Friday, November 30, 2007

Richland Balsam Epitaph

by Pamela Duncan

High in the Blue Ridge stands a graveyard, one of many on these mountaintops, eerie aeries where the dead stand erect, monuments to themselves. Richland Balsam does not sound dead or dying. Words rich and land and balsam ring full and heavy with sap and life: verdant, aromatic, green words. But only ghosts abide here now, ghosts of greenness, straight and sharp as needles, rising from the mountain, accusing the sky. Hollow white bones deny the sun with silvery glint. Falling corpses lean together, cry and tremble above decaying brothers. Richland Balsam mourns.

Before death, light lived here, thousands of feet above sea level, a sacred cathedral, hushed and quiet and cool. Sunlight filtered gently through evergreen mesh and tended earth swollen soft and full with blessings of rain. Mosses, lichens, ferns, shrubs – so many living things thrived beneath the sheltering canopy of Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. Inviolable and pristine, it seemed. Perhaps then, as now, merely a dream: secluded haven for fragile things.

Then the killers came, invisible, insidious, launched by millions unaware of their power to ravage, in a war instigated by ignorance and waged by apathy. Now acid rains, and where nature reigns, one law exists: survival of the fittest. This holocaust appears irreversible.

A few years back, some friends and I followed the Blue Ridge Parkway from Boone to Cherokee, NC. Although I'm a native North Carolinian, it was my first real trip on the Parkway, and I wanted to see it all, every mountain, tree, leaf, and hawk. One friend, a botanist, raved about the incredible beauty of a particular trail on top of a mountain called Richland Balsam (short for Richland Mountain of the Balsams). At 6,410 feet, it's the highest peak in the Great Balsam Range separating Haywood and Jackson Counties.

"You won't believe how lovely it is," my friend told me. "It's so green and perfect and pure, shadowy and cool. It's like stepping into a fairyland, a magical place."

At milepost 431.4, however, the fairyland is gone. The 1.5 mile nature trail still loops around the top of the mountain, and it is still a beautiful place, but now it winds through weeds and the rotting remains of Red Spruce (Picea rubens Sargent) and Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri [Pursh] Poiret). Defenders of Wildlife lists this type of forest as the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States. My friend told me that, although there is no concrete proof, scientists believe acid rain is responsible. It weakens the trees' resistance to the aphids which literally suck the life from them.

"But there must be some way to reverse this, to save these trees, this habitat," I said.

"No, there's really nothing anyone can do. All of these trees are dying now, and that means the fragile plant, animal, and microbial life that can only exist in their shelter will die too."

Later, excited by a mini-nursery of spruce seedlings apparently flourishing beneath a huge tree, I asked, "But won't these grow and replace the dead trees?"

"That tree is dying and, without its protection, the seedlings will die too. This forest may never grow back, and even if it does, it probably won't be in our lifetime."

In the silence that followed, the wind pushed pale dead trunks against one another and, as they moaned, I felt a raging inside myself at the needless loss of this small forest, or any part of the environment that humankind has damaged or killed.

I cannot accept feeling helpless. The only way to cope with my anger and sorrow is to do something. Whether or not Richland Balsam is lost, I must do something. I'm not a scientist, a leader, a crusader, or a reformer. The steps I take are small, but important to my peace of mind. Everyone can recycle, conserve, and protect, and there are numerous resources available to tell you how to do these things.

The point is to DO them. Every day. For the rest of your life. I've been as guilty as anyone of forgetfulness, laziness, or blatant indifference, but Richland Balsam changed my attitude. I saw one real result of apathy, and realized my responsibility. It's like voting. You may think, "What good can one individual do?" But the combination of every individual effort amounts to an incredibly powerful force that may just keep what's left of this planet, our habitat, alive.

Writer Robert McKee says, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” I believe that has always been the case and always will be. So, as a writer, there’s something else I can do. I can tell the stories of places like this in our Appalachian mountains, places that are dying or disappearing at a terrifying rate. I can tell the stories of the people who live there, too. I can put the idea into the world that they are part of our history and our future, and that they are worth protecting.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. Visit her website at


River Jordan said...

Thank you, Pam.

MadAnne said...

Our hemlocks are diseased. The mountains of WV and Ky are disappearing.

Thanks for the MTR link on your home page

Silas House said...

Wow, Sister-woman, that's some great writing.

Michael Morris said...

Pam, thanks for a beautiful essay about an important topic. Your writing touches the soul and makes us think.

Sherry Austin said...

Pam, et al:

I do a talk for the NC Humanities Council called "A Deep and Fervent Mystery: Literary Nonfiction about Nature and Science." Please let me know of your favorite Southern writers in this genre. I am trying to promote writing that explains the natural world and brings light to these issues with accuracy and eloquence, as you all do in your fiction. --Sherry Austin, Flat Rock, NC