“Car Lot” by Dominic Lippillo, from the series Stories We Tell Ourselves
Some People Stay
By Rachel Louise Martin
friend calls it Tennessee Road Art—the rusting oil drums, gutted refrigerators, sprung bedsprings, sightless and naked baby dolls, matted pink insulation, and whole antique cars locals stuff into the cracks and sinkholes that split the limestone karst of Murfreesboro’s Flat Rock Cedar Glades and Barrens State Natural Area. Skinks and garter snakes carve nests under a chipped refrigerator door. Gray squirrels store nuts in split vinyl car seats. Sumacs and buckthorns and cedar saplings entwine themselves in the bedsprings. And rain melts away Rutherford County’s rocky underbelly, settling the trash deeper into its guts. Even nature can’t break down this detritus of country life.
For most of the past two centuries, locals put their garbage here because they believed the land itself was trash. Farming is hopeless. Most places, a scant spadeful of dirt covers the rock. In other spots, there’s not even that much soil to cultivate. The glades don’t keep enough grass alive for livestock. Without earth to absorb the water, each rainfall floods the glades and then disappears through the fissures in the rock into the county’s water table. Ecologists now say the glades are globally unique, occurring nowhere else in the world. Endemic species of wildflowers carpet them every summer. No one has yet explored the caves beneath them to know what unique creatures thrive there. But they still look like scrub land.
“This was a nice little open glade,” Julie Burns said, stopping suddenly in front of a pile of Road Art rusted past recognition. Her white hair was cropped short, and she was wearing a SOCM t-shirt—Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment. She’d soon be elected its president. We were walking the southeastern boundary of her property, looking for the trash her neighbors have ditched among her cedars. Julie has been connected to this place since she moved here in 1980 to join the newly established Flat Rock collective. Today, the commune is history, and Julie and her husband, Calief Snelling, are the only people from the collective still living on the site it once owned, about twenty-five mostly uncultivated acres next to the glades.
SOCM’s specialty is environmental justice. Until 2008, it was known as Save Our Cumberland Mountains and it protested mountaintop removal in East Tennessee. Then, the leadership expanded its vision. The Rutherford County chapter, founded in 2013, has various projects, among them: protecting the Stones River Watershed from pollution by the regional dump and protecting the Flat Rock State Natural Area from a salvage yard that abuts it.
When I looked up the glade on Google Earth, the tightly packed rows of cars glinted under the satellite’s camera, and I mistook it for a subdivision. From where Julie and I stood, however, there could be no missing it for anything but a junkyard. “They shoved all this stuff in here, you can imagine our shock,” Julie said, motioning at a pile of trash embedded in the edge of the cedars. “After we complained about it, they pulled it all back, and then they put it back again.” Part of the problem is that Julie and Calief have no idea where their boundary actually lies. “The deed is funky, which we didn’t care about when we were young and counterculture,” Julie said. “We were just in denial about everything. It’s coming back to bite us.”
Julie and Calief were both early members of the collective. To join, members paid a modest monthly fee and received a deed to a half acre of land. The remaining twenty-two acres were held in common. Eleven people joined the collective, and another dozen or so lived on the land as part of the community but without taking on its financial responsibility. “Flatrock’s main purpose is to live as economically, and ecologically efficiently as possible with as little racism, sexism and ageism as possible,” Calief told a reporter for the Tennessean back in 1985, on the sixth anniversary of Flat Rock’s founding. Compared to the financial and political commitments required by other intentional communities like The Farm in Lewis County, Flat Rock’s relaxed conditions made the members practically suburbanites, founding member Boone Guyton told the reporter. They owned their half acre and their hand-built house, but they avoided foolish, wasteful things. “People who own their own house, you go down a block and they only have like a half-an-acre lawn,” Guyton told the journalist. “But everybody has their own lawn mower. . . . We can have one lawn mower that we can all share to mow all our lawns.” The aim, another founder wrote in an email, was “gaining 80% of the benefits of the American lifestyle at 20% of the cost.” The collective didn’t last; membership petered out until it had effectively dissolved by the mid-nineties. Thanks to the murky deeds, Julie and Calief now own two fewer acres than the collective originally purchased.
Julie and I turned away from the salvage yard and entered one of the grassy barrens her other neighbor had recently abandoned, walking back toward her house. The heat of the day had released the oil in the cedar trees, making the glade smell like a freshly censed cathedral. “My favorite thing is having greenery all around me,” she said, gesturing at the trees. “And privacy and safety. Those are the three things I require.”
Tennessee has a long history of utopian attempts: Nashoba, Rugby, Ruskin, The Farm, Short Mountain. I’m fascinated by these communities. I neither care much about their foundings nor wonder why people move into them; I get the idealism and hope that can drive a young person into an experimental space. What I don’t understand is why some people stay, even after the reality of American life smashes the dream.
I moved into an intentional community three weeks after my twenty-second birthday. I had graduated from college earlier that summer, and I wanted to combine my faith and my politics in an all-encompassing lifestyle. It was the earliest days of the new monasticism movement, and a friend told me about a group in Silver Spring, Maryland—young Christians who were establishing a commune that I thought might be a good place to explore those ideals.
We were a group of three houses, two of women and one of men. More than half of the members were recent college graduates; the oldest among us was in his mid-twenties. We shared chores and meals. We went to biweekly meetings, debating what it meant to be in a community. We were something more than roommates and less than comrades, a fragile non-relationship that quickly fractured. First we disagreed. Then we fought. A few months in, some of us stopped talking altogether; the silence was a relief. I left after nine months. I was so desperate to escape that I obeyed my mother and started a graduate program in history even though I had only taken one history class as an undergraduate.
After graduate school and a brief stint as a professor up East, I came home again, back to Murfreesboro. Like many other locals, I had never valued the glades. I had never learned to see past the scraggly trees and the rocky fields. A chance Google search one day told me about the wildflowers, these endemic species that carpet the barrens and are found nowhere else in the world. I started hiking the Flat Rock State Natural Area. I dove into deed research, seeking to know more about the people who used to carve a living out of the limestone. I found the article in the Tennessean about the commune, and I wondered about the people who came to the glades to start a revolution.
Flat Rock was all that the three founding members could afford. Boone Guyton and Paula Carrigan, a married couple, had met David Kennedy in another intentional community in nearby Alexandria. DoorAjar had been a more conventional commune. “We were interested in working towards a more decentralized, more ecologically grounded version of socialism,” David remembers. They called it DoorAjar because they wanted their community to be “kind of a semi-permeable membrane, neither fully open or closed.” The members shared everything: eighty acres, housing, resources, and childcare.
The potent mix of youth, political passion, and interpersonal turmoil soon forced the community to dissolve. Some members moved to Nashville and joined political efforts there. Others found spiritual groups to connect to. Boone, Paula, and David rented apartments in Murfreesboro. The men became janitors at the local university. Paula landed a job at the county’s elementary school for special-needs students.
David found the land at Flat Rock while on a bike ride. The three hippies pooled their resources and their credit lines and scraped together the sixteen thousand dollars needed to buy the twenty-seven acres, along with its two abandoned shacks and trash-covered landscape. They saw “the poor condition of the land as a worthwhile challenge,” Boone told me. “We felt like it would accommodate both our back-to-the-land ideals with a connection to more political and cultural possibilities.”
Paula and her two daughters moved into one of the shacks. Boone claimed the other, and the couple divorced. David began to build the first of the new homes. The Flat Rockers didn’t have much experience in construction, but they had theories about what a responsible, environmentally sustainable community should be. They read carpentry books and experimented with passive solar technology. Initially, the homes were simple; Julie’s first residence was just a room with a loft. Over the years, the members added on to their houses, which grew into rambling structures like the one Julie and Calief now live in.
Julie showed me the home that David built. Cement flows across the living room floor and up the walls and over the balustrade and into the hallway. Not a single square foot of the floor appears flat. “It is all curvy, humpy,” Julie confirmed. David and the other builders stacked hay bales inside the house’s shell, molded chicken wire over them, poured cement over that, and then pulled out the squares of hay. The cement was useful to absorb the Tennessee heat but made it almost impossible to heat in the winter. “When we were young, we were cold, but we didn’t care,” she told me as we continued our tour. “Not that many people want to experience that anymore.”
Members moved on and off the collective, sometimes leaving for years at a time. Julie left in 1988 because she decided direct political engagement was more her style. She organized environmental justice campaigns in Kentucky, resisting state attempts to put landfills in rural and black communities. She lobbied for sustainable agriculture in Asheville. She received training from the Highlander Center. Then she switched gears again; she went back to school, earning a degree in library science.
Eventually enough people left that the collective itself crumbled. Only Calief stayed. In 2001, he convinced Julie both to return and to marry him. She took a job as a collections librarian in Nashville, commuting forty-three miles into the heart of the city, and she became active in the local branch of the Service Employees International Union. Now she can’t imagine leaving Flat Rock.
Julie and Calief are Flat Rock’s caretakers and custodians, the ones who remember that a cadre of idealists once dreamed of creating a better, purer, fairer life on the limestone. They’ve struggled to rehab the hand-built homes, constructed by amateurs who were testing out theories, but the hardest part of their duties has become protecting the glade itself. The area should be well protected. In 1999, the state set aside Flat Rock Cedar Glades and Barrens, an eight-hundred-and-forty-six-acre natural area abutting the commune’s site, but they did little to educate local residents on the importance of the land. Road Art kept reappearing among the trees. Then the salvage yard began expanding.
In 2013, Julie and Calief contacted the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, claiming that the salvage yard was burying tires and stuffing them into sinkholes. State personnel investigated and saw no evidence of that, but they did discover that the business did not have an up-to-date water pollution control permit, which meant it also was not performing required annual storm water testing. The state representatives ordered the owner to file his water treatment plan. In December 2013, the state granted him a Notice of Compliance, but Julie and Calief did not think his plan was enough.
Calief snuck a videographer onto the salvage yard and posted the footage online. The shot pans across a sea of wrecked and abandoned cars. “You can imagine all this going unfiltered into what is ultimately our drinking water,” he says, standing next to one of the open-hooded cars. “These are not chemicals that are normally tested for in the city water supply.”
Julie complained again in June 2014. This time, TDEC found evidence. Photographs from an investigator’s visit show an avalanche of tires crushing the grassland, choking out the wildflowers. Elsewhere, someone had rolled four rusted oil drums onto an abandoned carpet. Another image shows ripped black trash bags, car bumpers, car tires, and building materials piled haphazardly among the cedar trees. The business was told to clean the sinkholes and remove the oil drums within a month and to get rid of the tires within four months. Thirty days later, the owner said the problems had been fixed, but state inspectors said nothing had been remediated. After more negotiation, the owner agreed to fix everything by the end of March 2015. He said he was building a new facility where he would be able to break the cars apart over concrete rather than over the open ground.
State investigators returned in February. This time, they saw a burn pile. Someone had torched a single-wide trailer, along with household waste, tires, plastic, rubber, insulation, electronics, carpet, upholstery. The owner insisted he wasn’t the culprit. TDEC sent more notices of violation. Photos from the end of April show that the salvage yard still had not disposed of the tires. Nevertheless, on May 26, 2015, the Flat Rock Salvage Yard was granted a new storm water discharge permit for five years.
Julie and Calief filed a protest. They still want to pursue the case, but keeping a lawyer on retainer is prohibitively expensive and their complaint has lost momentum. They hear that the owner has constructed concrete pads for breaking down the cars, which help capture the oil and other contaminants. Julie tells herself that the glades are safer now than they were a few years ago, despite the pieces of cars along the edges of her property. Julie still dreams of saving Flat Rock, even though the hand-built houses are aging. As much as she loves them, she knows the property’s value isn’t in the homes. “If you sold it, the houses are worthless,” she told me. They don’t even count on her property tax assessment. If she had money, she’d rehabilitate it into a senior collective, reviving the commune that brought her here, but she knows that is a hopeless wish.
What she dreams of saving is the place itself. The cedar glades—the plants and the animals and the water the land funnels into the local water table—are critical to the health of the region, she told me. She showed me a mosquito trap she and Calief added to the side of their house. For a few weeks, they enjoyed their insect-free backyard; then all the frogs disappeared from their garden pond. “We realized, oh—we’re killing all the night bugs,” she says. “Every time you mess with one thing, it throws something else out of balance.”
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.