Solastalgia in Appalachia | Sojourners

Solastalgia in Appalachia

Timbering has begun on the 200 acres of pristine forest behind our farm, out where I’ve been walking the dogs for 10 years. On the first day, they said they would bulldoze the road to clear a landing where the trees would be dragged, sized, cut, and loaded onto the trucks. On our way back that evening to see how far they’d gotten, I became disoriented on the 14-foot-wide dirt trail. I barely recognized the landmarks I had come to know so well when it was an overgrown footpath. Some were no longer there at all.

What was once a majestic stand of towering sycamores, so densely canopying the understory only a meadow of shade-loving wildflowers could grow beneath it, is now a sun-flooded machine-tracked dirt plain, half the size of a football field with wide open sky above it. On the edge of a smothered stream, those mighty sycamores laid stiff on their sides in a haphazard pile, an enormous mass grave of dead bodies, each one scuffed, scraped, and missing hunks of bark.

Still stunned, I hopped the muddy creek with the dogs and disappeared into the remaining woods. We followed the abandoned deer trail to the back, where all is still untouched, to take pictures and say goodbye before it was all gone.

The cutting continues. After the guys finish work each day, I head back again to count the latest stacked corpses, to mentally note the variety of species, and to take whatever new trails have been made or extended farther up into the hills. What’s left in the wake of dozers are sad slouching stumps, arched, splintered, cracked, and damaged younger trees, tossed crowns in a sea of light green, the undersides of millions of leaves. A few giants on the steepest hillsides have toppled over at their bases, leaving entire root systems sticking straight up with massive cavities beneath them. It’s as if they’ve collapsed in grief from the loss of loved ones. The solastalgia brings me down, too.

There is an eerie silence in these freshly cut parts. The dogs sniff for any sign of critters. If I sit long enough, I might see one tiny songbird, maybe two, but they’re not singing. They just hop from branch to branch in the scrawny leftover trees, seemingly lost and confused, looking for home. The sounds of their neighboring choir members echo from beyond the destruction, and invite us deeper into the forest where life is going on as usual, at least for now.

As we move on, I run my hand over the different textures of bark, tree after tree, like spinning prayer wheels in a Tibetan temple, and — yes — I stop to hug the biggest ones. Each has its own ecosystem, soon to be gone, too. I gently grasp the shattered ends of roots sticking out from the road etched into the hillside, and hope my touch will cauterize and communicate my apologetic remorse through the underground network.

This week, I led a group of local high school students on a hike through the wildest section we call “Coyote Country,” ending at the mouth of the loggers’ landing. I didn’t have to say much. Being raised in West Virginia, they already knew plenty about the industry, but, being city kids and “townies,” none of them had ever seen it firsthand. They immediately noticed the change of smell in the air. One said it was “like poop.” Another responded, “That’s death.” Their collective mood quickly became as heavy as the humidity.

We watched a while, then they started the discussion themselves, telling me first that Appalachia has one of the most bio-diverse temperate forests in the world, and how watersheds, particularly, are affected when it’s logged. One spoke of EPA regulations. Another gave the example that, with so much mud flowing downstream, fish can’t lay their eggs. Others acknowledged how important timbering is to West Virginia’s economy — how it is its #1 export, how it provides many needed jobs, how it is more dangerous than coal mining. All true. Then they listed reasons for it, and debated degrees of legitimacy: for health of the forest, new housing developments, market demand for wood products, or, in this case, for the out-of-state landowner to cash in on his investment. They also made the global connection to deforestation in the Amazon, to pasture beef for fast-food restaurants. These are highly controversial topics here in our region, but they dove right in.

These teens know forests are a renewable resource, too, and they knew this one will heal itself over time. I agreed, pointing out that, 100 years ago, it was a clear-cut homestead. Hearing that, though, dampened their solace. Considering climate change and the heartache at hand, that seemed too long to have to wait.

What they were looking at was nature’s Aleppo: a devastating loss of life on an unfathomable scale; total disruption of an entire community we don’t think about often enough; annihilation of an awe-inspiring natural cathedral, unmatched by human hands; a sad, systematic dismantling of a century of history that they will not see again in their lifetimes.

And all this is only one of three jobs going on in our holler right now.

By the end, students had gained renewed appreciation for their home state. They expressed frustration over the abuse of its natural resources and workforce, and felt an urgency to see things change. They were quick to point fingers and proudly rattled off what they do in their personal lifestyles to mitigate environmental damage. But we also brainstormed, and they left with a list of covenants aimed at raising awareness and challenging themselves to live and consume even more conscientiously, all in an effort to “re-member” the forest body.

Perhaps the most poignant lessons were realizing how much easier it is to rationalize than admit our complicity. And that resurrection will not happen until we open ourselves enough to feel and go through the pain.

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