Mount Mitchell & The Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America
By Timothy Silver
UNC Press, 352 pp., $19.95
I had only one complaint after reading Timothy Silver's extraordinary new book, Mount Mitchell & The Black Mountains, An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America, published by UNC Press. I regretted that it did not have a more general title which might have given it wider appeal. While the focus of the book stays on Mount Mitchell, the subject is much broader than that. But I fear this specific title may cause people to dismiss it as a purely "regional" book. That said, I fully understand Silver's purpose: By focusing on the history and ecology of one geographic spot, Silver has told the story of the whole earth and what's happened to it. Here is the eloquent story of one man's love for the earth, the environment, and his grief over what has been done to it.
Silver's book is in the grand tradition of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, and he fully deserves the same wide audience these earlier classics received. What distinguishes and raises it beyond a mere environmental textbook to literature, are Silver's personal diary notes about his many climbs and hikes. Of a July visit to Bald Knob Ridge, he writes: "In early summer Bald Knob Ridge is a glorious place. As I step from the sunlight into the trees at the trailhead, the drop in temperature is palpable. Under the deciduous canopy the morning air is calm, wet, cool, and full of birdsong."
He writes about the East Face of Mount Mitchell: "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 day of the year."
The book begins: "A billion years ago, earth was a different place." From this distance, the author zeros in on the geological history that produced the Appalachians, down to the Black Mountain range in present-day Yancey County. His record of the flora and fauna likewise takes us from the remote pre-history to the present. Silver's history of the chestnut "blight" (in fact, a fungus) of the 1920s is the best ever written. My own father remembered it as some sort of Biblical plague as people throughout America watched in helpless awe as magnificent stands of this vitally important tree withered and died. Its lumber provided the most durable wood of all for human houses and railroad crossties, its chestnuts provided the most nourishing food for man and a vast array of other animals. Silver offers the intriguing suggestion that the trees might have developed a resistance to the disease on their own--as they did in Italy--if only forest service experts hadn't panicked and "harvested" them all in the face of the disease.
The portrait of UNC Prof. Elisha Mitchell, for whom the highest mountain is named, is the most complete and concise you will find anywhere. It was in 1835 when Mitchell first proclaimed the Black Mountain range contained at least one peak higher than Mount Washington in New Hampshire, which was then believed to be the highest in Eastern America. [Mitchell's first guides to the mountaintop were Silver's and my own collateral ancestors, Thomas Young and Greenberry Silver.] When Thomas L. Clingman claimed Mitchell had never actually been on the highest peak and tried to usurp the title for himself, Mitchell made one last fatal climb trying to prove his earlier claim--and slipped and fell to his death down a 40-foot waterfall. The beloved professor, scientist and Presbyterian preacher was buried on the mountaintop, assuring nobody would ever again tamper with the name. Silver explains, the tallest mountain in the East "was no longer just a natural and geologic curiosity. It had been transformed into a martyr's mausoleum, a place for pilgrimage and reflection, and a source of state pride."
In the early 20th century, the timber stands in New England and Pennsylvania began to dwindle. As a result, lumbermen saw in Mount Mitchell, not the natural splendor of the virgin balsam and red spruce forests, but a fortune to be made in lumber and pulpwood. Between 1913 and 1918, lumber companies clear cut all of the trees on thousands of acres. What didn't go down to the lumberman's axe and saw was destroyed in the fires caused by the railroad built to the top of Mount Mitchell.
Gov. Locke Craig is generally credited for creating Mount Mitchell State Park, the first in N.C. and the Southeast. Craig had been sent to the mountains for his health as a young boy. He was appalled by what the lumbermen had done to the landscape and he did, in fact, use his influence to get the legislature to acquire the mountaintop and create our first state park. However, as Silver notes, the real force behind the scenes was N.C.'s first state forester, John Simcox Holmes. Silver gives him long overdue credit, not just for his role in creating Mount Mitchell State Park, but for his efforts at restoring the wildlife destroyed by the lumbermen. I was amazed to learn that in restocking the mountain streams, Holmes brought in brown trout from Europe, and rainbow trout from out West.
However well-meaning, many of these restorative measures turned out to be deadly. The importation of European silver firs, for example, may have introduced the wooly adelgid which spread like wildfire and continues to destroy the native balsams to this day. As if this infestation were not bad enough, in 1982, a young plant pathologist at N.C. State named Robert Ian Bruck determined that "acid rain" was the real killer on Mount Mitchell. While Bruck never contended pollution alone was killing the trees, he said there was no question the toxic air had made the mountain trees more vulnerable to disease and infestation.
Silver introduces the chapter on this latest threat with his personal notes about a visit to Mount Mitchell during a pouring rain. "I have my reasons for enduring the implacable wetness. As numerous writers and visitors to Mount Mitchell have pointed out, in weather like this the east's highest peak takes on an ethereal, almost macabre character not evident at other seasons. I begin to sense it as I drive up Route 128, past the dead trees on the west-facing slopes. It grows stronger as I walk alone on the trail past Elisha Mitchell's grave É For as far as I can see (given the fog) all the larger trees are dead. Some stand upright, bare limbs outstretched, like pallid skeletons pointing east in the direction of the prevailing winds. Others, torn up by their rotting roots during wind and ice storms, lie randomly on the ground like so many cadavers."
Silver concludes his book with an appeal for all of us to get behind efforts like the Clean Smokestacks Act to clean up the environment. While many mistakes were made on Mount Mitchell, he insists that "people can be agents of positive change in the region." He asks, "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 the 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 as well."
This is a devastating and beautifully written book. The facts and figures, the science and history, are all there, but here, too, is a heartfelt concern for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the very earth we walk upon. I wish that everybody who loves the earth and loves good books would read it.
Mount Mitchell was recently awarded the Old North State Award (formerly the Mayflower Cup)--N.C. Literary and Historical Association's highest award for non-fiction. The recognition ceremony will be held next month in Raleigh.