. By obtaining permission from the property owners hunters could spend a day walking through pastures and pine savannas jumping coveys and harvesting birds. The nature of the sport offers a social outlet like golf. Conversation and companionship make quail hunting very different from other forms of hunting. Former President Jimmy Carter, who comes from a great quail hunting area, is quoted as saying “Life is too short to quail hunt with the wrong people.”
One of the joys of the hunt is the work of the dogs. They scout out the path, leading the hunters, locating to coveys, and then lunging forward, prodding the birds to take flight. After the shots ring out, the dogs retrieve the downed birds without damaging the meat.
Like all game animals, quail need food, water, and cover to thrive. Unlike so many birds, quail shun the protective heights of tree branches. They nest on the ground and prefer to run until flying is their last resort. Their nests fall prey to snakes and coyotes, and, more recently, domestic pets. Pastureland used to provide homes for these birds but chemical fertilizers have taken a toll. Neighborhoods overtook habitat.
Locations and individuals hosting quail hunts had to resort to placing farm raised birds to facilitate those outings. Farmed birds don’t behave the same and don’t give the same experience as wild birds. But with declining populations, the only other option was to just not hunt.
In recent years, land management practices have changed. Work geared at bringing back the longleaf pine has improved habitats. Eliminating non-native grasses and vines has helped indigenous varieties thrive again and I’ve personally heard stories of property owners and managers jumping multiple coveys in several different counties. We’re still looking at a greatly reduced population compared to the golden age of quail hunting but the signs are promising.
The best thing that could happen for the quail is the popularity of quail hunting with people in cities and towns. Non-rural people who use their disposable income to come to rural areas and hunt quail are providing the resources needed to continue the work of habitat creation and preservation.
The profitability of the sport has created numerous businesses. Plantations across the coastal plain have begun offering hunts - guides, lodging, food and drink, all manner of amenities, all for a nice price. This provides much needed job opportunities for people in small rural towns. Some locations are more expensive than others. But all of them are making some sort of difference.
I still hold fond memories from the South Georgia Cracker Quail Hunt I was part of a few years ago. We got together just outside Hahira and had a great hunt. The hunting and the company were excellent. The lasting benefit is management of that property. It’s an example of a property owner caring for the land and making it much like it was 100 years ago, That adds beauty to the world, the landscape, and the life it sustains.
The evidence im going on is anecdotal and it’s still too early to declare victory and the return of wild quail but what I’m seeing and hearing is promising. As the economics help drive this trend, we’ll see better managed habitats. That makes for more beauty in our area. Better habitat is good for the land, good for the people, good for the animals. That’s a lot of winning. We’ll take it.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire