I can only make out the skeleton of the cabin when we arrive: a V-shaped shadow sticking straight out into the night. We’ve just driven 16 hours, non-stop, from New York to the mouth of the Ocoee, a river that snakes its way along the whole of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. The road is unlit—a curved and precariously narrow stretch uphill. The remote site, buried deep in the North Carolina woods near the Tennessee border, is to be expected. I’m staying in the house that the legendary forest conservationist Bernhard Fernow built for his family at the turn of the 20th-century – my friend being his not-so-distant relative. Exhausted and clumsy by the time we pull in, we fall asleep side-by-side in the attic, our legs hanging off unmade cots.
The next morning, under-slept from a night disrupted by the sounds of cicadas, crickets and birds, we head to the front porch. It’s my first time seeing the landscape. The cabin looks out onto blankets of oak trees and rhododendron, mountain laurel and white pine – an expanse so untouched, the trees appear almost prehistoric. It’s here, perched at the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a space both so empty and full, that I meet Bernhard Fernow.
Not physically, of course. Fernow has been dead for over a century. But stepping inside the cabin, I find myself facing his portrait, which holds pride of place over the immense hearth in the living room. Fernow, in a gentleman’s suit, looks out at a view that exists, in many ways, thanks to him – a view that is the product of a lifetime devoted to conservation. My friend guides me through the space, pointing out Fernow’s fraying Turkish rugs stacked one atop the other, tall Victorian vases and a totem pole brought back from a timber-seeking-expedition to Alaska with Theodore Roosevelt – little pieces of the Fernow legacy.
But Bernhard Fernow’s history is rooted far from the foothills of this Appalachian mountain. In 1878, he emigrated from Germany to America, after seven years of study at the Prussian Forest Academy of Munden. At that time, the concept of forestry – the science applied to caring for and managing forests – was virtually non-existent in the United States. The American Forestry Association was young, a mere three years old. Far from a movement, the AFA was small and relied heavily on a group of forward-thinking citizens, all of whom shared a vision of the future. This handful of men, conscious of their rapidly industrializing nation—their swelling cities, the loss of wetlands to cash crops, the exchange of forests for lumber—recognized the importance of a greener America. The organization was (and remains today) largely underfunded and understaffed. Until 1891, Fernow lived and worked as the only trained professional forester in the country.
Appointed as the chief of the Division of Forestry in 1886, Fernow would spend the next 15 years devoted to educating his colleagues and steering his country towards environmental awareness – a mission not without obstacles. His office was, very literally, hidden – tucked away in the attic of the USDA’s building of agriculture, a department ignored by the federal system. Staffed by Fernow and two assistants, the space didn’t even have a typewriter. But Fernow was determined and patient, unwilling to relent. And some two decades later, he took a huge step forward.
By 1905, Fernow helped establish the United States Forest Service, an organization that manages America’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Six years later, in 1911, he played a pivotal role in passing The Weeks Act, arguably one of the most important preservationist initiatives in American history. Created to encourage the U.S. government to buy land so as to preserve it, the Weeks Act introduced an alien notion: The idea of acquiring land to maintain and conserve, regardless of profit or capitalistic gain.
Over the course of my week in Highlands, I settle into my surroundings: the natural noise outside the cabin becomes more familiar, as does our daily hike to Glen Falls, a circle of cold and untouched natural springs. I begin to dread my return to the city, where the forested acres be replaced by concrete blocks, frenetic crowds and the constant distraction of urban noise.
Reluctantly packing the car for our return trip, I think about Fernow. He lived in a world where wilderness endangerment was a far-off fear, never mind a contentious reality. Yet this was something Fernow foresaw and worked tirelessly and passionately to combat. The untouched landscape he left behind stands as quiet proof of this legacy.
All images courtesy Alexandra Eaton