My everything aches when I remember that, “by 1908, around 86 percent of forested acres in the Southern Appalachian Mountains was classified as recently harvested or in young regrowth stages of development” (Ecoforesters.org). The scope of this extraction astounds.
And, because of that plunder, the gorgeous green forests we see for miles around WNC are compromised and vulnerable because now they’re all middle aged.
The red box on this graph from EcoForesters indicates the “stand succession” stages the majority of our region’s forests are in, while outside the box lie the stages we lack.
Without a diverse mix of ages/stages, the health of our forests suffers in countless ways. Impacts include, “displacing native plant populations, inhibiting the regeneration of native plants,…altered soil structure and nutrient cycling, reduced wildlife habitat, and reduced recreational value, just to name a few.”
For example, a mature oak tree is home to hundreds of insects which are food for many creatures who are food for other creatures, it provides shelter for birds and animals, and it’s abundant acorns provide a level of sustenance for forest wildlife unmatched by other trees; yet oaks have been declining in number, unable to thrive in this imbalance.
Why does this ecological devastation make me think of human history here in Asheville?
Perhaps because it harkens to the forced removal of the Anigiduwagi (Cherokee) people by European colonizers, and the displacement of Black residents through urban renewal and gentrification.
Clear cutting communities, as it were.
And while a diverse collection of cultures continue to exist and evolve in our city, we have an overabundance of a dominant white culture that overwhelms the rest.
We cannot overestimate the role that the tourism industry has played in influencing the demographics and therefore culture of our city. The strategic destruction of Black neighborhoods through urban renewal set the stage for the creation of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (BCTDA aka TDA) in 1981. Established by white male businessman and hoteliers, the BCTDA has spent 40+ years and millions of dollars inviting wealthy white tourists to Asheville, to the exclusion of other demographics. Without our consent, we’ve gotten what they’ve asked for.
As I consider the invasive plants strangling forests made weak by the tragedy of clear cutting, I ponder the spread of comparable cultural invasives (for example, the proliferation of craft beer) filling spaces which were taken through systemic neglect and displacement.
I share this analogy because I find operating with an awareness of the overlapping ecosystems we exist in as infinitely inspiring and, despite it all, hopeful.
We can, as Octavia Butler’s character Lauren Olamina taught, shape change.
EcoForesters, the organization quoted above, is “dedicated to conserving and restoring our Appalachian forests through education and stewardship.” They note that this work requires time – lifetimes.
Last week’s Mountain Xpress cover story touted the fact that this year the TDA will spend $1 million on Black-owned media. Way less than a drop in the overflowing bucket of money spent by that entity on white media and marketing firms and staff over the past four decades.
Black Wall Street AVL co-founder J. Hackett states in the article, “if we acknowledge that systems have historically not included a certain group of people because of the color of their skin, then we cannot imagine that after five years or even 10 years of new awareness that we will replace or somehow erase or even overshadow the hundreds of years that they’ve been ignored.”
The damage is deep. Reparations are due.
And still, amidst historical and ongoing exclusion and structural barriers, BIPOC-led initiatives are planted and grow throughout Asheville and WNC’s cultural ecosystem, shaping change. As Hackett and others remind us, like tending the forests, these efforts will need significant time, attention, and resources to truly flourish.
I will keep turning my energy towards this flourishing, cherishing our fecund interconnectedness.
A few local links of interest shared with love:
MUST READ: “Cornbread and contemplation: My restaurant reckoning in Asheville, North Carolina” by Cynthia Greenlee for the Charlotte Observer
Different Wrld, culture house + creative hub, is now open!
Sistas Caring 4 Sistas, a community-based doula program founded by women of color for women of color.
Asheville P.E.A.K Academy, a tuition-free charter school, where “we strive to close the achievement gap through personalized instruction and character education to ensure youth from all demographics and backgrounds receive a quality educational experience.”
And, in case you’ve missed it, there are more links on my Community page.
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Stand successional stages graph by EcoForesters.
Asheville demographics graph by Marc Voorhees.
Spring forest photo from EcoForesters.org.