Environmental News: Firsthand
The hound dogs ran up the trail, ears flopping and noses close to the ground as we sat on our porch watching the rain clouds move up from the valley. Thunder rumbled and lightning pierced the dark sky. The dogs, never lifting their heads, howled and yipped as they ran through the clearing and disappeared back into the dense woods.
Within minutes the storm, a real "gully washer," was upon us, pounding the tin roof of our cabin and shaking the windows with powerful thunder claps. The cabin is in a temperate rain forest, which gets up to 90 inches of rain a year, much of it in summer thunderstorms. Tulip Poplar trees grow over 200 feet tall and white oaks are five feet in diameter. Forest floors are so thick with under growth that, as the locals say, "A dog can't wag his tail in it."
When the storm passed, evening began to settle. A Towhee trilled "Drink your tea!" in the waning light and hoot owls called. Stars shone in the clear sky. Below in the valley, dim lights blinked on farms that have been in families for over a hundred years. Mountains reaching over 6,000 feet folded in the distance.
We were in western North Carolina, a part of the ancient Southern Appalachians, which were old when the Rockies and the Himalayas were formed. These mountains were the home of the Cherokee and the streams and mountains retain their names; Nolichucky, Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Unaka. The mountains are rich in diversity — to climb from a valley to a mountain top, one passes through the same floral zones that one would encounter traveling from mid-Georgia to southern Canada.
Our cabin is on land that has been in our family for seven generations. When my parents gave us land, John and I chose to build a replica of the "old homeplace" where my mother was born; a small clapboard house with a wide front porch by a "bold spring" which gives us clear water year round. There is no electricity so we cook on a wood stove and get light from kerosene lanterns. When we climb the stairs to our bedroom and blow out the lamp, we experience the night as our forebears did; no ambient night light, no sound of traffic, no phones or T.V. — just cicadas and katydids singing outside with jungle-like intensity.
The cabin sits by a long abandoned road. Hundreds of years ago, it was a Cherokee trail over the mountain. After the Cherokee were sent to Oklahoma on the infamous "Trail of Tears" it was used by white settlers to travel to a lumber camp which operated in a high mountain meadow.
Simply sitting on our porch, we can experience the great heritage of the southern Appalachians — the serenity and beauty of the mountains stretching in all directions, the bountiful hardwood forest (which contains half of the old growth forest in the eastern United States), the pure mountain spring, the legacy of the Cherokee and the presence of people who have lived here for generations.
The integrity of our "homeplace" is still intact, but the integrity of these southern mountains is at great risk from over-development, reckless logging and air pollution.
It is understandable that this sanctuary is attractive to the millions who live in the burgeoning cities of the South, but we are destroying the very mountains that beckoned us in the first place. Where uncontrolled development has come, great gashes of earth and trees are ripped off mountains to perch houses on the steep slopes. Heavy rain carries the exposed soil down the mountainside. Paved roads circle around the ridges and power lines creep up the gorges. The dark coves with moss-covered streams and abundant wildflowers are no longer sheltered.
Throughout the Southern Appalachians, there continues to be intense logging of the hardwood forests. In the Cumberland Plateau, these forests are replaced with biologically impoverished pine plantations. Herbicides destroy the undergrowth, which may allow a dog to wag its tail, but does not allow for foxes or songbirds to find food or cover.
Air pollution, both from neighboring regions and population growth, means summer days of unhealthy air and the loss of spectacular mountain views behind the milky haze of pollution. And this pollution is killing the conifers, which stand black and covered with parasites as they die.
Instead of being able to "lift mine eyes unto the hills — from whence cometh my strength" — too often, we lift our eyes unto hills where ridges are bare from logging or covered with dying trees or mottled with houses. These forested hills that for years represented eternity and solitude, sometimes look like they suffer from mange.
In response to this alarming destruction, NRDC named the Cumberland Plateau region a BioGem in 2005. Since then, hundreds of thousands of BioGems Defenders from around the country have taken online action in defense of this vast network of forestlands stretching from Kentucky and Tennessee down through the Carolinas to Georgia and Alabama. And their efforts have paid off: Following intense pressure from BioGems Defenders, the giant paper company Bowater signed a groundbreaking agreement to stop clearcutting natural hardwood forests and converting them to pine plantations. A massive outcry from BioGems Defenders also helped persuade the U.S. Park Service to reconsider a plan to build a 34-mile road through untouched portions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Near the park, they partnered with both local and national organizations to protect 30 miles of pristine river and thousands of acres of forestland. With their support, a local land trust was able to preserve a 1,500-year-old Cherokee Indian mound. These tireless BioGems Defenders don't share my family history and many live hundreds or thousands of miles from the Southern Appalachians, but working together they are helping to safeguard these age-old mountains for present and future generations.
Patricia Adams has been a strong supporter (in more ways than one) of NRDC since its establishment in 1970. With her husband — NRDC founder, John Adams — she has traveled, entertained, solicited and celebrated the growth of this organization. Patricia is moved by the lengths to which BioGems Defenders will go to protect beleaguered lands such as her own beloved "homeplace," and she salutes each and every one of them.
Photography by Ralph Preston.
Map courtesy of The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.
© 2008 Natural Resources Defense Council
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Welcome to Firsthand, an occasional series of personal reflections on the places, creatures and world that NRDC works to protect. Firsthand is automatically sent to all NRDC Members and activists for whom we have email addresses. If you do not already receive it and would like to, please join us by taking action at www.nrdc.org.