Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Ramp Suppers, Biodiversity, and the Integrity of "The Mountains"

Ramp Patches and the Commons of "The Mountains"

Ramp patches in the mountains have long functioned as a common resource. Most of the ramps served at the ramp supper, some fifteen bushels full, do not come from peoples' personal patches. They come from the upper-elevation coves rising high above the Ramp House. "I've got a few planted up the holler here," said Dennis Dickens, of Peachtree Creek, a beloved octogenarian who passed away this year. "They just grow at an elevation of about, I'd say 2,000 to 2,500 feet. Real rich soil."

For many, eating ramps in the mountains is as much a rite of spring as attending the ramp supper. "I love them," said Bob Daniel, over breakfast at Syble's one spring morning. "I like to dig them and eat them right there. Sit down in the woods with a piece of cornbread and eat them."

"That's the fun part," said Mary Jarrell, speaking in Lloyd's Convenient, which she operates with her husband at the mouth of Rock Creek. "Getting them and cooking them out. We'd go to several places, like Hazy, where they've closed it off. We would always go and take a skillet and make cornbread and take some potatoes and get the ramps and clean them and fix them on top of the mountains."

"We'd take our corn bread and pinto beans," said Mae Bongalis, of Naoma, during the 1995 ramp supper. "And go to the mountain, up Board Tree Hollow, dig ramps all afternoon. Then we'd clean them in a little stream coming through the patch, wash them and cook them and then have dinner. They taste better that way, too."

The higher elevations, known simply as "the mountains," have long functioned as what anthropologist Beverly Brown terms a "de facto commons,"14 an open-access area where people go to hunt, picnic and party, gather a variety of roots, herbs, nuts, and fruit, or to enjoy some solitude. Ramps inaugurate an annual round of small-scale subsistence harvesting of woodland bounty, nd afford the first opportunity to get back into the mountains. But they are fortifying throughout the growing season. "Ramps are sweet this time of year," said Tony Dickens of Pettry Bottom, one late September evening. "You'll come across a ramp patch when you're out ginsenging. Last week I dug more ramps than ginseng!"

Supporting an unusually diverse seasonal round, central Appalachia's mixed mesophytic forest distinguishes these mountains among America's de facto commons. Telltale signs of this diversity abound in the hollows and coal camps, and in yards and homes on the river: the handful of butternuts curing on a step, the coal bucket of black walnuts ready for shelling, the hellgrammites seine at the ready on the porch, the ginseng drying in the rear window of a car, the squirrel meat marinating in a bowl, the gallon of blackberries ready for canning, the plastic bag full of homemade "deer jerky," the jar full of "lin" (white bass) honey, the paw paws in the freezer, the molly moochers soaking in salt water, the pickled ramps in the pantry.

The traditional knowledge sustaining this annual round of harvesting is anchored in a peoples' landscape inscribed all over the mountains, a literary work writ large.15


A man walking down a hill in a forest.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Dave Bailey, going for ramps near the Poplar Flats on Hazy Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A woman standing in a patch of ramps.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Mabel Brown in the ramp patch behind her home. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1997/04/20. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A group of people seated at a table, eating.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Group of diners at the Pine Knob Ramp Supper on Drews Creek (L-R): Brian Gore, Brian Hubbard, Leslie Hubbard, Darwin Thomas, Nora Thomas. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/13. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.