Appalachian Mountains: A Story Of Their Own

Jun 24, 2019

Our most recent Wild Wondering West Virginia question came from Wheeling resident Brian Joseph. He wanted to know about the Appalachian Mountains and their sister mountains, and how they shape who we are.

“Sometimes we forget. We think we are who we are, but remember even our state motto: Montani Semper Liberi - which is, mountaineers will always be free.”

We set out, meandering among the hills of central Appalachia, to understand the history of the ground beneath our feet -- something many people spend a lifetime exploring. The Appalachians’ 1.2 billion-year history may surprise you, because while many people consider the range among the oldest on Earth, it might also be the youngest.

A Farmer’s Dilemma

Farmer and nonprofit founder Danny Swan stepped out of a young grove of mixed hardwoods onto a steep slope in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.

(L - R) Danny Swan, executive director of Grow Ohio Valley, stands with Isa Campbell, manager of the organization's orchard, looking on at one of the peach trees that's thriving in calcium-rich soil.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“And now what we are walking up to, just came into view, is our apple orchard.”

Swan is the executive director of Grow Ohio Valley, a non-profit that wants to improve communities around here through local food. He wanted to grow blueberries on this hillside, but can’t because of what happened here several hundred million years ago.

“250 million years ago,” he explained, “we were underwater -- this was the Permian Period -- underwater in a shallow ocean with an ecosystem that looks a lot like modern day coral reefs. What are coral reefs primarily composed of? Calcium.”

Turns out, blueberries are not into growing in calcium rich soil for reasons we should have learned about in high school.

“So here we are standing on top of a mountain in the rust belt Appalachian city of Wheeling, West Virginia, working against agricultural problems that are the result of an ecological system that was happening 250-300 million years ago.”

The young apple trees here, though, appear to be thriving. Swan is making it work. But in order to do that well, he did find himself literally and figuratively dipping into the story of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a story that shapes what he’s doing, what he’s eating, what he’s feeding his community, and well, we are what we eat.

“How do you date mountains? We don’t have a way of dating topography. But we can date rocks," said professor of geology at WVU Steve Kite.
Credit Jesse Wright

Hints in the Hills

To think about the lifespan of a mountain range is to impose a human sense of time on geology. Humans can live 100 years; mountains typically live 100 million years. The Appalachian region is more than a billion years old. While it’s commonly thought that the Appalachian chain is one of the oldest on the planet - the reality is complicated.

“The rocks in the Blue Ridge [Mountains] in particular are about 1.2 billion years old,” geology professor at West Virginia University Steve Kite said. “Well, when writing began they were 1.2 billion years old. When human beings became a species on the face of the earth, they were 1.2 billion years old. The perspective of geologic time is just astounding.”

Kite explained that the rocks in the Appalachians are not actually the oldest in the world.

“The oldest rocks on Earth are probably in northern Canada at about 4 billion years old, and there’s some in Greenland that are 3.8 billion years old. So we’re not looking at the oldest rocks on Earth, but they’re certainly old.”

And they do tell us a long, detailed story about the region -- with some plot twists.

Appalachia is actually home to some substantially younger rocks, because only a couple of geologic weeks ago (50 million human years) there were volcanoes here.

“For some reason, and it doesn’t fit into any plate tectonic model, volcanoes popped up along the Highland County-Pendleton County area. So we have some remnants. The volcanoes have eroded away, but we have the feeder tubes that led up to those volcanoes preserved in our geologic record over there.”

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Of course there was a day when the Appalachian land mass was sitting at the equator. At that point, the mountains were big (think Himalayans). Since then, they completely eroded away to nothing, and then grew back. This cycle has taken place several times. Kite explained that what might be considered the birth of the Appalachian range happened a billion years ago when an early supercontinent came together and fused parts of what is now North and South America together.

“There were a couple mountain building episodes and those mountains formed, and then they wore down. Things were kind of quiet. Then, those mountains formed even later - about 450 million years ago - and those wore down, and things were kind of quiet. And then about 360 million years ago, another mountain building episode, and then the big Alleghenian mountain building episode.”

He was describing Pangea - the most recent supercontinent. (The range born then predates dinosaurs by at least 100 million years, by the way.) And those mountains have also long since eroded away. Gone 150 million years ago.

Here’s another plot twist: geologists don’t quite know how to explain how the Appalachian Mountains that exist here today exist at all.

“The Appalachian Mountains have popped back up. The topography that we see today really dates back to the last 20 million years or so.”

Kite explained that scientists have only recently discovered and begun to build theories explaining this geologic mystery.

“It might be indirectly related to the mountain-building episodes that are going on in the West Coast -- the Laramide episode that gives us the Rocky Mountains. You can think about it -- if there’s a train wreck on the far side of the mountains there’s likely to be stresses transmitted pretty far.”

There are other theories as well, but the long and short of it is, the mountains seem to be growing again. So ours is very much a story of rebirth. You could argue that the Appalachians are one of the oldest AND maybe one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world…

On the way to Aït Benhaddou. The Atlas Mountains is a mountain range across the northwestern stretch of Africa extending about 2,500 km through Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Credit Tola Akindipe

Brothers and Sisters in the Sister Mountains

The mountain remnants that give us clues today also exists in northern Europe, Scotland and in northern Africa, the Atlas Mountains. Today, the Atlas Mountains don’t really look anything like Appalachia. Researchers estimate that people first inhabited both the Appalachian and the Atlas Mountains around the same time - roughly 14,000 years ago. But time and latitudes have shaped the ranges very differently. 

It would be great to be able to explore the Atlas Mountains and speak with people in mountain communities and see how they live and what they value. Here in West Virginia, for example, the state motto is Montani Semper Libre -- Mountaineers are always free. Similar themes emphasizing freedom exist in the Atlas Mountains, where the people call themselves Amazeer which means “free people.” Ikram Benaicha, an Amazeeren woman who lived for a spell in Charleston, West Virginia explained.

“The Atlas Mountains are wild and beautiful,” Benaicha recalled.

She grew up visiting her grandparents in a town surrounded by the Atlas Mountains. It’s where her dad grew up.

“I have a lot of memories as a kid. We used to go once a year. We used to listen to those beautiful songs in the Amazeer language. Every time I want to travel in time and space, I just play one of those songs, and it just makes my day.”

“The geography shaped not only my grandparents, but my dad. It has shaped me, as well,” Benaicha said. “Back in the day, it was very hard to live in the mountains. They used to lack access to improved sanitation and safe water.”

“My dad taught me to be determined. He used to tell me stories from his childhood -- how tough it was and how committed he had to be. My dad is my hero. He’s the purist version of an ambitious person from the Atlas Mountains.”

People native to the mountains have been called “Berber,” but Benaicha explained that the term is offensive, because it connotes being backward or uncivilized, which is not totally unlike terms like “redneck” and “hillbilly.” Benaicha said it misrepresents the Amazeeren - the free people.

“The Atlas Mountains are the perfect place to see calmness and joy,” she said. “The Amazeer communities are very welcoming and very generous. And honestly I have noticed a lot of similarities once I was in West Virginia.”

Benaicha came to West Virginia in 2015 to get a master’s degree at West Virginia State University.

“Once I arrived to Charleston, I felt home,” she recalled. “I think it’s the link that I have with my roots. That’s something that I’m very, very proud of.”

Benaicha also mentioned that she used to listen to country music when she was back home in Morocco. She says artists like Reba McEntire struck a chord with her.

Poets, Musicians and Geologists

Just as it can be difficult to grasp geologic time, it can be equally challenging to clearly identify the ways that geography shapes us culturally. In the same breath, nothing can be more influential. Steve Kite, the geologist from WVU, explains that the Appalachians, for example, make it hard to get around, and that may fundamentally shape culture.

“The topography of the Appalachians - it’s steep. We may be steeper than Colorado. Not higher,” he explained, “but steeper.”

Steep slopes make it harder to get around, carving out smaller, isolated communities.

“I think isolation of communities winds up making us more locally based and locally focused on our concerns than you would find in a landscape that was flatter or easier to move around in,” Kite said.

Perhaps it’s the musicians and poets who are able to best capture and articulate what it means to be born and shaped of this place. Wheeling resident and West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman offered some insight:

 "I do believe that there is a presence that emanates from one’s local place/locale and the particular presence ‘felt’ here in Appalachia is especially strong.  Perhaps, in part, because the challenging topography has meant in the past/historically that this region was more cut off from the mainstream than other portions of the U.S.   

Likewise, certain stories and folkways persisted longer than anywhere else in the U.S. except for native American communities. That fuels a cultural richness than simply can not be denied – it’s certainly informed our character as a people who traditionally have taken the time to tell stories, make their own—finish that how you will – jams, gardens, music, literature. 

You simply cannot read the work of Appalachia’s greatest artists without quickly feeling this ‘mountain’ presence: Robert Morgan, Irene, Wendell Berry, Maggie, James Still, Denise Giardina, and so many others… Even avant garde painters and musicians like George Crumb – his many ‘folk song’ compositions or Robert Villamagna’s tin collages littered with images of the upper Ohio Valley, mountains in collision with smokestacks… or Paula Clendenin’s 'Coal Series' or her 'weeds' and many mountains, or Caroline Jennings’ recent art prints with the backdrop of old New River photographs."

Harshman also points to his own work imprinted by place. He was recently commissioned to write a poem celebrating Wheeling’s 250th birthday. Harshman shared this segment:

WHEELING AT 250

Three-hundred million years ago, from low-lying, Carboniferous swamps,

from alluvial sands and beds of shale, sandstone, and coal

came these lumpy and rugged, green rolling hills

cut by hundreds of streams and rivers.

Just two-hundred fifty years ago came

from the east most of our forebears who

came and saw this wide and pleasant valley,

came towards La Salle’s la belle riviere and,

though beautiful in French, it’s the native tongue lasted:

Oi-yo became Ohio. 

And despite unimaginable hardships our forebears kept coming,

Came here to this comely set of bottom lands

where roads of water and land still meet,

came, and kept coming. 

...

Perhaps poets and musicians are best able to illustrate the indescribable, deep and ancient mountain roots that connect us to the ground that holds us from generation to generation, shaping the farmers, scientists, travellers and storytellers that we become -- just reflections of the mountains that are born, grow, die away, and… are reborn.

Original music in the audio version of this story was composed by Matt Jackfert.