Guy Mendes has spent much of the past four decades promoting and preserving the Central Kentucky watershed region known as Marble Creek.
A self-described "card-carrying, tree-hugging environmentalist," he is happy to talk at length about the region's history, its ecological importance and even the personal nostalgia that still ties him to it. But with the area facing the possibility of becoming disrupted, if not destroyed, by a 13-mile stretch of road that would connect Interstate 75 with Nicholasville, Mendes has turned again to the ally that has always expressed most convincingly the unspoiled natural beauty of Marble Creek: his camera.
"I've been photographing down there since 1975," he said. "When I started, it was just to take a hike and swim on a hot day. It is a world-class landscape that has been continually threatened by development. We've lost so much of it. In Kentucky, we're losing 10 acres every hour to rural development.
"So what we're in is one of those classic battles of environmentalists versus the development people. They have more money and access to the pulpit. But a lot of people have really rallied against this."
Rallying is what Mendes and a team of local environmentalists and activists who call themselves the Disconnectors intend to do Thursday in Lexington. An exhibition of Mendes' photography of the region, Marble Creek: Endangered Watershed, opens Thursday afternoon at the Ann Tower Gallery. Thursday evening, an awareness/fundraising event combining Kentucky poets, writers and musicians called Off the Road! A Rally Against the I-75 Connector convenes at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
"I like to call the rally a poetry slam/hootenanny," Mendes said. "Younger people might not know what a 'hootenanny' is. It's a term for getting together with people, playing music and singing protest songs."
The keynote tune of the evening will be presented through the premiere of a music video of an original song, The Vampire Road, by Lexington songwriter and composer Steve Broderson. The title isn't solely his creation. It's a term area protesters have used in the past to describe several failed attempts to build roads through Marble Creek. But Broderson says he found that description so vivid and revealing that he said his resulting song all but wrote itself.
"Actually the name 'the vampire road' was coined by someone who had written an op-ed piece," Broderson said. (Jessamine County farmer Henry Riekert first used the phrase in 1998, when the road was previously proposed and he belonged to a group that fought the idea.) "So I kind of used that phrase. As a songwriter, that was like gold. It has built-in metaphors and imagery.
"I didn't want to write a real direct song," he said. "I didn't want to make it too obvious. So I thought why not set it in the future when this thing has already happened and tell it as if we didn't do enough to stand up against it."
Musically, The Vampire Road is almost purposely removed from folk-song tradition. It sounds less like Woody Guthrie and more like the kind of early '70s country-rock you might hear from a band like Poco.
"While I didn't really want to go down that Woody Guthrie kind of road, I still wanted to make the song relevant and make it accessible to people who would take the time to listen to it. It's being called a protest song, but it's really more of a make-you-think type of song."
While The Vampire Road will be represented through video, the rest of Off the Road will be live.
Acclaimed writers Wendell Berry (who was recently presented the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's lifetime achievement award) and Barbara Kingsolver (winner of the National Humanities Medal) will lead a list of Kentucky authors and poets offering readings.
A lineup of local music that includes performances from Matt Duncan, Tee Dee Young and The Northside Sheiks will round out the program.
For Duncan, one of Lexington's most versed and visible pop stylists, Off the Road hits home. As a youth, he frequented Marble Creek regularly with his parents.
"I do have a bit of a history with it," Duncan said of the area. "I had a good friend growing up whose family had a farm out that way. We used to go down there quite a bit with them and play in the creek by all those incredible waterfalls. It's a pretty magical area."
Duncan also participated last summer in a preamble event for Off the Road, the Marble Creek Music Festival, where patrons hiked alongside the creek. The stroll reemphasized that just how powerful and unblemished the area's beauty still is.
"I have these childhood memories of that area that seem sort of surreal and idyllic," Duncan said. "So I kind of expected to go back and just feel, 'Oh, yeah, it's pretty.' But actually I went back and found it's just as beautiful as I remembered it. It's an amazingly gorgeous area that they are trying to build this road through."
As with all protest-driven events, the key mission of Off the Road is awareness of its cause, although proceeds will go to legal funds for the Disconnectors' fight against the I-75 extension.
"Marble Creek and the farmland between Nicholasville and I-75 is in very real danger of extinction if a big road comes through that would take up hundreds of acres," Mendes said. "Between 1995 and 2005, we lost 80,000 acres out of the Inner Bluegrass to developments — shopping centers, parking lots, strip malls, subdivisions.
"At some point, we have to say, 'Enough is enough.' We need our farmlands. We need our wild creeks. These are the things that make us, landscape-wise, one of the most spectacular places in the world."
IF YOU GO
Marble Creek: Endangered Watershed, photography by Guy Mendes. Exhibit: Sept. 19-Nov. 3. Opening reception: 5 p.m. Sept. 19. Ann Tower Gallery, Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St. Free. (859) 425-1188. Anntowergallery.com.
Off the Road: A Rally Against the I-75 Connector. Featuring Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver and others. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19. Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St., at Elm Tree Ln. $12 in advance, $15 at the door. (859) 280-2218. Lexingtonlyric.tix.com.
Learn more: facebook.com/StopI75Connector
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.