Archived Opinion

Things change, and sometimes not for the best

I’m not sure where home is, but my children know. They’re first-generation mountaineers, which means, should they stay, they’ve got a lot riding on their shoulders. I hope they’re up to it.

A few years back we broke a long-standing tradition of spending Thanksgiving with two of our best friends. It wasn’t that we had tired of their company. No, we would miss our get-togethers and all the fun.

What changed is that we were no longer 30-something couples with kids who were still toddlers. Our children were growing up, and they — along with Lori and I — weren’t spending enough time with their grandparents and other members of the extended family. The kids’ schedules and routines and our busy lives had combined to dramatically reduce the number of visits home. Less frequent trips equaled less chance to really know these people.

And since both our schedules accommodate a long, four-day weekend, it just worked. The last several Thanksgivings we have spent two nights at one grandparent’s and two nights at the other’s. It is the one holiday dedicated completely to connecting with their roots, which in two generations stretched from eastern North and South Carolina, up to Detroit, and back to the mountains.

Cooped up in the van, conversations take several turns. We talked of where the kids want to live when grown. My middle child is enamored with the Rocky Mountains after a summer vacation there a couple of year’s back. She wants the four seasons and the winter snow, and it won’t surprise me a bit if she fulfills that childhood desire to move out West. Her love of outdoors and independent streak seem to fit that lifestyle.

My eldest, now 13, lights up in many environs, but she likes urban excitement. Growing up in Waynesville, it’s not hard to imagine why. But then she said something else that caught me off guard — after she has children, she thinks Waynesville would be the perfect place to raise them. She also told me of another friend, whose family has lived in the mountains for many generations, who has no plans to ever leave except to attend college. Afterward, it’s right back to the hills.

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The need for adventure

Later, after another battle (which I won, of course) with the Thanksgiving Day leftovers, the thought that Megan and other friends would ever want to come back to some small mountain town weighed on me for two completely different reasons.

One was personal. When I said earlier that I didn’t know where home was, it may have confused some but not others. My family is not tied by generations to any town or house. In some ways people might say that means I can’t be Southern and experience that whole sense of place thing, but I don’t quite buy that. The great big family is still intact, living in many different cities and towns, still reconnecting at holidays, family lore passed along and preserved by the matriarchs who use the holidays to fill in the colors on one of those paint by number landscapes. Those times are spiritually and emotionally important in my life.

Perhaps I have two homes: one here in the mountains with my wife and children, the other wherever this clan gathers.

All of that changes for my children. At this point they know one home, one house, one hometown, one community, one set of friends and on and on. Lori and I escaped to the pace of small-town life living, but for my children it’s all they will ever know until they leave home.

My dilemma is that I want my children to live lives of adventure and discovery. Sure, that can happen right here. More likely, though, that kind of fulfillment will require a physical journey, time spent moving about while soul searching. So I’d love to have them here, but I don’t want them to ever regret not living out there on the edge of something. It’s hard, I think, not to have regrets if one travels little and strives only to live a life of comfort.

 

A responsibility

About three weeks ago, Abe Whaley, a young man from east Tennessee who now lives in Knoxville, wrote the My Turn essay in Newsweek. Perhaps some read his lament about the mountains being lost to development: “It seems no ridge is too steep, no mountaintop too high, no creek too pristine to bulldoze and build on.” Whaley went on to lament the homogenization of mountain towns, the fact that they are becoming much like every other place.

His comments stuck a familiar chord, one that I clearly heard as I thought about my daughter’s notion of moving back to the mountains and raising her own children in the small town that is a big part of her world view. Is it possible to create a region with a dynamic economy that accommodates growth and creates jobs while maintaining the quality of life that is important to almost everyone who lives here?

In Whaley’s column in Newsweek, which of course was read by millions, he demonized developers who move in to the mountains to take advantage of their beauty. The problem with that stereotype is that it is, in many cases, just wrong. For one, some developers who move in are responsible and do value the beauty and culture of these mountains. Two, some natives whose families have lived here for generations are just as guilty (if that is the right word) of contributing to the wrong changes that are taking place. They own the family land or have relatives who own it and are either building homes to sell or selling off the land.

Locals are also still the dominant force in local politics. One only needs look around at the county boards and town aldermen in Western North Carolina to see that they are largely made up of men and women who grew up here, many of them from families that go back several generations.

The responsibility to protect this region lies with all of us and our locally elected leaders. If county commissioners and town aldermen won’t enact strict zoning guidelines on mountaintop development, then citizens and voters can be blamed for not making it a priority. Whaley bemoaned the fact that in New Zealand a cultural ethos to protect the environment permeates both local government and the citizenry, while in the U.S. it is mostly non-existent. Until that kind of consciousness replaces America’s love affair with unfettered capitalism, we won’t get the kind of growth that will allow the charm of our small mountain towns and rural landscapes to be passed on to the next generation.

Recent events prove, also, that protecting the mountainsides isn’t just about preserving views. It protects people. Last week a lawsuit was tried in a Haywood County court over a landslide in a mountainside development that crushed a house and killed a woman. Homeowners in another Haywood County subdivision — where houses reportedly have been built on 60 percent slopes — have been told by a state geologist that there is no guarantee their homes won’t simply slide off the hill.

 

Passing on what’s best

Whether it’s stemming mountaintop development to protect views and safety, creating zoning ordinances to promote downtown development and aesthetics, or initiating measures to preserve rural landscapes, guiding growth is about a whole lot more than passing on the charm of the mountains to the next generation. It’s about preserving what’s most important to every sensible human being, which are the threads of community and family. Right now we aren’t doing a very good job of it.

In other words, unless things change, this won’t be a community where my daughter wants to raise her kids. We can let enough go bad over the next 10 or 20 years that her generation may be too late to turn things around, no matter how hard they try. That fact alone may drive her elsewhere to a new adventure.

In other words, she’ll stay away for all the wrong reasons. That’s a sobering reality I don’t want to deal with.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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