Erik Reece is the author of two acclaimed books of nonfiction, Lost Mountain and An American Gospel. His numerous essays and magazine articles have been published in Harper's Magazine, The Nation, and Orion. Reece is writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, teaching environmental journalism, writing, and literature.
The Cleanest Stream in Kentucky
There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream.
- John Muir
On the first day of spring, I pull my truck off a narrow back road at the confluence of Buckhorn Creek and Clemons Fork. Each stream begins miles from here, in the hills of Robinson Forest. Up the road, I can see the main entrance to the forest. This morning is cool, but the sun has just emerged above the steep eastern ridge that rises behind me. I unroll an old topo map of Robinson Forest on the tailgate, anchored by a cup of coffee, and try to get my bearings. Fading purple lines undulate out from the ridge tops, defining those contours down to each streambed. The stream I am most interested in today is called Coles Fork. Stretching almost to the forest’s eastern boundary, Coles Fork is the cleanest body of moving water in Kentucky. It is the benchmark by which the Environmental Protection Agency measures all other streams in the state.
My aim today is to traverse Robinson Forest, from west to east, by following Buckhorn Creek to Coles Fork and then Coles Fork up to its headwater. There I will find, if the stories I’ve heard are true, the remnants of a cabin that once belonged to a local sawyer. With one finger, I trace my path up Coles Fork, past places called Panther Fork, Snag Ridge and White Oak. Then, near the source of Coles Fork, I read the barely legible words: “Cabin Branch.” Perhaps that was the site of the sawyer’s home. I stow my map and start walking along an old logging road that follows the banks of Buckhorn Creek. The stream is shallow and its clear water moves swiftly through the low riffles.
I would now like to say, and would like the reader to believe, that I am slowly entering a mental state of pastoral harmony. But I am not. There’s too much trash littering the creek banks. Downstream, on Troublesome Creek, it’s even worse. Recent flooding has festooned its banks with all manner of garbage. Plastic bags hang like ugly Christmas ornaments in the trees. The powerful currents have wrapped large sections of metal roofing around the trunks of sycamores. It all reminds me of something Verna Mae Slone once wrote to her grandchildren in a beautiful memoir called What My Heart Wants to Tell. She was describing in careful detail the pre-consumer economy of Appalachia, where a dead turtle’s shell made for a soap dish and her father wore trousers sewn from cloth his mother had woven from flax she had grown. Then Slone, who was raised just up the road from here in Caney, remarks, “No Pampers hung from tree limbs along the creek.” It’s a telling comment on how the coming economy of disposability would turn a resilient, self-sufficient culture into a disposable land and, as many would later say, a disposable people.
However, the further I walk up Buckhorn Creek, the less trash I see. And in a way, I really am walking back into another time where, as Slone wrote, her family “lived, loved, fought and died undisturbed by the outside world, protected and imprisoned by its hills.” The steepness of these ridges can feel imprisoning. Across the creek, the bank rises sharply, covered in thick rhododendron. The stream itself slowly navigates deadfalls and the silted dunes left here by the floods.
Soon the water cuts a wide loop around a broad bottomland, uncharacteristic of these narrow mountain valleys. The grass is high and untended. Five generations ago, this clearing would have been filled with the workings of a resourceful family farm. Actually though, it wasn’t until the 1820s that white settlers move into this, the most remote part of the coalfields. Tax records from 1821 show no entries from Buckhorn Creek. But by 1835, counties were allowed to sell any vacant land as a Kentucky Land Warrant. Fifty-acre tracts went for $2.50. In 1855, the year Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass, ten landowners had moved onto Buckhorn. And certainly, those homesteaders would have resembled the freedom-loving “roughs” that Whitman himself so often celebrated in his epic American poem.
An old photograph from the University of Kentucky archives, taken somewhere in Robinson Forest, shows what this clearing would have looked like before the timber barons arrived. A modest log cabin with wide chinking stands in the background, but a diverse, fenced garden—a “right smart”—fills most of the picture. There are neat rows of bunch beans, cabbage, peppers, onions, cucumbers and turnips. And beyond the frame of this photo, a hillside would have been planted with corn. Field beans would climb the corn stalks, and squash and cushaw would grow in their shade. Some Native American tribes called this planting method the “three sisters,” and it’s clear that later Appalachians employed it as well. Verna Mae Slone remembered that sometimes her father would survey his gardens and fields at sunset and say, “This is the way Eden must have looked before sin entered the world.”
Further still beyond the photo’s frame, the family’s hogs would have run loose in the woods, getting fat on hickory nuts and other mast. I follow the winding stream back into the forest as well. The air is cooler and damp. I pass a hornbeam tree, common to eastern stream banks, and find that a beaver has been trying to topple it for a dam. But halfway through the trunk of this tree, the beaver appears to have abandoned its work. The sawyer, whose ghost I am tracking today, would never have attempted it. Hornbeam, also called ironwood, is the densest tree in this forest and the quickest way to dull a saw blade. But the beaver, it appears, knows this stream’s history because I soon reach a place where a well-preserved log stretches about twenty feet from one bank to the other. This isn’t the work of any four-legged mammal though; rather it is a remnant of a hundred-year-old splash dam. And that splash dam is itself a symbol of the industrial economy that would forever and fundamentally change the yeoman culture of central Appalachia.
In 1890, the Kentucky Union Railway, running from Lexington to Jackson, was completed. Timber speculators followed, buying up large parcels throughout Breathitt and Knott Counties. Commercial logging in what is now Robinson Forest began that same year. Families got squeezed off their land, and historian Ronald Eller reports that by 1930, three-quarters of a million mountaineers had abandoned their land and migrated to mill towns.
In 1912, two Cincinnati business partners, E.O. Robinson and F.W. Mowbray, bought a 15,000-acres tract of land, spanning Perry, Knott and Breathitt Counties. They built boarding houses and saw mills, and at the height of their operation, Mowbray and Robinson were hauling out 100,000 board feet of timber a day. They began along Clemons Fork, then in 1919, purchased the entire Coles Fork watershed for $61,000. Working for $1 a day, men armed with crosscut saws felled trees about six feet in diameter and 80 to 100 feet tall. Then they hitched the logs to oxen or mules and snaked the timber down to the stream. Using a tool called a cant hook, or peavey, they maneuvered the logs into the stream beds.
Here is where the splash dams came in. Because the water was so shallow, temporary levees had to be built across several sections of Coles Fork. Horizontal planks held in place by vertical log “fingers,” the splash dam backed up water during the spring tides. Then, when all of the cut timber had been rolled into the creek, a “trigger” log was pulled from the dam, releasing a deluge of water that carried the great oaks and poplars down to the deeper water. There the logs where tied together into giant rafts, some 140 feet long, and floated downstream to the saw mill at Quicksand, Kentucky, and beyond. Later, because oaks were too heavy to float en masse, Robinson and Mawbray laid a narrow “gauge line,” and a Shay locomotive hauled one load a day from Buckhorn to Quicksand.
By 1922, nearly all 23 square miles bought up by Robinson and Mawbray, were nearly barren of trees. There was no mast for the hogs to eat, and census records show a rapid decline in livestock husbandry throughout Breathitt County. Most women stopped spinning their own wool or gathering their own honey. Those things would have to be purchased with the money they made in the mills, and 80 percent of mill workers where women and children.
Robinson and Mawbray pulled up their train tracks, but here at my feet still lies evidence of one of their splash dams. I walk across this one as if it here a balance-beam, then pick up the trail on the other side of Buckhorn. Thickets of Kentucky’s only native cane crowd the banks in places. Short-leaf pine mark the edge of another small clearing where I reach the mouth of Coles Fork. Jumping from one creek stone to the next, I cross over the Buckhorn and splash down officially into the state’s cleanest stream. And true enough, all human trash, which is to say all trash period, has disappeared. The floods have hung matted leaves and sticks in the boughs and branches of trees, but there are no plastic bags and certainly no Pampers. In fact, there are no signs that there has been any human presence here for some time. Certainly no one has tried to drive this dirt road since last year’s ice storm tore sycamores and beech from the shallow topsoil along these steep banks. Many of those large trees now lie across my path. I wrestle through the branches of their fallen crowns or under their trucks for about a mile, then I decide to redirect my sojourn over higher ground.
About six hundred feet above me stands an impressive rock outcropping that looks like it leads all the way over this ridge, then back down to the upper reaches of Coles Fork. Unfortunately, most of these spurs rise up to their outcrops at a fifty-degree angle. The only way up is on all fours, grasping for roots and saplings. But I know the view from the top will be impressive, so I heave myself into the climb. Halfway up I notice rosebay rhododendron growing on the colder north sides of the first, lower escarpments of sandstone mixed with iron ore. As I climb higher, the boulders flatten into sheer, damp walls where rock ferns and a modest wildflower called stone crop cling to small crevices. These massive rocks, 280 million-year-old remnants of an ancient stream, have formed an impressive, if accidental architecture. Clumsily I pull myself up through their narrow corridors until I’m sprawled on top, panting beside a cluster of tripe lichen.
The sky is clear and I watch a turkey vulture circle overhead. Once, a few years ago, I fell asleep on one of these high rocks, and when I suddenly awoke, a vulture was hovering only a few feet above me, having decided to his satisfaction that I was a carcass. Ever since then, I’ve kept an eye out for the buzzards. But today, as I watch the black bird riding those high thermals, I realize it isn’t a vulture at all, but a raven. This pleases me. For decades, human activity, mainly surface mining, has made the raven scarce around here, so I take this particular raven to be a good sign. Ravens, after all, only nest where humans do not. And today, there is no one up here but the raven and me.
We are, however, treated to the raspy song of the mountain chorus of frogs emanating from the stream down below. I lie back against the white sandstone. My mind wanders to the title of James Still’s beautiful 1940 novel set here on the Cumberland Plateau—River of Earth. I try to convince myself that in fact, I am floating along the top of a wave. In what geologists call “deep time,” this is true. These rocks really are tumbling slowly, through millions of years, down to Coles Fork.
I rise and start walking again along this thin razorback until it descends into a gently sloping saddle. Three impressive shagbark hickories stand like quiet sentries among a few float stones covered in deep green moss. Perhaps eighty years old, the hickories represent the second-growth forest that reemerged after Robinson’s and Mowbray’s logging. I have seen archival photos of what these 15,000 acres looked like after that clearcut—barren except for thousands of stumps, gullied and washed out, scalped. On June 28, 1922, Robinson and Mobray deeded the land to the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund, which the next year, conveyed it in trust to the University of Kentucky. Robinson wrote at the time that the land should be used for “practical demonstration of reforestation” to ensure “the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Almost ninety years later, that reforestation—conducted entirely, and “practically,” by the forest itself—has turned bald hillsides into the state’s cleanest watershed. I’m standing in it, admiring the hickories and red oaks that dominate the canopy, as well as the wintergreen and wild orchids that are sprouting up through the leaf mold.
These trees of course don’t have the girth of the ones Robinson and Mowbray hauled away. And there seems to be little agreement on how old an “old-growth forest” has to be. But semantics aside, here is the important fact about Robinson Forest today: it is one of the last, largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America—the mixed mesophytic. That term was coined by an intrepid botanist named Lucy Braun. Born in Cincinnati in 1889, Braun became a pioneer in the emerging study of forest ecology. She bought her first car in 1934, and with her sister Annette, traveled 65,000 miles cataloguing plants and trees throughout the eastern broadleaf forests. Her favorite region was this one, central Appalachia, where she identified over 80 species of trees and proposed the term mixed mesophytic to describe a forest that is “middling”—not too hot or cold, too wet or dry—and extremely diverse in species. No single species ever dominates the forest canopy. Braun (who pronounced her name “Brown”) retired from the University of Cincinnati in 1948, and in 1950 she published her definitive study, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America. There Braun advanced her theory that, when the glaciers moved south during the Pleistocene, central Appalachia became, in her word, a “refuge” of survival for deciduous forest communities. And when the glaciers retreated, Braun argued that this part of Appalachia was responsible for repopulating the eastern United States. But no region ever became as biologically diverse as this forest where I am standing.
As I wander down the ridgeside, I notice bare spots where wild turkeys have been scratching through the fallen leaves. Further down I cross a narrow deer path that threads through the beech and hemlocks. Not far from there, I find coyote scat, covered in a thin gauze of deer hair. Then finally, back at Coles Fork, I cross over to the wider human route, which the forest looks to be quickly taking over for its own purposes. In some places, the former road is already thick with rhododendron. I climb through those dense branches, then cross the creek again, into an embouchure where Panther Branch feeds into Coles Fork and where the floods have deposited another large sand flat. This too turns out to be a heavily-traveled corridor, and the tracks of turkey, coyotes, deer and bobcats are easy to make out in the moist loam.
Up ahead, the stream gurgles over a shallow gravel bar. Beneath the gentle current, the more iron-rich rocks have taken on a deep crimson hue. Many years ago, the Kentucky history laureate Thomas D. Clark compared a similar body of water to a “frolicksome mountain lass.” Today of course, we hesitate to use such adventurous language, but I think of that phrase as I watch Coles Fork disappear around a bend, and it still seems apt.
Because these Appalachian valleys are so narrow, a stream such as Coles Fork forces both the walker and the logger to follow its own serpentine course—to meander. The word comes from a Greek river known as the Maiandros of Phrygia. With a wandering patience, it flows in wide loops and oxbows down to the Aegean Sea. Here too, Coles Fork takes its time finding its way down to Troublesome Creek. The old logging road keeps crossing back and forth over the stream. Sycamores tilt over the water from the banks. In some places the streambed is a smooth sheet of slate, in others it is lined with sandstone and cobble. The further I walk upstream, the more coal I find along its bottom—sleek, almost iridescent blocks worn smooth by the current. Which raises a small question: was this stream originally called Coal Fork, or Coal’s Fork? There were, after all, no families named Coles living around here in the 1800s; tax records show them all living twenty miles away in Jackson. And according to the 1990 Archaeological Report compiled by Tom Sussenbach, some early maps do identify this tributary as Coal’s Fork. Whatever the case, the coal in this stream explains why Robinson Forest is, and has always been, an embattled wilderness. There are an estimated 97 million tons of the bituminous ore beneath the forest. In the early 1980s, the University of Kentucky began to actively consider selling off all of the mineral rights to generate revenue. On campus, forestry major Ann Phillippi was instrumental in forming a group called Students to Save Robinson Forest. The students held rallies, and printed up green SAVE ROBINSON FOREST bumper stickers. And in 1983, those students, with the assistance of Sierra Club lawyer Hank Graddy, convinced the UK Board of Trustees that Robinson Forest was too ecologically valuable to mine. Still, Ann Phillippi warned that the specter of mining within the forest would arise again if the land wasn’t legally deemed unsuitable for mining.
She was right. Seven years later, on February 15, 1990, Students to Save Robinson Forest took shape again in response to Arch Mineral’s application to strip-mine 105 acres at the head of Clemons Fork. More bumper stickers were printed up; more rallies got under way. This time the Kentucky Resources Council, led by the redoubtable environmental lawyer Tom FitzGerald, petitioned the state’s Natural Resources Cabinet to designate the main block of Robinson Forest as “land unsuitable for mining.” That phrase derives from the 1977 federal Surface Mining and Reclamation Control Act (SMCRA), and says that strip-mining can be legally banned if it can be demonstated that the mining would destroy competing land interests. The problem was that the Natural Resources Cabinet had only issued one such designation since 1982. On March 6, 1990, the UK Board of Trustees signed on to FitzGerald’s petition.
Meanwhile over in Jackson, Arch Mineral organized a counter-rally. Employees and family members carried placards that read “Research doesn’t buy baby food.” Arch’s chairman Gene Samples took the curious, but predictable, step of blaming 250 recent layoffs at Arch on the Students to Save Robinson Forest.
But the next month, the Natural Resources Cabinet issued a surprise ruling that 10,400 acres of the forest’s main block was legally unsuitable for mining. As a compromise, the UK and the Kentucky Resources Council dropped their efforts to block Arch from mining the 105 acres in question. Not that Arch hired back any of the 250 laid off workers. The market was soft, a spokesman explained, and the Tennessee Valley Authority might buy its coal somewhere else. No matter. This would be far from the last time coal operators shifted the blame for lost jobs away from the real cause—their own drive toward increased mechanization and increased profits.
But the victory to preserve the main block of Robinson Forest had an odd effect. It spurred UK to sell the mineral rights to all of the outlying parts of the forest that were not protected. The rationale was that the profits would go to support a progressive scholarship program in eastern Kentucky. The Robinson Scholars Program offers full four-year scholarships to one first-generation college student from each of Kentucky’s twenty-nine eastern counties. But predictions about coal production in Robinson Forest were overly optimistic, and the $37 million that UK did earn was badly mismanaged. By 2003, the Robinson Scholars endowment was earning less than it cost to sustain the program. The solution, coal operators were quick to point out, was to mine more of Robinson Forest. “What’s more important,” went the argument, “trees or young people?”
Another fight over the fate of Robinson Forest ensued. Another student group was formed; more SAVE ROBINSON FOREST bumper stickers started showing up on cars around Lexington. And again, the students succeeded. Facing the Robinson Forest controversy for the first time, new UK president Lee Todd said he had no plans to pursue mining there—and then he added this caveat—“at this time.” And that phrase underscores an unfortunate reality when it comes to the fight to save Robinson Forest: what often look like environmental victories in reality only feel like a staving off of some final, irrevocable loss.
When I was a kid, my parents would pack up the family station wagon in Louisville, where we lived, and drive three hours to my great-grandmother’s house in Hazard, Kentucky, where she owned a clothing store. A hundred years before I was born, on the first day of September, 1867, an unknown but self-possessed young man named John Muir began his now-famous thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, and he began in my own hometown, where he recalled, “I steered through the big city by compass without speaking a word to any one.” He reached the Cumberland Mountains ten days later, and like a true Scotsman, he brought along with him two books, the Bible and Robert Burns; he also carried a plant-press for collecting specimens. One night, a blacksmith and his wife took Muir in. When the mountaineer learned that Muir was simply botanizing in his own employ, he remarked, “Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all.” Muir resorted to his Bible, asking the blacksmith, “Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them.’” This evidently satisfied the blacksmith who, Muir tells us, “repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms.”
We think of John Muir as the country’s greatest celebrator and protector of the American West. But in that first book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, he could hardly stop praising these Cumberland Mountains. The Kentucky oaks were the most beautiful he had ever seen, the Clinch River seemed to flow right out of Eden, the rock shelters were the “most heavenly places” he had ever dropped his pack. In the end, Muir effused, “Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur is not to be described.” But he ventured, such “sylvan pages” could be read—must be read—as a divine scripture, a sacred, unroofed book.
One wishes, on some level, that Muir had lingered a bit longer in the East, and fought to preserve the Appalachian Mountains the way he fought for the Western ranges. One wishes he might have lavished more of his intoxicating prose on the Cumberlands, awakening more Kentuckians to the value of places like Robinson Forest, a value that has nothing to do with the price of timber or a short ton of coal.
But once John Muir saw the sublime glaciers of Yosemite, there was no going back. And perhaps herein lies part of the problem. Because the Appalachian Mountains are older than their western counterparts, they are lower, more worn down. They don’t possess the vaulting grandeur of the snow-capped Rockies or the plunging cataracts of the Sierras. They are easier to take for granted, and that, I think, makes them easier to exploit. What’s more, Ansel Adams calendars and Disney films like Earth and Oceans have given us a rather one-dimensional view of the natural world. If it isn’t spectacular or dramatic, we don’t seem interested. But even if I never see a coyote ripping apart a deer in Robinson Forest, neither do I wish to see bulldozers gauging its hillsides for coal. The beauty and the value of Robinson Forest is far too subtle for any camera crew to fully document, much less communicate. Instead, it is best experienced through what Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson called the “naturalist’s trance.” Such a trance trains one’s attention and curiosity back to the natural world through the direct experience of a particular place. That experience can lead to many things: a feeling that one’s psychic equilibrium becomes restored, a better understanding of one’s native flora and fauna, a sense of reverence for something human beings did not create. All of these experiences are valuable in ways that cannot be quantified with money. To think of Robinson Forest as only a “natural resource” is to diminish not only it, but us—to sacrifice our higher principles.
What’s more, to walk through Robinson Forest means to experience, or at least avail oneself to, the only four kinds of knowledge I know: the ethical, scientific, aesthetic and spiritual. They do not necessarily lead from one to the other. A person, for instance, can gain a greater aesthetic appreciation through knowing the forest’s botany, or the aesthetic experience can lead one to pursue a better scientific understanding of these watersheds. I have certainly watched many students experience Robinson Forest aesthetically, scientifically, spiritually, and I have seen those levels of knowledge lead students to act on an ethic to preserve Robinson Forest. “All ethics so far evolved,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” The Coles Fork watershed is a perfect example of such a land community; the strip-mines to the south are just the opposite—the work of rapacious men who will sacrifice the community’s clean air and clean water in the name of profit. That is to say, they have raided the state’s common wealth at the expense of their neighbors and so they have radically debased the ethical concept of community. And really, it is a very simple concept. Leopold laid it out for us 60 years ago, and I do not think his formula has been improved up: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.” Any decisions to extract natural resources from Robinson Forest should be preceded by this question: Will such extraction harm the beauty, stability and integrity of these watersheds?
A mile or so further upstream, beside a copse of hornbeam trees, I come upon the tallest mountain laurel I’ve ever seen. Most of these knarled trees are usually knee-to-chest-high, but this one is nearly twenty feet tall and would surely qualify as old-growth. I imagine E.O. Robinson finding this spindly mountain laurel in bloom, with its fluted pink-and-white buds, and thinking it too worthless and too beautiful to remove. So here it stands still.
A tall beech tree has fallen across the stream, and so I shimmy across and pick up the trail once more under a willowy canopy of hemlocks. The sun is now directly overhead and the shadows of high branches flicker across the surface of the water. In the quiet, deeper pools, water striders dart like electrons across the surface. In most cases, the insects are paired, with the male riding the female’s back. Small translucent fish swim in the shadows of these courtship rituals.
I walk on under a canopy of beech and hemlock. Soon, the road has virtually disappeared, which I take to be a good sign: I must be getting closer to the headwater. Finally the road is only a foot path winding through high grass. And then I see it. Up on a small bluff, about fifteen feet above the river, stands an old stone chimney. I circle around the back side of it and then come into a clearing where the cabin once stood. The keystone still holds the entire hearth intact. Though most of the chinking is gone, not a single stone is missing. While the logs of the cabin are long gone, the chimney remains, a lonely stalwart here at the edge of civilization. Opposite the fireplace itself, a final stream comes trickling down into Coles Fork. It falls in gentle gradations down a wide stretch of slate and into the larger body of water. The two streams frame this old homestead nicely and I can understand why the sawyer would have chosen this spot to stake his claim in the world.
The whole clearing is covered in club moss, a lycopod with waxy green leaves. It is one of the last remnant species of the huge Lepidodendron trees that flourished in the Carboniferous Era before they fell into bogs, and over 350 million years, were compressed into the black ore that provides over half of this country’s energy. Today’s club moss stands about four inches tall and resembles a dense carpet, one where I lie down to rest and think about the life of the man who once lived here.
He raised a small garden on the land closest to the stream, where the sun peers over the trees. I know this because Andrew Marshall Jr., the son of William Marshall, who married the daughter of one of the first homesteaders in Robinson Forest, told it to Jim Krupa, who told it to me. I also know, from the man everyone called Junior, that the sawyer would walk down to the Robinson/Mowbray mill and pick up blades that needed sharpening. He carried them back here on some beast of burden, and went to work. A few days later, he loaded up the sharpened saws and headed back downstream.
I might have learned much more, except Junior died last year, in a tragic manner. He was probably the last living source of any other information about the sawyer, and about much else concerning Robinson Forest. That local knowledge is now lost and irretrievable. So with nothing else to go on, I try to image the life of a man who made his home in this marginal bower. I suspect that after Robinson paid him for his work, the sawyer went on up to Quicksand to buy coffee, salt, flour and whatever else he couldn’t hunt or grow. According to Tom Sussenbach’s report, Robinson’s logging roads had made that trip quicker and easier. Perhaps he played a fiddle and knew the old mountain songs like “Bullfrog on a Puncheon Floor.” Probably he had planed down split logs to make a puncheon floor for his own cabin. He would have bathed in the shallow tributary that ran beside his cabin. And I feel sure that he made a little moonshine up in here. After all, what a pleasure would it have been to sit on his cabin porch at dusk, sip whiskey, and watch the wild geese passing above Coles Fork?
I don’t mean to romanticize the sawyer’s life. Certainly it was hard. He wouldn’t have had much formal education and wouldn’t have needed it. Still, I like to think that he possessed a rich inner life—that he drew sustenance from this landscape, that he chose this particular place to dwell because it spoke to a deep longing and a deep satisfaction. Here, he enacted a kind of wild domesticity that is almost lost to us now.
I stand and gaze upstream to the place where Coles Fork finally buries its head beneath the Cumberland Mountains. According to the Roman poet Virgil, when Aeneas reached the source of the Tiber River, the site of what would become Rome, he found a spectacular forest. Aeneas’ host Evander explained to him that “a race of men came / From tree trunks, from hard oak.” I like to think of that—a race of humans born of oaks, descended from a forest not unlike this one where I’m standing. They were not exiles cast out of a garden, but a race that felt John Muir’s familial attachment to the flora and fauna of the deep woods.
In the end, of course, the imperial Romans destroy their forests by turning trees into warships. It could also be argued that they destroyed themselves—that such deforestation represented one more symptom of the unseeing madness of empire. A common question among American political scientists and commentators these days is, “Are we Rome?” Have we, in our rapacious hunger for resources, extended the American empire to the point of economic and ecological collapse? Are we hovering at what many climate scientists call a tipping point, beyond which things will never be the same? There are over a thousand pages of evidence in the latest report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that suggests we are.
Imagine if John Muir took his thousand-mile-walk today. He would begin here among Appalachia’s toxic streams and decapitated mountains and end at a Gulf nearly destroyed by human hubris and spewing oil. And it would not be lost on him that large, unregulated coal and oil barons are to blame, as are we, the individuals who so conspicuously consume those fossil fuels. For one hundred years we have manufactured and enjoyed an economy based on dishonest accounting and short-sighted borrowing of natural assets from future generations.
UK presidents and Board of Trustees members have many times asked the question they will certainly ask again, “Should we mine Robinson Forest?” That question implies that we have learned very little from the last century of ruinous extraction. What we should have learned is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition, and at the peril of the economy of nature. By contrast, at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson is proving that a perennial crop agriculture that follows the natural laws of the prairie will eliminate the great problems of modern agriculture: erosion, pesticide use, loss of biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions. Just as Jackson took his lessons for a new agricultural economy from the prairie, we in Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy.
After all, a watershed, by its very nature, is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste and does not “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds, other streams and valleys. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable. The watershed economy is the exact opposite of a strip-mine. It purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus and sequesters carbon. That is to say, a watershed economy improves the land and thus improves the lives of the people who inhabit that particular place. It is an economy based not on the unsustainable, short-sighted logic of never-ending growth, which robs the future to meet the needs of the present, but rather on maintaining the health, well-being and stability of the human and the land community.