The first of the two I chose to visit was Graveyard Fields. It’s located adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is an extremely popular spot on that National Park-administered roadway. The first thing that strikes you about the place when you hear about it is its name: Graveyard Fields. How the heck did it get such a macabre term to describe it? As simply as possible, it got that way due to Mankind’s tendency to create ecological devastation.
In the case of Graveyard Fields what we have is an enormous, flat, high elevation valley. The mean altitude there is roughly 5,100 feet above sea level. For eastern USA that is extremely high for a valley of this type. It sits on the northern shoulders of the highlands that are among the tallest in the state. Several peaks of over 6,000 feet above sea level loom over the valley. And the floor of Graveyard Fields is wide and moderately level creating a vast plateau where streams meander in shallow pathways that are almost without banks and nearly forming braided patterns like some western streams down in glacial valleys.
So…how did it get that name? Well, we can thank the rapacious timber companies of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries for that. When railways came to western North Carolina and penetrated the high country (thanks to government sponsored tax dollars), the timber firms found that they at last had access to the highest and most rugged territory in eastern North America. Finally, the timber barons could get their mitts on those untold thousands of square miles of virgin hardwood and evergreen forests. And grab it, they did!
Over the course of a few decades those companies turned untouched forests of cove hardwoods and dark spruce expanses into ruined clear cuts. They left nothing but stumps and dead limbs and took out the vast trees that had stood tall and strong since before Europeans had set foot on the continent. Within the blink of an eye they left the forested summits and peaks as denuded, ruined landscapes.
The mountain men who had ended up in the high country after chasing away and killing the native Cherokees looked upon the valley and, seeing no trees but only the shortened stumps of the trunks that had once greeted them, instead saw something else–a gigantic graveyard full of dark tombstones stretching toward the heights. How fitting that they saw death where once had been life.
The same fate befell the enormous mountain peaks that rose above Graveyard Fields, which I hiked a week later. One of the tallest of these peaks is Black Balsam Knob. At 6,214 feet above sea level, it had been named for the dense forests of red spruce and Fraser firs that had clothed it in forests so lush and so dark that from a distance they appeared not green, but black. Black like shadows. Black like the rich, peaty loam that fed and sustained those trees. The timber barons took them all, leaving nothing whatsoever. No patches of forest to replenish the land. No seed stock to repopulate the ridges. For the first time since the last Ice Age these giant eastern peaks were bare of forests and were suddenly just dirt and stumps and the drying trash of wizened limbs lying on the ground like flammable tinder.
And, as was repeated over and over up and down the spine of the high Appalachians, these very tall summits and ridges were struck by drought. Streams dried up. Springs failed. The skies did not give up rain and the remains of the vast forest cuts became like matchsticks, the once moist peaty soil like parched brick.
After that, all it took was a single lightning-generated spark.
Those high lands went up. The mountains became a roaring Hell. The stumps burned. The limbs cast aside like trash were like fuel in a fireplace. Even the soil, once several feet deep, packed with carbon similarly burned not unlike a vast thousand-mile blanket of coal. Yes, the dirt burned until all that was left of the ecosystem that had birthed the forests were mountains from horizon to horizon cooked down to rocks and the most basic of mineral soils.
And, of course, eventually the rains returned. Gully-washers. Cloud bursts. Thunderstorms. Floods vast and powerful swept these great mountains and if there was any soil left to feed any returning vegetation it went flowing down the creeks and valleys toward the lowlands, fouling the waters, wrecking the fisheries, sending the stored centuries of fertility down and down toward the coast where it was wasted in the seas.
After that, there was nothing black at all about Black Balsam Knob.
Graveyard was indeed a fitting term for what remained.
It has been well over one hundred years since the timber barons raped these mountains and scoured away everything of value that was growing in this place. And the winters at these altitudes are severe. The heights are raked with powerful prevailing winds and shocked by ice and snow and temperatures that rival those one would expect a thousand miles to the north. Even if the grasses and shrubs could find some sustenance among the rocks and rubble, the cold adds yet another barrier to the recolonization of these ridges by the forests looted and gone.
These days what one sees in the heights we call the Shining Rock Wilderness is a false kind of alpine environment. Our southern Appalachians–even our highest peaks above 6,000 feet–do not create true alpine zones. But exposed here due to environmental rape and harsh winters and denuded soils we have false alpine spots. Shrubs and grasses have managed to come back, and there is the beginning of a new topsoil just starting to form itself again. The spruce and firs are merely starting to poke their needles toward the skies. It will probably take two or three hundred additional years before the stone and sand of Shining Rock and Black Balsam Knob will be clothed in a dark, green, billowing cloak of verdant forests.
Yes, there’s a kind of beauty there in the open vistas and grassy flats. But one must understand that it is there because of a monstrous crime; the rape of Mother Earth.
|No balsams these days on Black Balsam Knob.|
|The soils that have been built up are shallow and fragile and easily eroded.|
|Foot traffic reveals that just below the inch of so of soil is an even more shallow layer of easily removed sand.|
|In Graveyard Fields one sees some patches of beeches and spruce trees beginning to make a presence.|
|In the flat, damp expanse of Graveyard Fields some shrubs and grasses have established dominance.|