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Poaching in the Appalachians: The End of a Species

ginsengAs you know from reading More Than Magic, one of the secrets the Woodruffs protect on their mountain is a huge bed of ancient, and very valuable, ginseng. Ginseng only grows wild in certain environments, and the central Appalachian mountains are an ideal habitat. And wild ginseng is prized specifically because of its potency as a result of its habitat. For that reason, poaching has become even more of a problem in the Appalachians, especially as the economy has worsened.

ginsengThe show Appalachian Outlaws on the History Channel doesn’t help matters much. It glorifies illegal poaching and the men who do it. People who would think twice about going onto someone else’s property and stealing equipment or livestock think nothing of stealing plants. But perhaps now they will.

In December, a Watauga County, North Carolina man pleaded guilty to felony larceny of ginseng from private property. This is the first time a person has been convicted of a felony in North Carolina for stealing ginseng from private property. As the owner of the property, and the ginseng, pointed out. “A dried pound is worth anywhere from $600 to $1200 a pound. You can put five pounds in a backpack easy and walk out of the woods and never be noticed.” It is hoped this conviction will send a message to other poachers.

ginsengThose who legitimately harvest and sell the wild ginseng on their own property, as the Woodruffs do, serve as stewards for the plant and its habitat and are helping to preserve the plant from extinction.

And those who harvest wild ginseng as well as cultivate wild-simulated ginseng are begging for a change in the current regulatory structure that will better protect the wild plants. If we don’t come up with a creative solution, we will lose yet another iconic species to greed and thoughtlessness. As Daniel says in Making Magic, “the point of sustainable growth is not to go backward, but to go thoughtfully forward. The problem is that a lot of what people call progress today actually isn’t. It’s mindless blundering around, with the only consideration being profit, not the consequences.”

ginsengWhat the History Channel is doing in glorifying these ginseng poachers is mindless blundering for the sake of profit with no understanding of the impact on the future of an entire species. Yet another reason to detest reality shows.

What can you do? Well, you could let the History Channel know how you feel about Appalachian Outlaws, but mostly we all just need to be aware of the endangered species that we impact every day and take whatever steps you can to help preserve them.


The Reasons I Write

“The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

There are a lot of reasons that I write. Some authors say it is because they can’t do anything else. It’s addictive. And that is true. Others say that it is because the story demands to be told, and having spent some time with very talkative and pushy characters in my head with a tale to tell, I will agree with that as well. And romance writers – well – we are a special breed. We also write because we love, well, love.

But, aside from all that, I have a few other reasons that I write. One is to spread just a little bit of awareness of the importance of preserving our wilderness places (and not under domes on a spaceship). How on earth can a romance novel do that? The Books of the Kindling are set in the gorgeous mountains of Western North Carolina. As a good setting should, it remains in the background, but I hope the unique beauty of the Appalachians shines through here and there.

The Appalachians are not only one of the oldest mountain chains on earth but also one of the most biologically diverse regions in the temperate world, and I was lucky enough to grow up in the foothills and experience that “biological diversity” first hand. Once, when I was about eight years old, my family took a trip to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States. I was only eight, so my memories consist of very large trees, more large trees, and additional large trees, gorgeous cold streams tumbling through rocks, a black bear crossing the road, and scarlet flames darting through crystal clear water.

Swimming HoleWell, not exactly flames. After a long day of enjoying the flora and the fauna, we had gone to a lovely ice-cold swimming hole somewhere up on that mountain. I’m not sure exactly where it was, but I would love to find it again. The water was full of salamanders darting about on the bottom, most of them scarlet red. As an eight year old, I was in heaven.

As someone who had a phobia about slimy snake-like things, my mom was not so happy when I cheerfully presented her with one. It was an unforgettable moment as I watched my mom fall onto her backside trying to get away from my salamander and then flail about in water that was full of dancing scarlet flames.

Thankfully, my mom forgave me. (And More Than Magic is dedicated to her.)

Interesting fact: one-third of all salamander species in the world are found in North America and most of those are in the Appalachians. And these fascinating creatures are representative of so much of the flora and fauna in the mountains – unique and breathtaking – mostly because of the special character of these mountains.

About 460 million years ago, the Appalachians were likely the highest mountains on earth, but today many people consider them more as gentle hills than mountains. (Of course, those people haven’t tried to hike some of the ridges.) The true beauty, and what differentiates the Appalachians from the mountains of western North America, is the extremely thick and dense forest that covers the slopes and peaks – gorgeous forests of hardwoods thickly filled with understory trees and shrubs. And on this shaded forest floor, hundreds of perennial and annual herbs thrive.

Sadly, many of the species in the Appalachians are threatened – some by poachers, some by development – and some, like the Eastern cougar, are nearly extinct. Additionally, as we all know from the headlines, even the views of fog-wreathed ridges marching off into the distance have been ruined by the removal of entire mountains.

These mountains, the forests, and the herbs at their feet, play a role in the Books of the Kindling. But more important, they, and other mountains like them, with all their forests, flora, and fauna, play a role in all our lives, and we would do well to remember another quote from John Muir:

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

As I said, I believe it is important to preserve our wilderness places. If I can point out the importance of those places while telling a good story, then I’m a happy camper. If you would like to help preserve these particular mountains, this is a great place to start:

The Nature Conservancy – Southern Appalachians