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Guest PostsSustainability Writing Contest

Eastern Grip

By April 4, 2024April 6th, 2024No Comments

By Savanna Wooten*

 “I can’t. I’ll be in California.” 

For the better part of twenty years, this was my braggadocious excuse for missing holiday parties and summer birthdays. My way of letting others know I was trading humidity for heat, relief for “real” mountains, NASCAR for culture, y’all for you guys. Though my dad was born in Dawson, Georgia – to me, nothing more than a defunct town en route to the beach – my mom hails from beautiful Northern California, and for a long time this seemed like a good enough reason not to consider the South my home.  

Outside of my well-advertised sojourns to California, I spent most of my life in midwest Georgia and, ironically, most of my free time getting lost in the Army Corps land that backed up to my house. While I dismissed the South, I also used its moss beds as couches for reading; got sucked knee-deep into its lake mud made rich by algae and life; was repeatedly baffled by its ground cedar, too green and plasticky to be real. I drug my parents, sibling and friends into the woods to show them a swinging vine or mysterious hole. For many years, these woods were my primary concern, my social life, my job. I shirked the South – and my identity as a Southerner – while its natural provisions sustained a younger version of me in incomprehensible ways. Cognitive dissonance is a beast. 

This was the status quo until, by happenstance, I chose a college in the Appalachian foothills and through osmosis discovered its storied history of opportunity and reverence for all things – and people – local. Soon I was getting lost again, this time in imposing stands of relict montane longleaf pine or pockets of prairie that used to be pond, on a campus that seemed to be comprised only of nooks and crannies. I was also getting lost in the words of Southern authors… Janisse Ray sold me on the natural and cultural virtues of her childhood home in southeast Georgia, while Barbara Kingsolver carefully revealed the nuances of life in Appalachia. I learned phrases like “land ethic” and “connection to place”. I also began to learn why towns like Dawson look like they do and the myriad ways Southern people and Southern lands have been failed. 

Many have observed that Southerners are natural storytellers, authors and songwriters. But it’s difficult to put a finger on why. Though I believe firmly in the “comparison is the thief of joy” adage, I can’t help but observe differences between the two places I’ve claimed as home: California’s peaks, like its cars and subdivisions, are geologically brand new. Whereas our mountains are ancient, steeped in rich albeit complicated histories. This primordial land is made for story and dumps its history into our DNA. Indeed, the South sometimes seems like a mosaic of natural wonders: muscles filtering our rivers, salamander species multiplying with each fold of the land, swampy plants with mouths agape. But this ecological patchwork has also been tarnished. Our mountains have been carved up, spit out of smokestacks and laid to rest in unlined pits throughout the southeast. Our rivers elicit conflict instead of celebration. Our responses to natural disasters and pollution hinge on race and money. Our small towns are failing and accents fading.  

 I am a born-again Southerner, writing this essay from the most aquatically biodiverse state in the country, and this place makes my heart sink and soar every day.  

Superficially, the South can appear fractured in nearly every way imaginable. In November, local news stations display state maps dappled with blue and red. We see the impacts of racist policies and sentiments from a frighteningly near past. Waterways are being diverted and fragile habitats bisected in the name of infrastructure-laden progress. Climate change impacts us while we disagree on the details. But when you zoom in, so much good is happening too. I grew up accompanying my parents to packed Sierra Club meetings in the Episcopal Church basement and listening to my dad’s band play at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper fundraisers on a pontoon boat as it putted around West Point Lake. And these experiences are not unique. Southern sustainability is happening throughout our region at the community level, and it has been this way for a long time… 

A century ago in our backyard, George Washington Carver extolled the benefits of cover crops and land conservation while his peanuts provided autonomy for Black farmers. Today, grassroots-minded Southerners like Catherine Coleman Flowers are making hyperlocal impacts in environmental justice that have captured the attention of the entire nation. And sustainability is perpetuated here in small ways too. Southerners go hunting and fishing and birding and botanizing… all pastimes that force us to know and invest in this land. We share stories, recipes and fishing holes. We bring water samples to our Riverkeepers and clean up streams when we can. We’re good at finding ways to simultaneously connect to nature and one another, which is something that will sustain us for many lifetimes. 

For my part, I now feel very much at home in the South. I say “y’all” and seek out chicken salad sandwiches on every menu. My research also addresses environmental concerns in the southeast, but I often grapple with how much my myopic scientific pursuits truly “count” toward sustainability in this region. I try to make them count by focusing on human impacts, seeking local knowledge and making the findings as universal and accessible as possible. But when these efforts inevitably fall short… I bring water samples to my Riverkeeper and clean up streams when I can. I break a sweat ripping up invasive species. I convince elementary schoolers to fall in love with their own backyards. Because of my background in environmental science (and penchant for environmental studies), I know intimately what we stand to lose in the South, and I – like so many others – refuse to stand still. 

*Savanna is a third year PhD student studying Crop Soil & Environmental Science