Lee on Silver, 'Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America'

Timothy Silver
Elizabeth Oliver Lee

Timothy Silver. Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 346 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-5423-5; ISBN 978-0-8078-2755-0.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Oliver Lee (Department of History, West Virginia University) Published on H-Environment (October, 2003)

A Vision of What Nature Should Be

A Vision of What Nature Should Be

The environmental history of the Appalachian Mountain region is a field that recently has seen the publication of several very good books, of which Timothy Silver's Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains is one. For a long time, Appalachian history has been concerned with the devastation wrought by industrialization on the people of the region, rather than the environment and landscape. Recent works, including Silver's, tie industrialization and resource extraction into environmental history, following the region from the initial human settlement and land use through the environmental issues of the modern day.[1] Silver focuses on the Black Mountains of western North Carolina, the region in which he was raised and still lives. His familiarity comes through in a series of journal entries that punctuate each chapter, illustrating his own travels, camping, fishing, and hiking through the mountains. These interludes lend a certain poetic familiarity that gives the reader a more first-hand view of the mountains in all seasons and connect the content of each chapter to the author's personal experiences in the Black Mountains. They are an appropriate punctuation to a work exploring how human perceptions of nature can dictate human actions towards the land and environment.

The Black Mountains, which contain Mount Mitchell, at 6,719.9 feet the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, exhibit almost every forest type found in eastern North America from the mixed deciduous forest or Appalachian hardwood forest below 3,000 feet, through northern hardwoods forest at 4,500-5,500 feet, to the spruce-fir "Canada in Carolina" (p. 16) forest above 5,500 feet. Silver ties the flora and its accompanying alpine fauna to the late glacial epoch, in which the cold-weather refuges brought the ranges of many northern species down through the Appalachian Mountains. Their descendants still dwell in the high-latitude environments. Silver emphasizes that the southern Appalachian highland environments should not be considered direct copies of the northern woods but a dynamic and unique environment that shares characteristics and species with northern climates.

Silver's emphasis in Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains is on human impact on the environment, and after the description of flora and fauna in chapter 1, he focuses entirely on the human history. He begins with the Native Americans, ancestors of the Cherokee, who settled in the area. Silver points out that we should not romantically consider Native Americans to be "nature's caretakers" (p. 46), living in idyllic harmony with their environment. They managed, transformed, and used their environment in ways that greatly changed it: clearing agricultural fields with fire, wearing footpaths and settlement areas to bear ground, and introducing, perhaps inadvertently, the "camp follower" plants (p. 45) that quickly invaded disturbed ground.

European settlement of the Black Mountain region began in the late-eighteenth century. The settlers practiced an agricultural system that borrowed characteristics of both Native American and European agriculture. The local peculiarities of the terrain, especially its steepness and heavy mountain rains, made field rotation, which was practiced in Europe by Germanic and Irish farmers, necessary to maintain the nutrient value of the soil. The cycle of use, reforestation, and clearing lasted approximately twenty-five years in the Black Mountains. Open-range grazing, also practiced by the Black Mountains settlers, had effects on the native flora. Livestock preferred the yellow poplar of the forests and decimated the population, which was replaced by less desirable species. Grazing cattle also maintained the balds, mountaintop meadows that predated the European settlers and serve as a habitat for a diverse array of high-altitude species. Open-range livestock are very vulnerable to predators, however, and early settlers caused a grave ecological disturbance by hunting out the predators.

With chapter 3, Silver enters into the main discussion of the book, describing how humans have viewed and used the land making up the Black Mountains from the nineteenth century through the present day. The Appalachian Mountain region went through a period of transition in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries when industrialization, in the Black Mountains consisting of the lumber industry and mica mining, came head-to-head with the agricultural interests of the local residents and with tourists and tourism promotion. Federal and state government agencies later joined the fray with conservation efforts promoting interests in nature tourism, hunting, and renewable natural resources, but not the interests of the local residents.

The Black Mountains and Mount Mitchell had considerable value for tourism from as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. Mount Mitchell was measured by Professor Elisha Mitchell of the University of North Carolina and found to be the highest peak in the eastern United States; Professor Mitchell's death in 1857 in the Black Mountains added to the romantic ambience of the region. Although the Civil War hurt the regional tourist trade, postbellum interest in wilderness and "local color" brought hikers, hunters, and others to the region. The tourism industry again declined with the advent of lumbering in the mountains at the turn of the twentieth century. Lumbering devastated the mountains with its clear-cutting.

John Simcox Holmes, a forester with the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, influenced by the scientific forestry and conservation taught at Yale and the Progressive politics of the early-twentieth century, lobbied the state legislature to create a state park on Mount Mitchell to save it from the ravages of lumbering and the accompanying wildfire. His efforts, begun in 1913, bore fruit in 1915, with the creation of the Mount Mitchell State Park. The U.S. Forest Service incorporated adjacent lands into the Pisgah National Forest. These government agencies intended to reforest the area, stop the wildfires, and restore the wildlife that had diminished from overhunting and the destruction of wildlife habitats through lumbering. Foresters experimented with replacement trees, many of which were not native species, and the introduction of deer, bear, and game birds, while keeping to a strict program eradicating all predators. Easier access with automobiles brought in sportsmen and tourists from outside the area who partook of regulated and licensed hunting practices. Local residents, who had long considered the Blacks to be common ground for grazing, hunting, and fishing, resented the government intervention and regulations. Especially after the chestnut blight of the 1910s and 1920s, the livelihood of Black Mountain residents was disappearing, and many participated in the large outmigration of Appalachian people into the urban centers of industrial economy.

Increased auto tourism after the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway changed the emphasis of Mount Mitchell State Park and the Pisgah National Forest from conservation to tourism. The Parks Division began to market the mountains for the short-stay visitor, who drove in for the day or camped for one or two nights. In marketing this region as an idyllic vision of a wilderness landscape, the park tells the story of "the rescue of a precious landscape from the perils of urban-industrial development" (p. 260). Yet air pollution and acid rain from outside the Black Mountains has contributed to the devastation wrought by the introduction of the balsam woolly adelgid and the hemlock woolly adelgid, which have killed as much as 80 percent of the trees in some areas of the mountains. Despite attempts by the park and the Forest Service to treat the adelgid insect infestation, few advances have been made since the balsam woolly adelgid appeared in the 1950s. Mount Mitchell has become an "icon of degradation" (p. 256), Silver says, and he wonders whether the story of Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains is one of progress or decline. Can we learn from the past, from our own subjective history, to improve the future? And can we use new environmental ethics to preserve both our modern landscape and our historic wilderness?

The personal level of this book that comes through the journal entries may put off the more scholarly reader. The broader material that Silver covers, too, may be too well-known to some readers who are familiar with natural history and the conservation movement in the United States. However, Silver's use of broader material to bring a small region of North Carolina into the greater national context makes this a very worthwhile book for those interested in environmental history. Silver writes well, and his text is lively. This would be a great book for an upper-level undergraduate course or introductory graduate course in environmental history. Much of American environmental history is concerned with the west; it's good to see the eastern portion of the country brought into the national picture of environmental history.


[1]. Silver notes several works in his text, notably Ronald L. Lewis, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), and Donald Edward Davis, Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000). Prior to recent years, most publications dealing with environmental issues within the Appalachian region were U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service publications.

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Citation: Elizabeth Oliver Lee. Review of Silver, Timothy, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=8313

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