Sawdust in Your Eyes

Healing nature’s scars in Central Appalachia

benje williams
Oct 11, 2020 · 9 min read

Cass, West Virginia is a sawmill town. Or it was, decades ago, sitting humbly along the quiet Greenbrier River, tucked away inside the towering Appalachian mountain range, sitting in the shadows of nearly a million acres of dense red spruce forest.

The small blue sign along the single lane road says Cass (Unincorporated) as we cross over the river, approaching what seems to be the only noteworthy building in the town. We can’t Google anything (there hasn’t been cell reception for miles), but the brown sign above the main building door reads like an open invitation: Information.

Inside, Tammy tells us there are about fifty people who live in Cass now. She points towards two rows of old white houses, all identical, which used to house the timber workers. Now they’re empty, except during the winter’s skiing season. The info center is run by West Virginia State Parks, who also manages the attached Cass Company Store. It’s one of the few sawmill towns that remain, Tammy says. “This place never even existed before the railroad. Then the paper company came for the spruce, set up the town, and logged everything off.”

We walk a few feet towards the store, and I pick up a book that continues Tammy’s story. Surprisingly, it’s not a history guide or handbook but a novel, written by a timber man, W.E. Blackhurst, who I imagine could have been the John Steinbeck of Appalachia, if things had been slightly different. Instead, the back of the novel says he spent nearly his whole life in Cass, beginning his career as a young boy in the big double band saw mill of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. The title, Saw Dust in Your Eyes, is in big block letters, and the foreword begins with a startling introduction to Central Appalachia and sawmill towns:

The magic word that opened this great forest was railroad. From 1890, the term “branch line” became synonymous with new enterprise. And behind the branch line came the sawmill towns. Their existence was brief but usually spectacular. Like mushrooms they sprang up in the footprint of the rail layer. Like the same they flourished for a brief time. Then, like the ungathered mushroom, they quickly rotted away, leaving nature, in her patience, to heal the scars of their existence.

I look up from the book, and then back down. This is exactly why I came to Central Appalachia: to learn about these scars. And about the healing.

When we reach our cabin, about 20 minutes from Cass, I read a report that continues the brief but spectacular story of the sawmill town: By 1950, the paper company had clear cut most of the Monongahela Forest, which surrounds Cass, leaving behind a barren landscape and a nearly empty town. But the healing didn’t start there. Instead, another company, Mower Land and Lumber, deepened the scars, this time through coal mining. For nearly 30 years, they extracted as much coal from the mountain as they could, and when there was nothing left to take, they were required by law to reclaim the land, in order to prevent landslides and to return the biodiversity.

“But reclaiming and restoring are two very different things,” Jack tells me. He is the District Ranger for the US Forest Service, which eventually purchased and now manages the land. He and I have just stepped into a field that the mining company reclaimed — we’re surrounded by layers of fog and a wall of pine trees in the distance, but the field is completely tree-less. Instead, it’s filled with non-native grass, which was the only thing that could grow in the compacted soil the company laid down. “They only cared about preventing landslides, so they slammed three feet of dirt together, so tightly that nothing else could take root,” Jack says. The pine trees in the distance had been protected because the land there was too sloped to mine.

“Our work is now to restore this,” Jack’s team member tells me, as we drive to the next field to see the red spruce saplings they’ve planted. “Red spruce is just an incredible species: it’s like the blueberry or power food of forest soil.” But to get the spruce to grow back, they’ve had to completely rip apart that soil, undoing the scars of reclamation so that the spruce saplings have a chance at taking root and reaching their potential. Sometimes we have to keep breaking in order to heal, the land seems to suggest.

Jack and his team have already been at the work for over a dozen years, and they still have thousands of acres to restore. My job, simply learning how to help, is not straight forward or quick either: there don’t seem to be any easy answers, but this week, I’ll be returning to Monongahela, to spend two weeks with Jack and his team, digging deeper into the successes and failures, the challenges and opportunities. So far, I know they need about $400k to fund all the restoration work next year. But what are the ways we can find value in some of the benefits they’re helping create? Benefits like the greenhouse gases being stored in the soil and trees, the increase in water availability being provided to the Greenbrier watershed, the beauty and recreation being returned to the community. And if we can crack these questions, can we repeat the solutions in other landscapes, within and beyond Appalachia?

The land before restoration work began (left) and the restoration work that has been completed / remains outstanding (right)
Jack’s team member Shane (left) and Jack (middle and right)
Stunted pine trees that have been removed from the landscape so red spruce can grow (left) and a panorama after the fog cleared (right)

Two days after my visit with Jack, I head out on my road bike, in order to get a wider feel for the Monongahela Forest and the community. The sun is out, the air is warm, the hills are long and tireless, the goldenrods and purple asters are swaying slightly in the breeze, and about seventy kilometers into the ride, a man approaches me as I’m sipping coffee and eating a late Subway lunch. He has a thick white beard, green sweatpants, and a faded grey Utah shirt that fluffs out like a bean bag from his belly. At first, I think he’s coming to ask me for money. Then I realize, embarrassingly, how wrong I am. His name is Jean Kelly and he’s the owner of 160 acres of forest, which he bought for only $850 back in the 90s. “Guess how much I pay in taxes?” he asks me, nodding his head. I guess something ridiculous and he says a buck fifty. “$1.50 a year?” I clarify, and he tilts his head with a wink.

I ask him if he ever harvests a small portion of the trees, selling them to a local mill. Over the months, I’ve learned that this is critical to healthier forests: “Conservation without compensation is just conversation,” one of Jack’s team members told me. This doesn’t mean clear cutting the forest, like the paper company did, but removing a small percentage of trees so the land owner earns some revenue and can financially justify “keeping their forest as forest.” But Jean Kelly is unbothered: “Nah,” he says, “I don’t need the money, I just let them alone.” He’s smiling now, a big contagious grin that reveals a missing front tooth. I wonder if he could get that fixed with more money and he tells me that a timber company even offered to buy the whole plot from him, for a quarter of a million dollars. He turned them down.

I laugh and shake my head, perplexed. We talk about the warming temperatures and the insects now attacking his stressed trees — emerald ash borer in his white ash trees, wooly adelgid in the hemlock, bark beetle in the beech — and how the infestations might have the same devastating impact as the 20th century chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease. We talk about the catastrophic wildfires in California, where my family and his sister live. I think about all the Trump 2020: No More Bullshit flags I’ve cycled past and I ask him if people in West Virginia believe in climate change. “Some do, some don’t,” he says, shrugging. I don’t have the courage to ask what he believes.

“Well, ride safe out there,” he says, and then tells me a cautionary tale about a copperhead snake that put him in an eighteen-day coma when he was ten. “I was picking beans and the damn thing struck my thumb. Didn’t even see it, thought it was a wasp. Then he hit me in the knee, then my calf.” He stumbled back home — the basket of beans in his hands and the copperhead wrapped around his leg — and fainted before his mom on the front porch.

He shows me the scar on his thumb, tells me again to be careful, and wishes me luck. I want to give him a side hug, at least a handshake, but remind myself that it’s still a pandemic, even in unincorporated West Virginia sawmill towns. He tightens his sweat pants and walks across the quiet street.

I cycle on, for another two hours. By the time I reach Cass, it’s almost completely dark, the temperature is in the low 40s or high 30s, I can barely feel my toes and fingers, my front headlight has died, I’m out of water and food, the Cass Company Store is closed, and I still have 3,000 more feet to climb. I want to quit, to call for a car pick up, but there is zero cell reception until the top of the mountain. There aren’t even any passing cars that I could hitchhike with. The only option is to finish.

I had started the ride with only a general idea of the route and direction, and with many unanswered questions — about the total elevation gain, food and water availability, temperature forecasts. As I cycle out of Cass, I think about how dumb that was. But also about how I might have never started if I had tried to answer all those questions. Isn’t that the same with the work of forest restoration? I think as I slowly pedal past tree after tree.

Towards the top of the mountain, as I’m close to collapsing, my right foot slips out of my pedal clip and I almost crash. I hobble off the road, trying to pull myself together. As I do, I look out over the endless mountain range, at the millions of acres of forest. It’s beyond dark now: there is a fragment of a moon that has emerged, hundreds or thousands of stars, and finally, directly above my head, I see the Milky Way, for the first time in my life, stretching above the forest, millions of miles away, as a reminder of how nature, in her patience, heals the scars of our existence.

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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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