Despite being branded as ‘wild and wonderful,’ the sad reality is that Appalachia’s present-day forests are but a frail shell of what they were only a handful of centuries ago.
Once upon a time not too long ago, the unmolested forests of America’s eastern mountains would have been unrecognizable to its modern-day inhabitants. They were far darker than they are today and home to an incredible number of species whose days were numbered: the beautiful multi-color Carolina Parakeet, the Eastern Bison and the preying Eastern Mountain Lion (the fourth largest cat on the planet), all called the mountains of Southern Appalachia home before many of our ancestors arrived.
Indeed, the modern forests of home are almost unrecognizable compared to the majestic, dense and dark foggy woodland that greeted the first white settlers only a handful of centuries ago.
And though the loss of the forest’s original inhabitants has been great, the greatest loss in these forests may possibly have been the forests themselves.
One of the earliest men to write about the region’s ancient forests was a young surveyor by the name of George Washington.
On November 4, 1770, while plotting the Kanawha River, he wrote in his journal, “Just as we came to the hills, we met with a Sycamore… of a most extraordinary size, it measuring three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round, lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet round.”
Bill Grafton, president of the West Virginia Native Plant Society stated, “In Pre-Colonial times, the 15 million acres of West Virginia were almost entirely forested.”
The trees, centuries-old colossal mammoths, towered proudly over the Mountain State — standing like skyscrapers of the ancient world, reigning for thousands of years over the majestic and unconquerable land. Older than the Mayflower, many of West Virginia’s white oak and hemlock trees were more than half-a-millennium old – an unimaginable spectacle for the European colonists who first laid eyes on the trees.
As their Native American predecessors who first inhabited the land, the early colonists who topped the mountain ridges that had protected the enchanted land for ages, lacked the resources or will to destroy the hallowed trees of old.
Unfortunately, within a few generations, the western world had been thrust into an era which came to be known as the Industrial Revolution; soon, man’s appetite for tangible goods had reached a level that had previously been unthinkable.
Seeking to profit from society’s thirst for stuff, sawmills sprang up throughout the mountains of the newly created state, as armies of rough, strong and desperate men set out, hewing down the ancient landmarks of old. The workers themselves were not villains, but immigrants, laborers, husbands and fathers of hungry children; unaware of their own strength.
By 1920, the entire State of West Virginia had been reduced to an abhorrent desert, more closely resembling a bombed wasteland than a mountain wonderland described as being “almost heaven.”
For the first time in its history, West Virginia was viewed as an eyesore. One visiting writer described the state as “a monotonous panorama of destruction.”
Farther to the south in North Carolina, loggers deforested the hillside around Pilot Mountain to the point that a second pinnacle, one that had stood hidden behind the main rock for thousands of years, was revealed.
Recognizing the dangers wrought by absentee landownership and unregulated devouring of the region’s forests, state leaders across the south would move, in the coming years, to reforest the mountains which lay between the ocean and the Mississippi River.
By 2000, their efforts had been deemed a success, as the State of West Virginia had reforested itself and boasted of more forestland than it had seen in over a century.
Though the era of rampant deforestation is a major blight in the magnificent history of the mountains, the undeniable reality is that the trees of Appalachia served as the building material for America as we know it. With a single tree yielding over 10,000 oak boards, it would be impossible to determine the number of churches, home places, courthouses and ships that were made from Appalachian lumber. One thing we are certain about, however, is that the 46,328-ton HMS Titanic, which sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, was partially built with lumber that had been hewed down in Nicolas County, West Virginia.
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