Saturday, May 31, 2014

Turning Pejoratives Into Badges of Honor

I wasn’t surprised that a big story out of Durham, North Carolina last week was buried under several pages of other local news in our local newspaper.

There are far too many “great things” emanating from here to always be front page news.

In my former role as head of Durham’s marketing organization, it fell to us to illustrate the sheer volume both to residents, but even more so to people who work but probably don’t live here, as well as to the news media across the state and nation.

I remember meeting with the newspaper editorial board in Greensboro for a briefing and having to disavow an editor of the notion “only in Durham,” a popular short hand at the time to broad brush some shortcomings here but also applicable to many cities.

Pejoratives such as this about Durham are rare now.  Following a decade of turnaround between 1989 and 1999 spearheaded by that guardian of its sense of place, for more than a decade now, Durham has had the highest image among North Carolinians in general out of all major cities here.

But a state lawmaker from Union County down on the South Carolina line where the largest town has a population of 40,000 tried his best to create another earlier this month while driving another effort to starve cities statewide of revenue.

Dismissing the harm this would bring to millions of the state’s residents just to satisfy a few whining special interests, of which his HVAC business is one, he sniped to a Durham lawmaker who urged caution that his community could stop providing services “or whatever else they do in Durham…”Whatever Else

The real news though is how quickly another Greensboro editor who was in the room back then came to Durham’s defense writing that “It happens that ‘whatever else they do in Durham” has produced a pretty vibrant city.”

While also linking to Durham’s overarching website, he went on to note that Durham is ranked #4 in the nation this year by, which scientifically ranks America’s best places to live and visit,  followed by Greensboro at #19, Asheville #48 and Chapel Hill #71.

This is only one of hundreds of such accolades, across a variety of measures, that Durham has brought to North Carolina.

In the write up, while linking to things to see and do in Durham, the researchers noted that “it’s hard to separate Durham from its anchor, Duke University.”

The nationwide announcement I mentioned at the beginning of this essay was about the publication of the latest research done by Dr. Stuart Pimm (his 250th such paper,) who is Duke’s chair of conservation ecology in the school of the environment here.

He and his wife are also neighborhood activists here or “whatever else it is we do in Durham,” which is also home base to the collective of conservation professions across the globe called Saving Species.

About the time I first became a DMO exec, Pimm was getting his Ph.D. out west against the backdrop of southern New Mexico’s spectacular Organ Mountains.  But while now also an American, Pimm is originally from the midlands of Derbyshire, England.

We have another connection there because that area was set aside in Royal Forest by my 25th grandfather, William the 1st (notice the resemblance,) after he and some of my other Norman ancestors conquered that country nearly a thousand years ago.

Actually, he was also called William “the Bastard,” which may be where I got it (smile.)  He wasn’t known for conservation but he must have had some innate understanding.

The huge forests he set aside or afforested also included heathers and heath, grasslands, meadows and other wetlands, everything to support wildlife.  My 25th grandfather was an avid hunter, a trait that finally petered out with me.

At one point these forests covered a third of England below the border with Scotland.  The laws setting aside these forests even named a variety of protected species while also banning hunting dogs.

Forest law, as it called, was largely anachronistic by the reign of the Tudors but references to these forests and the wildlife they protected are found in plays by William Shakespeare.

About the time I arrived in Durham twenty-five years ago, a part of Dr. Pimm’s homeland was again set aside as The National Forest with bipartisan support in Parliament.  It has been reforested with 9 million trees to date.

It also linked two of those ancient forests that may inspired him as a boy.

The purpose of the reclaimed forest is not only forestry but biodiversity including wildlife habitat, historic preservation, reclamation of depleted landscape, carbon sequestration (climate control) and of course, recreation.

England’s National Forest lies an hour and a half drive from 10 million people.  In addition to visitors, it has been a significant draw for new and expanding businesses as well as population growth.  A population nearly the size of Durham now lives and conducts business in this forest.

As we know in American, people pay a premium—as much as 50%—to just be near trees and nature.

Stretching across part of Derbyshire, England’s National Forest is also a haven for wildlife.

Dr. Pimm’s new study is drawing incredible attention because it quantifies the rate of extinction as human activity has accelerated.  Pre-human, even with five mass extinctions over time such as dinosaurs, “the ‘death rate’ of how many species become extinct each year out of 1 million species was .01.”

“Now it is about 100 to 1,000 according to Pimm.”  The #1 issue driving this is habitat loss including impervious surface, deforestation, forest fragmentation, crowding from invasive species and of course climate change.

Symbolic is an example I’ve been following, the Monarch Butterfly, down from a historic average of a billion butterflies to a low this year of 33.5 million.

Scientists can’t physically count these butterflies so they trace their 3,000 mile annual migration to where each generation breeds just a few feet from where their great-grandparents wintered.

The causes of the decline include loss of habitat, some of it due to deforestation and forest degradation including along roadsides, but much of it now is caused by insecticides such as those found in Roundup, which has accelerated with the advent of GMO seeds resistant to these pesticides.

Who cares about an insect that at most weights three hundredths of an ounce, right?  Humans should!  Monarch’s are symbolic of the pollinators we rely on for food.

But the study shows that far beyond these tiny creatures we’re also facing another mass extinction. 

Of course, this ground-breaking study and the acclaim it brings to North Carolina is just another example of “whatever else we do in Durham.”

Regressives holding our state General Assembly hostage, having outlawed the use of global warming science to make our vaunted coastline sustainable, now want to make sure that “whatever else we do in Durham” no longer includes fostering urban forest canopy.

These and other actions are increasing apparent as part of an undeclared civil war on North Carolina cities.

“Whatever else we do in Durham” also includes turning pejoratives lobbed by jackasses into badges of honor.  Bring it on!

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