Scars on the Land

Last Saturday I hiked the Pacolet River Heritage Preserve off Goldmine Road with my friend Erik Reece. Like me, Erik’s a poet and an environmental writer, and I wanted to show him something of my nearby wilderness while he was in town.

Erik was scheduled for two talks about his book LOST MOUNTAIN: RADICAL STRIP MINING AND THE DEVASTATION OF APPALACHIA. On Friday he’d answered questions with fellow activist Vivian Stockman at the Wofford library opening of an exhibit of her photographs chronicling strip mining in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia-what’s become known by those who hate it as “mountaintop removal.” On Monday he’d do a reading downtown for the Hub City Writers Project.

The opening went well. Erik and Vivian answered questions about the destruction of over a million acres of Appalachian wilderness and countless small communities by the demand for coal. They explained how mountaintop removal destroys headwater streams and pollutes groundwater. They indicted politicians and the greed of corporations, but acknowledged the complexities of the issue because of the almost universal human complicity in it, including the use of electricity. They pointed out, for those of us who hoped we were far from the crime scene, the rail line hauling coal out of the mountains passing only a few hundred yards from the Wofford library.

But Saturday we planned to recreate a little, get off the grid, slip outside the shadow of the modern industrial complex. It was a perfect day to be exploring the southern woods-cool and rainy.

We parked the truck on Goldmine Road and headed down toward the Pacolet. It had rained most of the night, and I knew the river would be heard before it was seen. The woods are thick in that southern end of the county, and right away I got that comfortable feeling I’d left the sprawling I-85 corridor behind. We slammed the truck doors and stepped back a few centuries. It’s beyond rural out there. It’s pure, patchy southern wildness. “Fragmented,” Erik had called such country the night before.

The heritage preserve system protects South Carolina’s natural and cultural resources. There are about fifty preserves. Some are huge, like the Tom Yawkey Preserve on Cat Island at 18,000 acres. The Pacolet River Preserve at 278 acres is more modest. Every time I hear someone railing against government I point to the heritage preserve system in South Carolina.

The Pacolet preserve serves double duty, protecting a parcel of stream-side hardwood habitat from the clear-cutters and creating an important buffer around an ancient soapstone quarry. I wanted to show Erik this soapstone quarry, and we headed there, after bushwhacking through the rain toward the river.

Our ancient Pacolet River quarry is not an impressive site worthy of tourist brochures. It’s much more subtle than that. It’s merely a rounded outcrop of gray rock on a ridge above the river. You’ve got to know what you’re looking for before you can even find it. Four or five thousand years ago wandering seasonal bands of Archaic period people surface-mined this site for the soapstone it contains. They wintered on the coast and summered here. They chipped away at the rock with stone and antler tools to extract chunks of the soft mineral found very few other places in South Carolina.

For these people soapstone was a precious resource for making pipes, and cooking pots. Thousands of years the native people traded it, stashed it in seasonal camps, and enriched their lives though this area’s first industry. The European settlers in the area used the easily carved soapstone for pots and fire-backs and grave stones, but several centuries after occupation the site was almost forgotten, known only to those interested in artifacts and ancient history.

Standing on the soapstone ridge with Erik it was impossible to miss the irony, the unbroken human line of need and greed, from soapstone to coal. There we nature writers were, standing in the rain, admiring the ancient work of North America’s first strip miners, their prehistoric quarry now enshrined as a valuable cultural artifact.

Were they “noble,” better than we were back then? Or were there simply fewer of them, less demand for the resources? Is it simply that our technology is more complex and destructive and efficient, or is the problem the desire to get rich, through politics and power?

Is the loss of any place worth the price we seem to be willing to pay for progress?  There have always been scars on the earth, but should we be willing to sacrifice West Virginia’s mountains to light up Arizona just because we can? The complex truth is that our lives have always had a cost and we’ve always paid it, for better or for worse.

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