Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

In God's Green Lands: Driving through Tennessee, Benjamin Joffe-Walt Finds That Eco-Mania Sits Uneasily beside Southern Traditions

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

In God's Green Lands: Driving through Tennessee, Benjamin Joffe-Walt Finds That Eco-Mania Sits Uneasily beside Southern Traditions

Article excerpt

A drive along Tennessee's growing "hydrogen highway" opens with the following signage: "God, He is the AWESOME father", "IF YOU CANNOT FIND GOD GUESS WHO IS LOST" and, finally, "Don't be a girly man, vote Republican", as per a popular bumper sticker.

Welcome to the South's leading hope for ecotourism--a network of highways and state routes in the Tennessee Valley corridor that will provide biodiesel refuelling stations, solar recharge stations for electric cars, ethanol pumps and, someday, hydrogen refuelling stations. Several Tennessee mayors have signed the mayor's climate protection agreement, local universities have hydrogen-production projects and, if the eco-growth continues at its present rate, Tennessee will soon host the first proper ecofuel route in the American South.


The roadside landscape is untouched, plush green along gradually rolling hills. Where there is life, there is a church, auction house, tobacco outlet and carwash. Each town seems to have kids on display making forts and playing with toy guns, antiques sales and farm real-estate agents. Fire brigades are almost all made up of volunteers, run from barns or household garages.

In pursuit of "recommended Murfreesboro", my girlfriend and I end up at Dodge's, ostensibly a petrol station, but also a gathering place for central Tennesseans. Inside are arguing teenage couples with babies. The loudest among them is a shirtless blond boy in his late teens, holding a naked toddler in a white diaper while fighting with his girlfriend over which "fried chicken & beer" deal is best for the little one.

Beyond the chicken and beer at Dodge's, the pre-pregnancy teenagers smoke, drive low-hanging old sports cars and flirt outside ice-cream shops, fast-food joints and other establishments run by 16-year-olds.

The sole sign of the eco-paradise set to hit the South is Daily's petrol station. None of Murfreesboro's inhabitants seems to know, but Daily's shop, number 8804, now doubles as a biodiesel refuelling station for those, on the way to a cattle show or fresh out of Steak & Shake, who wish to partake in the green revolution.

Eventually, we meet someone who has heard of the eco-efforts in the region. He is Chad Sugg, a 20-year-old from Clarksville, Tennessee, attending the Bonnaroo music and arts festival--an incongruous annual mega-event in an area more au fait with dog and cattle shows. Held on a farm between a Wal-Mart and some wetlands in Manchester, Tennessee, the event attracts more than 80,000 young greenies, rockers and hipsters from all over the country each summer.

"At the start of Bonnaroo, people are just out on their porches watching everyone in their cars," Chad says, standing beside a van with "Screwed, Brewed and Bonnarood" scribbled in the extensive dirt on the window. "You hear a lot of, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with that kid's hair?'"

Although held only once a year, Bonnaroo's success has made it a global symbol in the environmental movement, and by far the most interesting eco project on the Tennessee route. …

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