JARS 42n4 - "And Make The Mountains Glad"

"And Make The Mountains Glad"
Caroline Gable
Stewartstown, Pennsylvania

Waiting out a sudden hailstorm last June in the R. catawbiense stronghold high up on Roan Mountain, I discovered I had never really appreciated what a tough character our all-American species is. As the lightning cracked and sheets of hail rattled off the hood of the station wagon, there was time to ponder the fierce winds, the ice storms and summer droughts these stands of our most valuable native have endured on the rugged Appalachian heights.
The conventional wisdom on sitting rhododendrons - northern exposure, high shade, protection from strong winds - is irrelevant here. These famous "cats" survive on open balds at 6,000-foot elevations with nothing between them and the high, often fierce skies over the northwest corner of North Carolina. The winds average 25 miles an hour year round, gnarling and twisting trees to their prevailing direction.
Now the word had come from rhododendron friends in the area that the Highlands of Roan are facing development pressures more dangerous than anything nature has meted out. Winnie Conner, a friend from college days, and I had come to the Highlands to listen in on the 14th annual meeting of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, hereafter SAHC. The gathering at Crossnore on the Linville River was timed to the expected peak bloom of the mountain stands of R. catawbiense and its companion native on the Roan, R. calendulaceum . SAHC is dedicated to saving the Roan Highlands in their natural state.
A crash self-help course in the geography and flora of the area helped but did not fully prepare one for experiencing the immensity of the Highlands for the first time. The geography was to remain fuzzy throughout the trip. Were we in North Carolina, Tennessee or even, perhaps, the southwestern corner of Virginia? Looking across the misty vistas, it could be any one of them, or all three.

Grassy Ridge Bald
Grassy Ridge Bald
Photo by Edward Schell

Whichever, the views are breathtaking. For centuries, visitors with botanical interests have been awed at the first sight of these blue-green expanses. The young Scots-American naturalist John Muir, setting off "joyful and free" in 1867 on his "Thousand Mile Walk To The Gulf," was overwhelmed when he began the ascent of highlands on a course not so far south of ours - "the first real mountains that my foot ever touched or eyes beheld."
"John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe," he wrote on the inside cover of the notebook he carried on that famous hike. And a little farther on: "How shall I ever tell of the miles and miles of beauty that have been flowing into me in such measure? The lofty curving ranks of lobing, swelling hills, these concealed valleys of fathomless verdure and these lordly trees..."
It was September when Muir walked over the Appalachians and into his future as a pioneering conservationist. Now modern-day lovers of nature on the grand scale are plotting how best to keep the same wilderness wild.
Muir could only dream of bloom as he passed stands of unfamiliar magnolias with large leaves and scarlet conical fruit and great patches of rhododendron, azalea, kalmia and the ferns and mosses which were his special interests.
Botanically, he was in paradise. The highlands he brushed as he headed for Georgia are a happy accident of the Ice Age. Left high and dry as the glaciers passed, they emerged "a product of latitude, altitude, geology, vegetation and even history...a northern island in a sea of southern deciduous forests."
Stanley Murray, a moving force in SAHC, estimates that some 600 acres of the 2,300 in the conservancy's project area is rhododendron turf. The origin of the name Roan has been linked, among other possibilities, to the rosy haze from blooming catawbiense . For our own modest assault on the heights, SAHC provided a choice of four guided day trips graded very easy to difficult. We chose the easiest one, the ascent most first-time tourists make, to the Rhododendron Gardens on the highest elevations of the Roan. Not to see them on a first trip to the Highlands, we reasoned, was like first bypassing Nashville and bluegrass for some esoteric rendering of old English ballads.

R. catawbiense, Roan Mt. R. catawbiense, Roan Mt.
Mountain Rosebay, R. catawbiense ,
Roan Mt.
Photo by Edward Schell
R. catawbiense with Minniebush,
Menziesia pilosa , in foreground.
Photo by Edward Schell

The ascent to the balds, the grassy open areas where rhododendrons confound the experts by thriving in full exposure, is up a good road engineered with the well-being of automotive cooling systems in mind. We found the bud set light and few trusses fully open at this elevation. Most impressive, anyway, were the great clumps pruned tight by natural forces. In full purple-rose bloom, they must be stunning.
Our chosen path faced away from the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the Highlands for 15 miles of its 2,100-mile length. The ascent to Roan High Bluff proved an easy half-mile. Dr. Paul Somers, a Tennessee Department of Conservation biologist, provided the running commentary on the diverse plant communities around us and underfoot. The more than 300 species native to the Highlands include the very rare Gray's Lily ( Lilium grayi ), the spreading avens ( Geum radiatium ) and the endangered Blue Ridge Goldenrod ( Solidago spitamaea ). At least seven of North Carolina's rare and threatened plants and animals have been identified here. This Eden has no poisonous snakes, we were told.

R. catawbiense
Rocks, grasses and R. catawbiense
Photo by Edward Schell

R. catawbiense seedlings, as thick as moss, cover the forest floor along the trail, competing with vigorous new growths of Fraser Fir. The fir, native only to this region, and the Red Spruce are the dominant conifers.
From the observation platform at 6,100-plus feet, it is a breathtaking view, recalling an old mountain man's promise to Muir: "I will take you to the highest ridge in the country, where you can see both ways. You will have a view of all the world on one side of the mountains and all creation on the other."

R. calendulaceum, Roan Mt.
Flame Azalea, R. calendulaceum , Roan Mt.
Photo by Edward Schell

Our parking area was in sight again when the first thunder cracked overhead, scattering sightseers who were picnicking or strolling in the balds. Somers was just telling us about worrisome encroachments of blackberry and other invasive plant life among the rhododendron clumps.
At the SAHC sessions, we learned that deciding when and how much to manage these environmental changes ranks second only to wild habitat preservation in the conservancy's priorities. Within the project area, some 13,500 acres are already under some form of protection as national or state forest lands, or as acreage acquired by SAHC and the Nature Conservancy. This leaves 9,500 acres in jeopardy. On the SAHC project area map, they form an irregular border around the protected acreage. The worst scenario is that the wildness of the Highlands eventually will be encircled and choked by development.
Some battles have been lost. A 10-story condominium on Sugar Mountain is visible for miles. In the Newland-Linville-Boone area where we stayed, expensive second homes dot the mountainsides. Modest residential properties sprout real estate signs along with thriving vegetable gardens and sometimes, small patches of Christmas trees extending up the back slopes.
SAHC is prepared to do battle for the endangered tracts using every strategy in the conservation movement's increasingly sophisticated arsenal. It works to receive gifts of land, to negotiate easements, deed restrictions, life estates and registrations of natural areas. It fights for additional federal and state land acquisitions and raises funds for outright purchases of land to own and manage.
Murray, SAHC's new $1-a-year executive director, says getting the money is the big challenge. His involvement goes back to his stint as chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference, from which the conservancy grew. He has served a total of five years as SAHC chairman, a volunteer post that turned into 60-80 hour work weeks. Facing the development Goliath and the prospect of raising the approximately $10 million needed to accomplish SAHC objectives, he is a quietly confident David.
"There are times along the way I've felt pretty much alone," he says. This year, his mood is optimistic. "We're seeing good, new things happening all the time. It's encouraging," he says.
Nearly $1 million has been raised so far, most from individuals. Memberships are a main source of support. Currently there are about 1,800 members in 40 states. Rhododendron society members can learn about the organization and receive membership information by writing the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, PO Box 3356, Kingsport, TN 37664.
Heading back toward Bristol and Interstate 81 on the way home, we passed the real estate signs again. I thought of the photos of R. arboreum forests cut to stumps in a recent ARS Journal , and wondered whether the signs could be symptomatic of changing times ahead for our own rhododendron forests.
It was good then to remember the cheerful determination of the SAHC people to stand fast in Muir's tradition, "...Hoping that we will be able to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad."

Caroline Gable, daughter of pioneer rhododendron hybridizer Joe Gable, is a professional journalist with a lifelong interest in plants and plants people.

Ed Schell, photo-naturalist, served on SAHC's Board of Directors from 1977-80. His work often focuses on Roan Mountain scenes.

Our special thanks to Velma Haag and other members of the Southeastern Chapter who suggested this topic and made publication possible by contacting the writer and photographer.