Forest Disturbance: An excerpt from Katie Fallon’s essay in Mountains Piled upon Mountains

West Virginia University Press’s new book Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. The excerpt below is from the essay “Forest Disturbance” by Katie Fallon, who is the author of several books, has taught at West Virginia University, and now teaches in low-residency programs at West Virginia Wesleyan College and Chatham UniversityMountains Piled upon Mountains, edited by Jessica Cory, is available now on our website.

Isabelle stands directly on top of the running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum), a federally endangered species. Her silver Nikes crush some of the three-leafed plants, while other sprouts tangle between her feet. The US Forest Service scientist leading our small group assures us that this clover likes disturbance—in fact, it requires disturbance to flourish—but we are nervous about obliging.

Our group consists of a handful of undergraduate students and their instructors—Dr. Bill Peterjohn from West Virginia University’s biology department and me from English. The course, Writing Appalachian Ecology, bridges the sciences and humanities by getting students out of the classroom and into the forest. In light of certain disturbing trends—Gallup, for example, reported in 2014 that only 36 percent of Americans believed that “global warming will pose a serious threat to their way of life during their lifetimes,” and a 2015 Pew Research Center survey revealed that just 41 percent of the American public thought that climate change was harming people today—the National Science Foundation has recognized the need to improve dialogue between scientists and the public. One purpose of our course is to address this chasm by training artful “translators”—that is, teaching students to write creatively about biology in the hopes that their fresh, metaphoric, reflective voices will sing the science to their readers.

Our field site, the Fernow Experimental Forest, “a 4,600-acre outdoor laboratory and classroom,” was purchased by the federal government in 1915 for $5.50 an acre and established as a research forest in 1934. It lies within West Virginia’s 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest (or “Mon,” as the locals call it). The Weeks Act of 1911, which authorized the federal government to purchase lands to protect headwater streams and watersheds of the eastern United States, made the establishment of the Mon and our other eastern national forests possible. The Mon lies just to the west and north of Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forests; in some spots, the forests share boundaries. These Appalachian forests—and their preservation—matter to all of us in the eastern United States, whether we realize it or not.

Water is life, and if you live east of the Mississippi River, chances are good that the water you drink originates deep in the mountains of Appalachia, perhaps even here in West Virginia’s Fernow. Elklick Run, the creek that drains this part of the forest, tumbles into the Black Fork River in the town of Parsons, then merges with Shaver’s Fork to form the Cheat, which flows north until it joins the Monongahela River in Point Marion, Pennsylvania. The Monongahela also flows north, and in Pittsburgh it merges with the Allegheny to form the mighty Ohio River, which eventually twists southward and west until it meets the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois, near that state’s border with Kentucky and Missouri. The Mississippi, of course, flows south into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans.

Here, on a trail uphill from Elklick Run, it’s easy to feel small. Towering tulip poplars, sugar maples, and red oaks crowd around us, reaching skyward, shading life along the path; in addition to the running buffalo clover, we find bee balm, jewelweed, and stinging nettle. May apple. Bloodroot. Joe-pye weed. Meadow rue. We bend closer to snails and pipevine swallowtail butterflies. From the canopy, songs of red-eyed vireos, black-throated green warblers, and scarlet tanagers float down to us. It seems enchanted, and to me, it’s the most beautiful place on earth. Accepting our responsibility as voices—as translators, as advocates—of these headwater forests, we tread lightly, even where treading may be beneficial.

We hear the dogs before we hear the rumble of the engine. Sharp, soulful baying, like drawn-out yodels. The dusty white truck crawls up the gravel road and passes us, its driver nodding and passenger waving with just his fingertips, his forearm resting on the open window, a cigarette hanging from below his white mustache. In the pickup’s bed, a larger silver cage holds at least four coonhounds; they stick their heads through portholes in the sides, long silken ears flopping, tongues lolling. Each dog wears a bulky radio collar. Bear-hunting dogs, Bill tells us, in training. Camping and campfires aren’t permitted in the Fernow, but the forest is open to the public for hunting. Bear hunting with dogs isn’t legal everywhere, but under certain circumstances it is in West Virginia. The dogs sniff out a black bear in hiding, rouse it, pursue it, and tree it. When the radio signal stops moving, the hunter finds the dogs and shoots the bear out of the tree. Sometimes, dogs are injured; a black bear here can weigh in excess of five hundred pounds.

No one knows for sure who first hunted this forest, but the Shawnee utilized the “big spring,” a reliable water source that still runs in the Fernow today. Some of the first non-native settlers in the area were Henry Irons and his family; Irons’s grave lies just off an old logging road among the silent trees. For early settlers, this forest provided clean water, food, and opportunities. In addition to wild game, hogs and cattle were turned loose to forage on the abundant fallen fruits of American chestnut trees. Timbering in this forest began in earnest in 1901, after the Civil War. Sawmills and lumber camps sprung up around nearby Parsons. Some of the timber was skidded down the mountain with horses and loaded onto train cars, while other felled trees whooshed down greased “slides,” made from logs shaved into V shapes.

Between 1901 and 1911, most of the forest in this part of West Virginia had been clear-cut, before the US Forest Service bought the first tract of what would become the Fernow in 1915. World War II put research in the Fernow on hold, but once the war ended, forestry studies began again, with investigations into timber management, watershed management, reforesting strip-mined land, rainfall intensity, and other areas. Today, while much of the forest has regrown, it’s noticeably different from the one that was logged bare more than a hundred years ago. One change resonates perhaps more than any other: the mighty American chestnut, which made up about 25 percent of all Appalachian forests, is gone, victim of an Asian blight. How will the forest change in the future? Global warming, disease, invasive animals and plants—it’s possible to despair, even standing in the middle of what appears lush and “untouched,” when in fact it’s anything but.

The forest still provides—drinking water, food, recreation, a measure of solace. The truck rumbles past, a cloud of gravel dust in its wake. What must we look like to the bear hunters? We huddle around a bed of fiery bee balm, taking close-ups of hovering swallowtails with our iPhones, notebooks hugged to chests. We wave back tentatively.

Read the rest in Mountains Piled upon Mountains.

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