In Europe, people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them; they are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight
march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature."
Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America
Land use has always been the source of great debate in Lexington, with preservationists and developers and residents frequently at odds. Responsible infill has been systematically neglected in favor of urban sprawl. Green space and smart growth have long been part of the local vocabulary, while bumper stickers like "Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever" suggest it's a black and white issue.
For a balanced approach on the topic, viewers can tune in to Walter Brock's newest documentary, LAND (and how it gets that way), which is centered in Woodford County. It will air on KET next week; PBS-Plus has also picked it up for national broadcast distribution.
Brock is a former Lexingtonian and award-winning documentarian whose POV piece, If I Can't Do It (the compelling story of disability rights activist Arthur Campbell) was featured in a June 1998 edition of Ace. He's nationally known for his 1990 piece, A Season in Hell, chronicling a young woman and her family's eight-year struggle with eating disorders. He's been at work on Land since the 90s, and had shot most of it by the time he completed production on Arthur Campbell's moving story.
Brock, who grew up in Lexington, says, The film has its beginnings in the obliteration of the fields and creeks I roamed as a boy. I played in trees older than the Constitution and saw them felled to make way for the bypass. And it hurt to see those rolling fields all scarred and ripped apart. There was no discussion of these matters in those days. The wheels of progress just rolled and the fields gave way to endless rows of rooftops and cul-de-sacs and no one seemed to notice much or care. I always wondered who these people were who bulldozed the magical places of my childhood? I wondered if they ever felt even the slightest twinge of remorse?
So, I wanted the film to be a space for thoughtful reflection on land lost and whats left which isnt far behind at the rate things are going. I wanted to get at what the worth and meaning of the land was to people beyond all the rhetoric and politics. So this film for me needed to listen to all the players on the chessboard of the land and try to understand in some deeper way where they were coming from, particularly people who feel very differently about these matters than me or people who think like me.
Unlike say, a Michael Moore (whos a film-maker rather than a documentarian), Brocks piece may be polemic to many, but his point of view remains more subtext than overt, adding, My personal feelings are beside the point in a film like this or at least only a part of it. The reality is that developers and car dealers and businessmen have enormous impact on the land and it does precious little good to demonize them. I just wanted to understand if there was more at work than self-interest and it turns out to be more complex than that.
Sensing that this is an issue thats being grappled with nationwide, Brock will be vindicated when his film will be aired on PBS in April, describing it as a kind of vindication.
When the project was rejected for a grant a few years ago, he says, In a feedback call I was told that this organization was only interested in funding topics of national interest and this film was too provincial in its scope. I said, Where do you live that this isnt occurring all around you? I always thought the audience for this film was everyone because the landscape we move through everyday is fragile and almost certain to be lost if something doesnt happen. This is no less true for city people. A few years ago I read that Woody Allen was making a advocacy film for his neighborhood association to block a proposed skyscraper that would have obstructed a view and a way of life they valued. So the question of what should be saved deserves much more attention then we as a culture seem willing to lend at the present moment.
We have been taught by Jeffersons struggles with Hamilton, by Calhouns with Webster, and in the woods at Shiloh or along the ravines of Fort Donelson where the long hunters rifle spoke defiance to the more accelerated Springfields, that the triumph of industry, commerce, trade, brings misfortune to those who live on the land.
Andrew Lytle The Hind Tit in Ill Take My Stand
From De Tocqueville, Emerson, Thoreau, the Agrarians, on up to Wendell Berry, writers have spilled more lofty, philosophical ink on the subject of land than most scholars will be able to read in a lifetime. Its a common ground (so to speak) that embodies everythingclass, economy, family, how we eat, and how we live.
From the settling of Americas wild frontier all the way down to Chevy Chase neighbors squabbling over who can put a fence where and whose property line is that tree on when lightning strikes and it takes out your back deck (the insurance companies will get the final say there), or students who believe burnt-sienna sofas make lovely porch furnitureproperty can be a divisive, emotional, and occasionally bloody issue.
Brocks documentary distills much of the emotion to a decade in Woodford County, which can serve as a microcosm for communities struggling with this issue everywhere.
Filmed over a 10-year period, LAND follows several key players in land use battles in Woodford County (chronicling the Harvey Jones subdivision proposal of the 80s and the ensuing countys rural residential ordinance; the goal of the ordinance was to allow farmers to get equity from their land by developing 20 percent and farming 80 percentthe ordinance instead turned many farmers into developers).
Libby Jones characterizes the ordinance, designed to mandate denser development on fewer acres, as a failure.
The film explores their explanations for what is at stake in how land is used, their interpretations of what drives or motivates everyone involved, and the beliefs that drive that involvement.
The preservationists believe that land is a precious nonrenewable resources. Their view is that productive farmland should be used for agricultural productionand that once that use is squandered, the resources can never be regained.
The developers see land as a commoditylike oiluse it or lose it. And the best, most productive way to use it is via residential and commercial development.
As of yet, no one in the bluegrass seems to have mastered smart growth and responsible infill. What has been mastered is a lot of Potemkin villages bordering New Circle Road and Man o War, and massive efforts by a devoted few to return downtown to its place as the heart of the city.
The consequences of banning growth include brain drain (where the brightest young minds go elsewhere to learn a living) and a stagnant economy.
But everyone seems to agree that paving the bluegrass isnt a sustainable economic endeavor either.
As a preservationist in the documentary points out, if you create and preserve and nurture a lovely space that everyone wants to see (for example, our horse farms), that beautiful space can get trampled in all the shuffle. Sooner or later, everybody steps on the flowers in the middle of the stampede.
The long broken connections between towns and cities and their surrounding landscapes will have to be restored. There is much promise and much hope in such a restoration....If farmers hope to exercise any control over their markets, in a time when a global economy and global transportation make it possible for the products of any region to be undersold by the products of any other region, then they will have to look to local markets.
Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank
Jim Boggs, a sheep farmer, begins the documentary clear that farms and subdivisions dont mix, and urged Woodford County preservationists that if they wanted to save the farms, they should BUY FROM LOCAL FARMERSfrustrated when hed see them pass by the local farmers market and not buyin one damn red tomato. A reluctant activist who starts out hoping that the landed gentry, the developers, farmers, and tree huggers, can agree on somethinghe grows disenchanted over the course of the decade chronicled by the documentary, observing that his family had moved to the center of a 100 acres to enjoy privacy and that he can now hear his neighbors stereo. Although his farm struggled over the course of that decade, by the end of the project, his sheep production was having difficulty keeping pace with the demand created by the bluegrasss growing Muslim population.
Preservationist and wife of a former governor, Libby Jones doesnt mince words when it comes to her opinions about whats become of the bluegrass (though she takes a fair amount of heat for development transactions that she ascribes to her husband). She bluntly states in Brocks documentary, Lexington has the worst planning of any metropolitan area Ive ever seen
And its ugly.
Dr. Thomas Clark (who arrived in Kentucky in 1928) observes that he has seen, in Lexington, a complete reversal of its way of life, as industry settled here. Though by the end of the piece, he remarks that as he approached the end of the 90s (his 90s, that is), hed learned to accept inevitabilities, acknowledging that change is inevitable, while that reality can be tempered by precious memories.
Ben Chandler Sr. describes Lexington as a place that as a college town was the greatest place in the world. And if Id been able to I wouldnt have traded it for Princeton or Harvard. He now finds its encroaching development intrusive in Woodford County.
Brocks narration recalls a childhood growing up in Lexington and roaming the fields behind his house as a time when he was as at home in the world as Ive ever been. n
Understanding the Land
I think that "Land and how it gets that way" helps us understand the emotionally-charged debates that typically erupt around proposed and actual land use changes, and helps us understand why land use conflicts can pit neighbors against neighbors, and one part of a community against another. This film offers a truly balanced presentation of deeply held values and beliefs about the land, growth and development, power and inequality in our communities, our responsibilities to the next generation, and our sense of who we are as a community. It is obvious in this film that each person believes passionately in the "truth" of their views on these issues, and each speaks persuasively for their position. Each person calls on history and the future to justify their position, and each finds it nearly impossible to understand how a reasonable person could argue for the other side. Yet, because the film follows them for nearly 12 years, we see how events and situations can modify even the most passionate and articulate of persons in this debate. What's important is to realize is that the meaning of land and how we feel about changes in the land affect us whether we live in the heart of the Bluegrass, or in a crowded urban neighborhood.What happens to our landscape is important to how we situate ourselves in the world and come to understand the nature of the world in which we live. This is a film that left me saying, "You know, I agree with that person on this point, even though I disagree with their position." I think that whatever side of the "development vs preservation" debate you stand on, this film will make you think. Over the years, Walter and I talked about what he was filming, how it reflected debates that have gone on since the founding of America and how it could be that people could arrive at such different perspectives on the same situation. In one of our last conversations, Walter noted that how he feels about the issues covered in the film now, is different in some important ways from how he felt in the beginning.n
Lori Garkovich served as Humanities Consultant for the project.
Walter Brocks documentary, LAND (and how it gets that way) will air on KET October 4 at 10pm and October 5 at 9pm. Filmed over a 10-year period, LAND explores the conflicts over land use from the perspective of five participants (a developer, a farmer turned developer, a reluctant farmer activist, and 2 anti-growth activists) in what Brock describes as "this portrait of an American communitys attempt to reconcile conflicting notions of progress, preservation, property rights and the American way." PBS-Plus has picked it up for national broadcast distribution. n