Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

American Ginseng and the Idea of the Commons

The Commons

There is a story in these figures of a vernacular cultural domain that transcends state boundaries. Anchoring this domain is a geographical space, a de facto commons roughly congruent with two physiographic regions recognized in national discourse. One is the coal fields underlying the ginseng, most of which are controlled by absentee landholders. The other is the mixed mesophytic forest, known among ecologists as the world's biologically richest temperate-zone hardwood system.

This multi-layered region is increasingly the focus of debates pitting the short-term economic value of coal and timber against the long-term value of a diverse forest system and topography. Because the social and cultural significance of the geographical commons is unrecognized in national discourse, it is particularly at risk. As Beverly Brown points out in writing about the rural working class in the Pacific Northwest, the widespread loss of access to the geographical commons occurs in tandem with a shrinking civic "commons." 3

This loss of access is one effect of the increasing privatization and enclosure of land that for generations has been used as commons. Rural populations with uncertain employment have typically relied on gardening, hunting, and gathering for getting through hard times. Over the past decade, processes of gentrification, preservation, and intensified extraction of timber and minerals have eliminated the commons in which communities have for generations exercised fructuary rights. However, this exercise is motivated by something that goes beyond the prospect of economic gain.

Ginseng provides a case in point. Dollar for pound, ginseng is probably the most valuable renewable resource on the central Appalachian plateaus.4 A linchpin in the seasonal round of foraging, ginsenging is also essential to a way of life. "I'd rather ginseng than eat," said Dennis Dickens, eighty-five, of Peach Tree Creek. "Every spare minute I had was spent a-ginsenging."

"If you can't go ginsenging," said Carla Pettry, thirty, of Horse Creek, "it totally drives you crazy."

Ginseng's etymology and economic value both come from China and neighboring countries, where the root has long been prized for conferring longevity and vigor of all sorts on its users. The term ginseng is an Americanization of the Chinese jin-chen, meaning "manlike." The Latin term Panax quinquefolia alludes to the five whorled leaves on each branch and the plant's function as a panacea. The active ingredients in the fleshy, humanoid root are ginsenocides, chemical compounds celebrated for their capacity both to stimulate and soothe. Whether ginsenocides in fact warrant such claims is a matter of continuing controversy among scientists and physicians.5

According to Randy Halstead, a Boone County buyer, "stress rings," which give the wild root its market value, are linked with a higher concentration of ginsenocides. Nearly impossible to reproduce in cultivation, stress rings are produced as the root pushes through soil just compact enough to provide the right amount of resistance. The ancient, humus-laden soils in the mixed mesophytic forests of Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern West Virginia are ginseng's ideal medium. "The most prolific spreads of wild ginseng," writes Val Hardacre, in Woodland Nuggets of Gold, "were found in the region touched by the Allegheny Plateau and the secluded coves of the Cumberland Plateau."6 Through centuries of interaction with this valuable and elusive plant, residents of the plateaus have created a rich and elaborate culture, a culture of the commons.


Man in the woods preparing to cut a tree with a chainsaw.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Bernice Springston (left), of B&T Logging Contractors, and Danny Williams, of Clay's Branch, cutting Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) in Canterbury Hollow on Rock Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/27. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A pile of ginseng roots.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Ginseng laid out to air dry. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/27. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.