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Scrapbook: On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 1

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Sierra Club Scrapbook

November 28, 2010

On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 1


It's coming on dusk in Birmingham, Alabama, when I rendezvous with Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels program.

Raised on a family farm in northern Missouri, Scott learned about water pollution the hard way when a factory farm operation moved in next door. Clean water has been his consuming passion ever since, and the Water Sentinels program, created in 2001, has grown to be a model of grassroots activism.

We're spending a week on the road in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, hanging out with some of those grassroots activists on their home turf and shooting video as they do their thing.

This evening we're hooking up with John Vande Wege, a videographer from Los Angeles who spent 13 years with the L.A. Times, frequently on the environmental beat.


John, who's never been to Alabama before, flew into Nashville earlier this afternoon, and he's now barreling south on I-65 as Scott & I roll out of Birmingham heading northwest.

The plan is to meet up deep in the Alabama countryside at the home of Mark & Maggie Johnston, a husband-and-wife team who are spreading the green gospel in the Heart of Dixie. Mark is a priest and the director of Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp and conference center. Maggie, a teacher by training, heads up the camp's Environmental Center.

As we approach the town of Jasper, I glance at the directions Scott has jotted down: "…head north out of town for 17 miles... look for the third set of reflectors after the water tower…" It's pitch dark outside and I wonder how easy it's going to be for John to find the place.

My phone rings as we're exiting the highway.

"Hey, it's John. I just got to Jasper. Where are you guys?"

"We just got to Jasper. Are you near any landmarks?"

"I'm at a Chevron station right off the highway."

We're just zipping past a Chevron station, where a lone car is pulled off to the side. "That's him!" I yell to Scott, who jams on the breaks and pulls over. We jump out and shake hands.

"This is a good omen," Scott declares.

Fifteen minutes later, after taking a couple wrong turns and getting barked at by less-than-cuddly-looking dogs, we're high-centering in Scott's hybrid down a rough dirt road through the forest. We pass a sign proclaiming "War Is Not the Answer" and startle several browsing deer before lights finally appear in a clearing ahead.

The first thing I notice on stepping out of the car is the Milky Way, stretching across the sky like a cloud of cosmic dust. I'm definitely not in San Francisco anymore. Maggie greets us on the front porch and welcomes us inside. A fire is crackling in a big stone fireplace and the smell of home cooking fills the air.

Mark, who built this house—not to mention the rural church where he began his career as a reverend—pumps our hands and thanks us for coming. We're introduced to a dozen or so 20-somethings who wouldn't look one bit out of place in Berkeley. They are instructors at the McDowell Environmental Center, where tomorrow morning a hundred or so 5th-graders will be arriving for a 3-day workshop.

But tonight is about southern hospitality, and soon we're enjoying home-brewed beer and tucking into venison enchiladas, courtesy of Mark's hunting prowess and Maggie's culinary skills. After dinner guitars are passed around, and we trade songs until the fire dwindles to embers.

We bed down that night in the Scott House, a pre-antebellum log home that Mark took apart log by log in Montgomery, painstakingly labeling each piece, and then rebuilt it on the Camp McDowell grounds. I rock awhile on the back porch, listening to the wind in the trees.



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