March 11, 2020

Ancient cypresses inspire less pollution, more protection

You can’t see these from your car. You have to get into a boat and wend your way through the swamp of “The Amazon of the South.” That’s what we were doing when the whine of our outboard softened to a purr, as our boat gently bumped the base of the towering tree. Reaching over, I patted the bark of the mammoth cypress.
“This tree,” the forester said, “was growing in the Altamaha River swamp when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.” Imagine that. I craned my neck to spy the top. There it was, high above the flood-induced butterscotch waterline lapping our skiff.
River-rafting old-timers would say the Altamaha is on a “hoss.” The incessant North Georgia rains have flooded the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Ohoopee rivers, pushing clay-colored water into the typically green-brown flow of the Altamaha on its way to Darien and beyond.
The “hoss” lets you explore. We were exploring when the forester pointed at an even bigger cypress, one that made the Christopher Columbus tree look like a newcomer. If the four of us boaters had been standing on the ground, we couldn’t have joined hands and reached around the massive trunk. The expert surmised the cypress was growing when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So why am I telling you this?
Those two irreplaceable reminders are on the list of reasons that I love Georgia’s environment. As I travel this state—from our coastal saltwater creeks to the mountain brooks and waterfalls and back to the wiregrass region with longleaf pines— I dream of finding a moss-draped live oak. Under that shaded canopy, I would offer thanks for our God-given diversity of natural resources.
There’s some argument about who first said, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Regardless of the credit, I take the message to heart. And when I look into the eyes of our eight grandchildren, I want to do more than just say “amen” to the admonition about our “inheritance.”

That is why I entered—in January 2016—the fight against toxic coal-ash pollution. And for that I have been called an environmental activist. President Theodore Roosevelt was an “environmental activist.” Walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick Teddy’s activism protected America’s treasured lands and gave us our national parks.
One person suggested that—because of my activism—I might be a “Bernie Sanders Democrat.”
Americans have a right to campaign for anyone, including Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. I’m on the other end of the political spectrum. My voting record and yours should be a private matter, but I promise that I won’t be checking Bernie’s box on the ballot. Protecting the environment shouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican issue. In Georgia, all 10 million residents should be concerned.
In 2018 I endorsed Republican Brian Kemp for governor. I was convinced he would listen to concerns about our environment and natural resources. And he has. Gov. Kemp has opened legislative doors that were previously closed. I can say the same for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. Several bills—concerning safer regulation of toxic coal ash—are being considered in 2020’s General Assembly. The public is asking for better protection. Let’s hope the majority of House and Senate members are listening, too.
Now, imagine you are back in the boat with me.
Reach out and feel the feathery bark of those ancient cypresses.
Don’t you feel inspired to pollute less and protect more?
My belief is that, if you aren’t willing to stand up for the people and places you love, you should be ashamed to look in the mirror.
If my philosophy—by your definition—makes me an “environmental activist,” I’ll wear the badge with honor.