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

Forest Health

Narratives of Development

To comprehend the condition of this forest, you have to get under the canopy and listen. From Charleston, drive the interstate as far as Marmet and then head south along Route 94 as it follows the tributary of Lens Creek to Racine. From there Route 3 winds south and east through District 17 of the United Mine Workers, past dozens of coal camps, towns, and hollows along the Big Coal River. Eventually it comes to Montcoal on the Marsh Fork, where science writer John Flynn directs the Lucy Braun Association's Appalachian Forest Action Project from an old coal company house. In 1994, Flynn, a native of Rock Creek, began working with residents of the hollows and towns on Coal River to establish permanent plots for monitoring forest health.

However, understanding the significance of forest deterioration requires that we evaluate a different set of plots. Significance is conferred on natural resources through narratives that place them in time. Among narratives precipitated by environmental crisis, point of view distinguishes national and even global narratives from those that are locally produced. Narratives from the national perspective often imagine the forest in times and spaces beyond the reach of human experience.3 And, thus, the forest becomes a resource to be acted upon from without, not to be engaged and shaped from within.4

Two non-local narratives currently inform the national environmental debate, one an ecological narrative, the other an economic or industrial narrative. Unfolding over the grand sweep of geological time, the ecological narrative of the mother forest (mentioned above) makes clear some of the consequences of lost diversity for Eastern deciduous forests. In an alternative industrial narrative, forests become a renewable crop to meet the needs of a nation on the path of progress. Progress, a sequence of economic growth, is not dependent upon biodiversity and old-growth stands per se. While regenerating forests is important in this narrative, "reforestation" can be achieved by replanting timbered tracts with even-aged stands of fast-growing evergreens.5

What is missing in the national discussion are local narratives that depict forests on a human scale. Accordingly, I have been working with John Flynn and other area residents to gather local historical narratives of the mixed mesophytic on Coal River. Our objective is to describe a collectively remembered forest against which to measure the forest's present condition, and to articulate the implications of forest change for the community on Coal River. In addition to conducting interviews and documenting forest-related traditions, our research entails listening to the talk precipitated by this crisis, talk that casts forest deterioration in historical terms.


  1. For instance, Gregg Easterbrook, in a bid for "ecorealism," writes that "North America does appear a great deal different compared with how it must have looked five centuries ago, but what is nature's perspective? At the small scale level upon which most earthly creatures dwell, hardly anything has transpired." "Thinking Like Nature: The Environment in Perspective," Washington Post Magazine, April 9, 1995, p. 19. [Return to Text]
  2. The distinction between the forest as a world to act upon from without and a world to be shaped from within is drawn from Kathleen Stewart's contrast between touristic acts of remembering and the effort of southern West Virginians "exiled" at home to "re-member" what is constantly dismembered. See her "Nostalgia--A Polemic," Cultural Anthropology 3 (1988):227-41. [Return to Text]
  3. For example, in The Southern Appalachian Forests, published by the Department of Agriculture, 1905, a photograph of a forest is captioned: "Timber is a crop." In a recent song sheaf donated to the Archive of Folk Culture, the song "Schenks's Foresteers" celebrates early reforestation efforts in the Cradle of American Forestry. Its chorus (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) goes "Pinus, Pinus Ponderosa (3x) in Schenks's Foresteers!" Nearly a century later, much that is advertised as sustainable forestry comprises evergreen plantations. See, for instance, the advertisement in the "Outlook" section of the Washington Post, Sunday, June 18, 1995. [Return to Text]
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