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The Many Layers of a Newly Logged Forest

It’s been a busy two weeks. In that time we have hosted three college groups on the mountain for varying amounts of time. Ian and I are the program directors, so the task of entertaining these groups largely falls on us. One activity is hiking. Because Big Laurel is located on a 400 acre land trust, we are surrounded by hardwood Appalachian forests. Ian and I like nothing better than scrambling through the underbrush, neurotic dog in tow, exploring the uneven terrain until the scrapes on our knees can no longer be ignored. It’s a pleasure to be able to simply walk out of our home and wander in the woods for hours, often without encountering a single home or well-defined trail. We’ve spent weekends walking the boundary lines, and now, six months in, feel that we have a good sense of where the land trust begins and ends.

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Walking the Boundary Line

Our homestead, the Knob house, is part of a roughly 500 acre land trust. Called the John A. Sheppard Memorial Ecological Reservation, (JASMER), this land trust was pieced together in the sixties and seventies by Edwina Pepper and her children to create a preserve of Appalachian hardwood forests and to prevent the land from being developed for coal mining (read more about Edwina Pepper here.) Because the land was bought when it was available, the parcels are strangely shaped and not always connected to each other. In recent years each parcel has been surveyed and mapped, but to our knowledge no map was created to show the total acreage together. One of Ian’s passions in college was geographic information systems (GIS), which is a computer program used for manipulating, analyzing and displaying geospatial data. While still a student he collected data about the parcels from the surveyed maps and georeferenced their borders to make the map below.

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The best map we have of the land trust

But seeing the borders on a map and knowing where they extended in real life are two very different things. When we first moved here, Ian and I had a rough idea of the land trust’s boundaries, but looking down the hillside from our garden left us questioning how far the borders extended below us. We were thrilled when a member of the JASMER board of trustees expressed her desire to walk the borders of the land trust and we jumped at the opportunity to join her. The plan was to walk most of it on a beautiful Saturday morning, relax for a few hours, and use the late afternoon to finish what we hadn’t gotten to. In actuality we only managed to walk a tiny portion, maybe 70-100 acres, in the entire day. We had underestimated the steep hillsides, the thick brambly understory,  the almost buried boundary markers and the ornery, wayward animals that insisted on following along with us.

Our attempt to walk the entire border of JASMER was largely a failure, but the day was not. Through the parcel that we managed to trek we got a sense of how big 500 acres in forested mountains really is. Our heaving sides, sopping feet, and stained pant legs from slipping down the steep slopes gave us a sense of how crazy and convoluted this mountain land can be. It was proof that we could walk out of our house and wander in the forest for hours without running into another person or property. How many people today can relate to that?

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Many of the boundary markers we were looking for only protruded a few inches from the ground, making it take longer than expected to find them all.
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Thankfully many trees were spray painted bright colors along the way.
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Our dog Wendell and the Sister’s dogs Brindle and Katie were our loyal companions during the trek, though only Wendell put up with us the whole day.
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Unseasonable pleasant days like this make me happy for an excuse to be outside.

After a lunch break back at the house, Pepper and Peak, our mediocorely successful mousers, decided that enough snoozing had already happened that day and that they would rather wander along with us through the woods. It seems they regretted their decision soon after we met our first stream, but by that time they had committed in their ventures and followed along with loud yowls to announce their displeasure. Our pace was slowed considerably as we waited for them to daintily scamper through the leaf litter and scurry over fallen logs, but those kitties are troupers and made it through the wilderness with only minimal help. A pretty big accomplishment for such teeny legs!

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Pepper did his best to follow along, yowling every time he lost sight of us through the brush
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Poor Peak did her best to keep up, but after getting lost in the river bottom Ian thought it best to carry her for a while.
Pepper the mini mountain lion searches the river bottom for a trace of the trail of his now-passed owners.
Mini mountain lion Pepper searches the river bottom for the trail of his long-passed owners

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And finally, Sister Kathy’s love of dogs and all other critters surpasses just about everyone else that I know. She often takes her dogs over to our home so that Wendell can have some doggie play dates. Though he’s very timid around people, Wendell has yet to meet a dog he hasn’t immediately liked.

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Sister Kathy loves her canine babies…and they love her! And each other’s butts.

If a Catholic Sister playing with dogs doesn’t warm your heart, then I’m not sure I can relate to you.