Tenants of the Land
Pilot Mountain, North Carolina photo courtesy Mark Welker
As a boy in post-World War II America, I noticed that even in my brief, young life I had witnessed so many instances of loss: decreasing populations of birds and other wildlife, fouled streams from dumping of colored chemicals in waters thick with silted runoff and human waste, air so polluted my mother could not hang out the wash on certain days. Even at eleven years of age I felt empty when I saw architecturally significant homes bulldozed for something labelled “urban renewal" or intricate Victorian storefronts scraped and covered with concrete or metal panels in misguided attempts at modernism.
One day I asked my father why? In my own simple words I wanted to know why our society must destroy as opposed to restore. Will our world forever choose this downward path? If so, the prospect of growing to adulthood in such a time seemed bleak. On this day, though, there was some room for hope, not that there was any change in my immediate landscape. It was a warm, bright day and my usually too busy father had uncharacteristically accompanied me on a walk. He said he wanted to see where my friends and I hiked, this favoured path to our scout cabin. We paused en route to lean on a bridge railing some distance from home. The muddy, smelly waters of Grant's Creek flowed beneath carrying the untreated sewage from neighboring Salisbury and the bloated carcass of a dead cow. Tires littered the water's edge along with metal drums and other ill defined refuse. My Dad listened to my questions and my sense of loss. He nodded thoughtfully, puffing on his pipe. He said, “no….. no it doesn't have to be this way, but it takes people to make a difference. “ He told me of his grandfather who lived on the shoulder of Pilot Mountain. Gabriel Denny was a farmer, mill owner, and deeply religious man. He passed down to his children and grandchildren a message, really a family script: "We are but tenants of the land". My sometimes Sunday school teaching father explained that this was derived from the Old Testament:
the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants
Growing up in the South, I needed no further explanation although my father probably heaped it on anyway. Everyone knew tenant farmers, the usually dirt poor sharecroppers who were rapidly disappearing from the landscape. This breed of farmer increasingly could no longer feed their families and pay the landed gentry a share of the crop as well. I could imagine a tenant farmer grasping that they did not "own" their land. But amazingly my father’s grandfather was saying that even the rich land baron, who often lived in the biggest house in the county, didn't own their land either? I suppose this would have been heresy in my North Carolina world, a prelude to being hauled before those sometimes scary, but usually boring proceedings that for a time pre-empted after-school television fare, something called “Un-American Activities.” Gabriel may have served and been forever scarred by his local regimental enlistment on the losing side of the War Between the States; but I knew he was no traitor, I knew he was no Communist. I saw my great-grandfather's point-- instantly. Even a wealthy "owner" should leave the land, (perhaps he was saying this world?) at least in the condition he or she received it …. if not improve it.
My father continued that if I was so interested in this, perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad life's work. “If you don't like this, what we see here all around us, then, YOU do something about it. You can you know?" It is difficult today to imagine how bold that statement really was. In North Carolina in the late 1950's,we knew only a handful of wage paying professions: doctor, lawyer, teacher and other traditional paths to occupation. Not one of our small town neighbors could imagine environmental professions; fields not even courses of study when I enrolled in the state university a few years later. Yet, that idea, that day in my memory, remained. The road has not always been straight, without detours, or kind; but at least I know where it began:
"We are but tenants of the land."
Gabriel Denny Pinnacle, North Carolina