The Importance of Fighting to Preserve Wilderness

by Mark Miles

Whether we realize it or not, wilderness is essential to all of our lives. A short list of the major ecological services provided by wilderness includes the following: 1) regulating climate by sequestering carbon, 2) retaining topsoil through expansion of root networks, 3) preserving biodiversity by providing habitat and food sources for endemic species, 4) filtering watersheds through microorganismal and vegetal communities, 5) purifying air through respiration and storage of pollutants, and 6) supporting indigenous communities who depend on the land for the necessities of life. And best of all, these essential services are provided to us free of charge.

By contrast, if tech industries were to attempt to fulfill the same ecological services provided for free by wilderness, the cost could very easily surpass the national deficit on a monthly basis. In short, wilderness is doing all of us a favor merely by existing. Needless to say, that should be enough for our leaders to preserve wilderness at all costs. Such is not the case however.

As you may have heard, there were some sobering statistics released not long ago in the scientific journal Current Biology regarding the state of wilderness globally. The bottom line, as with so many issues relating to planetary health, is horrifying and obscene. Over a period of two decades, ten percent of all wilderness (3.3 million square kilometers or the equivalent land area of two Alaskas) was annihilated to feed the engine of industrialization. This may not seem to be much on the surface, but it is when you consider two things: 1) only twenty percent of Earth’s land area is still wilderness, and 2) the rate of global deforestation is only increasing due to the growing appetite for resources of China, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia. Whether because of construction, manufacturing, mining, forestry, or agriculture, the result is the same: wilderness pays the price while the wealthy who run the global economy walk away with the bank. It’s the very definition of unsustainable, unjust, and unforgivably wrong.

Which is why we should be doing everything we can to protect and support wilderness wherever we are. For my part I do this by raising awareness through my blog, gardening organically, reducing my consumption, buying as little as possible, and encouraging others to do the same. But the reality is that none of these actions will stop the bulldozers, the pipelines, the paramilitary troops, or the endless waves of industrialization that are eviscerating our planet. What we need is an organized, mobilized, and uncompromisingly dedicated army of concerned citizens who want to save the planet and their children’s future before it’s too late.

And one focal point for mobilizing should be our national and state parks. These are bastions of nature, freedom, wildlife, and health which are frequently within driving distance from where we live and which are doing their best to ensure that the little of wilderness that’s left has a fighting chance for the future. To that end I’ve compiled some of my latest photography from three parks in my area of central North Carolina to demonstrate exactly what it is that all of us should be fighting for.

The trails at Eno River State Park are so extensive that even after exploring them on a monthly basis for the past year and a half, I haven’t covered all of them. The park includes 4,200 acres of land and preserves nine miles of riparian habitat along the banks of the Eno River, where I found this bubbling brook nestled amidst a bucolic valley that could’ve come straight out of a fairy tale. There are so many places in Eno River State Park that are equally beautiful and worthy of preservation, but the only guarantee we have that they will continue to exist in the future is our own efforts to fight on their behalf in the present.

The trails at Eno River State Park preserve not only opportunities for hiking but also opportunities for fishing and swimming. Though no one was swimming at Bobbitt Hole when I took the following photo, there was at least one person fishing with his girlfriend on the rocks around it. It may seem trivial to some people to preserve an opportunity for fishing when so few of us depend on the work of our own hands to survive, but it’s a reminder to all of us that our human lives are directly tied to and dependent upon the health of the land, which provides food to all of us along with beauty and recreation.

The Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough, North Carolina is a stretch of riparian habitat that includes 1.8 miles of trails which border downtown and run through several neighborhoods in the area. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of riverfront that I’ve ever seen and demonstrates that it is indeed possible to combine some degree of human habitation with wilderness, though obviously there are limits. Even in the quaint and historic town of Hillsborough, however, there is an increasing push to construct ever more housing that will inevitably erode the health of the river and the surrounding land.

Another feature of the Eno Riverwalk is the gradual reconstruction of a traditional Occaneechi roundhouse, which sits just southeast of the courthouse in downtown Hillsborough. The Occaneechi Indians lived in this area through the eighteenth century but were forcibly displaced by European colonization at the end of that century, only beginning to re-emerge from the shadows of history in the last quarter of the twentieth century. They’ve become active in historical recreation and have demonstrated some of their traditional habitation in this roundhouse. This place then is a testament to the importance not only of preserving wilderness but also of preserving cultures that have historically revered wilderness and sought to live in harmony with nature rather than in dominion over it.

The State Natural Area of Occoneechee Mountain is another wilderness area where I go hiking frequently. It covers 190 acres of beautiful terrain and straddles the Eno River along its northern and western borders; it was also part of the traditional territory of the Occaneechi Indians before they were forcibly displaced by European colonization. My understanding is that they regarded the mountain as a holy place where they could commune with their ancestors and the spirits of nature. It’s easy to understand how they could have come to that conclusion when you see for yourself the awe-inspiring beauty of the view from the Overlook, where I took this photo.

Sadly there is also mining for pyrophyllite and andalusite in the area surrounding Occoneechee Mountain, though you would never be able to tell from the view provided by the Overlook. Fortunately Occoneechee Mountain remains protected from the deforestation and contamination which are the inevitable byproducts of mining, but there’s no guarantee for the future. If Occoneechee Mountain were ever to be sold by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation in order to ameliorate budgetary shortfalls, the fate of Occoneechee Mountain would be the same as that of most mining sites: it would be turned into a hollow and lifeless shell of its former self, never to be the same again.

So while there are many stretches of wilderness in my own area of central North Carolina, any or all of them could be clear-cut, bulldozed, mined, or turned into an industrial wasteland at the drop of a politician’s hat. And that is neither ethical nor acceptable to anyone with half an ounce of sense or concern for the future. If we want to live on a planet that continues to be habitable for humans as well as every other species, we need to take action now to preserve wilderness anywhere and everywhere we can, starting with the wilderness in our own backyards. Organizing, mobilizing, and acting decisively to defend wilderness while it still exists is not only our responsibility as inhabitants of this planet, it’s the best way of ensuring our survival as a species.

References:

Eno River State Park,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 29th, 2017.

Fraggoso, Alejandro Davila, “The planet is going through a ‘catastrophic’ wilderness loss, study says,” Think Progress, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Harvey, Chelsea, “The world has lost a tenth of all its wilderness in the past two decades,” Washington Post, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain — Active Mine,” Eno River Geology, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Riverwalk,” Town of Hillsborough, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Watson, James E. M., Danielle F. Shanahan, Moreno di Marco, James Allan, William F. Laurance, Eric W. Sanderson, Brendan Mackey, Oscar Venter, “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets,” Current Biology, accessed Dec. 1st, 2017.

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Further Eno River Explorations

by Mark Miles

For a while, I’ve been wanting to visit some new hiking spots. I’m already in the habit of visiting a few parks along the Eno River, so it only made sense to continue to branch out in that direction. I’ve also recently been reading about rivers in medieval England, and it’s interesting to note that they were considered some of the best assets to the traveler in unfamiliar territory because 1) they provide a constant source of fresh water, 2) they lead to the ocean when followed far enough, and 3) they frequently adjoin the sites of towns and cities. For these reasons and many others, medieval people honored and valued rivers in a way that’s largely been forgotten. Nevertheless rivers are indispensable and deserve to be honored for their contributions. For my part, visiting the Eno on a regular basis is one way in which I do that.

One of the best views of the Eno that I managed to capture was this shot near Fews Ford, facing south near a small cataract. There were people wading in the river in the distance, as you can see if you look closely. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and even though I didn’t join them due to my lack of swimming trunks, I was happy to see such simple communion between people and the river.

This is the small cataract near Fews Ford that I mentioned. It’s not very large, but it adds greatly to the ambiance of the area. It also helps to oxygenate the water, keeping it from becoming stagnant and inhospitable.

Near the southern entrance to Eno River State Park is this picturesque flight of stairs leading from the riverbank to an adjoining trail. It wasn’t the steadiest structure that I’ve ever crossed, but it was full of character and retained a sense of the contour of the land that would’ve been absent if it’d simply been a concrete eyesore.

This bench which I found near the southern extent of the park was undoubtedly one of the most artistic I’ve ever seen. From behind it looked to be nothing more than a reconnoitered log which had been hoisted on stilts. From the front it looked as if it could’ve been a piece of modern art, loosely mimicking the contours of a woman resting on her side or possibly suggesting the shape of a beached fish with his mouth open to the right. In either case, it beat any metal-and-plastic bench I’ve ever seen.

Between the artistic bench and Fews Ford, there’s a suspension bridge running over the Eno from east to west. I didn’t have enough time to go exploring in that direction when I was there since it was already near dusk, but I did see a small family crossing it with children in tow. I have no doubt the kids in this group will remember that bridge for many years to come, and I was happy to see such excitement over an experience in nature which children of a slightly older age would probably have been too disaffected to appreciate.

This was one of my last shots at Eno River State Park. The hour was rapidly approaching sunset, and I didn’t have much time before I had to leave. The light was failing, but there was just enough to illuminate this bucolic stretch of water south of Fews Ford. I took the moment to kneel in order to get a better angle on the river, and in the process I found myself saying a mental thank you to the river for an experience that I never would’ve had without it.

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Echoes of History

by Mark Miles

In July I made my monthly visit to the Eno Riverwalk. I paid special attention to the remains of the Saponi Nation’s traditional dwelling, sitting in a field where the structure was displayed some years ago to demonstrate aspects of Saponi culture. (The Saponi are an indigenous nation who once lived in this region but have been largely dispossessed and displaced.) I wasn’t able to see the dwelling when it was on site, but I do admire the log-posts that still stand. They’re silent reminders that there was once a time when the land was regarded not merely as a resource to be exploited but as the sacred and indispensable source of all life.

Heading west, I passed under the Exchange Bridge, which in its own way stands as a monument to the greed of colonizers who dispossessed the original inhabitants of this land, such as the Saponi. Acting primarily as a commercial thoroughfare which facilitates the pollution and degradation of the land, the bridge is a stark reminder of how much things have changed since the time when Hillsborough was founded. For the record I love the town of Hillsborough, but the history of this town and of this culture is covered in the blood and pain of native people, who are largely invisible to the casual observer.

Beyond the Exchange Bridge is one of my favorite views of the Eno. It’s easy to forget about all the history that resides in a place like this when looking at a scene so peaceful and beautiful. I wonder sometimes how much the river has changed over the course of history and how much more it will change in the future. I want the river to be healthy and whole for as long as water runs in this world, but there are so many forces in our culture that threaten the health of rivers and humans alike. I don’t know if the river will be healthy in the future. However I do know that if we want to preserve human health in the future, we have to preserve the health of our rivers and watersheds today.

Another result of the colonization of this land is the proliferation of opportunistic species such as the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which have become overabundant in the absence of keystone species such as the mountain lion and black bear, which were once far more prevalent in this region. I love these deer, but the damage they can do to vegetation and forests is a reminder that the history of colonization is around us at all times, even when we can’t see the people who originally lived in this land centuries ago.