Craft at Home in the Mountain Forest: An excerpt from Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth’s Finding the Singing Spruce

Finding The Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers and Appalachia’s Mountain Forests is the new book in the Sounding Appalachia series by Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth, who teaches folklore studies at the Ohio State University. Aaron Allen, coeditor of Current Directions in Ecomusicology: Music, Culture, Nature, calls the book “a nuanced academic contribution to both human and environmental Appalachian studies” that’s also “a collection of accessible stories about people, places, and instruments.”

As we sat in his shop escaping the summer heat in 2014, electric bass specialist Roger Morillo and I tacked back and forth from English to Spanish as we talked about the similarities between his home community in the mountains of Táchira State in Andean Venezuela and his more recent home in St. Albans, West Virginia. He drew on his experiences living in mountain environments and attributed the uniqueness of wood craft in the mountains to his impression of the freedom that mountaineers have to create and find meaning from their material environment. “It’s the environment and traditions that we have,” he said, leaning back into his steel folding chair. “Remember, in the past, these people used to get into the woods. They would build their own house, especially with woodworking. Then they’re thinking, ‘I’m going to build my own kitchen cabinet’ and after that say, ‘I’m going to build my own banjo because I want to be happy sitting in the house that I built, on the chair that I already built, playing the instrument that I already built. I made everything by myself.’ ” For Roger, this was an expression of an essential characteristic of every mountaineer all over the world: “They want to be free.”

He extended this connection between material environment and the personality of crafters:

No one instrument plays, and sounds, and looks like another one. I have not found one builder that can build two instruments exactly like the other. Building stuff with your hands makes what you are building unique, because you are working with your hands. Even big factories, they can’t guarantee the instruments will be the same because they are using wood. Wood was alive. They change. They have water going through them. And that’s what makes wood so powerful to the human being because it was another kind of living creature that you are working with.

This reminded him of a “beautiful phrase” he had read in a book, and he began searching for it in a nearby closet. He returned with the book and thumbed through its pages, finally arriving at the passage. “In Latin it sounds like, ‘Viva fui in silvis. Sum dura occisa securi. Dum vixi tacui, Mortua dulce cano.’ It means, ‘I was alive in the forest. I was cut by the cruel ax. In life I was silent. In death I sweetly sing.’ ” He looked up from the book and began speaking animatedly. “Isn’t that beautiful? You can make a singing tree. You can make a tree sing. That’s the magic! You can make that wood alive from our human perspective. I believe from the tree’s perspective, it’s awful; but from our own perspective, we say it’s beautiful. We treat the wood totally different than anyone treats it. That makes the craft of making musical instruments totally different. Totally. Totally. Totally different.”

Fig. 2.1. Roger Morillo in his shop in St. Albans, WV

Roger’s thoughts on specific relationships instrument makers create with their mountain forest environments and wood materials resonate across the experience of other makers in West Virginia. While not all suggest that the environment determines a particular outlook on livelihood and connections to forests and trees, most makers acknowledge the unique impacts created by building singing instruments from trees. West Virginia’s forest environment enables an indelible impact of forests and timber on the livelihoods and worldview of its inhabitants. Owing to the close work with wood and biography of trees found in its grain patterns and material composition, instrument makers find unique “ways of knowing” the material and the environment from which it emerges. In this chapter, I engage the biography of forests and trees through an environmental history of West Virginia’s mountain forests and critically evaluate the relationships that people in the Mountain State have sustained with them over centuries. Providing context of the multiplex ways people have come to know and use forest resources and bridging this context with useful theoretical concepts will inform the search for singing instruments in the practice of the craft detailed in later chapters.

The Forest and Timber of West Virginia and the Alleghenies

West Virginia is the third most forested state in the United States and has the highest mean elevation east of the Mississippi River, meaning that we find makers surrounded by mountain forest environments, regardless of the physical community in which they are making. The mountain and forest environment is critical to the region’s identity and is the source of contestation, negotiation, and imagination. West Virginia’s beckoning slogan of “Wild and Wonderful” speaks to this imagination in its romanticizing description, but a closer attention to the history of managing forest ecologies shows a forest both young and manipulated. A tangled mesh of human livelihoods, institutional policies, and ecological processes, the forest environment is a space of competing, coexisting, complementary, and contradictory approaches and logics.

The forest has changed immensely over the past two hundred years. The once plentiful varieties of megafauna have been eradicated, with some species having been reintroduced, such as whitetail deer and black bear. Other species such as beavers, fishers (Martes pennant), and river otters have been reintroduced after the destruction of their habitat in the early twentieth century. Trout are now stocked in streams and waterways that were once the spawning grounds of many varieties of native brook trout. Introduced species have effectively eliminated major species, as in the case of the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) and the more recent emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), while plants such as black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate), and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) have remade the floral landscape.

The stories of making instruments that follow in this book take place in forests of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. In these ancient mountains, the forest surrounds. It blankets and contains. Roads, patchy farms and fields on bottomland, some bald peaks (grazing land for cattle, horses put out to pasture, or sheep ewes, pronounced occasionally like the greeting “yo”), clear-cuts, and the occasional strip mine form the occasional breakages in the enveloping forest canopy. Slender trees overlap their branches, split out from blasted rock formations, line the roadsides, and bristle up the mountain slopes. The forest is at once a viewshed to passing motorists, a watershed for eight rivers, a shelter to campers and hikers, a playground to mountain bikers, skiers, kayakers, and climbers, an easement for pipelines, a habitat to a vast array of flora and fauna, a garden and range for foragers and hunters, and a raising crop of timber monitored and harvested on regular cycles.

The Allegheny Mountains stretch roughly from southern West Virginia through midwestern Pennsylvania, with the Allegheny Front forming a physical boundary along the border of Virginia and West Virginia. The mountains flatten into the Allegheny Plateau, which runs through the middle of West Virginia into Ohio, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania, comprising what the Appalachian Regional Commission refers to as North Central and North Appalachia. The Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests in Virginia are an olive sprawl across maps of the Allegheny Front that represent their millions of acres of forest.

Fig. 2.2. The forests of the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia

Though several counties fall along the Alleghenies in West Virginia, the makers whom I follow in subsequent chapters live and work in what I refer to as the Allegheny Region of West Virginia, which includes Greenbrier, Randolph, and Pocahontas Counties, with these three counties comprising about 3,000 of the state’s 24,181 square miles in area. Randolph and Pocahontas are among the most forested counties in the state at 90 and 91 percent respectively, and the more agricultural Greenbrier County is 78 percent forest, similar to the state average. They are all among the least populated counties, and Pocahontas has the lowest population density of any county in West Virginia, with only ten people per square mile. These counties are demarcated as State Forest Legacy Priority Areas by the state Division of Resources given the high intensity of private timber harvest by small and large companies, the importance to major water systems, and the protection of species of concern.

Listening for Voices in the Forest’s Past

Forests, and the myriad beings and processes that create them, are a central social and economic presence in the area. The variety of constituent beings creates competing interests about the future and use of forest spaces, especially as resources for economic development. In 2016, as I drove to the shop in Randolph County where I was apprenticing with a guitar maker, I passed a large sign proclaiming in red letters, PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS. PROTECT YOUR FUTURE. NO BIRTHPLACE OF RIVERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, illustrating its creator’s antipathy for a local effort to designate national forest wilderness land as a national monument. The Birthplace of Rivers movement sought to create a national monument to protect forests and waterways, as well as create opportunities to bolster ecotourism. The movement dwindled during my fieldwork, as its supporters hoped a letter-writing campaign would prompt President Barack Obama to include it in his last additions under the Antiquities Act. Conversely, opposition rallied around perceptions of further intrusion by federal government into the forest, restricting timber economic development and access for hunters. The election of Donald Trump that same year, who promised to restrict land protected under the Antiquities Act, confirmed the sign’s demands and defeated the efforts of local water rights activists, environmentalists, and tourism beneficiaries.

These efforts were part of a long-term vision to promote the area’s natural and cultural heritage by turning an already protected wilderness area into a more marketable tourist destination. Appealing to nature lovers, musicians, environmental activists, economic development, and hunters and fishers, in their view, they sought to bring the confluence of economic development, heritage, and the mountain forest to the birthplace of rivers. Yet, the issues of the federal government’s role in adjudicating local land tenure politics and potentially further regulating the usage of the forest proved to be a difficult sell for many of the county’s residents and local politicians. The overlapping layers of forest usage and politics point to the multivalent nature of this forest, where different points of view and ways of knowing the forest, human or otherwise, fundamentally changed how the forest is viewed and used. The history and everyday enactment of myriad interests, practices, and policies comprise a crucial context to understanding the work of instrument makers in the Mountain State and their connections to the materials at hand.

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