Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

American Ginseng and the Idea of the Commons


  1. Since 1978 the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service has tracked the certification of ginseng for export under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Ginseng is listed in Appendix II. (Return to Text)
  2. Ginseng can be cultivated, and in fact cultivated ginseng comprises more than 90 percent of American ginseng exports (ASPI Bulletin 38). However "tame seng," as diggers call it, commands an average price of thirty dollars a pound. That sector of the industry is concentrated in Wisconsin, which in 1994 certified more than 1,000,000 of the 1,271,548 pounds reported nationally. (Return to Text)
  3. Beverly Brown, "Fencing the Northwest Forests: Decline of Public Access and Accustomed Rights," Cultural Survival Quarterly (Spring 1996), 50-52. (Return to Text)
  4. According to a study directed by scientist Albert Fritsch, who heads the Appalachian Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Chinese market alone will bear 12 billion dollars worth of ginseng annually. "Ginseng in Appalachia,"ASPI Technical Series38 (Mt. Vernon, Kentucky: Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest, 1996). To provide a basis for comparison, according to the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association in Charleston, West Virginia, the coal industry meets a direct annual payroll of 1 billion dollars for the state of West Virginia. (Return to Text)
  5. Ibid. "Though ginseng is commonly prescribed by physicians in Asia and Russia for a number of ailments, Western medicine has been very skeptical of the herb. In the United States it is illegal to market ginseng for medical purposes because it has not been tested by the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, it is marketed as a health food or with vitamin supplements." (Return to Text)
  6. Val Hardacre, Woodland Nuggets of Gold (New York: Vantage Press, 1968), 56. (Return to Text)
  7. Beryl Crowe writes that "the commons is a fundamental social institution that has a history going back through our own colonial experience to a body of English common law which antedates the Roman conquest. That law recognized that in societies there are ome environmental objects which have never been, and should never be, exclusively appropriated to any individual or group of individuals" ("The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited," in Managing the Commons, ed. Garret Hardin and John Baden[San Francisco: Freeman, 1977], 53-65). (Return to Text)
  8. Gary Snyder's brief history of the six-hundred-year struggle in England highlights the historical depth of contemporary issues. Wool corporations, an early form of agribusiness, played a role in fifteenth-century enclosures. Snyder writes, "The arguments for enclosure in England--efficiency, higher production--ignored social and ecological effects and served to cripple the sustainable agriculture of some districts." Gary Snyder, "Understanding the Commons," in Environmental Ethics, ed. Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 227-31. (Return to Text)
  9. Snyder, 228-29. (Return to Text)
  10. Consequently, according to a study by the Appalachian Landownership Task Force, roughly 80 to 90 percent of the land is controlled by absentee owners. See Who Owns Appalachia? Land Ownership and Its Impact(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983). For more detailed documentation of the often illegal means of land acquisition, see David Alan Corbin, Life,Work, and Rebellion in the West Virginia Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1981), and Ronald Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1982). An abundance of stories persist in oral tradition on Coal River about how the company "took" the land. (Return to Text)
  11. Paul Salstrom argues that this use of the land for farming and hunting ultimately subsidized the coal industry. Compensating for depressed wages, it kept the union out of southern West Virginia longer than in other areas. Appalachia's Path to Dependency (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994). See also David Alan Corbin, Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1981), 37-38. Two local land companies have publicly accounted for the recent enclosures by citing instances of lawsuits brought against them by persons injured while gathering wood on "the property." (Return to Text)
  12. Among the figures published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1858 to 1896, the highest number of pounds exported from the United States was 630,714 in 1863; the lowest was 110,426 in 1859. The total for the thirty-six years was 13,738,415. No official records were kept by state or county in West Virginia. "American Ginseng: Its Commercial History, Protection, and Cultivation," Bulletin Number 16 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1896), 16-17. (Return to Text)
  13. According to records compiled by Janet Hager of Hewett in Boone County, Joel Stallings became an attorney following his service as a Confederate captain during the Civil War and was then elected to the state legislature. Tradition holds that, on a trip to Washington, Stallings encountered Senator James Thompson Farley of California (Democrat, 1879-85), and recognized him as the hired man who never returned. The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress states that Farley made his way from Albemarle County, Virginia, to California via Missouri. (Return to Text)
  14. Arthur Harding,  Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants (Boston: Emporium Press, 1972; reprint of 1908 original). (Return to Text)
  15. "Our data show that on an average a one-pronged plant will be 4.5 (plus or minus 1.6) years before it develops a second prong, that a two-pronged plant will be 7.6 (plus or minus 2.4) years before developing a third prong, and that a three-pronged individual will average 13.5 (plus or minus 3.3) years before adding a fourth prong." Walter H. Lewis and Vincent E. Zenger, "Ginseng Population Dynamics," American Journal of Botany 69 (1982): 1485. (Return to Text)
  16. Diggers and dealers observe that because ginseng does not send up a stalk every year, it is impossible to calculate precisely the age of a given specimen or to assess the extent of the population. "Some of this wild ginseng could be thirty or forty years old," said Randy Halstead. "If every plant would come up one year it would be plentiful. You have maybe 50 percent of it that'll germinate each year. If it gets in a stressful situation, it sheds its top." Research by Lewis and Zenger on cultivated ginseng found 10 percent of the population to be dormant in a given year. (Return to Text)
  17. Such seng is termed "woods grown," and if properly set may bring top dollar. "If it looks wild," said Halstead, "it sells for wild." (Return to Text)
  18. Snyder, 228-29. (Return to Text)
  19. The present boom is an effect of the Clean Air Act of 1990, which set acceptable levels for sulphate emissions from coal-fired facilities and increased the national demand for the low-sulphur bituminous coal found in the region. (Return to Text)
  20. Because the region's low-sulphur coal has to be washed to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act, valleys must be found for storing the "slurry"--fine, wet, black refuse from the coal-cleaning and separation process. To contain the slurry, towering impoundments are built at the mouths of hollows out of the coarse refuse. "There's a saying around here," said one storekeeper. "'We fear the river above more than the river below.'" A similar structure collapsed on October 30, 1996, near Pennington Cap, Virginia. See Spencer S. Hsu, "Rural Va. Coal Field Accident Turns Streams Black, Chokes Thousands of Fish," The Washington Post , November 1, 1996, p. B4. (Return to Text)