unseen plant communication:
uncovering appalachian biodiversity with ERICA Marks
CO-FOUNDER OF THE YEW MOUTAIN CENTEr
Every year, we go to the mountains of West Virginia. This year, we found ourself on an Appalachian foraging hike with Erica Marks of The Yew Mountain Center. We started walking at a foragers pace, an approach that draws out a short hike into a few hours, and wandered into a world of natural curiosities. Erica showed us how an unassuming sprout became a daily remedy for her children's cuts and bruises, and underfoot mushrooms cracked open to reveal a bright blue center. We spoke with Erica about her vision for a place-based economy and the ways in which she's sharing the magic of Appalachian biodiversity with generations old and new.
We moved to an old farm house and my neighbors told me about a great swimming hole, less than a mile from my house. There was a beautiful lodge on the property, and I often thought it would be amazing for a camp or educational center.
At the time, it was owned by an english national here on a visa. He was a super nice guy and ran it as a bed and breakfast, but the business wasn't going well. He filled the lodge with cats he rescued from his work in Saudi Arabia! A real animal lover.
Sadly he was never able to establish it as an animal shelter. He had to fly back to England to settle his estate when his father died, and he never made it back. He got this rapid form of leukemia and passed away quickly. We really just wanted to see the lodge and land preserved…
I got really sick that winter, which in retrospect was kind of a blessing. It meant I got to stay at home in bed instead of working at my regular job in the schools. Our community put all our ideas into a website, and we created this vision, The Yew Mountain Center. It was as if the place already existed. We shared it with everybody we could think of who might have deep enough pockets to make it happen.
I can’t believe this really happened, nobody could believe it really happened, in the best way possible. And I just thought…wow. This is amazing. And oh, okay. now we really have to make it happen. Is it really going to work?
As a kid, It was a dream to think I could go out into the wild and find marshmallow - which - by the way is crazy - and not how marshmallow making actually works. But, as a child I started wondering, what else is out there? Can I go find some sugar babies too?
We ended up finding a conservation buyer who said ‘yeah, okay. We’ll lease the land to you, and you can be stewards of the property and try your vision for an Appalachian Outdoor Education Center.’ We are in our second year of a six year lease right now. I have had to pinch myself! I can’t believe this really happened, nobody could believe it really happened, in the best way possible. And I just thought wow. This is amazing. And oh, now we really have to make it happen. Is it really going to work?
It’s been a really steep learning curve but we’re figuring it out. Our initial plan of just being self sufficient - not needing to go elsewhere for grants - was in hindsight very naive. It takes more than we realize to run the lodge. We are so remote. It’s quiet out here. There is only one cell phone service that kind of works, most of the time. That is one of our assets, but it’s also a big challenge. We’re not next to a lot of wealth, it’s an economically depressed area. We have to fundraise and reach out to donors.
With this center, we want to create a place based economy. Locally sustaining, enriching West Virginia. The pieces just aren’t quite connected yet for The Yew Mountain center, but it’s so close! People here have always pieced together lots of little jobs to make it work- musicians, artisans and craftsman, forest farmers. This region may be economically depressed, but it doesn’t take very much to make an impact.
My love and learning in nature started as a kid in the woods. We didn’t get a lot of candy when I was little - so my interest in plants began when I learned that a Marshmallow is a plant. It was a dream to think I could go out into the wild and find marshmallows - which by the way is crazy and not how it actually works. But, as a child I started wondering, what else is out there? Can I go find some sugar babies too? That got me on the hunt. I found wild mint, which grows like a weed. I remember pulling some up, bringing it back home and transplanting it. It took! I was captivated by that point. I had grown fuzzy spearmint.
The smell of things is such a powerful draw. And really, that smell is a plant’s defense. They build up these things so they don’t get eaten. If a plant is being chewed on by a caterpillar it starts releasing these plant pheromones! Other plants around it sense that and they increase their production and strength of chemicals. Isn’t that incredible? Unseen communication.
The other experience that led me down this path, was right after my freshman year in college. I took a field biology course that looked at freshwater fish. We were out in the field, camping for a month, getting in creeks and lakes and studying fish habitats. I still geek out whenever I’m around a stream. Almost as much as I geek out about plants. From then on, I was just hooked. I guess that’s a bad pun..
It’s crazy that the kids around here - a lot of them don’t get out. We live in one of the most beautiful areas, but just like the rest of West Virginia, we have a lot of diabetes and obesity. We see that early in the kids. Even though this place has a lot of outdoor tourism, the local population just isn’t doing that as much. It’s economic, cultural and a lot of other factors. I want to do my part to change that with the center. When I'm camping with friends and family, I really see how people wake up in a different way when they are outside. I recognize that feeling in myself. That’s something I want to share with people of all ages.