“No man knew whom to trust, and gloomy suspicions even of his friends settled upon every man’s heart.” So wrote Jeremiah Clemens of northern Alabama during its bitter occupation 150 years ago, as was noted in today’s New York Times Civil War blog. As it happens, the events described in the Times piece took place not so far from where I live. Most days, while walking the dogs, I pass by a commemorative sign recounting some of the skirmishes near the Tennessee border. Of particular interest to me this afternoon, however, was the following sentence: “Through 1862, guerrilla fighters in Paint Rock, Ala. under Lemuel Mead continually harassed Union troops from the Third Ohio under Col. John Beatty.”
It’s not so much the people as the place, Paint Rock, that intrigues me. As readers of Ramble–the blog of my friend and colleague, David Haskell, of The Forest Unseen fame–will know, the Paint Rock River watershed is slated to be conserved as a wildlife refuge. As David wrote last May,
In the case of the Paint Rock, one of the Eastern U.S.’s crown jewels (if you’ll excuse the royalist metaphor in this republic) of biodiversity would be protected, with the additional benefit of providing public access (including hunting) to large areas of unfragmented forest, access that is becoming harder and harder to secure as the last remaining “open” lands get closed off by development and other pressures. I am delighted that this project has received such high priority — it would be a major win for the people of Tennessee and Alabama (and for the world‘s biodiversity — few places can rival the Paint Rock River).
Since then, the project has become the topic of controversy. The federal proposal states, “Lands only become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System when they are purchased from willing sellers or placed under agreements with willing participants.” Nonetheless, a number of residents in the area are convinced there are plans to seize their property. As one blogger writes,”The proposal has all property to the right of hwy 16 included in the refuge, which means approximately 200-250 people will be displaced, homes, property. … We are a strong willed people and we intend to stand and fight.”
A local radio station has even reported that the refuge will be used by the Obama administration to train Homeland security forces. Still, it’s not as though eminent domain has not been an issue in the recent past: you have only to speak to people in the area who remember the construction of Tim’s Ford Lake in the 1960s.
Local politicians have not done much to quell the
outrage anxiety. According to the Winchester Herald Chronicle, at a town meeting last week, state senator Janice Bowling and state representative David Alexander promised to fight if the proposal was against the will of the people, while Congressman Scott DesJarlais is quoted as having said, “Once they piece some of this together from willing sellers, when does eminent domain come into play? If you want me to stand up here and tell you to just trust the government, I wouldn’t do that.” Not knowing who to trust? Standing and fighting? I’ve known rivers, writes Langston Hughes. I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. By the Paint Rock River, time does not seem to have flowed for a century and a half.