My roots are deep in central West Virginia. I am not many generations removed from people who truly lived off the land as subsistence farmers. They were hill farmers like one would find in the North of England or the Harz Mountains of Germany. They ran rugged dairy cattle and woolly-backed sheep and turned out hogs into oak groves to fatten them on acorns before the November slaughter.
Though I grew up in essentially the same location as my ancestors did, their world is not mine. I didn’t grow up hoeing acres of corn on rocky soil. I didn’t go out with a scythe and cut hay and brush. I am high tech. I use the internet. I grew up watching MTV and The History Channel. I am a product of industrial America evolving into the information age.
I was lucky to have grown up just down the road from grandparents, who could remember the days when everyone farmed, and areas that always seemed like virgin wilderness to me were actually places where many families lived. My grandpa told me stories of hoeing out corn for pittance during the hard days of the 30s, of feeding his foxhounds shot groundhogs and rabbits, and of times when there were great coveys of bobwhite that moved through the pastures and cornfields.
I have never seen a wild bobwhite in West Virginia in my life, but I have seen many ruffed grouse and tons of wild turkeys. The ruffed grouse and the wild turkey are creatures that prefer more forested habitat than the bobwhite.
My grandparents grew up in the pasture and the cornfield. I grew up in the woods. Their sustenance came from the land near them. Mine always has come from the grocery store.
Their world had been tamed. The wolves were all trapped out and poisoned, and the cougar or the panther or puma or whatever you call the species known as Puma concolor had also met its fate. The gregarious passenger pigeon and the loquacious Carolina parakeet were gone for good, as were the bison that roamed the Eastern forests and bugling herds of elk.
By 1900, central West Virginia had been tamed into landscape of hill farmers. Sheep could graze without fear of wolves tearing into them on some moonless night, and the hog-killing black bears had been driven to the highest mountains. Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic could now finally be realized here– but only for just a few decades.
Sooner or later, the industrialization of America and lure of good jobs “up in Ohio” began to take their toll. In the 1950s, a generation of hill farmers was lost to the steel mill and the auto plant. Then, the dual forces of subsidized agriculture and the interstate highway system brought in cheap groceries at the store, and all but the toughest and most stubborn farmers held onto the plow.
Decades of rural flight meant that farms were left behind, and in a rainy climate that has always favored forest over grassland, it did not take long before the pastures became filled with brush, usually introduced pests like multiflora rose and autumn olive. But then the Virginia pines start growing, and sooner or later, an aspen colony gets founded. And then you’re back to the woods again.
Much of rural West Virginia now looks like primeval forest. It is almost entirely an illusion. Those forests are built upon the ruins of the old hill farms. If you take a long walk in virtually any of them, it isn’t long before you find rotten fence posts that still hold a few twisted strands of barbed wire. You make think you’re in an ancient grove of red maples, but you’re standing in old cow pasture or oat field just decades ago.
I call such lands “feral land.” When it comes to animals, we often talk of feral cats, which are descendants of fully domesticated animals that just happened to go wild long enough to raise kittens without human contact. These kittens grow into fully functional wild animals, superb predators of birds and small mammals. They live uncultivated lives without our direct control.
I don’t see why such a concept cannot be applied to land, for just like those cats, it was once tamed and now is pretty wild. It is now home to things like Eastern coyotes, prowling bobcats, and a resurgent population of black bears. Bald eagles can be seen along the rivers, and ravens now drive crows off of road-killed deer. Every time I walk in the woods, I am amazed at the plethora of songbirds and woodpecker species, creatures that simply would not have thrived when the hills were pastures and the bottom lands filled with corn.
Probably no creature exemplifies this transition than the rise of the gray fox once again over the red. The red fox is a creature of the grassland. The gray fox is a creature of the thicket and the forest.
The red fox was not here when the Europeans arrived, and conventionally, it has long been argued that it came from England to give the wealthy planters of Virginia and Maryland some sport. We now know through analysis of red fox DNA that our red foxes came from Canada and are not that closely related to those of England.
The gray fox, however, is a native an American dog as exists anywhere. Its lineage has been solely confined to this continent for the past 8 to 12 million years, a very distinct and very old form of wild dog.
The two species are enemies. Grays are known to run off red foxes if they encounter them. Even though they are typically just a bit smaller, they are much more aggressive.
The gray fox requires the forest to thrive. When it is hard pressed by predators, it usually shoots up a tree, and its prowess as a climber also gives it access to bird nests. When the forests are gone, it just does not do as well.
But when the land was turned into pasture, the Canadian red fox saw its opportunity and moved south. Because of its long association with England, the red fox was seen as a sign of civilization.
The gray fox’s extinction was event that at least one historian noted. William Henry Bishop, in his History of Roane County, claimed that the gray fox had gone extinct there in 1882. It was a lamentable step on the way to domesticating the county, but it had to happen as surely as the bison were killed off and the last virgin timber was cut.
But if you were to go to Roane County now, it would not be hard to find a gray fox. The return of the forest has meant halcyon days for its kind once again.
The old hill farms now stand in ruins. We pass the old barns and chicken houses and wonder about the people who built them. We wonder about the the livestock they kept and of the varieties of plants they grew in their gardens. We think of the shame that they are no longer being used. We become saddened that the culture that grew up out of the agrarian society is now holding on only with palsied fingers.
But to a gray fox scenting for cottontails along an old farm road lined in autumn olive the world couldn’t be better. The trees and the brush cover its movements as it slinks along in the feral land. Its lot in life enhanced because of our demise.