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Collection Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

American Ginseng and the Idea of the Commons

  • The View from the Sundial Tavern

    The Sundial Tavern, known up and down Coal River as "Kenny and Martha's," is a mom-and-pop-style beer joint on Route 3, in Sundial, West Virginia, just north of Naoma. Retired coal miner Kenny Pettry and his wife, Martha, now in their sixties, have been the proprietors for nearly thirty years. The bar's modest facade belies the often uproarious vitality of its evenings. On weekend ...

  • The Commons

    There is a story in these figures of a vernacular cultural domain that transcends state boundaries. Anchoring this domain is a geographical space, a de facto commons roughly congruent with two physiographic regions recognized in national discourse. One is the coal fields underlying the ginseng, most of which are controlled by absentee landholders. The other is the mixed mesophytic forest, known among ecologists as ...

  • Historical Background

    The history of human interaction with ginseng lurks in the language of the land. Look at a detailed map of almost any portion of the region and ginseng is registered somewhere, often in association with the deeper, moister places: Seng Branch (Fayette County), Sang Camp Creek (Logan County), Ginseng (Wyoming County), Seng Creek (Boone County), Three-Prong Holler (Raleigh). The hollows, deep dendritic fissures created ...

  • Stalking the Wily Seng

    Though in biological terms ginseng is properly flora, in the ginsengers' world it behaves like fauna. Ginseng is not merely "harvested," it is "hunted," and rare six-, seven-, and eight-prong specimens are coveted like twelve-point bucks. There is an agency assigned to ginseng unparalleled among the many plants valued on Coal River. "It hides away from man with seeming intelligence," wrote Arthur Harding in ...

  • Giles the Seng Man

    One of the more famous buyers who infused cash into the economy during the boom-and-bust period of coal was "Giles the Seng Man." Diggers generally sell ginseng to centers that recycle scrap metal and broker other non-woody forest products like moss, mayapple, bloodroot, cohosh, and golden seal. During the thirties, forties, and fifties much of the ginseng on Marsh Fork was bought by "Giles ...

  • Seng Talk and Ginseng Tales

    Conjuring the Commons For seng aficionados, the ongoing prospect of ginseng makes the mountains gleam with hidden treasure. "It's like catching a big fish," said Randy Halstead. "You're out here all day and you find this big fish, and you know it's everybody's desire to catch this big fish in the lake. You find this big enormous plant and you know everybody that's out ...

  • Ginseng and the Future of the Commons

    "Understanding the commons and its role within the larger regional culture," writes Gary Snyder, "is one more step toward integrating ecology with economy."18 Environmental policy, focused too narrowly on physical resources, loses sight of the web of social relationships and processes in which those resources are embedded and made significant. "They're taking our dignity by destroying our forest," as Vernon Williams, of Peach Tree ...