Thursday, June 14, 2012

Forging Sense of Place Authenticity

Today, as it was 23 years ago this month when I first relocated to North Carolina, green is the state’s dominant color.

Thanks to a program initiated a year earlier, it is punctuated along roadsides by several thousand acres of spectacular wildflower beds, which I noted during two cross-state road trips last week, appeared to be predominantly yellow.

I didn’t realize it until the last few years but I’ve always been fond of the color yellow, especially as the background on state license plates which changed color schemes each year as I grew up.

It seemed that element of sense of place suddenly homogenized around the time of the 1976 national bicentennial celebration.

In fact a variation of yellow background with either black, dark blue or green is a common theme throughout the states in which I’ve lived for three-quarters of my life.  Idaho, where I was born, first used that combination in 1916; Washington in 1919; North Carolina, where I live now, in 1920; Alaska in 1921 (and which was fortunately in use again during the period I lived there in the 1980s) and Utah in 1926.

At one time Alaska included the name of the vehicle owner’s city of residence on plates and Idaho still has number codes for each county.  I was born in 2F for Fremont and I’ll bet it is still common during road trips for kids there to see how many of the state’s 44 counties they can identify on license plates.

Taking the prize though is the keepsake 1948 Idaho plate passed down by my family for the year I was born. For a two year period the Idaho license plates back then featured not just a potato but a foil wrapped baker topped by a slab of butter just in case someone missed the point.

North Carolina’s wildflower program is funded by a portion of the fees paid for personalized plates including the yellow version with with green lettering on my Harley that similar to the one linked here, celebrates the Blue Ridge Parkway along the far western edge of this state.

But apparently even the personalized plates are under siege in the current legislature which has already undermined sense-of-place by authorizing the clear cutting of thousands of acres of public roadside trees on behalf of out-of-state outdoor billboard companies while at the same time they’re apparently hoping to dot the countryside with thousands of mini-chemical plants for fracking.

Soon we’ll pay for highway miles driven instead of through a tax on fuel.  My bet is they will use cameras and transponders such as those used on toll roads and these devices may lead to the final purge of unique license plates and lead to the standardization of plates across the nation.

Hopefully, that won’t also mean the demise of the North Carolina Wildflower Program which is funded through personalized license plate fees. The wildflower program was inspired by a letter from Dottie Martin when her husband Jim was the two-term Republican governor of our state about the time I relocated here.

Retired state roadside environmental engineer Bill Johnson recently detailed a series of events that revealed just how hard his team worked to preserve the state’s unique sense of place even beyond the NC Scenic Byways.

Shortly after the wildflower program got off the ground, it was criticized for importing flowers so Bill and his team decided to cultivate a native wildflower with the common name tickseed or tick-seed sunflower or Bur Marigold but formally known as Bidens Aritosa.

It is yellow and blooms profusely in September.

Bill and his team asked folks at NC State University down in Raleigh to combine tickseed for two seasons in places where it was found in ditches and under power lines in the eastern Piedmont including Durham, where I live, and the western coastal plain of the state.

The NCDOT Roadside unit then bought a small, used combine and continued to harvest seeds while leveraging the assistance and expertise of the Crop Improvement Association and NC State to clean the seeds up and plant them on some unused acreage at the Forestry Farm near Goldsboro to increase the amount of seed available.

They also harvested native sunflowers in the mountains and did the same thing, eventually reseeding them along with native blue aster.

This is not only an incredible example of entrepreneurial public servants leveraging resources and expertise across agencies but it illustrates a keen understanding and commitment to authenticity and sense of place as a part of the economic vitality of North Carolina.

Rest assured that while a few today disregard and even seek to destroy sense of place, there are still people like Bill working even harder to protect and preserve it.

Keep The Faith!

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