Mount Mitchell & The Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America
By Timothy Silver. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003; 346 pp., illustrations, maps, notes, index; cloth, $39.95, paper $19.95.
Over the past two decades, environmental historians have examined resource management approaches and have taken managers to task for ignoring the human impact on the environment. Although his aim is not to study resource management, Timothy Silver focuses much-needed attention on State parks and the Forest Service in his study of one mountain chain of the southern Appalachians. The book seeks to describe the changes in the land in this small region northeast of Asheville, North Carolina, over thousands of years, but the chapters on Forest Service initiatives and wildlife management problems offer important insights into the triumphs and hazards of preservation.
Silver, whose first book was on the environment in colonial Virginia, does an exemplary job describing the Progressive-era foresters who shaped Mount Mitchell State Park. Intensive logging had destroyed wildlife habitat and State foresters responded with aggressive management of timber and game. The Southeast Forest Experiment Station prepared a detailed planting plan for Mount Mitchell of Fraser fir, red spruce, and nonnative Norway spruce. They stocked both native species, such as wild turkey and bobwhite quail, and exotics like ringneck pheasant and elk. They also engaged in predator control that had long-term consequences for the ecology of the mountains.
Silver has organized the book in the chronology most familiar to scholars of the southern Appalachians. There are chapters on geological forces that shaped the Black Mountains; the first Native Americans and European immigrants to the region; the geographers, like University of North Carolina Professor Elisha Mitchell, who explored the mountains and lost his life there in a legendary fall; logging, railroads, and the chestnut blight; original Forest Service management under the Weeks Act; and the modern strains between tourism, hunting, and development.(1)
Interspersed among its pages, Mount Mitchell includes journal entries from one of Silver's camping adventures in the Black Mountains. Venturing into the first person—always a scary step for those with a scholarly background—the author asks the reader to hear the January wind at 4,000 feet, examine a remaining chestnut stump, smell the uncut hayfield in the valley, and tramp through the ubiquitous rain. These interludes not only help the reader experience the place, they give Silver authority as a naturalist-writer and render the text more personal and readable.
It is a convention among historians to make their monographs sound "path-breaking" or "new." In his introduction, Silver claims to write the first "true-to-life chronicle of the southern Appalachians, one in which nature gets equal time with people." This is presumptuous. At least a dozen books and museum exhibits already have attempted this, and it would be impossible to write this book without the prominent role assigned to Elisha Mitchell and the influential State forester, John Simcox Holmes. Nor is Silver's thesis—"human perceptions of nature…dictated most of the activities of the region"—unique. Nonetheless, the work will be of great interest to managers who wish to use the environment as a lens for interpretation and to students of State parks and their development.
Margaret Lynn Brown
1. The 1911 Weeks Act established the first national forests east of the Mississippi by providing funds for land in "the watersheds of navigable streams."