Issue 2:1 | Non-Fiction | Timothy Silver
from Four Thousand Feet
We include in this issue a selection from Timothy Silver's new book, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). A review of this book, in which Silver intertwines his personal stories as an outdoorsman with the written records of the region, will appear in our fall issue.
Timothy Silver, Professor of History at Appalachian State University, in this book, tells the story of Elisha Mitchell, the University of North Carolina professor who first measured the height of the mountain which came to bear his name after he fell to his death there in 1857. Silver traces the history of the Black Mountains from the pre-human era to the present: the grand give and take between conservationists, developers, and nature. Excerpted here is the last chapter of the book, in which he gives an overview of the relationship between human and the land where "nature, as much or more than human nature, dictates the ups and downs."
The story of the Black Mountains concerns not only residents of the Appalachian region. Every decade, it becomes more apparent that human health--of the mind, body, and spirit-- depends upon our ability to pay attention to the planet where we live. —Ed.
Mount Mitchell, East Face
Ten minutes into the woods,
sweat soaks through my shirt. Gnats swarm
around my face, unfazed by the insect repellent smeared on my cheeks,
forehead, and hat brim. It is not especially hot, but the morning humidity
is high and the trail, as usual, is steep. Fortunately my pack is light,
holding only fishing gear, water, and lunch--ample provisions, I think,
for what has become a ritualistic journey. This narrow path extends more
than two miles up the east flank of Mount Mitchell and ends on the
headwaters of a small stream that spills off the high peak in a chain of
long cascades and plunge pools.
Not far from the trail's end I stash my pack in a rhododendron thicket,
slip into wading shoes, and ease into the chilly water. From here I tread
the creek bed, wading against the current and clambering over rocks until
I recognize a familiar yellow birch tree. It grows on a tiny island
created by a fork in the stream, but it looks for all the world as if it
somehow sprouted straight from the water. When I spot the "water tree," I
know that I have climbed above 4,000 feet, into the northern hardwood
forest. It is my favorite spot in the entire Black Mountain range. I make
it a habit to be here on or near the summer solstice, for I know of no
better place to pass the longest days of the year.
Ostensibly I come to catch the eastern brook trout that hold in knee-deep
riffles along the granite ledges bordering the creek. But usually I spend
as much time wandering the woods as casting a fly. As at most other sites
throughout the range, evidence of the past abounds. The trail I walked
this morning was once a logging road. Most of the hardwoods along the
creek look to be fifty to eighty years old, which suggests that nearly all
the timber was once taken from these slopes. Chestnut saplings sprout from
stumps; yellow birch and other sun-tolerant species dominate the canopy.
Deer are abundant, and rainbow trout flourish in the lower reaches of the
stream, living reminders that this forest was once part of the Mount
Mitchell Game Refuge. Most telling, perhaps, are the rules that govern
fishing here. This tributary of the South Toe is now classified as "Catch
and Release" water. To quote the signs posted streamside, "Single-hook,
artificial lures only; No fish may be harvested or possessed." It is the
ultimate sportsman's regulation, instituted in the last twenty years and
designed solely for recreation, not sustenance.
I know, too, that were I to climb 2,000 feet farther up, I might hear the
whine of automobiles on asphalt roads and find forests under stress from
pollution and the balsam woolly adelgid. Yet even with all these
distasteful signs of human influence, Mount Mitchell always manages to
surprise me. While standing at the water tree, I watch in silent amazement
as a large bobcat crosses the creek not twenty yards ahead. The animal
strolls casually across a fallen hemlock and seems unconcerned with my
presence. An hour later a routine cast into a glassy pool produces a brook
trout nearly eleven inches long, the largest I have ever seen, much less
caught, in this or any other Black Mountain stream. Though it can hardly
be described as pristine, this place retains an essential element of
wildness, a sense of nature unfettered and unpredictable, that draws me
back year after year. It is, perhaps, an ideal site from which to ask our
final questions, to evaluate the long story of people in the Black
Mountains, and to decide what we might learn from it
Let us begin with good--and the obvious. That this isolated mountain cove
exists, that it remains a place where one can find woodsy solitude on the
first day of summer is, in itself, remarkable. Buncombe County, which
takes in the southern rim of the Blacks, is among North Carolina's ten
most populous counties, and Asheville, just thirty-five road miles away
and with a population exceeding 66,000, is the state's eleventh largest
city. Over the last thirty years Yancey County, which encompasses the bulk
of the range, has become a premiere mountain recreational and retirement
community, a haven for seasonal visitors from other states, many of whom
build summer homes in the area. That trend is not immediately apparent in
the county's official population count, which hovers around 18,000 and
usually does not include second-home owners. A more telling statistic is
the enormous increase in what economists call "wage and salary
employment," primarily low-paying jobs in construction and service
industries that cater to seasonal residents. Since 1970 the number of such
positions in Yancey has more than doubled, a growth rate comparable, North
Carolina statisticians say, to some of the state's most populous urban
areas, including the famed Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research
What all this has meant for the region surrounding the Blacks is, in a
word, development, and lots of it. Outside Asheville, fast-food
restaurants, convenience stores, and other trappings of urban (and
suburban) sprawl stretch right to the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway
and Pisgah National Forest. Forest Service Road 472, the gravel
thoroughfare that serves hikers, fishermen, and hunters, now joins a paved
highway that passes through Mount Mitchell Lands and Golf Club, a large
resort built in the early 1970s. According to its promotional literature,
the club has been "carved out of the Pisgah National Forest and around the
flowing South Toe River." It provides upscale patrons with "beautiful
mountain scenery, pine trees, laurel and rhododendron, rivers and rocks,
sand and bent grass as plush as a new Cadillac."
On the other side of the range the Cane River as yet has no golf courses,
primarily because members of the Cane River Club retain an interest in
hunting and fishing. But it does have its share of summer homes, and both
the upper Cane and the Asheville watershed, which the city has kept
relatively free of development, are off-limits to the public. Yet on the
east face of the Blacks the woods and streams of the national forest are
open to anyone able and willing to walk, an accessible public oasis amid
the shopping centers, bent-grass fairways, and riverfront homes. For that
we must give credit where it is due: to the Forest Service and to the
state conservationists who, in the early twentieth century, insisted that
North Carolina do something to protect its diminishing woodlands and
In general terms the same holds true for Mount Mitchell State Park. On a
clear day the view from the observation tower includes man-made
reservoirs, resort communities, and the scarred ridges of open-pit
quarries and mines. At night lights from Asheville, Marion, and the town
of Black Mountain flood the eastern valleys and illuminate the skies
across the southern flank of the range. That the high peak has not yet
been swallowed up by all this--that it still provides an opportunity to
camp and picnic above 6,000 feet, to see ravens, red-tailed hawks, deer,
and the occasional black bear--is also testament to the zeal of
Progressive foresters and politicians, notably John Simcox Holmes and
Governor Locke Craig. Had they not badgered state legislators to take
Mount Mitchell away from the lumbermen, the summit might have no park.
This tale of salvation--the rescue of a precious landscape from the perils
of urban-industrial development--is one that the state and the Forest
Service love to tell. It has become an important part of their
institutional histories, one of the narratives by which they define
themselves. As one drives along Route 128 up from the parkway, the story
is impossible to avoid. Forest Service signs along the road recount the
fires that ravaged Clingman's Peak and note that conservationists planted
most of the trees now visible on the mountain. At the state park visitors
learn that Indians passed through the region on hunting expeditions and
that the first white settlers worked hard to eke out a living in the
valleys along the Toe and the Cane. But the real action began in the 1850s
when Elisha Mitchell's explorations and the heroics of Big Tom Wilson
helped turn the Blacks into a prime tourist attraction. Then, in the years
before World War I, greedy Yankee lumbermen launched an all-out assault on
the range, threatening to ruin a precious landmark. Governor Craig,
however, would have none of it, and since then Mount Mitchell and the
surrounding peaks have been preserved for the people of North Carolina.
The new signs put up to explain the recent decline of summit forests
suggest that the Blacks still face problems, but overall the message
remains positive and hopeful, a progressive, ascending narrative.
There is truth to that story. We can appreciate the good work of state and
federal agencies every time we walk the woods, fish the streams, or visit
the park. But this upbeat account--what we might call the rescue
narrative--is incomplete. For one thing, it does not emphasize the
peculiar qualities that made the Black Mountains worth saving. From the
mid-nineteenth century on, Americans have been curiously drawn to high
mountains, in part because such rugged terrain evokes a sense of the
supernatural. As several historians have noted, one need only consider the
places chosen for our first national parks--Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand
Canyon, Rainier, and Zion--to recognize America's enduring fascination
with vast, powerful landscapes. In terms of sheer elevation the Black
Mountains did not measure up to the more dramatic peaks in the Northern
Rockies or the high Sierras. Indeed, North Carolinians have even had to
concede that Mount Mitchell is not, as they once believed, the highest
mountain east of the Rockies. Technically, that title belongs to Harney
Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. (Recently surveys done in the
mid-1990s using satellite technology have also begun to establish new
elevations for a number of Black Mountain summits, including Mount
Mitchell, which has lately been listed at 6,719.9 feet.) But simply
because the Blacks contained six of the ten highest mountains in eastern
America (now defined as "east of the Mississippi River"), the landscape
had immediate standing in the public imagination.
By the 1850s, however, the Blacks had something that other Appalachian
mountains and, for that matter, the Rockies lacked: the dynamic saga of
Elisha Mitchell. That story--exaggerated, embellished, and promoted by
Mitchell's friends--became ingrained in the consciousness of North
Carolinians, inseparable from the terrain on which it occurred. Were it
not for this sense of cultural significance--the new meaning imposed on
the land after the professor's death--would conservationists have worked
so hard to save the East's highest mountains? Or would the Blacks, like so
many less-majestic and less-meaningful peaks nearby, have been left to the
lumbermen, miners, and real estate developers?
We do not have to look far to identify other problems with the rescue
narrative. Indeed most historians of southern Appalachia tell a quite
different story about the region's past. Generally speaking, they argue
that the mountains were at their best when human influence was minimal,
when local people, be they Indian or white, maintained control of their
most valuable commodity: land. The big trouble began in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the arrival of northern
capitalists who plundered mountain resources like pirates ravaging a
treasure ship. Local people became enmeshed in the nation's emerging
industrial economy and fell victim to wage labor, easy credit, and a host
of other modern evils. Government conservationists only made matters worse
by evicting mountain residents to make room for national forests, parks,
and various recreation sites. Gradually the southern Appalachians became a
seasonal playground for America's upper and middle classes, a trend that
continues to this day with the construction of golf courses and summer
There is truth to that story, too. In the Black Mountains one might point
to thousands of native inhabitants killed by war and infectious disease,
to land-hungry white settlers using local forests to raise livestock for
distant markets, to rapacious lumber companies, to a stingy state
legislature that ignored conservation except when it figured to aid the
economy, to aggressive government agencies enforcing wildlife law, to
business interests promoting the paving of mountaintops, to the exclusion
of African Americans from park facilities, and to the recent ravages of
pests and pollution and Mount Mitchell's emergence as a symbol of
environmental degradation. This is no story of salvation, of mountains and
woodlands rehabilitated. Instead it is a sordid account of a landscape
ruined, of paradise lost to the sins of capitalism and industry, a tale of
disintegration and decay, or to use the historian's vernacular, a
narrative of declension.
These two conflicting stories, both of which can be culled from the
historical record, suggest just how difficult it is to come to grips with
our first question: What, if anything, have people done right during their
long sojourn in the Blacks? The very landscape that we admire and
enjoy--where we hear tales of Elisha Mitchell's exploits, walk in forests
recovering from logging, and catch trout in mountain streams--is, in fact,
far from perfect. Moreover, its salvation involved certain assumptions
about nature and its uses that many of us (if we take time to consider
them) can no longer accept. As Yellowstone Park historian Paul Schullery
reminds us, in conservation as in most other endeavors, human nature never
goes "on holiday." Those who created America's parks and national forests
"were not exempt from greed [or, we might add, the class and race
prejudices of the twentieth-century South] any more than they were immune
to wonder." It is appropriate to applaud North Carolina
conservationists for what they did and count it a good thing that the
Blacks have not yet been steamrolled by development. But we must also take
the bitter with the sweet and remember that much has been lost over the
years, and that those who moved to protect Mount Mitchell preserved it
primarily for people like themselves.
The search for answers gets no easier as we move to our second question:
Why did the best-laid plans of state and federal agencies so often go
awry? Here we must again remember to give nature equal time and status in
the Black Mountain story. It is a step that historians of Appalachia (like
historians in general, perhaps) have been reluctant to take. For the most
part the mountain past has been written using the natural world as little
more than a scenic backdrop for human activity. In those rare instances
when nature does come to the forefront of the historian's narrative, it
often takes one of two forms. In Appalachia's early history, nature is
primarily an obstacle, the proverbial harsh environment that settlers must
overcome. Later it usually appears in the form of various
disasters--fires, floods, or famines--most of which result from nefarious
human activities such as railroading, logging, or war. Apart from people,
the natural world has had little life of its own.
The history of the East's highest mountains suggests otherwise, especially
when one evaluates government policy. When state and federal agencies set
out to remake Mount Mitchell in their image, they constantly tried to tilt
nature to their advantage, to make the Blacks conform to their vision of
an ideal landscape. But no matter what sort of management technique they
employed, nature stubbornly moved to its own unpredictable rhythms,
writing, if you will, its own chaotic story. As a result foresters, game
managers, and other experts found that their schemes for improving the
landscape had unintended consequences, many of which we still live with
Despite well-thought-out and generally successful plans of fire control,
the native conifer forest did not quickly recover from logging, and large
sections of Mount Mitchell (especially the area around Camp Alice and
Commissary Ridge) are now covered with grass, pin cherries, mountain ash,
and shrubby vegetation. Salvage logging of chestnut on the lower slopes
probably slowed the development of natural resistance to the blight and
helped turn once majestic trees into little more than understory shrubs.
At the game refuge an obsession with providing sport for visiting hunters
helped justify clear-cutting and the systematic elimination of predators,
practices that continued (even in the face of criticism from ecologists)
as long as federal and state money held out. According to estimates made
by the Wildlife Commission in the 1990s, the area around Mount Mitchell
now has one of the largest deer herds in western North Carolina. Indeed,
the number of white-tails in that part of Yancey County appears
dangerously close to exceeding the available food supply. The sighting
of an occasional bobcat suggests that as deer become more numerous,
predators might again move in. But for the moment, white-tail numbers seem
destined to grow, perhaps to unhealthy proportions.
Fisheries, too, still show the effects of policies aimed at sportsmen. In
the Blacks as in other parts of the southern Appalachians, brown and
rainbow trout have shown a marked tendency to outcompete native brook
trout for food and habitat. As a result, in the lower reaches of the South
Toe, the Cane, and many of their tributaries, brook trout have all but
disappeared. No one is sure exactly why the introduced fish have done so
well. Their success may stem from their more aggressive and territorial
natures, their ability to tolerate warmer water temperatures, or simply
the general tendency of exotic species to dominate a new environment.
Whatever the reason, over the last thirty years, even after the Wildlife
Commission stopped stocking rainbows and browns, brook trout have
constantly retreated upstream. They still survive, but only in remote
headwaters on the highest Black Mountain slopes. Indeed the
catch-and-release regulations recently put into effect on such streams are
designed to ensure that anglers who fish remote parts of the range do not
add to the brook trout's troubles. In water as on land, nature continues
to confound the experts.
Defining nature as an active agent in the past means that the story of the
Black Mountains--and, by implication, the rest of southern
Appalachia--becomes even more complex. The natural world demands that we
put aside the simplistic, human-centered tales of unmitigated progress or
steady decline that have dominated our histories. Instead we must accept a
far more nebulous story of people in the Black Mountains, a tangled and
equivocal record of achievements mixed with setbacks, a narrative that
periodically rises, falls, and occasionally flattens out, and one in which
nature, as much as or more than human nature, dictates the ups and downs.
Such ambiguity may not sit well with those who worry about the future of
the southern mountains. We would perhaps prefer a simpler account that
clearly separates success from failure, good from evil. That sort of story
would make it easier for us to judge the Black Mountain past, to decide
what has (and has not) worked and apply that knowledge in years to come.
But the messy history of the East's highest peaks affords no such option.
As a result we approach our final question--Can we learn anything from the
past that might be relevant for the future?--knowing that easy and
satisfying answers may be difficult to come by.
As a number of environmental historians have suggested, future managers
may have to let go of an idea that has influenced thinking about the
Blacks and other scenic American landscapes for centuries: the notion of
wilderness. In the early 1800s the belief that western North Carolina was
a savage place in need of civilizing influences inclined the state to
promote exploration and development of the high peaks. Conversely, by the
first decades of the twentieth century the mountains had become a haven
for sportsmen, hikers, birders, and auto campers, a wilderness refuge for
persons seeking respite from the workaday world of urban America.
This "wilderness ethic" is closely tied to the myth of Eden, that powerful
and pervasive notion that holds that at some time in the past, nature
reached an idyllic state of bountiful equilibrium. In the Blacks as in
similar places across the United States, some environmentalists have
maintained that the only way to return to Eden is to institute a hands-off
policy for the future, a scheme that would turn back the clock and
drastically reduce the widespread influence of people. In contrast other
interested parties, including the Forest Service, have tried to return to
Eden via management, essentially arguing that with enough technology,
nature might again be made perfect. But whether would-be policy makers
attempt to tame the mountain wilderness or to rehabilitate it, whether
they seek to "recover" Eden or "reinvent" it with technology, they share a
common conviction: People and nature are separate entities, often at odds
and usually working at cross purposes.
Recently, however, a number of scholars have argued that such notions have
outlived their usefulness, especially in regions such as the Blacks that
have a long and uneven history of development mixed with conservation.
Increasingly, those who ponder the current state of the American
environment seek some middle ground, some way of accepting and
accommodating the human presence without unduly compromising nature.
Environmental writer Michael Pollan has proposed one such alternative
model. He suggests that we replace the timeworn metaphor of wilderness
with a new "gardener's ethic." Simply stated, we should think of the
natural world as a working garden, cultivated ground, a place to be
tended, managed, and--yes--changed by people. But this does not mean that
"anything goes," that humans can do what they please when they please.
Instead, like the best gardeners, we should learn to distinguish between
"kinds and degrees of human intervention," to accept the natural world's
quirks and whims, and, finally, to ask, "How can we get what we want here
while nature goes about getting what she wants?"
One immediate advantage of the gardener's ethic is that it enables us to
make peace with the Black Mountain past. Thinking of the region as a
working garden instead of a despoiled or rehabilitated wilderness allows
us to see the landscape for what it is: a place in which natural and human
history are so entangled as to be inseparable, a place made more
interesting and intriguing by people--indeed, a place that might not be
distinctive at all were it not for the exploits of Elisha Mitchell, Big
Tom Wilson, John Simcox Holmes, Locke Craig, and others. Acknowledging
that relationship might help us accept certain changes induced by humans
as integral parts of the Black Mountain environment.
Nature itself seems to be pointing us in that direction. In the mid-1990s,
as part of North Carolina's Natural Heritage Program, officials surveyed
various plant and animal communities in and around Mount Mitchell State
Park. The study indicated that some of Appalachia's rarest native plants,
including those normally confined to isolated mountain balds, seemed to be
flourishing in clearings and other areas "disturbed" by human activity.
Roan rattlesnake root, a plant botanists classify as "significantly rare"
in the southern mountains, can in fact be found in abundance along the
road leading to the radio towers on Clingman's Peak. Likewise New England
cottontail rabbits, also listed as "significantly rare," seemed to be
thriving around the park picnic area, due in part to the proliferation of
brambles and shrub thickets amid the declining spruce-fir forests.
Were we to abandon the myth of Eden, we might learn to appreciate the
irony, to admire this incipient wildness, and to regard rabbits and
rattlesnake root (or for that matter yellow birch, rainbow trout, or any
other species enhanced by human presence) with the same sense of wonder we
instinctively reserve for an ancient stand of spruce-fir or a free-roaming
But too many rabbits and too much rattlesnake root, like too many deer or
rainbow trout, can quickly become a problem. Consequently, we cannot push
road building or construction of recreational facilities too far. As a
counterbalance to the ongoing development of Asheville and surrounding
areas, state and federal agencies must continue to seek viable solutions
to the decline of red spruce, Fraser fir, brook trout, and other unique
native species--not in some wistful attempt to return to Eden or to
re-create a landscape devoid of human influence, but because conifer
forests and shaded mountain streams, like road cuts and forest clearings,
have an essential element of wildness that visitors (including tourists
and sportsmen) find desirable.
Though no one can say for sure, such efforts likely will require
considerable human intervention or "gardening." An ideal plan for the
future might involve various programs of reforestation and the
reintroduction of wildlife, especially predators, something tried with
mixed results elsewhere in North Carolina. In some respects this type of
restoration might resemble the work of Progressive conservationists. But
the new ethic would not attempt to wipe out or correct the past. It would
not seek to eliminate Norway spruce or rainbow trout but, rather, to
include them with indigenous species as part of a more diverse modern
landscape. Those entrusted with this important task would go about their
business always cognizant--indeed always wary--that human actions take
place in a wild and often unpredictable world that we may never completely
As appealing as it is, the gardener's ethic can carry us only so far. Any
attempt at restoration will almost certainly fail unless managers can do
something about air pollution, the adelgid infestation, and other causes
of recent high-elevation forest decline. Environmentalists generally agree
that reducing automobile use, cutting emissions from coal-fired industries
and power plants, and turning to alternative sources of energy might lead
to much cleaner air on Mount Mitchell, and elsewhere for that matter. They
also believe that we need increased government regulation to ensure that
various industries and automakers comply with more stringent controls. But
given recent history and the country's insatiable appetite for fossil
fuels, adopting such measures will require a fundamental reordering of
American priorities and new ways of thinking about our wider relationship
with the natural world.
Carolyn Merchant, an environmental historian and feminist, is another
writer who has thought long and hard about the "complex and complicated"
relationship between nature and human history. Asserting that the story of
America has often been a tale of a male-dominated society exercising
patriarchal power over feminine nature, she argues for a new "partnership
ethic" to guide relations between people and the natural world. Less
enthusiastic than Pollan about the idea of a garden (which implies "total
domestication and control"), Merchant advocates a more ethical "nearly
equal relationship" between humans and nature. Such a relationship would
involve listening to many voices--including those of women and
minorities--which might help alleviate some of the race and class
prejudice that has marred the conservation story in the Blacks. And,
Merchant believes, heeding those voices might help us recognize that we
"have the potential to destroy life as we currently know it," especially
through the use of pesticides, toxic chemicals, and unrestrained economic
It is a simple but powerful proposition. Were we to take it to heart,
everyone involved with air quality in southern Appalachia would have to
concede that nature's needs for healthy forests are every bit as important
as human needs for transportation and cheap energy. The Forest Service,
the Tennessee Valley Authority, various local industries, and state
agencies would have to act on concerns about airborne toxins even if
absolute proof of a cause-and-effect relationship is not immediately
Some evidence, albeit fragmentary, indicates that such a partnership might
go a long way toward reversing current trends of forest decline. Recent
research conducted on Clingman's Dome (the 6,000-foot-plus peak in the
Great Smoky Mountains named for Mitchell's antagonist) suggests that
mature Fraser firs may indeed be developing some new natural defenses
against the balsam woolly adelgid. Since the 1970s, managers there had
tried various means of adelgid control, including the spraying of soaps
and other biodegradable pesticides, a practice finally abandoned as
ineffective in the summer of 2000. Within a year entomologists working in
the area discovered that certain trees on the summit appear to be
producing thicker bark, which makes them less prone to attack from the
pest. Scientific inquiry into this phenomenon is just beginning, and
some experts insist that even if the trees develop resistance to the
adelgid, they could still be prone to numerous other problems. But the
implication seems clear: If people can do something to limit airborne
toxins, nature might eventually take care of the adelgid.
The best argument for making nature an equal partner in our future Black
Mountain endeavors, however, is far simpler and more self-serving. Until
recently, western North Carolina had long been regarded as the healthiest
part of the state--indeed one of the healthiest places in the nation--in
which to live. But that is changing. The same toxins that hang suspended
in the fog on Mount Mitchell also clog and contaminate human lungs. A
growing body of evidence suggests that, over time, tiny sulfate particles
borne in polluted air affect the body much like cigarette smoke. Chronic
lung disease is on the rise throughout the southern mountains, and
according to a recent study conducted by clean-air advocates, "Asheville
ranked sixth-highest among U.S. cities in deaths attributable to fine
[airborne] particles." In addition, increased mountain ozone levels may be
responsible for growing allergy and asthma problems among western North
Carolina's children. As one Buncombe County politician remarked in 2001,
"This is a much bigger thing than some dead trees up on Mount Mitchell, as
sad as that is."
The area's economic health is suffering, too. Several lodges and hotels on
the outskirts of Asheville, once renowned for scenic vistas, report that
guests now routinely complain about hazy views. Focus groups cite air
pollution as a major reason for not visiting the Smokies and other prime
attractions. Just as in 1915, a few state lawmakers and others concerned
with the future of mountain tourism have taken note of the problems. In
2001 several representatives introduced the Clean Smokestacks Act, a bill
designed to tighten controls on local pollution and "give the state
leverage in demanding similar improvements from TVA and elsewhere." But
opposition from various manufacturing interests, including a powerful
chemical industry lobby, kept the state house of representatives from
acting on the legislation. At the end of 2001 the Charlotte
Observer listed a "lack of political will and a failure of leadership"
as the number one environmental problem facing North Carolina.
Stung by such criticism, House Speaker Jim Black and Governor Mike Easley
pushed for a compromise. Thanks to a provision that freezes utility rates
for five years while power companies raise 70 percent of the cost of new
antipollution technology, the legislature finally approved the Clean
Smokestacks Act in June 2002. As adopted, the measure, requires a 60 to
75 percent reduction in major pollutants from the state's coal-fired power
plants over the next ten years. Though serious questions about
enforcement remain, environmentalists have hailed the act as "a landmark
bill" and an important first step toward reducing the effect of airborne
pollutants on high mountain forests 
We can--indeed we must--build on this new momentum. As equivocal and
complicated as it is, the long narrative of human experience in the Blacks
suggests that while our record is far from exemplary, people can be
agents of positive change in the region. More than at any time in the
past, scholars have an understanding of nature's inherent complexity and
the problems involved in landscape management. We have new environmental
ethics to guide future actions, practical plans that can help redefine our
place in the natural world and develop pragmatic solutions to some of our
most vexing problems. How will we use that information? Will we preserve
the best qualities of the modern landscape and nurture the wildness that
remains? Will we heed the lessons of the past and recognize nature as an
equal partner as we write the next chapter of Black Mountain history?
These are perhaps the toughest questions of all. The answers may well
decide not only the fate of the East's highest mountains, but humanity's
1. Douglas M. Orr Jr. and Alfred W. Stuart, The North Carolina Atlas:
Portrait for a New Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2000), 130; "July 1, 2000 Certified Population Estimates," N.C.
State Data Center, http://census.nc.us/census_body.html (October 19,
2. "Mount Mitchell Golf Club,"
http://www.insidenc.com/mountain/Mtn.MitchellGolf.htm (July 10, 2001).
3. William Cronon, "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the
Wrong Nature," in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in
Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: Norton, 1996), 73; Alfred Runte,
National Parks: The American Experience, 3d ed. (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 33-47.
4. National Geodetic Survey, Mount Mitchell GPS Project, January 14, 1994.
My thanks to Perrin Wright for providing me with a copy of the data.
5. The classic example of this kind of declensionist interpretation is
Ronald Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of
the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee
Press, 1982). More recently some historians of Appalachia have taken a
longer view of the region's history by describing how land speculation,
slaveholding, and other economic activities in preindustrial Appalachia
had already incorporated various regions into the "capitalist world
system." See, for example, Paul Salstrom, Appalachia's Path to
Dependency: Rethinking a Region's Economic History, 1730-1940
(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994). Salstrom suggests that
Appalachia's agriculture and economy were already in trouble before the
arrival of lumbermen. Even so, I would argue, the narrative is still one
of declension. The question is simply, When did capitalism begin and
decline set in? For a summary of the trends in preindustrial Appalachian
historiography, see Dwight B. Billings, Mary Beth Pudup, and Altina L.
Waller, "Taking Exception with Exceptionalism: The Emergence and
Transformation of Historical Studies of Appalachia," in Appalachia in
the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Mary
Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, and Altina L. Waller (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 1-24.
6. William Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,"
Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March 1992): 1347-48.
7. Paul Schullery, Searching for Yellowstone: Ecology and Wonder in the
Last Wilderness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 61.
8. See, for examples, Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers,
6-8, 110-11, and Ronald L. Lewis, Transforming the Appalachian
Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia,
1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998),
15-18, 265-68, 277-78.
9. This trend, which for the Blacks I defined as a manifestation of
Murphy's Law, is well known to students of environmental management. One
of the clearest statements of the problem comes from forester and
historian Nancy Langston, who encountered it during a study of Forest
Service policy in Oregon's Blue Mountains. As Langston writes, "All
attempts to manage are attempts to tell a story about how the land ought
to be." In the Blue Mountains, she concludes, "every time a manager tried
to fix one problem, the solution created a worse problem elsewhere" (Nancy
Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth
in the Inland West [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995],
10. Orr and Stuart, North Carolina Atlas, 414-15.
11. To my knowledge no one has yet completed a systematic study of the
decline of brook trout in the Black Mountains. But extensive work on
competition between fish species in the Great Smoky Mountains clearly
demonstrates this trend. See Margaret Lynn Brown, The Wild East: A
Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (Gainesville: University Press
of Florida, 2000), 290-92.
12. Cronon, "Trouble with Wilderness," 83-86; Michael Pollan, Second
Nature: A Gardener's Education (New York: Dell, 1991), 212.
13. Carolyn Merchant, "Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery
Narrative," in Cronon, Uncommon Ground, 132-59.
14. Pollan, Second Nature, 225, 230-31.
15. "Mount Mitchell State Park," N.C. Natural Heritage Program, in files
of N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Division of Parks
and Recreation, Raleigh, 5, 13, 22-23.
16. Cronon, "Trouble with Wilderness," 90.
17. Merchant, "Reinventing Eden," 158-59.
18. "Researchers Study Failing Firs, Look for Signs of Hope," Watauga
Democrat, August 10, 2001.
19. Bruce Henderson, "Asheville's Health in Air Pollution's Clutches,"
Charlotte Observer, July 14, 2001.
20. Ibid.; Preston Howard Jr., "N.C. Clean Air Bill Isn't Fair,"
Charlotte Observer, November 29, 2001; "Environmental Woe: The 10
Worst Problems in N.C.," Charlotte Observer, December 16, 2001.
21. April Bethea, "Air Quality Should Improve," Raleigh News and
Observer, June 19, 2002; "Smokestacks Bill OK, a Strong Victory for
All North Carolinians," Asheville Citizen-Times, June 26, 2002;
"Environmental Defense Praises House Vote on Smokestacks Bill,"
(August 9, 2002).