Nature 2020: Bridging Political Sides to Heal Nature’s Wounds

benje williams
Nov 6, 2020 · 12 min read

Chad picks me up in a white Ford 350. It’s the type of truck I have to pull on to the side of the door just to climb into, even though I’m six plus feet tall. Chad is taller than me, probably six four, and at least three to four weight classes heavier. His face is outlined by a grey goatee and a thin cloud of white hair, and he’s wearing a black US Forest Service fleece that says Monongahela National Forest.

“So when did you move to West Virginia?” I ask as we pull away from TipTop Coffee, passed the Holiday Inn Express where I’m staying, and towards the single lane highway that heads into the National Forest. He says he was born here and, after a few minutes, pulls off the road, into an unincorporated town called Dailey. “This is where I grew up,” he says, pointing to a grey single-story house. We drive a few seconds down the road and he points to another house. “And this is where my wife, my childhood sweetheart, grew up.” He then points directly across the gravel road, to where he and his wife now live. “Right across from my in-laws,” he shakes his head with a boyish smile. His house is on 300 acres, which they use for keeping nearly 100 beef cows.

I look across their pastureland as we drive alongside it, subtly searching for any election signs. I don’t see any, but their neighbor’s sign a few houses down says Trump 2020: Make the Liberals Cry Again.

I want to ask him where he falls, politically, but I can’t figure out how and can’t afford to misstep. We still have the entire day together, side by side in this truck. Instead, we pass another red Trump-Pence sign, climb over the Tygart Valley River that his high school is named after, and turn left back on to the main road, towards the National Forest.

The day before meeting Chad, I’m in my own car, caravanning through the middle of the Monongahela behind Todd. The signal on my cell phone has been blocked for nearly 45 minutes, and as we pull into a parking lot, a sign in front of us prohibits the use of digital cameras, electronic gaming devices and portable radios. “Green Bank Telescope,” Todd says as we walk down a dirt path, “the largest steerable radio telescope in the world.” We turn the corner and a huge white dish emerges from the edge of the forest. It’s still far ahead of us, separated by several patches of fields and bogs and marshland, but even from here it looks like the skeleton of a giant football stadium, with an enormous antenna sticking out. The observatory is closed so I won’t get to learn much about it. Todd says it listens to extra-terrestrial activity. When I’m back in cell phone range, I read about some of its discoveries, including the largest known neutron star.

Our work for the day is much more humble, much more grounded. We stop at one of the first bogs and are soon head deep in thick understory brush, my hiking boots soiled by the wet peat moss that surrounds us. We are “collecting seed,” as Todd calls it — gathering seeds from specific plant species so that they can be grown in other parts of the forest, places that are still healing from decades of mining and logging. “Native species often don’t grow back naturally, after an unnatural, anthropogenic disturbance,” he says, as he reaches above my head for a constellation of the red swamp rose berries we are focusing on. They are an important early succession plant, a pioneer species, fixating nitrogen into the ground which then enriches the soil and encourages native trees to grow. As we collect seeds, Todd emphasizes that forest restoration is not as simple as just planting trees, which many people (and organizations and countries) believe. Instead, it requires an entire landscape approach, depending on an ecosystem of roots and soil and fungi, brush and wetlands and understory, species and wildlife and trees. And, in some cases, humans.

Todd is one of those humans, working in the Monongahela for over ten years. Back in the parking lot, he had suggested that I bring gloves to use, but he is now picking bare handed. For the first few dozen berries, I’m also fine without them, but when I reach for a lower branch, a thorn stabs my index finger and I pull the gloves out of my back pocket. We collect seeds for the entire day, filling up two or three bags of swamp rose before moving deeper into the valley, towards the telescope, where we start picking speckled alder, then slider alder, then milkweed, then ironweed. As we get closer, the telescope makes a groaning noise, like an old man trying to shift in his rocker. It’s moving so slow that I’m initially not even sure that’s what it’s doing, but when I look back later, it’s facing the opposite direction.

Todd says the seeds will go to a local nursery, which will incubate them for one to two years, before they are planted as saplings on the restoration site. Of the thousands of seed offspring we collect, only a few hundred will grow as tall as their parent plants. The more diverse the seed source — that is, the more plants we pick from different areas, with different living conditions — the higher chance they have of success. We’re also picking in a lower elevation, which has warmer temperatures, so that the saplings might be more climate resilient as temperatures continue to rise at the higher elevation restoration site.

“Climate change affects everything,” Todd says, using two words that I’ve been told the Forest Service was directed, from the current administration, not to use. I drop a fist full of ironweed seeds into my bag and look up at Todd, not sure I heard correctly. He points to his fleece, which is laying on the ground, and talks about how it never used to be t-shirt weather in the middle of October. He hesitates for a while and finally says how much the current administration has made things worse, and how badly we need to vote them out.

I ask about the rest of his Forest Service team and he says that people are on both sides. “Some are red, some are blue, some are a bit purple. But we make it work.” Eventually, as we walk away from the telescope, back towards the marsh land, we talk about the types of organizations working in the National Forest. “This type of early successional habitat is what organizations like the Ruffed Grouse Society or the Turkey Federation love,” he says, as we pass the swamp rose we had been collecting earlier. “Or stream restoration, Trout Unlimited is all about that.” These are organizations that focus on hunting and game. You wouldn’t think they care much about environmentalism or conservation — they might not be, in other words, someone a liberal thirty-something in a Patagonia jacket from California would want to sit in the same room with. But they ultimately care about the same thing. About healthier forests and landscapes and ecosystems. And they have a critical role to play.

Back in the Ford, Chad and I pull into our third and final rangeland pasture. We’ve been driving and walking together for almost six hours, and yet I still have no idea where he stands, politically. Although I do.

Unlike Todd, he hasn’t brought up climate change once. Although he has shown me the effects of a changing climate: fifty acres of healthy hardwood trees that have been completely uprooted from 100 miles per hour gusts of wind. Dozens of cattle that are illegally grazing on private property because their own grass land has become unproductive. Potential flood hazards along hills that have been over grazed by livestock.

As we drive through a barren brown field, I think about how livestock poses one of the biggest challenges to forest conservation and restoration, as seen most dramatically in the Amazon, where millions of acres of landscape continue to be deforested for animal grazing. Not unlike politics, livestock and forests seem to be a mutually exclusive thing: an either/or black and white situation. And yet, apparently there’s another way: creating a symbiotic system by integrating trees into pasture land, allowing both livestock and the landscape to benefit from each other. The cows, not surprisingly, love the trees because they provide shade. And the trees love the cows, who provide nutrients for the soil through their manure. Dairy and meat yields have been proven to increase, and the trees can be a revenue stream as well.

I tell Chad that this practice is called silvopasturing, and is quite common in South America. Although it hasn’t really picked up in the US, he’s already familiar with it and says he’d like to learn more, that maybe it could work in the Monongahela. I tell him I’ll send him some info and that I can connect him with someone from Argentina who is doing silvopasturing in upstate New York, outside of Cornell.

Emboldened, and running out of time, I finally summon the courage to bring up politics. “It seems like people on both sides care about the same thing, about a healthier environment, but haven’t really found a way to work together,” I say, avoiding eye contact by looking out the window. We’re leaving the National Forest now, and there’s a sign that says Monongahela National Forest: Land of Many Uses. Chad shifts behind the steering wheel and says that West Virginia actually used to be a strong democratic state. “The dems used to fight for the common man, the every day laborer. Now they’ve become something else. They’ve placed the environment in front of people.”

He pauses and slows down around a long turn. We pass a house where I had bought fresh eggs on my first visit to West Virginia. The homeowner had told me how he only has about fifteen chickens left, because “the damn coons ate over half of them.” He shot the damn things with a shotgun, he said, as he sold me two dozen eggs for four dollars, “a one dollar discount.” He smiles and I breathe a silent sigh of relief. I ask for another dozen and give him a four dollar tip, “to go towards some new chickens.”

Chad accelerates out of the turn and I tell him I agree, the democrats definitely have a major branding and communication issue. That I think we’ve become too urban and elite. And that the issue of our environment has become way too politicized, in a way that it never was before. “Nixon was the one who created the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act. Even George Bush initially had a strong platform against global warming,” I say, talking longer and louder than I want to.

Chad stops at a rare stop sign. Our windows are down and the bright red oak trees above us are flickering in the breeze. Yellow sugar maple leaves are lining the road around us. The street ahead of us is wide open. “West Virginia is basically full of conservative democrats, without a conservative democratic candidate to vote for,” he says.

I think about how conservative I thought Biden’s policies on climate change were (and still are), but don’t say anything. Instead, I ask him about Biden’s emphasis on new jobs from renewable energy. “Those aren’t jobs for us though,” he says slowly, emphasizing the type of technical education and engineering training those jobs require. He tells me about his first job, as an engineering-dropout from West Virginia Tech, at a mine site that we are now driving past. Then I think about his two sons, who are studying at the same high school he went to. He tells me that, from his perspective, the science isn’t fully clear on certain types of mining — that some, like coal, is definitely bad, but that some, like natural gas, might have more of a negligible effect. I nod my head, wishing I had something more to offer. Instead, I stare at the scars in the abandoned mine, then at the forest shadows that surround it, then at a run-down truck groaning in the opposite direction. We talk more about silvopasturing. And the seeds Todd and I had collected the day before. And the auction where he’ll sell his cows in two days. And his two boys. Eventually, he shakes my hand and drops me off at TipTop Coffee.

Back in my own car, I remember a hike to a river waterfall that I’ve been wanting to do for weeks now. It’s one of my last days in West Virginia, and even though there might not be enough daylight, I decide that I have to try.

On the trail, I think about Chad. I think about Todd. I think about all the other people I’ve met who are working on forest restoration, many of whom have very different political views from me. And I try to piece it all together. Eventually, I give up, losing the trail because I’m not paying attention. I retrace my steps, feeling the temperature drop as the autumn sun lowers. Finally I find the trail marker, a pale blue dot painted on a thin birch tree, and I’m back on the trail.

If only it was that easy, I think. If only we could just focus on the destination, on the waterfall at the end of the journey, on the beauty of a world that has healed from the wounds we have inflicted upon it. If only we could find a middle ground, a symbiotic silvopasturing system that brings both sides together. If only we could understand the different roles that are necessary for restoration — the dry alder brush and the thorny swamp roses and the wet marsh lands and the tall overstory trees. If only there was a steerable radio telescope that was big enough to help us listen to each other. But it’s not that simple, I think, losing the trail again, my boots sinking into swampy mud. Or maybe it can be, I wonder as I reconnect with the trail markers and finally hear the waterfalls crashing somewhere ahead of me.

The sun is below the Allegheny mountain range now, but there’s still enough daylight to take the waterfalls in, even if only for a few minutes. I hike down to the river, walk along the water, carefully climb over the mossy boulders, feel the mist on my face, and finally return to the trail. I calculate that there are only fifteen ish minutes of daylight left, and at least forty five minutes to my car, even if I run. But I know the way now. I have a sense of what needs to be done to get there. I’m pretty sure I have just enough energy to do it. And I hope there might be just enough moonlight to guide the way.

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benje williams

Written by

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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