Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Thinking Like A Mountain?

Erik Reece's eloquent essay, "Death Of A Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Leveling of Appalachia," was included in the April 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine. The piece examines and responds to environmentally devastating coal mining practices in eastern Kentucky. Appropriately enough, I read the work while standing in an abominably long line at the World Expo, in Aichi, Japan, the first World's Fair dedicated to "green" thinking or, as the Japanese organizers dubbed it, "Nature's Wisdom."

Every pavilion in the Aichi Expo was sponsored by either a nation or a corporation (a sign o' the times), and they all forecast a happy, healthy, and sustainable future for humanity and for the planet. Reece's melancholy report provided a sobering counterpoint. A "green future" is tenable only if the necessary changes in technology and lifestyle generate an altogether different kind of green: cash money. As the wife of a Kentucky coal miner asks Reece, "What use are the mountains to us other than coal? When are you going to start thinking about us instead of the environment?" Until alternative energy cheerleaders assuage the concerns of those citizens dependent on income provided by companies like Leslie Resources Inc., one of the mining outfits indicted in Reece's article, America's hard-working, blue-collar folks will remain united in opposition to the relatively privileged mouthpieces of environmentalism.

In "Death of a Mountain," Reece describes the minutes of a Kentucky hearing addressing an Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal, the principal method of tapping into buried coal seams. The local coalfield citizens in attendance, many of them employed by the region's energy companies, reacted against "outsiders" telling them what was best for them and for their land. They even hinted "at a conspiracy afoot by the rest of the state to keep eastern Kentucky poor." Not surprisingly, such vehement antagonism to "greening" measures were not highlighted at the Aichi Expo. Likewise, they receive scant attention in environmental publications, even those produced by more thoughtful organizations,including The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and EarthJustice. It's clear that most environmentalists don't consider the lives of those people displaced by expanding parkland or laid off by companies under siege from environmental legislation. It's little wonder that "Third World" countries and blue-collar workers like the Kentucky miners or the fishermen of the Galapagos islands object to what they consider do-gooder meddling.

In Aichi, I looked up from the magazine and noticed a Japanese teenager in line not far behind me. He was wilting under a sun umbrella, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of the popular American hip-hop duo, Outkast. Fond of connecting seemingly unrelated strands, I thought of the Outkast song, "Return of the G." The lyrics of the song begin, "Every time I try to get peace of mind, niggas try to get a piece of mine, so I gotta grab my piece." The song concisely describes an ugly, myopic cycle, but how much easier for me to characterize it as such when I can afford a plane ticket to Japan and enough over-priced, organic vegetables to fill my canvas grocery sacks?

As a proponent of conservation and environmental protection, I'm necessarily guilty of prioritizing the sustainable long-view over the millions of people vying to put food on their plate. I considered this distressing reality as I entered the air-conditioned Hitachi Pavilion in Aichi to watch an animated feature about the catastrophic - nay, apocalyptic - events brought on by humanity's cavalier approach to natural resource consumption.

A mushroom cap raises a mossy roof

Similar considerations were on my mind this past week, when I traveled to the Monongahela National Forest, in eastern West Virginia, for some camping, hiking, and herping. I know very little about West Virginia, despite having spent several summers at Camp Greenbrier, situated just outside Alderson, in the southern part of the state. During those summers I learned about kayaking, archery, riflery, rock climbing, and the cruel conduct of boys left unsupervised, but I was too young - just nine or ten years of age - to absorb much about the region save the scenic beauty.

Following those camp years, John Denver's song "Country Roads," a particular favorite of my mother, acquired new significance for me. "West Virginia, mountain momma...take me home," Denver sings. Having appreciated the lush splendor of the Appalachian range for myself, Denver's lyrics imparted an aesthetic association as well as the allusion to a mother's buxom embrace. But Denver's paean doesn't only acknowledge West Virginia's awesome landscape. He refers to the state as the "miner's lady...dark and dusty." Even the state's coat of arms, central on the state flag, pictures a miner, pickaxe slung over his shoulder, standing alongside a farmer. But modern miners have largely abandoned the pickaxe in favor of cranes and bulldozers, and evidence of mountain top removal can be seen from the state's highways. Treeless plateaus neighbor intact peaks and, although geologic time will see these scars support trees and other vegetation anew, one can not help but wonder what has become of the once healthy water supply fed by the decapitated mountain streams.

Happily - some might even say selfishly - I was able to avoid despair during my time in Monongahela. Unlike so much of the state, the mountains of the National Forest have been spared extensive surgery. All the same, the park map is peppered with mine sites, demarcated by a pick and shovel. The stream water I drank - after an iodine pill dosing - seemed safe enough (I didn't get sick), but I couldn't quite shake worries about mercury or heavy metal content. Encouragingly, we found plenty of amphibians in the streams, and this suggests that the water is clean.

Salamander hunting near Cheat Mountain Camp

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Amphibians: We identified four species of salamander; one example of each is pictured below.

Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus)

The Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus) was the most common, at least according to our crude census. They seemed to flourish alongside streams, under partially submerged rocks, and on the mountain's face, under woodland detritus - bits of rotten limbs or clumps of moss. The coloration of this species is wide-ranging. Some of the individuals we came upon could have passed for the unrelated redback (Plethodon cinereus), while others appeared more yellow, tan, or even chocolate. Fortunately, one of my companions is an avid herper and he was readily able to distinguish the two species by examining the head and nostrils. When in doubt, I defer to his expertise.

Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Comparatively scarce was the redback salamander and, if I'm recalling accurately, we only discovered this species near woodland vernal ponds. Unfortunately, all my photographs of the species turned out poorly. The models, this one included, didn't much take to posing, forcing me to hurry the shots.

Spotted Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus conanti)

The most unusual discovery of the trip was a Spotted Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus conanti). The species is not known to live in the region - according to field guide range maps, anyway - but, nevertheless, we encountered this individual under a flat rock in an insignificant stream and spent some time confirming the ID. Proof, once again, that nature is always throwing curve balls, particularly in this time of accelerating climate change. The patterned salamander was strikingly colored and appeared almost translucent, it's distinctive markings discernible beneath a superficial layer of clear skin.

Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens)

Just up the hill from the Spotted Dusky discovery, we noticed a Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) in a puddle of standing water. I was thrilled to see one up close, as it had been the better part of a decade since I last admired this species in person. As it turned out, almost anywhere water pooled in Monongahela, the newts were present. By the time we departed, we'd seen close to a hundred.

Before transitioning into its principally aquatic adulthood, however, the newt spends time on land, as the terrestrial red eft. These attractive little amphibians are perhaps the most charismatic of salamanders. Their stunning outfit is complimented by their not being as retiring as other species. If you find yourself in prime habitat, a keen eye will spot the efts crawling on logs or over leaves, seemingly unperturbed by exposure.

Red-spotted Newt in Red Eft stage (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens)

Tadpoles, like the newts, could be found in almost every pond or puddle. Although we could not ID the species with certainty, we believe most to be the aquatic larvae of the wood frog (Rana sylvatica), though we did notice a few American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) tadpoles. The bullfrog is something of a bully, infamous for out-competing other amphibians and adapting to a wide range of habitats. Biologists designate such a species a trophic generalist. Despite the potential threat to biodiversity, a piece of me admires the pluck of the bullfrog, just as I grudgingly take my hat off to the European starling (Sturnis vulgaris) and the raccoon (Procyon lotor).

Although we saw countless tadpoles, we saw only three adult frogs. One bullfrog, one wood frog, and one upland chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata feriarum). The upland chorus frog is closely related to, but distinct from, the eastern (or New Jersey) chorus frog (Pseudacris ferairum kalmi), with which I am familiar from my childhood on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

A Monongahela stream

Reptiles: Our snake hunting forays proved less successful. We shined flashlights into crevices and carefully examined sun-lit leaf litter in hopes of revealing a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) or a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), but neither species graced us with an appearance. I was discouraged, but not surprised. Snake hunting is usually a kettle watching exercise and the animals seem to materialize only once you cease searching.

We found two snakes in Monongahela. Sadly, one of these was a DOR (dead on road) eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), a victim of the automobile. Given the infrequent use of this remote forest road, I decided the unfortunate snake must have accrued some very shitty karma. At least an unidentified land snail was feeding on the dead snake, a welcome reminder of our shared mortality and interdependence.

The identity of the other snake we observed remains in question, but I'm almost certain it was a juvenile eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). It was a very slender snake, not even pencil-thick, wearing alternating bands of red and white. We noticed the snake on the bottom of a shallow, water-filled ditch. It was attempting to feed on small tadpoles. When we clumsily hurried over for a closer look, it retreated into submerged grasses lining the ditch. After a wait of about fifteen minutes, it emerged from hiding and I attempted to ID it as it zigged and zagged across the bottom. I failed, unfortunately, and we did not see the little reptile again. According to field guides, eastern milk snakes are no stranger to stream bottoms. This knowledge, combined with the distinctive markings, leaves me with little doubt of the species, but, as I say, the verdict it still out.

Snake hunting on the southern exposure

Mammals: I hoped to see a black bear (Ursus americanus) or two, but I had to settle for a smattering of tracks. Because we arrived in Monongahela at the tail end of a long wet spell, the trails and back country were muddy and soft. Although the rain made the first night miserable - we rigged a tarp and pitched the tents after dark, in hard rain - the saturation made spotting animal tracks easy, although in some cases the ground was so wet that fresh prints were already partially obscured. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virgianus) tracks were plentiful, but we saw more deer in the backyards of the houses fringing the National Forest than we did in Monongahela proper. This isn't surprising, as deer are harder to spot in dense forest and, what's more, they thrive in and around human settlement, as so many suburbanites know. Also abundant was the bouncy eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus).

Birds: We were ill-prepared for bird watching. Although we were careful to pack everything needed for a camping trip - right down to the campfire utensil sets - we somehow neglected to include binoculars. I'm not sure how this oversight occurred, but none of us had a pair in hand, making anything beyond guessing difficult, especially since most of Monongahela's bird species are relatively small. In the shadowed forests, identification is all but hopeless without ocular assistance. Fortunately, one of my friends has a competent ear and some species were identified by their call.

Slate-colored juncos (Junco hyemalis) were innumerable. It seems spring comes late to the upper elevations, as the rhododendrons had yet to bloom and, on the final afternoon, we were scolded by two adult juncos as we hustled past a fledgling perched on a low-hanging branch. The prize for Most Handsome Bird goes to the Blackburnian warbler (Dendroica fusca), a fire-headed fellow with a striking voice. We thought we heard this bird's song in the woods, and our supposition was verified when an individual landed just above us, in the branches of a spruce tree.

Most exciting for me, however, was the family of American woodcock (Philohela minor) that we startled into awkward flight. I'm used to the jump, flutter, and glide behavior of the woodcock in the open, flat fields of coastal Virginia, but in the mountain woods of Monongahela, the woodcocks' comical eruption from among the leaves and ferns betrayed the provenance of the species nickname, the timber doodle. The first bird to take off flapped and jerked and reared and leaned as it moved all of twenty feet in the air, before pitching hard and vanishing into a mess of fallen limbs. Realizing we had disturbed a family group, we made our way downhill at a good clip, so as to allow the birds to regroup.

Plenty of common ravens (Corvus corvax) and cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were about, but we saw only one American blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) and one turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), species I certainly expected to see more of. Had we been properly equipped (read: not forgotten the $@*&%!! binoculars), I would have more to report, but I was all too happy to concentrate on reptiles and amphibians, as they are particularly exciting to me.

* * * * *

Rising with dawn's birdsong on the final morning, we quickly packed our gear, lowered the bear bag, and began the five hour drive to Washington, D.C., where I was to catch the Chinatown Bus back to New York City. As we headed east, I slouched in the cramped back seat and admired the mountains of West Virginia, even as I again noted signs of resource extraction. My thoughts returned to Reece's "Death of a Mountain" and I made a mental note to reread it upon returning to New York.

Near the end of the article, Reece quotes Aldo Leopold, the famous American ecologist and conservationist. Leopold bemoaned the fact that "one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." I'm not sure that this is still the case. Those of us who are environmentally conscious do not live alone, even if we do remain surrounded by wounds. More than ever before, "green" sentiments are also popular sentiments; many folks share a penchant for preservation. Leopold would argue, however, that most contemporary environmentalists remain blissfully ignorant of ecological pragmatism. He was a conservationist, not a preservationist, and he understood that protectionism alone rarely leads to long-term sustainability.

Keeping this conservation/preservation dynamic in mind, I think it noteworthy that my companions in the forests of Monongahela were a biology professor and a writer. For our purposes here, the biologist might be characterized as a biological determinist and the writer, as a moral idealist. Though these two characterizations are by no means mutually exclusive, it makes for an interesting contrast in perspective, even though both appreciate the outdoors equally. Rereading "Death of a Mountain," I was surprised to find this divide touched on in the closing paragraphs.
"If our species is to make it through [the 21st] century, the forces of science and technology must be tempered by two other forces - ethics and aesthetics. All ethical philosophies, from Aristotle on down, are based on this ecological principle as stated by Leopold: 'The individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.' And as the cave art at Lascaux makes brilliantly clear, we are a species that has evolved to find beauty in the natural world. This trait serves - or should serve - an evolutionary purpose: we love what we find beautiful, and we do not destroy what we love. A strip job is more than a moral failure; it is a failure of the imagination. It is time we stopped thinking like those who conquer a mountain and started thinking like the mountain itself."
A strip job, as Reece writes, is a moral and imaginative failure, but what does it mean to think like a mountain? It would seem to me that to think like a mountain requires us to abandon morality and imagination, both exceptional human virtues. Is my ambivalence concerning invasive species control an example of mountainous thinking? Moral ambivalence - that is, amorality - is Nature's way. But isn't ambivalence, too, problematic? Is it not cousin to apathy? Humans, at their best, are moral animals; morality necessitates choice and action. Strict environmental controls, then, are moral, pragmatic, and rational, flailing efforts in our human time scale not at all like the geologic contemplation of a mountain. We humans consider a skewed equation and strive to balance it. This calculus comes at some cost. For the sensitive aesthete, slavishly devoted to what Reece calls beauty, the dualistic thinking of a moral pragmatist - right or wrong, good or evil - can seem an ugly, even unnecessary evolutionary holdover. Where, then, can the conscientious among us stand? It's an impossible question, really, more of a koan than a query, but it nags nonetheless.

Something approaching an answer is wrapped up in the lyrics of Denver's "Country Roads," in the fight bruised arms of young boys, in the remarkable persistence of trophic generalists, in the determined antagonism of the coal miner's wife, in the scarred plateaus, and in the slurried bear tracks. Thankfully, when I'm painting, or when I'm appreciating back country settings like Monongahela, I'm reminded that contentment, for me, requires acceptance of a messy, mongrel truth. For my part, it's both necessary and natural to be both an idealistic aesthete and a moralistic number cruncher.

Fungi thrive in the moist, dense forests

Photo credit: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2006

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