Shenandoah– A story unfolded

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One of he great things about the Howard County Library system (and there are many!) is their series of author presentations. I’ve been to probably 6 or 8 over the past three years, and have enjoyed each one as I learned something new and mind-engaging. In this case, I just finished the book from the January Meet the Author. The book was Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal by Sue Eisenfeld.

The book is really two stories intertwined like DNA double helix.  The first story is the transformation of a Philadelphia city girl into an avid hiker (a romantic relationship helps this 🙂 ).  Moreover, she and her husband are bushwhackers, people who leave the marked trails and head out into the massive amounts of back country available in the mountains.  What she discovers during these expeditions are parts and pieces of society that she didn’t expect to find.  They were the remnants of the materials, homes and lives of the hill country people who were displaced, sometimes forcibly, by the government from the Park.

It turns out that the hills and valleys that form the Shenandoah National Park had been home to scores of  communities.  Some of these families and communities had been living on the land for two hundred years or more.  They had found livelihoods by farming, orchards, stills, lumber, tanning and more.  They had homes with foundations, walls, fireplaces and mantels.  Churches, schools, stores, mills.  And they did not want to leave when the Commonwealth of Virginia came calling at the behest of the Federal Government to remove them from the land.  But removed they were under a grossly misapplied effort of eminent domain.

What I found most amazing in this story was the vilification of the people.  Do you remember L’il Abner?  As part of the effort to gain support for the park, a sociologist went to the area and wrote a book Hollow Folk about the people.  The people and communities were portrayed as burdened with poverty and inbreeding.  Children illiterate about the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer, barefoot and savage.  They were all lies, but became part of the story of the park as that (now discredited) book contributed to the eviction process.

The book was an enjoyable, informative, entertaining read.  My regret is that it left me with unscratched itches…wanting to know more about the demise of the chestnut forests, the loss of varieties of apples, how communities functioned and even flourished in those times.  Sadly, Sue indicated that she wasn’t planning to follow-up on the topics.  It would have been interesting too, to have a little information of how this couldn’t happen today. Or could it?  The recent award of the Goldman Prize to a student activist for stopping the proposed incinerator in Curtis Bay shows that while we may decry the past, we haven’t necessarily advanced past it.  Still, the Shenandoah story made for a good read and lots of opportunities for contemplative thought.

 

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