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Sustainable living

By Henry Lamb
web posted December 23, 2002

The pavement ended a full mile before the rocky, rutted trail played out at a clearing near the top of the mountain. A tiny tower of white smoke rose from a rock chimney attached to the log cabin where Charlie Grindstaff had lived for eighty-some years. He didn't know, exactly.

He didn't seem to notice the October chill that frosted the morning air; he sat, peeling apples, at a table in his front yard that he had made years ago.

"Come on up," he shouted, not altering the deliberate pace of the peel, growing, unbroken from the apple in his hand.

Some people say that rainbows replenish their colors every October from the leaves that blanket the mountains of western North Carolina. I had to stop for a moment; the postcard panorama, and the steep grade, took my breath away.

"Do I know you?" Charlie asked.

I introduced myself, and told him I was a new teacher at the school in town.

"If I ever knowed you, you've done growed clean out of my recollection," he said, never missing a turn, separating the peel from the apple in his hand.

Charlie still lived as all mountain people had lived, for most of the 20th century. The land offered life; it was up to Charlie to get what he needed from the land, and to see that the land continued to produce enough to meet the needs of his family.

He didn't know why, or when his ancestors came to the mountains; he remembered vividly, however, his years on the mountain.

"Pap got the trees off the ridge," he explained, pointing to the crest of the mountain, fifty yards above the cabin. "Mules work better on a downhill drag." He said his father had built the cabin on the South slope, "...to get the winter sun."

The rocks for the chimney came from the garden spot, just above the cabin.

"Corn, beans, and ‘taters, mostly; and lots of greens and okri; got enough fer two winters," he said.

Charlie told me about the time the bear got into the barn. "We sure ate good that winter."

"Lightnin," (moonshine whisky) he said, when I asked what he did to get money. "Don't need much," he said. "I wouldn't lie you fer the world and what's in it."

My visit with Charlie was more than thirty-years ago. For hours, he told me about the hardships and the joys of living on the mountain, all the while, peeling and slicing apples to dry for "fried pies when it gets cold."

Charlie's life is the essence of sustainable living. Depending entirely upon himself, and the land he loved, Charlie used his energy, his intelligence, and his resources, to pursue happiness as he defined it.

Few people in the 21st century will choose to live as Charlie lived, but the principles which guided his life are as valid today as they have ever been. Each individual is responsible for his own well-being; each individual has the inalienable right to use his own resources to pursue happiness as he defines it.

How far removed is the popular understanding of sustainable living: government-controlled resource use; government-dictated living patterns; government-defined group happiness.

The same principles which guided Charlie's life, guided America's growth and development - until the last quarter of the 20th century. As the 21st century begins, there is a cataclysmic conflict between the philosophical principles which will direct future development throughout the world.

The emerging philosophy holds that people are better served when government allocates resource use to ensure equity for all. Never mind, that this philosophy has failed in the Soviet Union, in Cuba, and in every other society that has embraced it. This is the philosophy that underlies the popular understanding of sustainable living.

Should this philosophy prevail, the 21st century will produce a global replay of the Soviet experience: prosperity for those who have never known it, until those from whom the prosperity is taken are drained. Then, the inevitable downward spiral, until eventually - collapse.

Next comes the realization that if we are to live and do well in this world, we, individually, like Charlie, must use our own energy, our own intelligence, and our own resources, to pursue happiness as we define it. Perhaps by then, government will be out of the way.

As Charlie says, "I wouldn't lie you fer the world and what's in it."

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization, and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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