In God's green lands

Driving through Tennessee, Benjamin Joffe-Walt finds that eco-mania sits uneasily beside Southern tr

A drive along Tennessee's growing "hydrogen highway" opens with the following signage: "God, He is the AWESOME father", "IF YOU CANNOT FIND GOD GUESS WHO IS LOST" and, finally, "Don't be a girly man, vote Republican", as per a popular bumper sticker.

Welcome to the South's leading hope for eco- tourism - a network of highways and state routes in the Tennessee Valley corridor that will provide biodiesel refuelling stations, solar recharge stations for electric cars, ethanol pumps and, someday, hydrogen refuelling stations. Several Tennessee mayors have signed the mayor's climate protection agreement, local universities have hydrogen-production projects and, if the eco-growth continues at its present rate, Tennessee will soon host the first proper ecofuel route in the American South.

The roadside landscape is untouched, plush green along gradually rolling hills. Where there is life, there is a church, auction house, tobacco outlet and carwash. Each town seems to have kids on display making forts and playing with toy guns, antiques sales and farm real-estate agents. Fire brigades are almost all made up of volunteers, run from barns or household garages.

In pursuit of "recommended Murfreesboro", my girlfriend and I end up at Dodge's, ostensibly a petrol station, but also a gathering place for central Tennesseans. Inside are arguing teenage couples with babies. The loudest among them is a shirtless blond boy in his late teens, holding a naked toddler in a white diaper while fighting with his girlfriend over which "fried chicken & beer" deal is best for the little one.

Beyond the chicken and beer at Dodge's, the pre-pregnancy teenagers smoke, drive low-hanging old sports cars and flirt outside ice-cream shops, fast-food joints and other establishments run by 16-year-olds.

The sole sign of the eco-paradise set to hit the South is Daily's petrol station. None of Murfreesboro's inhabitants seems to know, but Daily's shop, number 8804, now doubles as a biodiesel refuelling station for those, on the way to a cattle show or fresh out of Steak & Shake, who wish to partake in the green revolution.

Eventually, we meet someone who has heard of the eco-efforts in the region. He is Chad Sugg, a 20-year-old from Clarksville, Tennessee, attending the Bonnaroo music and arts festival - an incongruous annual mega-event in an area more au fait with dog and cattle shows. Held on a farm between a Wal-Mart and some wetlands in Manchester, Tennessee, the event attracts more than 80,000 young greenies, rockers and hipsters from all over the country each summer.

"At the start of Bonnaroo, people are just out on their porches watching everyone in their cars," Chad says, standing beside a van with "Screwed, Brewed and Bonnarood" scribbled in the extensive dirt on the window. "You hear a lot of, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with that kid's hair?'"

Although held only once a year, Bonnaroo's success has made it a global symbol in the environmental movement, and by far the most interesting eco project on the Tennessee route.

At the centre of the 283-hectare site sits an entirely solar-powered stage, upon which political speakers and musicians discuss music and social change, monoculture, education, thinking outside the box and keeping positive. Attendees sunbathe on the grass or nearby benches made from recycled household garbage, as frisbees fly across the fields.

A few steps away sits an entirely waste-free restaurant, an organic clothing shop, a cob house beside a stand with information on green real estate and, in the background, glistens a ferris wheel fuelled by cleaner biodiesel.

In the sprawling campsites there are a solar powered cafe and juice bar, a climbing wall attached to a biodiesel-powered bus, and an observant Jew cruising around in the "Moishe Mobile", a bus powered by vegetable oil and covered in solar panels. The grand expanses of tents in the sun are broken up by "sun-breaks", colourful installations made of recycled bottles to provide shade for festival attendees.

Bonnaroo certainly has the type of clientele unlikely to make grand inroads in Tennessee society, and the festival's greening initiatives have run into a few local hiccups. "Some of our caterers are local and this is their biggest event all year round," explains Lee Schnaiberg, 39, who coordinates the various green initiatives at Bonnaroo. "They know this, and the supplier of their plastic cups also knows this. So while I look at what they're using and say: 'Why are we using this stuff?', convincing the supplier to switch to a different green supplier is difficult. So we will go to their supplier and find some green alternatives that they can get for us. In this way we keep positive relations with the local community and get better and greener every year."

In search of some local cultural integration, a nearby fan picks up the Murfreesboro Post. The eager 48-page weekly contains, among other things, the news that the county commission voted to reject a resolution banning the shooting of guns in one's backyard for target practice and Pastor Barry Mershon's sermon, entitled, "Hungry for grace? Only Jesus can satisfy".

The church-sign competition to decide which town finds Jesus more AWESOME continues as we drive away from the green giddiness: "In a changing world you can trust God," reads one, followed by a rousing "GROW WITH GOD".

We pass an old barnhouse, J & V Wholesale, then drive past men in sweaty bandanas lounging outside The Pink Mexican, a local drinking hole, talking about their pickups. There are some more "Yard Sale" signs, and then nothing. The future hydrogen highway bursts into a vacant expanse. There are light clouds in a gleaming indigo sky, there are slow turns around rolling hills and there is a road, long, still and green.

Benjamin Joffe-Walt is an editor at "Colors" magazine

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?