Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

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

Ramp Talk and the Cultural Landscape of Hazy Creek

Many of the ramps for this year's ramp supper came from Hazy Creek, a long, lush, meandering hollow that hooks around Shumate's Branch like a sheltering arm. Hundreds of people lived at the mouth of Hazy in the 1940s when the coal town of Edwight was the bustling hub of the river between Whitesville and Glen Daniel. Though Hazy Creek and Shumate's Branch were evacuated of dwellings in the 1980s,18 people continue to comb the hollows of Hazy Creek for ramps, ginseng, molly moochers, yellow root, mayapple, bloodroot, berries, and signs of history.

According to Dennis Dickens, Hazy got its name before the Civil War. "Some hunters came through there," said Dickens, "and they camped over along Drew's Creek. And they decided to go over in Hazy to hunt one day. They got to the top of the mountain, they looked down in there, it was foggy and hazy. They said, 'No use to go down in here, it's too hazy. We'll not do any good.' And called it 'Hazy Creek.'" Though the coal industry has closed Hazy Creek to the public (Cherry Pond Mountain is slated for mountaintop removal), people still enter with permission to gather plants and hunt, or to visit historic sites and cemeteries.

On a trek up Hazy for ramps in 1996, Dave Bailey and Woody Boggs distilled sights on the overgrown landscape into signs of former communities everywhere: the rusting incline hidden on the hillside; the sludge pond, its banks "reclaimed" in thorny field locust; a stand of Indian corn near Charlie Rock, named for Charles Wiley; the remains of a "splash dam" once used as a skidway for easing timber out of the mountains; red dog from the slate dump that burned for years and was haunted by an old woman's ghost; a big rock that Woody says Hobart Clay could have cleared in his Hazy machine, and camp sites marked by the presence of ramps. "People have camped there for years," commented Dave. "They set them out so they'd have some."

As access is increasingly curtailed, people vividly reconstitute Hazy Creek through stories. In a conversation that Woody Boggs videotaped in Andrew, Dave Bailey and Cuba Wiley conjure and re-occupy Hazy as a capacious and generous landscape where they both lived for many years. Cuba, who hasn't been up in Hazy lately, wonders what it's like since the people moved out in the late 1980s. "People tell me I wouldn't know it up that hollow now," he says.

Dave imaginatively takes him up there, and Hazy Creek floods into the room through their words and gestures. "You go up there, Cuba, where the mines is, you go across that creek, go over to the left, go right on up that road to the mines. You can stop the car where the road's washed out, you walk maybe to the top of the hill, and the side of the mountain is covered with ramps."

"Well," picks up Cuba, invoking another space where ramps grew, "what about the Straight Fork of Hazy, where Three Forks used to come in together, and I used to go in the Straight Fork of Hazy, and just go up there a little piece on up that hollow and walk in on the right, and that scoundrel mountain was lined with them."

"That's right," says Dave. "Just as far as you could see."


They go on to the Everett Fork, Hiram Fork, and Bradley Mountain (where Lige Bradley fled from marauding Yankee and Confederate troops during the Civil War, and where people returned to tend and harvest apples in the Wayne Bradley Field long after Bradley was evacuated for strip-mining). On the way out, Dave and Cuba pause for moment at Road Fork and Sugar Camp.

"You know what?" says Cuba, "I'm gonna tell you something. I was in Sugar Camp, way up in there, I could look down over there at the Coffee Pot Restaurant and all that, and that walk path that goes right on up through there takes you to Bradley."

"Yup," says Dave. "I know where it's at."

"I believe I could find it yet," Cuba resumes. "That walk path, I'd turn left and go up just a little ridge, about fifty or seventy-five yards and that scoundrel ridge was linedwith ramps, and I'll tell you who else went in there and found them before he died: Calvin Clay. Calvin Clay and them found that patch."

"I didn't know they were in there," Dave marvelled.

"Sugar Camp," says Cuba. "Good patch, buddy."

Reconstituting Hazy, Dave and Cuba walk its paths, populate it with fellow gatherers, and savor its views, routes, and destinations. Stories of plying the seasonal round, of gathering ramps, molly moochers, fishing bait, and ginseng, are like beacons lighting up Hazy's coves, benches, walk paths, historic ruins, and camp rocks. In fact, such stories and inscriptions constitute a rural industrial landscape as coherent, as saturated with "traditional cultural properties,"19 as representative of America's rural-industrial history as any landscape recorded on the National Register.

Like other productions of the commons, ramps, ramp patches, and ramp talk are resources for holding together a way of life that is continually dismantled by plans for progress.20 The civic commons of the Ramp House and the commons of the cultural landscape are mutually sustaining and cannot be reclaimed by covering a stream with spoil and putting a pond on top of a highland complex, moving a smokehouse from a homeplace to a pioneer village, or relocating a family cemetery from its ancestral grounds to a commercial cemetery many miles away.

The commons on Coal River models an alternative, integrated, community-based approach to the conservation of natural and cultural resources. The seasonal round, itself a cultural production, outlines a roster of "services" we might expect from central Appalachia's post-mining landscapes. Common pool resources like the ramp patches of the named systems of coves might qualify for protection not as endangered species, but as vital resources for mountain life--"traditional cultural properties." Such sites, scattered throughout the mountains, define the social collective, serving both as touchstones to a shared past and as thresholds to a future in which a historic, mixed mesophytic landscape continues to form a hedge against chronic social, environmental, and economic crises.

—by Mary Hufford
From Folklife Center News 20, No. 4 (Fall 1998)


Aerial view showing hills and a creek.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Hazy Creek from the air. Mary Hufford. 1998/09/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

View of the opening of a cave in a wooded landscape.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Charlie Rock Cave. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A man digging a green plant out of the ground.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Dave Bailey digging ramps near the Poplar Flats on Hazy Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Three young people sitting inside a wooden shelter with ramps displayed for sale outside.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Ray Dickens, Jr. (Left), Kimberly Dickens, and Jeffrey Honaker selling ramps on the side of the road. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1997/04/19. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Aerial view of a mountaintop removal project.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon [Detail] Landform complexes produced at the Samples mountaintop removal project on Cabin Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

The entrance to a cave.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon The Irene Portal of Armco's Number 115 Mine, Hazy Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.