|Map showing Spartanburg, South Carolina, 2012.|
In the late 1970s, I spent a year on the West Coast, and it was as close as I ever got to counterculture. During college, from 1973 until 1977, I stayed pretty close to the middle of the cultural road—short hair and plenty of beer but no pot or LSD. If the doors of my perception were cleansed, it was by poetry.
My friend John Featherston, certifiably one of Spartanburg's first hippies, says I really didn't miss much. There never really was a "counterculture" in upstate South Carolina. Instead, John calls what was afoot in Spartanburg in the 1970s a "subculture." There was an old lady at Sky City, a local department store, who would order albums with "wild swirling covers" only on request, and the local music hall, called The Sitar, had a "Tune in, Turn on, Drop out" poster on the wall, but the owners booked beach music bands because people still wanted to dance the shag.
John says the leather shop he ran sold rolling paper under the counter, but the ceramic pot pipes they made in the back room were for "export" to Columbia, Charlotte, and Charleston, not for the local retail market. There was a true cultural divide in the 1970s between the South and rest of the country. It was as if there was an intellectual iron curtain at the Mason-Dixon line. Ideas like bioregionalism were probably stopped at the border.
|David Romtvedt and John Lane (in hat) as they drove cross country, Springfield, Illinois, 1978.|
Then in the summer of 1978 I left Spartanburg, South Carolina. I was a young southern poet just out of Wofford College. My head was full of the high modernists—Pound, Eliot, Williams, H.D.—and my heart full of hope for breaking into print. I went west.
I moved to Port Townsend, Washington, and the locals thought I was truly from another country. The morning I hitchhiked into town, I ordered breakfast on Water Street and the waitress returned with my plate of eggs and hash browns, considered my polite southern "Thank you, ma'am," then asked, "Are you from Australia?" For me the new pleasures of life in Port Townsend were sometimes too much for a conventional southerner to take. After I rented a room from a vegetarian poet, I tried meatless meals with him, but soon resorted to sneaking out once a week to the local A&W Root Beer stand for a cheeseburger.
I was searching for a literary scene, and I found one in Port Townsend. But the scene I found was not centered in publications so much as publishing, printing, and a type of emerging social West Coast activism I soon discovered was called "bioregionalism." I didn't realize it right away, but moving to Port Townsend had landed me in the middle of the intellectual and practical rethinking of the way we inhabit places, an intellectual project that would, years later, change the way I looked at my hometown of Spartanburg, and possibly even change the way it looked at itself. To be a part of that long-ago West Coast literary scene, I had to learn not only about poetry: I had to learn to make poetry books. I plunged in, and worked as an apprentice for Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson at Copper Canyon Press, working for almost a year learning letterpress. The practice of poetry in Port Townsend in 1978 was labor intensive rather than capital intensive. It operated outside traditional capitalist models. Sam Hamill referred to nonprofit Copper Canyon as "life outside the mainstream capitalist economy, living mostly by the Buddhist begging bowl as it were." These were heady concepts for a southern Methodist.
|Carol Vallier Berg, Copper Canyon Press Building, Port Townsend, Washington, 2007.|
What it meant was getting your hands dirty setting type, then cleaning your hands up for the printing. My first major publication was a letter-pressed pamphlet of a poem called Thin Creek, released in 1979. But what I remember most was working with some of the great poets writing in English—setting type for and helping print books, chapbooks, broadsides, and pamphlets by Thomas McGrath, Gary Snyder, Robert Hedin, Olga Broumas, and others. At the press I learned from Sam and Tree that if a culture is to have great poets, it needs not only great audiences (as Whitman said) but also great printers and publishers.
The ideas of bioregionalism were relatively new at that point. Sam and Tree got their bioregionalism from Gary Snyder and the Whole Earth movement in general, but the ideas had also drifted up from California where they'd originated in the early 1970s in the work of Peter Berg and others. The year before my arrival, Port Townsend's Dalmo'ma, edited by Michael Daley, became one of the first of a growing list of bioregional literary journals as the movement spread quickly across the continent. According to Daley, the magazine reflected the interest of a group of Port Townsend writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals in "the visions and concerns of Pacific Rim communities, biological and cultural features of distinct regions, and in interdependence of all life along the Pacific Rim."1
Soon after I arrived in Port Townsend, I discovered the Imprint Bookstore. A place like Imprint was not part of my small-town southern literary DNA. It was the town's literary hub, a thriving book scene that included dozens of serious writers and two presses. It was a place where writers gathered, debated, flirted, and brooded. We never went to town for lunch without stopping in to see what was up at Imprint Bookstore. The book selections were serious. You knew that at Imprint you could find a new volume that could send your head and heart in a different direction.
At Imprint Bookstore I bought a copy of the second issue of Dalmo'ma and also Peter Berg's anthology Reinhabiting a Separate Country: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California. Berg's book was the first full-scale bioregionalism anthology, a collection of recorded stories, interviews, essays, drawings, and photographs "exploring ideas for living in-place." Berg's brief introduction has embedded within it all the basics of the bioregional ethic: that there are countries that aren't found in the atlas and they have "soft borders" and that these natural countries are "populated by native plants and animals that have endured since the last Ice Age." Berg ends his introduction by placing his natural countries in an anatomical metaphor suggesting the emerging Gaia hypothesis (that earth is one large organism) made popular by James Lovelock in the early 1970s: "Each [natural country] is a separate living part of the unified planetary biosphere; tissues and organs in the current manifestation of Earth's anatomy."2
|Environmental Protection Agency, Level IV Ecoregions, 2011.|
Mentored by Sam Hamill and other Port Townsend poets, I soon bought and read books by Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, and I began to rethink my own place in the natural order even though I was a continent away from my home ground. I pondered what Berg meant in the afterword to his anthology when he says that "living in-place means following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site."3
I see now, thirty years later, that the ideas of bioregionalism were central to the community process in Port Townsend: bioregions are areas that share similar topography, plant and animal life, and human culture; these regions are more often than not organized around watersheds and have nonrigid boundaries that differ from political borders like those around counties or nations. After only a few months in Port Townsend, I could have passed the midterm for bioregional studies 101. I knew that to be a bioregional thinker means to become aware of the ecology, economy, and culture of the place where you live, and then to make choices to enhance that place.
But bioregionalism was not merely a set of ideas in Port Townsend. It was manifested in 1978–79 in the work to save Kai Tai Lagoon from a new Safeway grocery store. Kai Tai Lagoon is a brackish (saltwater and freshwater) marsh that fills with the tide. The Safeway Corporation wanted to close their downtown store, fill in a portion of the marsh, and construct a plaza on the edge of the lagoon, a place with large populations of nesting wading birds. An alliance formed to fight the construction. Sam Hamill was in the middle of the Kai Tai fight, and in 1979 Copper Canyon published Gary Snyder's Songs for Gaia as a fund-raiser for the Kai Tai Alliance in an edition of 300 copies printed on Curtis Rag paper and bound in cloth over boards. In the end, Safeway won the battle and the plaza was constructed, but the fight raised consciousness in those who went through it.
In 1988 when I moved back to Spartanburg, I didn't intend to stay. I still had the same dreams of cultivating the life of the wandering bard that had taken me to Port Townsend in 1978. As I had moved around the country for ten years, bioregionalism had remained an interesting and engaging set of ideas, but each time I attempted to settle—to plant a garden, engage more deeply with the native wildflowers, sink my oar in the earth—I had found it impossible to commit to that sort of life. In 1988 I was working at Wofford College as an English instructor on one-year contracts and living in a small, one-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Spartanburg. I still imagined I'd soon live elsewhere when I got the big break most writers dream about.
|Brian Stansberry, Visitors stand next to a 400-year-old tree at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, North Carolina, October 2010.|
That fall, talking briefly with the poet Gary Snyder unexpectedly headed me back toward earth. I was attending a conference in Wyoming in honor of the historian Alvin Josephy Jr., the author of The Indian Heritage of America and many other important books about Native Americans. Snyder was there and when he found out I was from South Carolina, he smiled and said that what he most wanted to see in the South was "the remaining first growth stands in the Smokies."
"Like Joyce Kilmer?" I said, referring to the grove of huge first growth poplars near Robbinsville, North Carolina.
"Yes, like Joyce Kilmer." Snyder tilted his head slightly back and smiled once more, this time, maybe considering the irony of the largest stand of big trees in the South named for Kilmer, the author of "I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree." But then Snyder explained an irony even more interesting to him: "You know, if I want to see what China looked like before they clear-cut it, I've someday got to go see that old growth stand in North Carolina."
During the conference, Snyder also sat on a panel concerned with the changing demographics of western communities. During his allotted time he articulated once again the same consistent position we are all so familiar with from The Old Ways, Earth House Hold, The Real Work, and most recently, The Practice of the Wild: the "poetics" of bioregionalism, of the human responsibility to mirror closely the natural communities of a watershed, a region. As always Snyder reconfirmed how for him values can be articulated by way of metaphors of landscape and earth science.
After our encounter and conversation in Wyoming, I reread one of Snyder's classic essays, "Poetry, Community & Climax," from The Real Work. It is there Snyder articulates one of his most compelling metaphors we can live by: communities tend toward diversity and climax. How does Snyder come to his conclusions? He looks, as always, toward the natural world. He defines climax much as an ecologist would: the communities of creatures in forests, ponds, oceans, or grasslands seem to tend toward a condition called climax, "'virgin forest'—many species, old bones, lots of rotten leaves, complex energy pathways, woodpeckers living in snags, and conies harvesting tiny piles of grass. This condition has considerable stability and holds much energy in its web—energy that in simpler systems (a field of weeds just after a bulldozer) is lost back into the sky or down the drain." 4
Snyder continues with his metaphor, extending it to include not only natural systems but human culture as well: "as climax forest is to biome, and fungus is to the recycling of energy, so 'enlightened mind' is to daily ego mind, and art to the recycling of neglected inner potential. When we deepen or enrich ourselves, looking within, understanding ourselves, we come closer to being like a climax system."5
Human beings, Snyder would say, have a responsibility toward the "ecology" of a community: "Turning away from grazing on the 'immediate biomass' of perception, sensation, and thrill." Once this responsibility has been accomplished, humans must set about "re-viewing memory, internalized perception, blocks of inner energies, dreams, the leaf-fall of day-to-day consciousness." This activity "liberates the energy of our own sense-detritus."6
|Cover of Earth House Hold by Gary Snyder, 1969.|
Snyder shows his real genius in metaphor by extending his forest metaphor not to the easy conclusion—that we must "flower" or "grow"—but to one much more complex. The "compost of feeling and thinking" appears to bloom "not as a flower, but—to complete the metaphor—as a mushroom: the fruiting body of the buried threads of mycelia that run widely through the soil, and are intricately married to the root hairs of all trees."7
"Fruiting" is what Snyder says we must accomplish as poets, artists or mystics; and then we must "reenter the cycle" and give what we have made as nourishment ("as spore or seed spreads the 'thought of enlightenment'") into "personal depths for nutrients hidden there, back to the community."8 Rereading Snyder and considering my encounter with him has helped remind me that I, too, have always looked to ecology for values that matter: systems, when left alone, tend toward diversity and climax.
Soon after I came back from the Wyoming conference, I began to ask for the first time how our local community would change if we took Snyder's metaphor for values seriously. Maybe we could organize our aesthetic thinking in the twenty-first century around the idea that language in general is like the vegetable riot of the plant kingdom, and poetry in particular could be seen as a forest system that develops without disturbance in "stable" landscapes: a "climax" or first growth poetics, can be recognized as a fully developed and integrated poetics, such as an aboriginal people would have.
What I brought back from the West Coast was this sense of a language grounded in the metaphors of ecology, biology, and natural processes. Some of these ideas, such as landscapes tending toward what Snyder called "climax," have changed dramatically since the 1970s. Some would even say they have been discredited and now have little currency. As a poet I have always been aware that metaphors sometimes lose their meaning, but that has never for me distracted from Snyder's original essay.
I also brought back a deeply set urge to "fruit," to build a literary community in my hometown. I knew that no literary community develops without a press to anchor it, so I set about founding a press. I started Holocene, a small letterpress chapbook and broadside press in the basement of the Wofford College library. I quickly found that, despite training by Sam and Tree, I didn't have the temperament for letterpress printing. I'm not detail oriented. Sometimes I'd leave the type unsorted in the trays and let the ink dry on the rollers. Books and broadsides would sit for months half-finished. For several years after that I experimented with offset, and then with the emerging digital printing, but after four or five years back in Spartanburg, Holocene lost steam.
|John Lane, Betsy Teter and Gary Henderson outside the Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 2010.|
A few years later, a Californian was driving through town. He opened a coffee house and roaster on the town square, and so Morgan Square Coffee was born. It was one of the first true coffee houses of upstate South Carolina. Within a few weeks hanging out there, I'd met Gary Henderson and Betsy Teter, both local journalists and writers. We began talking about our ideas of literary community. We proposed publishing a book of essays about Spartanburg. Gary was a decade older than Betsy and me, and he brought a depth of memory of "old Spartanburg" to the project. He clearly remembered the cotton mill town before it had collapsed into its postindustrial stupor. He'd also lived four years in Boulder, Colorado, a place ringed with 17,000 acres of green space, and so he had an appreciation for environmental issues. "I could walk out my back door," he once told me, "and pick up a trail and be in the mountains for an hour after dinner." Betsy had lived on Hilton Head Island and observed the development of Sea Pines Plantation as a resort community planned around its relationship to forest and sea. Betsy brought with her skills as a writer, editor, and her contacts with the "old money" of Spartanburg (her family has been in the Buick business in town for over fifty years). Both Gary and Betsy shared with me a sense that Spartanburg was ripe for a literary and environmental revolution—with a healthy population of writers and readers in its five colleges and universities and a rising interest in land use and green space among others.
Right there in Morgan Square Coffee the three of us founded our "writers' project," with the plan for the first book sketched out on a napkin. The name hearkens back to Roosevelt's Federal Writers Project because we felt Spartanburg was in a cultural depression in spite of the Chamber of Commerce's propaganda about the community and how one of its real strengths was its "pro-business environment."
We started much as Peter Berg had done in northern California with an anthology, a collection of "personal essays" and photos of local art exploring Spartanburg experiences. Our book would be more polished than Berg's anthology. There would be no interviews, no idea pieces. We would ask for creative nonfiction written in the style of the emerging genre of the personal essay. The book would have an elegance of design and layout. We hoped that it would lift the literary spirits of the town and help triangulate an identity for the community. We held a meeting of potential writers and gave them a quick workshop in the art of the personal essay. When the pieces came in we were surprised by their variety. Some were about nature (including mine, about a hike in the old World War II camp near town) and others were about neighborhoods and old movie theaters. One writer remembered the musty smells of an old bookstore downtown in the 1950s when Spartanburg had its equivalent of Imprint Bookstore.
One African American wrote about hearing white clerks in a local department store break into applause at the moment John F. Kennedy's assassination was announced over the loudspeakers, so it wasn't all sweet nostalgia. The publication was a huge success. We paid for it by stealing an idea from Black Sparrow Press in California—raise $10,000 by selling one hundred $100 fine print hardbacks of the book, unavailable for retail. When the paperback came out in April of 1997, we sold 800 copies the first day at a book launch party down at the old burned-out train station.
That first Hub City Anthology led to Hub City Music Makers and Hub City Christmas the next year, and now, twelve years later, we have a list of subjects among our fifty-two titles as diverse as a local revolutionary war heroine, the story of two old army bases in town, two college histories, books of old photographs, a group-written local mystery novel, and collections of radio columns. There have also been a number of "nature" books, including a history of the peach farming culture of our county, a biography of a local community gardener, a coffee-table book of tree poems and photographs, and a photo-essay and series of sketches of a local trail.
During that time, the city flourished, too. Under the leadership of a progressive mayor and city council, a new cultural center was constructed downtown, the town square underwent a $3 million makeover, and even the old train depot was brought back to life, its parking lot now used on spring and summer Saturdays for the popular local farmers market. "Hub City" has now become the moniker for all things Spartanburg. Even the city's directional signs now call the community "Hub City."
|Rob and Joyce Hanssen, Lawson's Fork Creek, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 2008.|
A few years into the "project," we decided to focus on our local stream, the Lawson's Fork, but it was not the biodiversity issue or the desire to preserve a wild place that led the way. It was simply an attempt to "meet the creek." We wanted to reintroduce our community to its forgotten waterway. I had the initial idea, wrote some poems, and led the central narrative's author, David Taylor, down the creek in a kayak; Gary interviewed people along the waterway; and Betsy led the way in producing and publicizing our ambitious plans. She wanted local people to understand how Lawson's Fork was our community's "cultural main street," and how much of the important history of the area had taken place along its banks. So we published a book about the creek, held a five-day festival along its banks, and established a park and a paddling trail so that the stream would be more accessible.
The book, Lawson's Fork: From Headwaters to Confluence, turned out to be pure bioregionalism: a personal float narrative by David Taylor, drawings, poems, interviews, photographs, maps. It's a book that celebrates the very core of this place—our living, flowing stream. The festival Betsy pulled together had community elements that would have been recognizable on the streets of San Francisco in 1970—a local theater group performing amid garbage on the banks of the creek, a sacred jug made of local clay for transporting creek water from the headwaters all the way downstream to the confluence, a gospel choir singing "Shall We Gather at the River" on the last day, and a Cherokee medicine man blessing the creek at the conclusion alongside an Episcopal priest.
In many ways, the Hub City Writers Project (and bioregionalism) has been a catalyst for my life. Betsy and I married in 2002 and soon after, because of our love of the Lawson's Fork, we ended up buying land on the creek on the edge of a local suburb and building a "green" house. The Lawson's Fork festival and book was also a catalyst for my own nature writing. Much of my prose writing has grown out of that relationship to the creek, including my book Circling Home, a book-length narrative about exploring the mile around our new home. My five-year weekly newspaper column "Kudzu Telegraph" began with local observation, its target audience 30,000 locals, not some distant literary elite. I don't think I would now be focusing my attention on "nearby nature" if not for that period reading Peter Berg and working at Copper Canyon.
|John Lane, Kayakers on the shore of Lawson's Fork, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 2007.|
At times I've been frustrated that a true bioregional focus is so hard to hold in the South. Watching Hub City evolve over the years, I've been interested in the way ideas change forms in a community until they find a form that works—Gary Snyder's intricate metaphors of "community and climax" weren't going to work in Spartanburg. The single image that won over the legislative delegation for establishing the Lawson's Fork paddling trail was not one of climax forest trees along the shore or pristine waters within its banks but one of two kids "running the chute" in kayaks— recreation, pure and simple. Is this still "bioregional" or by this point has it migrated so far from the street theater and pamphleteering of Peter Berg that we can't even call it the same thing?
The metaphors that worked for Spartanburg were not the ones dealing with wildness, old growth forests, or the outdated idea of "climax" natural systems. Our metaphors were more often right out of our settlement history: trains, small towns, agriculture. If West Coast bioregionalism was "natural," then ours was clearly "cultural." Even the name "Hub City" was lifted right out of the nineteenth century, when this town prided itself as a hub for train travel, with eight trains departing daily.
In the past few years, the Hub City Writers Project has morphed and evolved in ways that may seem far from its original literary mission. The press now publishes five books a year, but we've also created a community-wide arts initiative called "Hubculture" that includes a performance space/gallery downtown and four young artists-in-residence living in our building in a program called "Live Free and Create." The program is now five years old and involves participants from all over the country. Just recently we have opened a nonprofit bookstore, Hub City Bookshop, on the ground floor of a historic Masonic Temple near the square downtown. The capital for upfit, stock, and early operating expenses (nearly $300,000) was raised from donations from nearly 300 people in the community. A cadre of loyal volunteers performs much of the bookstore's work. Maybe what we're trying to do here is similar to what I saw in Port Townsend in the early 1970s. We're creating a labor-intensive book culture—including a regional press, active writers' community, and a nonprofit bookstore.
|Betsy Teter, Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 2010.|
I see now that the bioregionalism I first encountered on my trips out West has somehow been transformed in Spartanburg into a sort of cultivar that has worked in my home territory. Thirty years after I first encountered bioregionalism in Port Townsend, the Hub City Writers Project has published nearly 400 writers in half a hundred books. Peter Berg would recognize many of the books as "place-based" accounts of the cultural and natural history of our community, but are these bioregional? Well, sort of. A case could clearly be made for the bioregional nature books, and I would argue that the others have helped return our town to one of Peter Berg's hallmarks of the bioregional movement, revealing a place to itself.
|Betsy Teter, Hub City Writers Travis Blankenship, John Lane, Patrick Whitfill, and Eric Kocher pose after a reading at Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 2012.|
I was at an exit party last night for our current class of artists-in-residence. Jameelah Lang, a young fiction writer from Kansas, had invited her boyfriend Whit Bones down from Asheville. Whit is a furniture maker, and he moved to North Carolina "to ride Jameelah's coattails" and to be close to Asheville's formidable crafts scene. After a year of driving down the mountain, what did he think of Spartanburg? "Asheville's a cool town, but artists there think they're entitled to all that coolness. I think I prefer Spartanburg. There are plenty of cool artists here, but they really have to work at it."
In closing, I'd like to make another sort of case. I'd like to argue that Spartanburg and the Hub City Writers Project have pursued a successful fifteen-year experiment in what I might call "soft bioregionalism," the practice of place-based writing. Spartanburg isn't San Francisco or Marin County or Port Townsend, places with intact intellectual topsoil for growing bioregionalism in its pure form. Hub City has coaxed a "working-class" literary community from the depleted soils surrounding our postindustrial ruins. Spartanburg isn't even Asheville ("little Santa Fe"), our hypercool sister city to the north. As Hub City's mission statement says, we are "fostering a sense of community through the literary arts." Or, as Whit might say, we're working at it.
The text of this essay comes from The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place (2012), edited by Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster, courtesy of the University of Georgia Press.
- 1. For a little of the bioregional history of Poet Townsend's Dalmo'ma, see Michael Daley, "Running on Empty," Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, http://pleasureboatstudio.com/Books/Running_on_Empty.html.
- 2. Peter Berg, Reinhabiting a Separate Country: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California (San Francisco: Planet Drum Foundation, 1978), 1.
- 3. Ibid., 217.
- 4. Gary Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979 (New York: New Directions, 1980), 173.
- 5. Ibid., 173–74.
- 6. Ibid., 174.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Ibid.