Tuesday, April 27, 2010


April is the cruelest month, here in Decatur, Georgia, but not for the reasons posited by Eliot.

Spring settled in a few weeks ago, bringing fine, warm days with bright blue skies and the fresh green of new leaves.  Winter has already receded into memory, and the most oppressive heat of a Southern summer is yet a month or two off.

If my family lived elsewhere, we might have our windows open all the time to take in the crisp, blossom-scented springtime air.

But we don't live elsewhere. We live here, in Decatur, a block from a busy commuter road.  When we open the windows on even the finest of spring mornings, the air is laden with the sickly smell of car exhaust compounded, we think, with mold and a simple excess of greenery.

It makes the healthy to wrinkle their noses, and the sufferer of chronic asthma to gag and reach for the inhaler.

There's also the problem of pollen, which, in the Atlanta region, is nearly apocalyptic.  A pollen count over 100 grains per cubic meter is considered "extreme."  The 2010 pollen season seems to have peaked on April 7, with a count of 5733 grains per cubic meter.  Riding the train to work that week, I could see the chartreuse haze of pine pollen hanging over the city.

The pollen is now fading: this morning's count is 141, which falls in the range I call "merely extreme."  The fumes remain, however, and ozone season is coming.

So, why did we choose to live here?

In part, we chose to live in Decatur, a small city nestled up against Atlanta proper, so we could be less dependent on cars to get around.  Living here, I can ride MARTA to work, starting at a bus stop one block from my house and ending with a pleasant-enough walk through Midtown Atlanta onto campus.  Most of our daily activities are within a few miles of our house.

There are financial benefits to us, of course. We have only one car to fuel, maintain, and insure, and I don't have to pay to park at work.  Because of our location, the value of our property may go up as gasoline becomes more expensive and more people look to live ITP, inside the Perimeter (as I-285 is called, locally).

There are other benefits to us, as well, not least of which is that we don't often have to put up with the stress of being stuck in traffic.

Also, Decatur is a nice town.  This is as close as we could get to living in a compact, walkable city on our budget.

Beyond this, our choice to live here was motivated by a sense of responsibility to others.  Because we drive less, we don't contribute as much to air pollution as we otherwise would, air pollution that affects whole communities.  More basically, we don't use as much gasoline as we otherwise would, which we hope contributes some very, very small measure to the sustainability of human civilization.

These are fine and important motives, I think, but then I'd also love to live in a place where we could have the windows open on a clear April day.  Instead, we find ourselves huddling indoors, away from the pollen and the car exhaust, with the air conditioning already humming away, squandering the supposed virtue of our energy-saving way of life.

But what should we do?  To be able to have our windows open in April, in order not to have the children come in smelling like a freeway when they've been playing outside for even a few minutes, we would either have to move to the outer suburbs and join the ranks of those who clog busy commuter roads and contribute to air pollution in in-town neighborhoods, or we would have to leave the Atlanta region entirely . . . and no doubt land in some new bind elsewhere.

In Atlanta, I sometimes say, you have a choice: you can make fumes, or you can suck fumes.

It's not just Atlanta, though. This is a distinctly American dilemma, one that would follow us wherever we went.

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