Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Stalking the Mother Forest: Voices Beneath the Canopy

"Like a Thief Through the Air": Discourses of Forest Decline

In beer joints and living rooms, on porches and ridgetops, one hears people talking about a forest on the wane. "The men that like to hunt and be out ginsenging and will be all over the woods," said Robert Allen, of Peachtree Creek. "I've heard a lot of them talk about the way the timber is falling and dying out." Old-timers grew up tracking the demise of the American chestnut. A middle-aged generation eulogizes the red mulberry. Up on Clay's Branch, Danny Williams, who cuts timber for a living, tabulates the present crop of decline: "Now it's the red oak, now it's going into your beech, you can't find no solid beech, no solid gum, your poplars is not as bad but getting there, and then your hard sugar maple, they're hollow. Yellow locust is gone. And if it's standing up, it's dead. It just ain't fell yet."6

From a porch at the head of Rock Creek Hollow, John Flynn and Ben Burnside discuss the vanishing nut trees: "Of course, the butternut [white walnut]," said Ben, "they're just about a thing of the past. Most of them are dying." "Remember the chinquapin nuts?" John asked him.7 "They're gone too, ain't they?" Ben observed.

Not entirely, Mae Bongalis, seventy-eight, informed us later in Naoma:

Chinquapins is about all died out, but there's one tree growing up Sandlick. I seen this little branch a-hanging by the door of that little market right by the road? And the guy that owns that place, he's a good friend, and I said, "Beano, where did you get them chinquapins?" He said, "You know, Mae, nobody knows what they are, how did you know?" I says, "I picked many a one of them," and he said, "Right up there," he said, "in that hill's one tree." And I said, "Any little ones comes up, dig me one."


A growing sense of a world going awry is fueled by a sense of history. "There's something wrong with the roots of the trees," said Kenneth Pettry, sixty-nine, proprietor of the Sundial Tavern. "You can snap off the roots of the [yellow] locust. Back when I was a kid we had to blow out the stumps of locust with dynamite."

Other residents report trees snapping off in high winds ("Snap locusts," Joe Aliff wryly terms them), littering the forest floor with pieces of the canopy; falling over "for no reason at all," disclosing desiccated root wads and dappling deep woods with unaccustomed light; "throwing" limbs on people walking and working in the woods; gushing water "like a faucet" onto chainsaws; and erupting into sylvan grotesques of exaggerated, nitrogen-induced growth. "Joe Aliff has [paw-paws] on his north hillside," John Flynn related to Robert and Mary Allen, "They're fifty feet tall, and you look up and say, 'Paw-paw?'"

Some ecologists are linking these symptoms to long-term deterioration from airborne toxins. Acknowledging a problem, foresters have implicated a complex array of blight, fire, agricultural abuse, and disease. The ecologists counter that a healthy forest system can tolerate such incursions, and that the unprecedented failure of multiple species to regenerate is worth serious and immediate scrutiny. Orie Loucks, who holds the endowed chair of ecosystems studies for the state of Ohio, argues that three factors have profoundly altered the mixed-mesophytic system: (1) aluminum toxicity, related to acidification (from sulfates, exceeding thirty pounds per year per acre); (2) nitrogen deposition, which reduces the capacity of trees on the northern slopes to resist fungal infections; and (3) ozone deposition, which diminishes the photosynthetic capacity of trees, which in turn diminishes the roots.8

Ironically, the Clean Air Act of 1990, which set standards attainable by central Appalachia's low-sulphur bituminous coal, triggered a campaign to retrieve what remains of the strippable reserves in the Coal River Valley.9 Clear-cutting in tandem with strip-mining compounds what residents see as the accelerating deterioration of the forest. Loucks emphasizes, however, that the gradual, long-term damage caused by airborne toxins is, in contrast to clear-cutting, irreversible.

In other words, the less visible aspects of the process are the more devastating. "Low" as it is, the sulphur transported out of the hollows in massive coal trucks returns through the air, via towering smokestacks hundreds of miles away on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Here the hollows breathe, "drawing air like a chimney," inhaling and exhaling what Joe Aliff, a disabled coal miner in his fifties, calls "that damned blue haze." It comes, he says, "like a thief through the air."


A man wearing a hardhat, smoking a cigarette.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Danny Williams, of B&T Logging Contractors, relaxing on a break from logging. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/27. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Landscape view of a mountaintop removal project.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon View of Arch Mineral Corporation's mountaintop removal and reclamation project, the Samples Mine on Cabin Creek. Mary Hufford. 1995/06/28. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Landscape view of a valley, showing haze from pollution.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Pollution haze hanging over the valley. Mary Hufford. 1995/06/28. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Close-up of multicolored leaves with black spots on them.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Ozone-damaged red maple leaves, floating in Coal River.. Alpine Images photograph by Jenny Hager. Used with permission.