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Timothy Silver is professor of history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His previous publications include A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800.
Mount Mitchell & the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (2003)
A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800 (1990)
Mount Mitchell & The Black Mountains:
An Environmental History of the Highest peaks in Eastern America
"Write what you know." It is an author's truism and one that I took to heart in writing this book. I cannot remember a time when I did not know something about North Carolina's Black Mountains. As a toddler I spent a restless night bundled in blankets on the backseat of a 1953 Ford sedan, camping (as we called it then) with my family at Carolina Hemlocks, a U.S. Forest Service campground along the eastern flank of the range. Family lore also has it that I awoke before daylight and demanded that my sleepy parents take me to see the South Toe River that flowed nearby. On that or some other such outing, my parents probably told me that Mount Mitchell, one of the peaks looming over the campground, was the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. If they said that, I have no recollection of it. My earliest Black Mountain memories are of summer afternoons spent wading in the South Toe, the distinctive crackle of campfires at twilight, and the not-quite-musty smell of our gray-green canvas tent.
For my family a summer trip to Carolina Hemlocks also constituted a homecoming of sorts. Our German ancestors (who first went by the name Silber) migrated into western North Carolina from Pennsylvania and settled near Kona, a tiny community ten miles or so downriver from the campground. The clan gained statewide notoriety-some might say infamy-in the early 1830s when one of the in-laws, Frankie Stewart Silver, brutally murdered her drunken, philandering husband, Charlie. After splitting his skull with an axe, she dismembered his body, burned the remains in a fireplace, and hid the ashes beneath the floor of their Toe River cabin. Convicted of the crime in 1832, she was executed a year later, one of the first white women hanged in North Carolina.
Although I grew up hearing my grandparents tell that story and visited the Black Mountains often as a child, it was as a college student in my twenties that I really began to explore the region. By then I had given up car camping and river watching in favor of backpacking and trout fishing, two activities well suited to the area's steep trails and swift-flowing rivers. In later years, when I ventured off to graduate school to study environmental history, my visits to the mountains became more sporadic, but I still returned at every opportunity, lured back again and again by the prospect of watching a sunrise from a secluded campsite or taking an eastern brook trout from a high mountain stream.
Considering my family background and abiding interest in the outdoors, one might conclude that a book like this was inevitable. Perhaps so. For a long time, however, I hesitated to take on what now seems an almost made-to-order topic. As a professor at a university where Appalachian studies is among the most visible graduate programs, I was well aware of the impressive body of work produced by Appalachian historians. I also knew that the Black Mountains had attracted attention from several writers, some of whom had already investigated the region's past. Could a new book add anything significant to our understanding of the region? More to the point, would anyone not familiar with this particular landscape care about what another regional history might reveal?
After nosing around in the sources (at the time as much from personal as professional interest) I answered "yes" to both questions, not because what I discovered was completely new, but because my initial research suggested that as an environmental historian I might use the Black Mountains to offer a fresh perspective on the Appalachian past. Environmental history is a discipline dedicated to exploring relationships between people and nature, to discovering how humans have affected the natural world and, in turn, been affected by it. Getting at those relationships requires what one scholar calls an "earth's-eye view of the past," a view in which trees, crops, weeds, wildlife, and microorganisms are every bit as important as governments, wars, economies, and other human institutions.
For almost three decades environmental historians have been writing those kinds of books about various regions of North America, including New England, the Great Plains, California, the Everglades, and the Pacific Northwest. Yet only within the last five years-in a study of deforestation in West Virginia, in one general history, and in two volumes dealing with the Great Smoky Mountains-have scholars taken the first tentative steps toward adopting an environmental perspective on the southern Appalachians. Even in those fine works the things that people do-building railroads, cutting timber, and setting aside land for national parks-get most of the attention. When it comes to writing the history of North America's oldest mountains, nature has been little more than a supporting actor in a distinctly human drama. The more I learned about the Black Mountains, the more I became convinced that we need a different and, I think, more true-to-life chronicle of the southern Appalachians, one in which nature gets equal time with people.
This book is an attempt to write such a history of a single Appalachian range. Technically the story begins nearly a billion years ago, with the formation of rocks that now lie buried deep beneath the Black Mountains. But my primary focus is the relatively short period during which people have lived on the land, starting some 10,000 years ago and concluding in the present. I devote much of my attention to the last 100 years, during which these peaks, like the Appalachians in general, underwent rapid development and change.
My thesis is simple. I argue that human perceptions of nature-how people thought about the natural world and envisioned themselves in it-dictated most of their activities in the region. However, even as humans confidently went about their business, nature moved to its own peculiar rhythms, sometimes changing the land in ways that people never imagined and often could not fathom, thereby helping to create the Black Mountains that we know today. Because neither people nor mountain ranges exist in isolation, I have tried throughout to show how events on this single landscape also reflected broader trends in North Carolina, Appalachia, the South, and the nation as a whole.
For me, though, this was always more than a scholarly work, not only because of my genealogy, but also because I, like many people in North Carolina, find the Black Mountains interesting enough in their own right. Their summits, including the preeminent Mount Mitchell, comprise some of the most unusual natural environments in the American South, habitats that at first glance seem more like those of southern Canada and northern New England. Like most North Carolinians I take unabashed pride in that particularity. On more than one occasion I have explained to misguided visitors that we-not our parvenu neighbors in Tennessee or Virginia and not the genteel citizens of New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine-hold clear title to the highest ground in the East.
But that is not the only thing about this landscape that piques our curiosity. In 1857 Elisha Mitchell, the University of North Carolina professor for whom the tallest mountain is named, fell to his death while attempting to measure the summit. That tragedy, which claimed the life of one of the state's eminent men, imbues the land with mystery, danger, and a sense of intrigue that only heightens its distinctiveness. North Carolina acknowledged as much in 1915 when it chose Mount Mitchell as the site for its first state park. In recent years the Black Mountains have become famous for another reason. Over the last two decades the region's dying spruce-fir forests have spawned an intense debate about the effects of air pollution in the southern Appalachians. Indeed, some environmentalists believe that these mountains have been the victim of another, far more serious tragedy: our complacency about the toxins that spew from our power plants and automobiles. According to some clean-air advocates, we are now destroying one of the natural and cultural landmarks we hold most dear.
Though I, perhaps as much as any North Carolinian, think of the Black Mountains as a special place and worry about their future, I initially tried to write about them as if I were a stranger to the region. When I first put my fingers to the keyboard, I adopted the voice of unobtrusive expert, a scholarly narrator carefully laying out my research without revealing much of myself in the process. But after several ponderous drafts of an early chapter ended up in the recycling bin, I determined that to continue in that vein would be not only counterproductive but also dishonest. Whether I said so openly or not, my affinity for the region and my experiences there would inevitably influence my research and writing. It would be better, I decided, to let those connections show, to draw on them openly, and in essence, make my experiences part of the region's history.
Having come of age intellectually in the 1980s, I knew that such notions had sparked endless debate among historians and their postmodern critics over the proper relationship between writers and their subjects. But truth be told, I did not delve deeply into the abstract world of literary theory. I was simply looking for a way to breathe life into the story that I was trying to tell.
Taking a cue from environmental historian Donald Worster, who once urged his colleagues to buy "a good set of walking shoes" and get "some mud on them," I put aside my note cards and half-finished outlines, got up from the computer, and went back to the Black Mountains. I visited often and at all seasons, hiking, camping, fishing, and rambling through the state park and Forest Service lands-in short, doing all the things that attracted me to the area in the first place-and recorded my observations in a loosely organized journal. I kept similar notes when research took me to Asheville, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and other pertinent sites.
In time what began as a rather haphazard travelogue became an integral part of the finished book, a book that is-at least for a professional historian-somewhat unconventional in its organization and narrative style. Every major chapter revolves around four expanded entries from that original journal. I have arranged the entries according to the seasons so that each chapter takes readers through a calendar year in the Black Mountains, allowing them to experience the natural world as I saw it and to understand that now, as in times past, nature remains an active, turbulent, and occasionally violent agent of change. As I traveled in the region, I also tried to sense what earlier visitors might have experienced. More important, I sought to use the modern landscape as a text, to read it in much the same way as my printed sources, constantly searching for patterns, distinguishing features, or anything else that offered clues about the past. I now regard those observations as crucial empirical evidence, as vital to this history as any document uncovered in a state archive or university library.
The narrative that follows, then, can be read in two ways. Scholars may wish to think of it as local environmental history, a case study of people and nature in the southern Appalachians. As such, it adheres closely to one of the guiding principles of regional and local studies, namely, that the story of one small place can contribute to our understanding of the wider world. More general readers interested in the Black Mountains for their own sake-including those who have hiked the same trails, slept in the same woods, and fished the same streams as I-may wish to think of the book simply as the story of a unique and wonderful place, one that is, regrettably, very much at risk. As a writer with one foot planted firmly in both camps, I ask each for a measure of forbearance. Academic experts, accustomed to more orthodox histories, will need to accept (or at least tolerate) my presence in the narrative. Likewise, nonprofessionals will have to live with a scholar's idiosyncrasies, including my conventional commitment to documentation and lengthy endnotes. With those and other minor indulgences, I trust, all readers will join me in recognizing that the Black Mountains have much to teach us, not only about nature and history, but also about ourselves.
From MOUNT MITCHELL AND THE BLACK MOUNTAINS: AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY OFTHE HIGHEST PEAKS IN EASTERN AMERICA by Timothy Silver. Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu