Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

American Ginseng and the Idea of the Commons

Ginseng and the Future of the Commons

"Understanding the commons and its role within the larger regional culture," writes Gary Snyder, "is one more step toward integrating ecology with economy."18 Environmental policy, focused too narrowly on physical resources, loses sight of the web of social relationships and processes in which those resources are embedded and made significant. "They're taking our dignity by destroying our forest," as Vernon Williams, of Peach Tree Creek, put it.

Williams was referring to the landscapes taking shape on the plateaus during the present coal and timber boom. Since 1990 the state has permitted tens of thousands of acres in southern West Virginia for mountaintop removal and reclamation. Mountaintop removal is a method of mining that shears off the top of a mountain, allowing the efficient recovery of multiple seams of coal.19 When the "topped" mountains are rigorously reclaimed under the terms of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the rich soils essential to ginseng and hardwood cove forests are gone, and with them the multigenerational achievement of the commons.

What is missing in the environmental planning process is any recognition of the commons and its critical role in community life. Such recognition, not unusual in the countries of Europe, could reopen portions of the civic commons that is suppressed in environmental planning by an unwieldy and inaccessible process of technical assessment. For instance, a slurry pond that fills the evacuated hollow of Shumate's Branch was permitted on the grounds that there were no endangered species, no historic artifacts (with the exception of a cemetery, which was relocated), and no prime farmland (despite a history of subsistence farming at least three generations deep). With that testimony, the commons specified in Cuba Wiley's narratives was quietly erased.20

As vital cultural resources, ginseng, commons, and community life are inseparable, yet there are presently no means available for safeguarding that relationship. A standard recourse, declaring ginseng an endangered species, would clearly be culturally destructive, since it would make a vital cultural practice illegal. Wild ginseng in fact would seem to merit federal protection not because it is endangered but because within its limited range it is integral to the venerable social institution of the commons.

Ginseng may be a powerful resource for resolving some very thorny dilemmas. A touchstone for economic, cultural, and environmental interests, ginseng provides a tangible link between ecology and economy. Given ginseng's predilection for native hardwood forest and rich soils, national recognition of its cultural value would be a way to begin safeguarding both a globally significant hardwood forest and the cultural landscape to which it belongs.

—Mary Hufford
Reprinted from Folklife Center News 19, nos. 1 and 2, Winter-Spring 1997


A black-and-white photograph of three men looking across a hilly landscape.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Roosevelt Holstein, Larry Gibson, and Donald Pritt, view the mountaintop removal project on Cabin Creek from their famiy cemetery on Kayford Mountain. Terry Eiler. 1996/07. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Aerial view of a school sports field near industrial buildings.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] The Sludge Dam at Shumate's Branch rising above the Marsh Fork Elementary School. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Aerial view of a valley between large hills.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Aerial view of Shumate's Branch sludge pond. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.