I’ve been arguing with my friend Ned for years about the environment in general and climate change in particular.
Nowadays, Ned’s an oilman. But we grew up together in Atlanta, and he introduced me to the cozy magnificence of North Georgia.
We paddled rivers. We hiked up mountains. We crawled through cramped, dank caves together. We gathered enough wood to build ridiculous fires. We listened from our tents to owls, frogs, whippoorwills and raccoons. Usually, the raccoons were loudest because they were spending the night rummaging through our food.
One day, when we were 15, Ned, two companions and I decided we were just too hungry. For 10 or 11 days, our little party had been hiking up the southern end of Appalachian Trail. We were looking forward to our end-of-the-trip feast.
Before we left town, Ned had noticed on a topographical map a side trail that left the Appalachian Trail about 110 miles from where we were going to start our trip. The side trail emerged at a place called Andy’s Trout Farm. It would serve as the end of our hike.
Ned’s mother agreed to pick us up at Andy’s Trout Farm and drive us over to our favorite family-style restaurant. There, at Louise’s in Clayton, Ga. (a bed-and-breakfast made famous by the movie “Deliverance,”), we planned a glutton’s ball of fried chicken, cornbread, mashed sweet potatoes, green beans, apple cobbler and other Southern goodies.
Our last morning on the trail, we ate an extra-large bucket of oatmeal, on the theory that it would expand our stomachs and that if we also skipped lunch, we’d have enough room in our bellies to break some sort of all-you-can-eat record. But our stomachs began rumbling a little early. So Ned got the bright idea for us to take a “shortcut” one ravine before the side trail.
One big problem: We read the map wrong. We left the trail one ravine before the ravine before our side trail. It led us straight down, into an entirely different creek bed, which emptied into an entirely wilder river valley. There was no trail.
We spent a good chunk of the day, wallowing on our bellies under rhododendron thickets through a cold, cold creek bed. We became intimate with the flora, and kept our eyes and ears peeled for biting, scratching, poisonous or diseased fauna. It was beautiful.
Finally, under a darkening sky, we emerged at some sort of campground. We paid a man to drive us in his pickup truck over to Andy’s Trout Farm. Then, Ned’s mom shuttled us over to Louise’s, which miraculously was still open. I believe we did set an eating record that evening.
Nowadays, Ned gets out into the woods a lot more often than I do, except it’s in Alberta. And there’s a good bit less of Mother Nature in North Georgia than there used to be. But groveling through the creeks that fed the Coleman River — which from what I understand remains as wild as ever — and similarly blissful misadventures left a lasting impression.
Even in metro Atlanta — amid channelized creeks, reshaped landforms, and hybridized, fertilized, synthesized azaleas gardens — there are plenty of reminders that North Georgia is blanketed with gorgeous relief and a startling diversity of plants and animals. The hills in and around the city only echo the more impressive Appalachians farther north, but they are members of the same blessed genus.
In my own mind, my woodlands mentor has credibility — even though I consider him something of an apostate. He knows something about the special value of nature. So, his arguments challenge me when I call him out for trumpeting the wondrous contribution of oil wells to our environment, and especially when I lecture him too self-righteously.
If you’re so holy, he’s essentially asked me in a thousand different way over the past two decades, what are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?
In a way, this house an answer to Ned: We’re trying to create a structure that’s as energy efficient and water efficient as possible, and that uses material produced with little harm for the environment.
I admit that our own budget limits and selfish compromises will cause our “answer” to Ned’s question to be imperfect. For now, at least, we’re not planning to install solar energy or a potable water system or even foot-thick walls or any of the other radical steps that a lot of people think of as being necessary to make a building “green.” The hard truth is that we’re not going to get our carbon output down to the level of a typical family in any of the world’s poorer nations.
We’re materialistic, mainstream Americans. Guilty as charged. And — like 90-something percent of the folks building “green” houses in America today — we’re building a house that doesn’t diverge too far from the mainstream path.
OK. So, just in case you thought you were about to follow the exploits of a family building a house of corn cobs or cow dung, let me be very clear about our goals: We hope, like many more experienced builders before us, to model how fairly conventional techniques can be used to create a wonderful home that edges the standard of a house in our part of the world just a wee bit closer to sustainability. And even though we’re spending a bit more time and money on our house than we might be otherwise, we’re hoping that more care and more quality holds enough value to turn it into a reasonable investment.
With all those limitations, our home will serve as a paean to our region’s hospitable nature. For thousands of years, North Georgia’s hills, valleys and mountains provided everything people needed to live in comfort: a mild climate with four seasons, materials for shelter, plenty of food, and an endless surge of clean, moving water.
Those days are pretty much over, for now at least. Since Atlanta was founded — at the intersection of two rail lines — and especially since the advent of trucking, local food, fabrics and building materials have been pushed aside for things that came from elsewhere.
And, because we haven’t needed the very land that nurtured our settlements here, we’ve thought nothing of changing it. It’s been cleared, scraped, cut, carved, reformed and rerouted. First, the idea to take what was on it or under it. More recently, it’s been all about altering that land to make way for a massive, car-centric blob. Over the last half-century “metro Atlanta” has gobbled up North Georgia — by some measures, it’s consumed land more quickly than any other settlement in human history.
We’re fortunate — Silvia and I. We have the rare opportunity to restore our small slice of land as a natural place. A small and insignificant natural place, in the grand scheme of things. But one that flickers with all those shades of green beneath the starlight, and reminds us what a gift the world around us is.