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The Deadening Trail

Source: Personal observations

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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If we allow it, nature recovers from what we do to it, whether we harm it thoughtlessly or spitefully.

The first time I went to Shenandoah National Park in 1972, the park was not yet forty years old. Even today, many signs of earlier human habitation remain, but in those days, the marks and scars were even fresher.

There was a trail near the Big Meadows Campground called the "Deadening Trail." I can't find it on current maps, but I think it might be the one now called the "Story of the Forest Trail." For now, I'll assume this is the same trail, but if I ever have a chance to verify, I'll update this story accordingly.

Anyway, the "Story of the Forest Trail" is a self-guided trail and educational session intended to illustrate the natural succession of vegetation. This is the process by which orchards, pastures, and farms will, if left alone, return to forest.

The "Deadening Trail" illustrated the same idea, but with a bit more poignancy and more immediacy. The trail, which led from the visitor center on the edge of Big Meadow down to an abandoned farmstead and back to the Big Meadow Campground, had signposts to point out how the old farmland was gradually reverting to natural second-growth forest. You could see the places where fields had been overgrown with wild herbaceous plants, and where these had been replaced by bushes, and then by small trees that specialize in colonizing open land, such as sassafras and birch. More slowly, the birch thickets had been replaced by oak, and the forest was back to a nearly natural state.

Through it all, there were still some persistent indications of human habitation. There was the rusting harrow, the pile of rotting boards that had once been a small barn or shed, the stone steps and brick chimney where once a house had stood.

But the most poignant impact of humans on the forest was that which gave the trail its name: The deadening. According to the self-guiding brochure, people who lived in Appalachia in the 19th and early 20th centuries used to clear land for new fields and pastures by killing the trees as they stood, then cutting them down after they had died. They would cut a ring of bark off the tree, girdling the entire tree for a width of several inches. Unable to raise water and nutrients from the ground to its branches, the tree soon died and dried out. The very next season, the grasses would grow under the naked branches and the former forest could be used for grazing cattle and sheep. In very few years, the trees would begin to rot, and it would soon be easy to cut them down, or simply to knock them down, and the land would be ready for crops.

This technique is often called "ringing" or "girdling." According to the brochure, it was locally called "deadening."

This is what you would see as you walked along the Deadening Trail. Deep in the wooded hollow, a forest of young trees grew up among the standing corpses of the forest that had come before. All of these older trees were not simply dead, but "deadened." Each had a clear ring of bare wood a few feet above the ground where the bark had been removed from the living tree.

According to the brochure, the last residents of this homestead had deadened this huge stand of virgin forest, intending to use it as farmland, just before they moved off the land to allow the establishment of Shenandoah National Park.

As a teenager in 1972, I took all this at face value. In the years since, and especially as I have come to know more of the history of Shenandoah, I have come to doubt it somewhat.

If the trees I saw in 1972 were "deadened" just before the last residents were relocated away from the park, this "deadening" must have occurred barely 36 years before. Okay, this was plausible enough, and the appearance of these "deadened" trees was consistent with the idea that they had been standing dead for not quite forty years or so.

But there is still a problem. Although the park was not officially established until December, 1935, and the residents not relocated until as late as 1937, the park was the known destiny of the area for at least ten years before that. The last residents of the park in the 1930s were not opening new fields. Some were resigned to their fate and moving out even before being forced out. Some were engaging in one legal battle after another (and a few illegal battles) to remain on their land.

Considering the situation, it is far easier for me to believe that the last residents of that decaying farmstead actually killed the trees out of spite. They didn't want the national park, so they wanted to destroy the forest. If they could not continue to use the land that their families had cultivated for generations, neither would those rich Washington dandies be allowed to use it as their forest playground.

It is now more than 35 years since I first saw the "Deadening Trail," and at least 25 since I last saw it. I don't quite know what it looks like now, but I'd guess that few, if any, of those "deadened" trees are still standing. I like to think that the spiteful attack on the forest has been erased, and the present "Story of the Forest Trail" tells a happier story.

I can sympathize with those displaced by Shenandoah National Park, now three quarters of a century ago. Though I disagree with the attacks on the trees of which I accuse them, I understand the anger and betrayal which may have inspired them. We know that injustice is carried out in the name of the U.S. government, even today, and that such injustices were even more commonplace and more blatant in times past. Were the options offered to the residents of the Blue Ridge fair and adequate? Probably not always. Were the poor, uneducated, struggling hill folk brushed aside and their rights trampled by the affluent of Washington who wanted a national park in their back yards? Probably.

Yet, on balance, I am very glad that today there is such a place as Shenandoah National Park.

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