Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How Old Are These Woods?

Today while working at the Boxerwood Nature Center I often ask students how old the trees around them are.  I often get back answers of one thousand years, three hundred years and alike.  It is just as when visitors come to the National Parks of the Southern Appalachians often believe they are entering some primeval forest as seen by the earliest Native Americans and European settlers.  They do not realize that the trees they are viewing are for the most part less than one hundred years old.  Most of the Southern Appalachian Mountains were stripped of timber by the early 1900’s to build railroads and supply the housing booms that occurred in major urban centers.  Only a few pockets in hard to get to hollows and areas of the Great Smokey Mountains were saved from the onslaught of logging by early pioneers of the conservation movement in America.

A common complaint heard on the Blue Ridge Parkway is, “why are the trees blocking the views from the overlooks?”  When one looks at photos taken during the early construction of the Parkway the landscape is much different from what we see today.  Barren hill sides, stumps, and extreme erosion were the norm for most ridges and mountain tops.  When the overlooks were designed, there were no trees to block the view.  Today Park Managers are challenged with trying to keep vistas open of vegetation to preserve the majestic views envisioned by the landscape architects who first laid them out.
Section of Blue Ridge Parkway in 1936.  not the lack of trees.

But even before the large lumber company operations and the Blue Ridge Parkway many acres of these mountains were cleared through hard sweat of small farmers and their families.  Although these farms are now gone (in most cases bought or forced out by the logging companies) signs of them still exist.  When hiking through the woods the attentive trekker can still see remains of these early residences.  In some cases you will find a still standing chimney, a pile of stones, still decaying chestnut logs.  In other sites the remains of some family matriarch’s flower garden of daffodils and yucca plants are all that are left to lead one to the footprint left by these farmers. 

Cemeteries can also be found where generations of families were laid to rest.  These can only be detected from the natural background by the presence of unusual bulb grown flowers; the decedents of those planted at grave sites that are only marked for posterity by standing flat slabbed field stones.  I have only seen of few of these stones that have worn names primitively scratched in to the rough stone surface.

Over the centuries man has impacted and changed what we view today as nature in the Southern Appalachians..

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