By Mark Ellison
The health of forests along the Appalachian Trail is integral to the vitality of the Wild East.
Top illustration by Katie Eberts. Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of A.T. Journeys Magazine.
We find on the Appalachian Trail a reprieve from modern life full of noise, light, air pollution, and constant connectivity. Exploring the Trail is like going home, or entering a restorative cocoon. Though we have tried to separate ourselves from nature in our urban lives, our health is inseparable from that of the Earth. We are responsible for tending the relationship with the forests of the Wild East now, helping to replenish them similar to how the Cherokee and other indigenous cultures have for centuries.
Forests cradle our well-being… How often do we quiet our mind and listen to the forest to learn what it needs?
Since the first section of the Appalachian Trail opened in 1923, millions of people have set foot on it seeking an escape in wild nature that is freeing, awe inspiring, and life changing; using it as an exit ramp from frenetic schedules, invasive noise, and incessant demands on our attention to some of the most splendid landscapes in the country. The U.S. population that year was 111 million, it now eclipses 327 million, bringing with it profound impacts.
Population increases in the eastern U.S. have multiplied our carbon footprint, with the forests of the Appalachians being a crucial carbon absorption area in North America. Climate change has serious implications for endangered species such as moose, the red shouldered hawk, loggerhead shrike, and Virginia big eared bat, as well as plants like the yellow lady’s slipper, and pristine sparkling streams. If left intact, the Wild East can become an oasis in a nature desert, home to species fleeing other areas due to climate change and urbanization.
Beech forest and whorled wood aster along the A.T. in the Roan Highlands Tennessee/North Carolina. By Jerry Greer.
Benton MacKaye envisioned the Appalachian Trail as more than a narrow corridor, but a space to help join humans and nature. The A.T. is a thread tying balds, bogs, meadows, forests, and fauna together in a mutually supportive and resilient ecosystem. The forest enchants us and we learn more each day how it heals us. It offers the gift of escaping the stress and distractions of life.
An abundance of research, from Japan to Finland to the U.S. describes how spending time in nature enhances creativity, increases wellbeing, mends the immune system, reduces stress, and makes us smarter. The call of the junco, waxwing, or barred owl, the gentle flow of a stream, the radiant red leaves of a maple floating through the air, or the scent of fir trees, are all soft fascinations that help to heal our attention capacities. High quality, natural settings free of noise, human structures, and other distractions offer the most health benefits as do areas with the highest biodiversity. The Appalachians offer some of the most biodiverse areas in North America, including over 158 different tree species. Spanning 11 degrees of latitude and over 6,500 feet in elevation, the diverse habitats of the A.T. likely harbor more rare, threatened, and endangered species than any other national park unit.
Until the early 1800s, Appalachian forests remained relatively unscathed. But the arrival of the Industrial Revolution introduced a period of rapid expansion of logging to fuel the growing U.S. economy. Railroads and steam-generated power made lumber an industrial commodity at a large scale. By the early 1900s, the majority of eastern forests had been cut at least once, leaving a barren, ecologically-degraded landscape resulting in erosion and poor water quality.
Since the Appalachian Trail’s inception, the forests it passes through have been in stages of restoration from human and natural incursions. The Weeks Act in the early 1900s helped conserve over 50 national forests in the eastern U.S., eight of which the A.T. crosses through. Deforestation, invasive species, fire suppression, and other human interventions have weakened these ecosystems. Stalwarts of the Appalachians like the mighty American chestnut, graceful eastern hemlock, and aromatic Fraser fir have come under siege.
Barred owl on the A.T. near the southern border of Shenandoah National Park. By Paul Hammond.
The American chestnut provided nourishment for bears, turkey, and deer and was an important part of the ecosystem and economy of the eastern United States until the chestnut blight wiped out the tree’s population in the early 1900s. Efforts to reintroduce a blight-resistant variety are showing promise. Hemlocks majestically tower over the forest floor, but face destruction by the hemlock woolly adelgid. Without them, the ecology of the forests is impacted as is the diversity of native trout in the mountain streams. Researchers are enlisting the help of laricobius beetles, which consume wooly adelgids, to save the hemlocks. The peaks of the mountain range are kissed with spruce-fir forests bringing a taste of Canada to the southern United States, but these too are under siege. The Fraser fir is in decline due to an infestation by the balsam woolly adelgid. And numerous invasive species like feral hogs, kudzo, and English ivy are decimating native plants.
Forests cradle our well-being. When we look into nature, we gaze into a mirror reflecting our priorities. How often do we quiet our mind and listen to the forest to learn what it needs? Thoreau described tramping eight or ten miles through the snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, yellow birch, or pine. Perhaps we should slow down and do the same, while envisioning the A.T. with the same wonder. Realizing what a gift and responsibility it truly is should fuel our desire to protect it.
Mark Ellison began exploring the southern Appalachian woods as an undergraduate at Western Carolina University. He became fascinated with the beauty and solitude he found there. His doctoral research at NC State focused on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness, which opened doors for collaboration with researchers and practitioners from other countries to better understand the connections between nature and human health. “Writing about forests along the Trail was intriguing to me because of its focus on us as the primary stewards of their health,” he says. “…not only for our own well-being, but for the other species that share the planet with us.”