Recently, I spent a week in Cataloochee Valley in the Smoky Mountains. At the turn of the century, prior to the land becoming a National Park, Cataloochee was home to a handful of hard working, resourceful families. When North Carolina and Tennessee gave the land to the nation to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, these families, by and large, were removed from their homesteads, and many of their homes and outbuildings were burned to the ground to restore the land to its “natural” state. A few barns and houses were pardoned from the blazing path toward natural, and those houses are now preserved as part of the Park’s human history lore.
From a distance, these historic buildings are remarkably beautiful, but when you come close, you see that the rough-hewn boards are littered with graffiti. Initials, names, dates, and other proud proclamations of “I was here” are carved into the bones of old buildings. Graffiti, it seems, is one verse in the song of the generation of “special" people.
I grew up in the rising tide of “special.” I was part of that first wave where every child on the team, regardless of ability, received a plastic trophy commemorating the season. I came of age when bumper stickers touting messages like: “My child is an honor student” were popular. While my own parents eschewed such outward displays, I have no doubt that I was thoroughly steeped in the message of my specialness anyways.
It took humans a few decades to realize that the chemical fertilizers that initially seemed to be the unbridled miracle that would feed our growing population, were in fact destroying the very foundation of our food system. It seems now we are experiencing similarly delayed shockwaves emanating from years of children being steeped in the “You are special” message.
As one of those special children, it’s been a bumpy ride into the adult reality of my utter ordinariness. And I have to wonder if I’d been born a few decades earlier would it have taken so long for this realization to dawn on me. In describing his childhood in the essay, "Attaboy", David Sedaris (currently age 59) says: “Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator or anywhere near it, because our parents recognized it for what it was: crap. They did not live in a child’s house, we lived in theirs.” Ever the master of humor, Sedaris hits the mark of our current collective insanity dead on.
The lazy scratching of a name into a board that took somebody else hours to harvest and cut, and real skill and ingenuity to fashion into a building is, I think, an unfortunate cocktail of perceived specialness paired with the uniquely human desire to be immortalized through and by stuff. Perhaps I’m being too hard on my generation. Perhaps every generation has been plagued by the notion of being deeply special (and therefore pardoned from the burden of thinking about anyone else’s needs). Regardless, as I explored those old buildings in Cataloochee, I felt annoyed on behalf of the dead men and women whose homes and schoolhouses and chapels were defaced.
Of course graffiti is just a canary in the coal mine. Our more insidious manifestations of specialness come to fruition on the grander scale of complete environmental degradation. And while I’ve never personally defaced a historic building, I am certainly complicit in leading a life that is net harmful for the environment.
In a recent public conversation, poet David Whyte shared the following reflection: “I often feel that one of the real signs of maturity is not only understanding that you’re a mortal human being and you are going to die, which usually happens in your mid 40s or 50s…But another step of maturity is actually realizing that the rest of creation might be a little relieved to let you go. That you can stop repeating yourself, stop taking all this oxygen up, and make way for something else…”
If we are to leave this world habitable for future generations, it seems we must learn how to re-write this now embedded perception of specialness. It may seem rather Eeyoreish to wake up each morning and look in the mirror, and say to yourself: “I am not special. I am a very small, utterly ordinary part of a whole. The whole does not need me, and I am here just for a short visit,” but maybe with time, the message could shift from sounding like a dark lament to sounding like a reality worth celebrating. What if the monument we sought to create did not exist in the tangible world? What if leaving our mark became vilified, and erasing our traces were exalted?
This “leave no trace” way of being in the world is perhaps best captured by the philosophy of the original inhabitants of the land that now comprises the Smokies. Native American culture emphasizes living alongside nature, rather than dominating the natural world—on treading lightly rather than leaving a mark. In his novel, Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier writes: “For as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.” We’d do well to set down our pride, and open up to a new (to us) but in fact, ancient way of being in the world.