A Permaculture Interpretation of Belle Monte

March 10, 2007, in a back alley behind 15th Ave North, in Nashville, Tennessee

with Albert Bates, Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology


Thank you all for coming out early on a Saturday morning, and if the rain will hold off another hour, we'll get to find out a little more about where we have been holding our class.


Permaculture substitutes observation for perspiration. We are interested in finding out what the ecosystems look like and how they function in a particular place so we can be going with the way Nature wants to go already, not fighting that. What we will be doing up here on Belle Monte is trying to tease out the nature of the nature, which has been largely concealed by all this concrete, brick and mortar, and altered by exotic trees and grasses, and cats.


Permaculture site analysis is concerned with the biological wealth of a site, and also with the scarcities. Here at the highest part of Nashville, 36°07'54.45"N, 86°47'29.72"W, we have abundant sunlight, with temperatures over the past century averaging 89°F in July, and 28°F in January (record cold was -17 in 1985, record heat was 107 in 1952). That is quite temperate, but as we know, climate is changing. It is moving North by Northeast at roughly 70 miles per decade, up from 35 miles per decade 30 years ago, and accelerating, so we can postulate it will be migrating 100 miles per decade soon. That will change the types of trees that can germinate and grow here from hardwoods to conifers. The mixed mesothelic forest we have had for many centuries is about to disappear. Since biodiversity and resistence to diseases and pests like bark beetles depends on diversity of tree species, and intact forests will be needed to moderate our climate, make rain and hold back the desert, humans will have to take a role in midwifing the forest transition. No natural ecosystem can migrate 100 miles in a decade and still remain intact. The ecosystems here in the future will be anthropogenic. It's the end of nature, as Bill McKibben observed.


Rain here is one of the things we have in abundance; about 48.1 inches on average. Up in Clarksville the average is 52 inches, so we can say that 50 inches is a pretty good approximation. In a dry year this area will get half that, mostly in the winter months. We average about 9 inches of snow per year, which surprises many people.


I always like to begin such walks at the high point of a site, partly because it gives a broad view, and partly because gravity is the strongest force in the Universe and this is where it begins having its way with us. The rain that is deposited here is a carrier medium for the energy of gravity and as it moves farther down the hill it is converting potential energy to kinetic energy, and, if managed, back into potential energy again.


The rain can be our friend and ally or it can be our worst enemy, depending on what happens up here. Just behind me above the cyclone fence is the Metro Emergency Management Center and its 500-foot communications tower.


An EMS security guard (stepping out to investigate our tour, tells us): his daddy moved in down the hill from here in 1938. The tower goes back to the late 1920s and was built by WSM clear channel 50000-watt AM radio. The tower sits on a large porcelin insulator. When WSM moved 8 miles south to Brentwood in 1932, it built a large diamond shaped tower, which at the time it was built it was the tallest in the country — 878 feet. Today the original tower at Belmont is used for State and City government communications.


(Me again): You will notice that surrounding the tower and the Metro EMS building is a huge asphalt parking lot, which completely covers the 'bald' that is Nashville's highest hill. The cement stops the rain from infiltrating the hilltop, so if there were ever springs on this hill, they are probably dry now, because any recharge has been stopped. Instead the rain runs off, and becomes an erosion problem, which you can see by how often they have to put rock rubble and flow-form aprons where gullies want to form and more asphalt down on the cracks here where the water leaves the parking lot. The lots just downhill catch the brunt of that runoff, and it probably floods their basements and weakens their foundations.


From this alley, which runs around the top of the hill in a square, you can get a good view of much of Nashville. The city ranks with Atlanta and Los Angeles as one of the nation's largest cities in terms of sprawl area. We are nearly 2 miles from downtown here, and you can see how much higher we are than those skyscrapers.


I suspect that when the first settlers arrived here they would have found a cedar glade on top of this hill, mostly clear of trees because the soils were so thin and heavily eroded. You can see the limestone outcrops here and how thin the soil is that covers the sloping back yards in this area.


The glades of the Nashville Basin go back 460 million years to the middle of the Ordovician Period. At that time, what is now North America sat just south of the equator in a shallow tropical sea. The water was quiet, clear and very shallow. Murfreesboro, which was the highest point around, periodically emerged from the water as an island. Corals, snails, brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids, many soft-bodied invertebrates, and microorganisms lived in these waters.


The rock that was deposited under these conditions, called the Stones River Group, is an extremely pure limestone, close to 100% pure calcium carbonate (CaCO3) . Water conditions alternated between very still, low energy water and periods when the water energy was higher; surf, waves and waterfalls. This led to the formation of identifiable strata: very fine grained, massively bedded limestone mud during the quiet periods; thinly bedded fine grained limestone alternating with partings of shale during the active periods.


Nashville is rimmed on three sides by an escarpment rising three to four hundred feet, which is the Highland Rim, but Nashville's geological formation is actually known as the 'Nashville Dome' because as an inland sea it made a salt bed that kept getting bigger. Throughout the Paleozoic Era (570-250 million years ago), what is now the eastern edge of North America collided repeatedly with other plates. This caused the earth's surface to bulge in middle Tennessee.


The name is somewhat inaccurate since the crest of the dome was, in fact, where Murfreesboro is now located. The last Ice Age was about 12,000 years ago but that one was relatively mild and the glaciers did not extend down this far. It would have been earlier ice ages and interglacial erosions that whittled the dome down and left Nashville in a basin. This hill managed to resist the erosion more than most of the area around, and if you go to Google Earth and slant it sideways, you can see we standing are on the highest point in Metro Nashville.


As we have been walking I have been monitoring the radiation and we are seeing some electrical fields coming from that tower above us, which seem to be mainly directed towards downtown, to the North. There is also a power line on poles in the North part of the alley, with quite a few large transformers, so that doubtless adds to the electric field strength there. From the alley, my meter pegs out at about 125 Kv/m, the most it can read, and that reading changes very little for the 100 yards the north alley runs. I can drop it down to 75 Kv/m by placing my body between the meter and the tower. There is nil magnetic reading.


The Swedish standard for electric field pollution is 2.5 milligauss or 10 V/m ELF and 1 V/m VLF, which is safely above where epidemiological studies have demonstrated leukemia clusters in exposed populations. I would not want to be living in Belmont student housing on the north side of this alley. There is apparently no radiation anywhere else. The radiation there, 24 hrs per day, is 12500 times the Swedish standard for a computer monitor.


We don't know much about the earliest human settlements here, but we know that by the time France was attempting to run a line of forts through here from Louisiana to Quebec (to hold back the English colonies), there were already Shawnee forts that were attempting to hold back the Cherokee. We don't often think about Native Americans having forts, but we know from mitochondrial DNA that the Shawnee were descended in part from a group of shipwrecked Chinese, mostly of lower Mongolian origin who had come south to work on the Great Wall and the Imperial City during the Ming Dynasty and had likely been part of the great fleet of 800 ships that came up the east coast of North America circa 1421 to 1424.


The Shawnee were skilled horsemen and we also know from DNA studies that the horses of Chincoteague Island and Assiteague Bay are descended from Mongolian ponies from the same expedition. The Shawnee were known for their widespread settlements and migrations and their frequent long-distance visits to other Indian groups. Their language became a lingua franca among numerous tribes, which along with their experience helped make them leaders in initiating and sustaining pan-Indian resistance to European and Euro-American expansion. So the Shawnee were likely very advanced, militarily, and would have had forts. The Cherokee got tired of fighting them, and being very clever, sold this territory to a consortium of Carolina and Virginia city slickers put together by James Robertson in 1779, and let them deal with the Indians. The Robertson party came to 'French Lick' which is downhill and North of here, where the Bicentennial Mall is now, and constructed Fort Nashborough, which in 1784 was renamed Nashville so it sounded less English. The Shawnee were pushed west into the Ohio Valley, and later removed to Oklahoma in 1817.


The Nashville basin has the kind of botany and geology that only occurs in just one other place in the world, which is the Blue Grass area around Lexington, Kentucky. The mineral-rich soils produce a fine native clover that is suburb fodder for buffalo and horses, which is why we have the Natchez Trace and the Kentucky Derby. It is also why most of the Civil War was fought in just two places, Central Tennessee/Northern Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Those are where you can support two horse-armies by living off the grass most of the year. You can also get lots of replacement horses.


This area was called the French Lick because the deer and buffalo came to lick the salt here. And then came the bipedal hunters after the deer and the buffalo, who used the Natchez Trace to connect their villages, and the river. And then came the Europeans and they built markets down by the river and floated and keelboated their products to New Orleans and walked back up on the Trace. In the barrens to the South where I live, the pirates holed up in caves like Natural Bridge and would try to steal the gold of farmers and merchants walking home on the Trace. You can probably get Davy Crockett and Big Mike Fink on DVD now for a look at that world.


The cedar glades that would have been found up here have a unique native flora — red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), clovers, ground plums, and the Tennessee coneflower (Echineasia purpurosa). The indigenous peoples didn't have a lot of wild foods growing here, mostly pine nuts, chestnuts, acorns, and the ground plums, but the forests here would have been rich in game (pheasant, quail, deer, squirrel, beaver), and of course the river was full of fish. The nations that were here were corn, bean and squash planters for the past thousand years, so they had a much richer diet than their neighbors farther to the south or west. The 16th and 17th century depopulation from European diseases like swine flu, plague, and STDs -- upwards of 95% mortality in some areas -- reduced the populations from tens of millions to thousands, in very poor condition, by the time the French trappers and English settlers arrived, so the 'cultivated ecology' created over centuries by forest clearing, fruit planting, soil building and selective game management would have provided a sense of paradisical abundance for those coming from resource-stripped regions like Western Europe and the British Isles. This of course is the basis for the irrational exhuberance of the American dream, a pernicious meme that continues into the present day. Its called classical economic theory; demand creates supply.


By 1860 there were 17,000 people down there in the swampy bottom lands with the mosquitoes and the yellow fever, so the wealthier Pre-Belles started building higher up in East Nashville across the river and off in this direction. Belle Monte is Italian for the beautiful mountain, a name bestowed on this hilltop by Adelicia Acklen.



Participant: Tell us more about her. I hear she died shopping.


That's right! Born on 1817 (next Thursday is her 190th birthday), Adelicia was the daughter of a Rutherford B. Hayes cousin, a prominent lawyer, judge and preacher. At age 22 she married Isaac Franklin, a wealthy planter 28 years her senior. He had 7 plantations in Louisiana with 750 slaves, and a 1000-acre farm in Sumner County. After 7 years of marriage, Franklin died and left Adelicia an estate worth more than a million dollars. Two years later, in 1849, she married (with a prenuptual contract) Col. Joseph Acklen from Huntsville, a veteran of the Texan Revolution, and the two of them built Bellemonte out here, where the air was cooler in the summer and there were no mosquitoes.


Acklen was a shrewd businessman and in the short amount of time they were married, he quit his law practice and tripled Adelicia's wealth. The house was begun in 1850, 20,000 sq. ft, with 36 rooms, the second largest antebellum house still standing. It has no toilets, because the slaves that lived in 2,000 sq. ft basement service area emptied the chamber pots. The exterior and interior walls are solid brick, from foundation to rafters. The 180-acre estate included formal gardens with statuary and gazebos, water tower, a bear house, zoo, deer park, bowling alley, billiard room, and art gallery. Many lavish formal balls were held on moonlit nights in the mansion amidst Corinthian columns, chandeliers, and fine paintings and statuary. Guests included President Andrew Johnson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Huxley, and soldier of fortune William Walker who had invaded Mexico and later tried to take over Nicaragua with a band of 56 mercenaries and to join it to the USA as a slave state. After they got done laughing, the Sandinos kicked his ass back to Tennessee, where he hung out at Bellemonte sipping julieps and reminiscing about the Texas campaign with Col. Acklen.

There were no structures up here, and this was too much of a hike, and too steep for a carriage path, to have a house up here back then. Settlement of this hilltop awaited the internal combustion engine and the age of oil.


Col. Acklen fled to Louisiana when Union troops occupied Nashville in February 1862 and never returned but died on one of Adelicia's plantations. Although the Belmont mansion was located at the Union fortification line, and was a general headquarters, it was not damaged during the Battle of Nashville. Union scouts used the 105-foot-tall brick water tower, which still exists, as a lookout point to relay signals.


The war was good for Nashville, and between the railroads and the river, it became a commercial center. The population swelled to 80,000 before the petroleum era and the advent of car suburbs. Its about 610,000 now.


Towards the end of the war, Adelicia learned that over a million dollars worth of her cotton was on the docks in New Orleans and that it would be burned by the Confederacy if the city were about to fall to the Union Army. She hired a boat and ran the blockade to get into New Orleans and negotiate, as the widow of a Confederate officer, to be allowed to sell the cotton. While playing the Union and Confederate authorities against each other, she was able to sell 3,000 bales of cotton to Baron Rothschild in London.

Apparently thinking that she perished in the war, the Baron stiffed her for the million dollars, so after the war Adelicia booked passage to London to collect her money, which she spent on a shopping spree across Europe. She returned to Nashville and married again, to Dr. William Archer Cheatham, again with a prenuptual, but left him in 1886 and moved to Washington DC. She died on Fifth Avenue while on a shopping trip to Manhattan in 1887 at the age of 70.


As we have been walking I have taken some ionizing radiation readings and I would say it is normal background up here, from 7 to 23 mrad/hr. That is coming from space and from the soil, primarily, although there may also be an anthropogenic component from the atmospheric nuclear test era and from wastes transiting Nashville as part of the nuclear industry, or discarded in landfills and rivers from nuclear medicine sources, smoke detectors and the like. The limestone is a sedimentary formation, created in the ancient oceans and lakes, and would not have as much thorium, radium and other radiation sources as would rock of volcanic origin.


All-in-all, the air up here is pretty clean, and the pollution minimal, except for in the Belmont student housing area just to the north. The risks from the natural environment up here would be from tornadoes, such as we have seen in recent years and can expect with greater frequency as the climate warms, droughts, blizzards, earthquakes (we are near the New Madrid fault), and wildfires, which could move up these slopes very rapidly if the wind was right. Good design for settlement would take all of these risks into consideration.


And that brings us back to our workshop site and the next stage, which is installation of the rooftop rainwater catchment, tank storage, and drip irrigation system for a Victory Garden.


Thank you for taking this walk with me.