Thursday, July 30, 2015


Last weekend, we took our annual overnight trip to the Shenandoah National Park. When I first saw the mountains and woods as a child, and even later when we camped there during our own children's early years, I thought of that setting as a wilderness. My natural habitat was city (a few years of living with my grandmother in a slightly run-down but still respectable section of Norfolk) and suburbs (the kind of environment Erma Bombeck gently satirized). The Blue Ridge Mountains looked to me like the forest primeval.

As I later learned—definitely not! Contemporary tourists don't see the same land that the first settlers found. For instance, chestnut trees, which once comprised a large percentage of the tree canopy, were nearly wiped out by blight in the early twentieth century. Over the years, invasive species such as starlings and kudzu have been imported.

Far from pristine wilderness, the park has been heavily shaped by human action. Rather than old-growth forest, the woods around the Skyline Drive occupy land once inhabited and farmed by people of the Appalachian Mountains, almost 500 families, who were displaced in the 1930s to make room for the park. Some of them willingly sold their homes to enjoy modern conveniences and the advantages of having highways built through the region. Others resisted the government's offers and were forcibly evicted. The supporters of the park project inaccurately represented the locals as backward, isolated hillbillies who would be better off if dragged into the modern era. Here's some interesting background information:

The Displaced

In the process of founding the park, the area was allegedly "restored" to a state of nature. In fact, the "natural" setting we enjoy today was created by the obliteration of vacated homesteads and the deliberate planting of trees, including varieties not native to the region. Wildlife was introduced, including deer, turkey, trout, and black bears. Signs warn against feeding or otherwise approaching bears, but we've run across only a few. Deer, however, regularly wander near human habitations and are very approachable. You can walk up within a few yards without inciting them to run away, if you don't make any sudden moves. They seem to know, somehow, that they won't be hunted within the park.

The "preservationist vs. developer" trope has become so familiar in fiction that some romance publishers' guidelines forbid stories on that premise. In the Shenandoah National Park, oddly, the preservationists and developers were the same. Commercial interests boosted the park project so they could build lodges and other profit-making enterprises on the newly dedicated federal lands. And yet they did protect wilderness, even if it was modified wilderness, for future visitors—although sometimes at the expense of families who'd lived there for generations. In creating a faux "natural" environment, they were sort of un-developers.

I used the development vs. preservation plot in one of my erotic romance novelettes, "Aquatic Ardor." My hero, who wants to sell part of the land around the lake adjacent to his family's vacation house, now his home, isn't a bad guy. He needs the money to survive in his early retirement lifestyle. The company trying to buy the land plans to build expensive summer residences on large lots, not high-density construction that would wreck the landscape. Unfortunately, the hero doesn't know that an undine lives in the lake, and almost any alteration would ruin it for her:

Aquatic Ardor

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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