The drought has broken here in Sewanee, welcome news for most of us. But rain brings life only to healthy soil. Moonscapes and other bare-earthed areas are quickly scoured away. The rain’s clear blessing turns to choking brown sludge. This, regrettably, is what appears to have happened in a couple of the streams that feed off the golf course construction site into Shakerag Hollow.
The vigorous bulldozing and earth-moving that has raised huge clouds of dust into the air above Sewanee all summer has left large swaths of soil uncovered. A modest rain storm (not hard enough to flood my garage — my informal metric of severity) turned these areas to gullied mud pits. The water that ran off the construction site ran dark as chocolate milk.
The little barriers that were erected were totally inadequate for the job. They ran cross-ways to the streams’ flow and were quickly breached. Boards placed in rivers do not cause the water to stop; fabric placed across a torrent of muddy water has about as much effect.
I’m deeply saddened by this turn of events. Numbed, in fact. Downstream is the forest that E. O. Wilson has lauded as one of the South’s most spectacular. When he received his honorary degree here, he said: “This morning I was able to visit Shakerag Hollow…It is a cathedral of nature, more valuable for the history it preserves, millions of years, than any building. It’s irreplaceable…I’m reminded of my friend John Sawhill, the late director of the Nature Conservancy. He said that society is defined not just by what it creates, but by what it refuses to destroy.”
This is not just the opinion of an out-of-town biologist. Several years ago, hundreds of members of the Sewanee community joined in the largest grassroots environmental fund-raising effort to that date, raising over $150,000 to protect the north slope of Shakerag.
So, the golf course debacle raises serious questions about how and why we got into this mess. But I am confident that the leadership that we have at the University will step up and respond to this in a way that not only corrects the problem (as much as is possible, one cannot unbury the streams and call back the stream creatures choked by the erosion), but looks to the future to make sure that we have a zero tolerance policy for this kind of destruction.
Some suggested steps that would help to increase confidence that we are indeed headed in that positive direction:
1. Make public the video of the failure of the “erosion control” mechanisms. This is an incredible opportunity to let this event not only change Sewanee’s policies, but to spread the educational message beyond the gates of the University’s land. Releasing the video will also go a long way to convincing people that we take seriously our responsibility as educators: facing the facts with complete transparency.
2. A public report about how we got to this sad place. What do the architects, contractors, and overseers have to say about this? What will be learned? The Sewanee website states that the project “will be in the capable hands of Hanse Golf Course Design, Inc. Founder and President Gil Hanse, whose reputation for artistry, craftsmanship, and personal attention earned him Golf magazine’s 2009 Architect of the Year Award.” Further, the new design will include “environmentally sustainable features that will both enhance the challenges of the course and preserve the delicate ecosystem of the Cumberland Plateau.” This, therefore, is another opportunity for reflection and education.
3. A new policy and set of enforcement mechanisms to ensure that we don’t repeat this tragedy. Every major project over the last couple of decades has resulted in erosion problems (some major, some minor): the Fowler Center, The Chapel of the Apostles, McClurg Hall, the airport expansion, Spencer Hall, and Snowden Hall. Community members, faculty, staff, and students have in each case asked for better safeguards. Evidently, we’re not there yet. But we could be. We have a strong group of leaders at the University who have a commitment to environmental responsibility. We should support them in their efforts to move forward.
I posted a short message on Facebook earlier today about my sadness. The response has been overwhelming both on Facebook and on email. Most people are just stunned or want more facts (information that I hope the University will provide). But there is also a lot of anger. Anger is understandable, but it is destructive in its own way: a mental flow of muddy water that smothers all in its path. Instead of anger, let’s face the facts, mourn, offer mea culpas where needed, fix what we can, then get on with doing the right thing. Pulling that off would be a lesson worth learning.
[Addendum added one day later: the University's initial statement regarding this problem is here. “We will solve this issue in a way that is not only exemplary, but permanent,” said McCardell.]
[this is a personal blog, opinions here are my own]