Two weekends ago I took a camping trip in George Washington National Forrest. With perfect fall weather and the fall colors hugging my friends and I from all sides, we set out on an epic adventure through the wilderness. It was a two-night trip blessed with some of the most stunning views I have ever seen atop the mountains there. On the second day we stopped at an overlook, the first we had encountered since we began our hike a day and a half before and 8 eight miles behind us. It was great to finally see something outside of the trees but that is not what struck me there.
It was the opportunity to reflect on life and the chance happening that a brilliant person also from Fairfax County encountered us while out on a day hike that day. He ran into us at that overlook and acquainted us with historical information of the region, of what used to be and what is. As we gazed upon the mountains and their lush forested valleys he said, “you know the entire place here once were all farms, even the mountain tops were farmed by peasant farmers that is until Theodore Roosevelt came along.” So everything was changed when Roosevelt founded the National Park System. But what we don’t hear is how the government paid these peasants farmers terribly low prices for there land which left them with even less than nothing afterwards. My point here is to highlight how sustainability isn’t always pretty although the view it created from that mountaintop certainly – I hope – made it worthwhile, as well as the many ecosystem services that these young forests are providing now.
In the end it is a good thing that we have a national forest preserved in our backyard, but talking to that guy on the overlook totally changed my perspective of the place. It gave me a feeling and a historical connection from which I could better relate to the mountains there and to which I could see them through others eyes. I have read books about the history of North American pre-colonization and they have stunned me. One such book is Water by Alice Outwater and in it she characterizes the amazing diversity and abundance of the lands that we came to inherit as well as our engineering and industrialization of the water systems that flow through North America today.
I have come to understand that this entire country once was one massive interconnected sustainable resource that Native Americans managed beautifully and of which provided an abundance of food and resources. We have come to de-nature our country beyond recognition in almost all places and truly all places in the east. The forests that have returned thanks to government intervention in VA are only about 80-100 years old and are not considered old growth by any means. We do not know the true meaning of forests because we have lost them all. I just hope we can allow some to return to their former old growth abundance and beauty over the course of the next 2-300 years so that our children can once again enjoy their beauty.