Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Stalking the Mother Forest: Voices Beneath the Canopy

Forest Health and 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.


A person pointing to a spot on a sheaf of papers on their lap.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Trees plotted on a map by volunteers for the Appalachian Forest Action Project of the Lucy Braun Association for the Mixed Mesophytic Forest and Trees for the Planet. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/05/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Two men standing in a doorway.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  John Flynn and Ben Burnside standing in the door to a tool shed on Ben's property. Terry Eiler. 1995/04/21. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.