The Front Lines in the War on Taste
Some folks worry about Washington, D.C., overreach. But Mark Jamison says the real threat to liberty is the “taste police” of local government. A small-town yard decorator speaks up for the little guy – and the big chair.
It’s a big chair. Actually it’s a very big rocking chair and it sits at the head of my driveway. At its highest point it’s 12 feet tall. The seat is about four and a half feet off the ground. Although it doesn’t need much help in standing out, it’s painted a sort of marigold color that is, umm, eye catching.
The front rail of the chair is inscribed “The County Seat,” a reference to the fact that Webster was the original county seat when Jackson County, North Carolina, was carved out of two surrounding counties in 1851. There are also two dedications “In Memory of George Penland” and “For the Nitpickers.” These refer to my dear friend and neighbor George and his battles with the mavens of Webster.
George lived next door to my house in what was the original Jackson County jail. My house, or some iteration of it, was built around the time of Webster’s founding in 1851.
When I bought the house it was a wreck. It had been a rental for 40 years, but it had been vacant for five years before I got it. After my divorce I had to come down off the mountain, and I needed a project to take my mind off things. Restoring the house seemed like a good idea; besides, it was right next door to my workplace, the post office. Restoring the house was a labor of love.
Folks around town watched each step of the project. When you’re postmaster and right next door, you become captive to your audience. The house had been an eyesore, right along the main thoroughfare through town, and I had transformed it into a decent looking home. Most folks were amazed and pleased, but like most towns Webster has its “taste committee,” the folks my neighbor George called the nitpickers. Some of them were less than thrilled with my choices.
This was especially true when it came to some of my landscaping. There had been a huge, old maple in the front yard that kept the house dark and detracted from the two massive and beautiful hollies that shared the small space. I cut it down and had it sawn into boards for furniture and shelving.
Among the slabs that came out of the maple were two that looked very much like people, or maybe aliens. I mounted them in the front yard and dubbed them Ma and Pa Maple. Another piece looked like a big mushroom, and I planted that among the sunflowers in a berm I built alongside the street.
I added a huge piece of the trunk of a hemlock that had died from the wooly adelgid. The trunk section had several platforms, which soon housed a gargoyle and a statue of Pan, god of the forest and mischief. I also added a fire pit to the front yard and a bench built out of slabs from the maple.
On the posts above the garage, I added a bird chateau built to house 20 or so purple martins. Dr. McCue, a former customer, gave me a very cool dragon weathervane right before he died. It was a piece that his wife had bought before she died, and he had never had the heart to put it up. He’d followed the renovation of the house, and when he got terminal lung cancer decided I should have the decoration. I set it up so he could always watch over the place. Around the yard various gnomes appeared, along with some rubber ducks and assorted other oddities.
Most folks loved the decorations. Many told me they enjoyed trying to figure out what I might come up with next. The taste committee wasn’t particularly happy though, and they made it known.
Small towns are wonderful places, but they aren’t immune to petty human nature. People worry about Washington overreach, but for many of us the problem isn’t big national government but petty local government. Webster is a good community, but the town government has always had the tendency to be insular, a sort of personal project for a dedicated few who have a vision of the community that is largely myth.
Webster no longer has a town center or any sort of business district. Its glory days ended a hundred years ago when the county seat moved down the road to Sylva. The town mavens, the taste committee, have a hard time curbing their delusions of grandeur. Listening to the stories of some of the older families in town, one hears a certain dissonance. The quiet farm community that some remember seems very different than the mythical Webster the mavens see.
I’m not one of those folks who says, “It’s my property; I’ll do what I want.” I believe in obligations to neighbors. I believe in planning, and yes, basic zoning. I’ve served several terms on the county planning board over the last 20 years, always trying to focus on developing plans and regulations that protected the health, safety and welfare of the community while giving people the leeway to be themselves.
Today we have a nihilistc, anti-government strain that runs through our polity. I’ve been rereading the Federalist Papers and other documents from our founding period and shortly thereafter, like de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. What is striking is the founders’ concerns for the individual in the context of community and their belief that citizenship was a bundle of both rights and responsibilities, something not merely conferred but attained.
Today some of those ideas seem to be under irrational attack by those who do not see government as a community effort but as something “other” and apart. That an abandonment of the basic promise embodied in “We the people…” and rather sad and dangerous.
On the other hand, those who see government as an enforcer of taste seem to me to abuse the meaning of community.
I built the big chair in response to some of the grumbling and in response to some other events. When George died, it seemed like the thing to do. Kids love the big chair. They ask me why I built it, and I tell them: “Well, when the giant comes to town he’ll need someplace to sit, won’t he?” Their eyes get wide in expectation of the giant, wondering when he might come, but they certainly understand the impeccable logic of the big chair.
For adults, I have another answer. I tell them that Webster has a few big asses and I’m just trying to be accommodating.
Mark Jamison is a retired U.S. postmaster who lives in western North Carolina.