The niggling feeling in my body was so strong. Vibrant wildflowers were dancing around me as I walked, filling me with glee and delight, and yet I had a sense they held something much older and wilder as well. They had a story to tell. Generations of stories, I was to learn, pulled up from the land itself, and the people who once briefly lived here.
As I walked the dusty gravel road for over a mile, the lushness of the incredible number of wildflowers on each side had me reeling in a deep reverie of times spent in flowering meadows when I was young. With the bees and butterflies flitting around, birds chirping and the sheer number of flowers full of color, I was mesmerized. This feral community was so vibrantly alive!
Tall common milkweed was filling the air with their luscious, sweet scent, calling in the monarchs. Bright yellow circles of bird’s foot trefoil, blueweed and the cheery blue faces of chicory lined the edges of the road. There were so many more. The bright yellow flowers of St. John’s wort were exploding everywhere as the purple tufted thistles were audaciously claiming their space. Black-eyed Susan’s were winking at me like long lost friends. Waving in the wind around the bright white daisies were tall yellow coneflowers, while the Queen Anne’s lace won the popularity contest, growing everywhere. Fuzzy leaved mullein was reaching for the sky with its tall, yellow-flowered seed stalk, while pink and white yarrow behind them offered up its medicine. Tall joe pye weed with its huge flower heads covered in bees, watched over everyone from its regal height, while the bright faces of orange jewelweed offered to soothe me. I also saw pink morning glories, velvety maroon sumac, tall pink phlox, red clover, scarlet bee balm, and yellow goldenrod just beginning to open. Cattails stood as sentinels in particularly wet spots. The unbelievable diversity had me feeling like skipping, at least until I tried it and felt much less light-footed than when I was a young carefree girl in those flowering meadows of my memories.
I felt like I had stumbled upon a party, one where everyone knew everyone else, where everybody was comfortable and relaxed and had what they needed, so they could all reach for the sun. And this gathering moved particularly slowly. No one was in a hurry, as they built new connections on top of days and years and centuries of the ecosystems that had come before. They had found their home, these flowers of today—where they belonged, where they could do their work. Such beautiful blossoms, reveling in their wisdom, knowing their medicine is strongest in large communities like this one, surrounded by their closest family, feeding each other, and protecting each other.
That feeling was still niggling at me—there was an older story here. How did this expanse of wildflowers come to be? Usually, a road cut through the woods leaves the road surrounded by vines and brushy shrubs with only smaller strips of wildflowers on the edges. A large stream could be heard, but not seen behind the wildflowers on the lower side of the road, with a steep hillside opposite. The history of the area soon became clear as I came upon three abandoned coke ovens with historical plaques by the side of the road, that I learned was an old railroad grade to the once-was mining town of Douglas, WV.
There was much history here –for both the forest, the mountain, the plants and animals, and the people who came and left. Where did the flowers fit into the story? In my reverie, I felt time stretching out like a rubber band, first in decades, then centuries, then millennia. An undisturbed ecosystem of forest had evolved here for millions of years, then had been shattered and broken in a relative instant. It would heal, the flowers were telling me, but the question was, how long would it take? Wildflowers will grow in the harshest of places, and they are called to the disturbed land, the abused land. They have the strength, tenacity, and determination to move in and roll up their sleeves and put down their roots, able to make a home with very little to feed on, as they help restore the land.
As I stood in front of the beehive shaped coke ovens, with a large mouth opening in the front, the heaviness of the industry that blasted through here from the 1890’s until the last mine closed in 1954, descended upon me. The plaques told the story, including pictures, of Douglas, WV, an abandoned coal and lumber town. Land that had been a pristine wilderness was stripped bare practically overnight when a railroad was built in 1884. It was considered an engineering marvel because of the steep grade required to reach the area. Looking at the pictures on the plaques of how the area looked after the industry came, the only words I could think of were ravaged, abused, and raped. For years after the last mine closed, this land lay bare like a wounded body on the battlefield, still bleeding, uncared for, until in the 1970’s when reclamation work began. The surface scars began to heal then, but the deep trauma to the land is still ongoing.
At the height of production when 900 people lived in this small area it looked so different than today. The hillsides were bare, with roads going back and forth across their faces, buildings everywhere, and the stream lay naked, no longer surrounded by its beloved rhododendrons. The trees had all been logged by 1912, and 12 mine openings dotted the hillsides. 175 coke ovens lined the railroad tracks and at night the burning ovens lit up the whole valley. The smoke seeped into everything day and night until they were shut down after the technology changed in 1915. It sounds like the very vision of what the fire and brimstone preachers railed against—hell. The clear cutting of the forest resulted in flooding all the way to Pittsburgh and was so severe that it spurred the creation of the Monongahela National Forest in 1915, a federal forest restoration project.
Yet, a lot of immigrants found work and community here and were able to support their families. The market for trees and coal brought people who built a town and community in Douglas, WV, as well as the neighboring towns of Thomas and Davis, all connected to the rest of the world only by the railroad. Churches and schools were built. Diversity was the norm, with Russians, Austrians, Germans, Polish, Irish, African Americans, English, Italians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Serbians and Mexicans all hired by the coal company. Interestingly, in contrast, the lumber company only employed native-born white Americans—why the racial divide? Did the lumberjacks keep themselves separate? In 1919 Douglas even had a champion baseball team. These diverse people formed a strong community here even amidst the ecological ruin.
I wondered if the people of the community were a salve, a blessing for the land, amidst all its wounds. How did the heart of this community weave its way into the land? Did the families raised here give these hills hope during those years? Did their joys and sorrows seep into the cracks opened by the mines and intertwine with the Earth, in ways we can barely understand? Today only a few old houses still dot the hillside. The wildflowers here today are embodying the hearts of those people that once ran up and down these hillsides. A new kind of community has grown from the dirt now. It is the wildflowers turn to hold the space, to do the healing.
The stream that runs through Douglas is the North Fork of the Blackwater River. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, before the railroad, this stream supported so many trout that an innkeeper at Tower’s Inn in the town of Gormainia boasted: “Gentlemen, if you can only reach the fall of the Blackwater, you can take more trout in an hour than you ever took before in all your lives.” And it was proven to be true. These trout tell the story of the truly wild community that was here before the industry came, untouched for longer than we can fathom.
At the edge of a large high plateau in the mountains, this land was covered with a dense forest of red spruce that were over 100 feet tall and so dense that only gnarly rhododendron grew underneath. The climate was so harsh and vegetation so thick that nearby Iroquois tribes from lower elevations did not settle here and where not known to hunt or travel into the area, although the Seneca Trail came near the western edge of the plateau through the lower hills below. There are simply no early signs of regular human activity in the area. It was truly a wild wilderness unaltered by human endeavors.
Today this stream still suffers from ongoing pollution caused by acid mine drainage from the old mines that make the stream too acidic to support much aquatic life. Created when the ancient rock of a mountain is cracked open and torn into, the acid mine drainage will last for hundreds of years or longer. Without direct ongoing treatment by humans to correct the pH, the water remains too acidic to support aquatic life. The rocks lining the stream carry the telltale orange stain from the resulting iron precipitation. This is the central issue of the ongoing trauma of these hills that were torn into.
The wildflowers are bringing their medicine, to this place called Douglas. They are literally actively remediating it, better than we humans can. It takes lifetimes, though. Their deep roots increase the capacity to store and clean the water, improve soil health by pulling up heavy metals and digesting them for us, and by preventing erosion. They willingly grow in poor soils and naturally remediate the contaminated soil, potentially paving the way for hardwood trees to grow in the future. Their millions of years of evolution have taught them how to handle the intricate balance of the ecological needs that we only barely understand.
It is deeply heartbreaking to see so closely and personally the hubris of the industrial age that looked at untouched forests as only resources for the taking, ravaging them in one fell swoop, like another colonial conquest. I grieve deeply for their loss, and I am so glad that these plaques are here to tell the story so we don’t forget what was done, and so the land can earn our respect and love, and guide our future actions.
Once the original community of this forest and land was decimated, how did it find the strength to carry on? What is the vital force that drives new life to always push up from the dirt and grow? What is this essence of the Mother Earth Herself that continually creates new communities, finding new ways of being in the midst of the destruction of the old? This lifeblood, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” from Dylan Thomas’s poem, feels erotic even, with its yearning, unrelenting determination to seek the sun and the rain, and to meld them into new life drawn from the dirt. The divine spark, this Eros, is something we will never uncover through science, yet our hearts know its drumbeat from our first breath. Whenever there is a disruption in an ecosystem, whether a single dying tree or a wholesale decimation of a forest—this life force, this Eros, the abiding Love of our Mother Earth starts new communities that always look different than what came before.
The new communities that responded to the destruction here began in fits and starts, with people that brought their love and their tears and their plants, with animals that carry seeds, with plants themselves that are renovation experts. One hundred and thirty-five years later, the people of this area of the Blackwater River are working hard to understand how to help the land balance the ecosystem. Today, the non-profit organization, Friends of Blackwater, works tirelessly to steward this land, nurture these wildflowers, restore the rivers, and promote a sustainable recreation economy for people to enjoy.
What will this place that is called Douglas be like in 100 years, or 1000 years, or more? What will evolve from this new blend of communities? I am grateful for this journey back through time that has allowed me to witness what has happened here and to feel the grief of the devastation. Standing amongst the wildflowers, I honor both the ancestor trees of the old forest and those of the people who germinated the community of Douglas. I feel my delight in the wildflower’s joy and wild medicine joining my own life force to land, adding to the healing.
As I slip back into my reverie, I see the flowers seamlessly handing their healing work directly from one generation to the next, year after year, with all the love and wisdom that is needed tucked into their seeds. This little corner of the wilderness, off the beaten track, is a beacon for others to follow. Given space and plenty of time, sometimes millions of years, Mother Earth’s ability to create community and restore herself is unquestionable. We just have to get out of Her way.
Annual report on the state of the Blackwater watershed by Friends of Blackwater, a non-profit organization.
Good summary of history of Douglas WV and surrounding area
Wildflower Meadow Restoration on Surface Mines by Sarah Rothman, 2019