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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Virginia Hollow

Air Date: Week of

Southwest Virginia is a land of mountain hollows laced with purple ironweed and goldenrod. It's a place where well-kept secrets are revealed only with the passage of time, says commentator Virginia Shepherd.. Ms. Shepherd comes to us from member station W-M-R-A in Harrisonburg, Virginia.


CURWOOD: Southwest Virginia is a land of mountains that can swallow you up in a single hollow laced with purple ironweed and goldenrod. It's a place where sons are still named after Confederate generals and unkind acts are remembered for generations. It's a place, says commentator Virginia Shepherd, where well-kept secrets are revealed only with the passage of time.

SHEPHERD: A smallish stream, called Copper Creek, winds through this land on its way to meet the Clinch River. The locals fish it for smallmouth bass, kids swim in it, and farmers water their cattle in it. But it's a rare person who speaks of its treasures as precious.

Seventy-one species of fish and 19 species of freshwater mussels live in the bubbly waters of Copper Creek. In fact, the rivers of this region support over 20% of all mussel species in North America, with 45 species living nowhere else on earth. And mostly, they're in trouble.

Twenty years ago you could find over 100 mussels in Copper Creek in an hour and a half. Today, you're lucky to find 6. Mussels, however, are not a family secret much remembered by the folks of Copper Creek. Like arteries and veins coursing through their bodies, the rivers are a cherished essential of their lives, but they think themselves and their lands strong enough to survive any hardship. Experts believe that nearly half of all the mussels in North America are endangered. In some places, the problems are easily defined, but in Copper Creek they are not.

Some say cows wallow too much in the waters, or that pesticides or fertilizers are at fault. Others cling to words like "cumulative impacts," which is a nice way of saying the creek has finally succumbed to the small abuses committed to it over the years. We are dealing, it seems, with the sins of time.

Twenty-nine-year-old Turner Ashby Gilmer III's family has farmed over 700 acres on Copper Creek for 6 generations. He is university-trained and wants to do good by the land and its waters. But he is the first to tell you that no law coming down from Washington will save their rare river creatures. This is a place where moonshine was once a thriving business, and federal agents steer clear of hollows they suspect are full of marijuana. You do not tell these people what to do.

There really is only one way to save the creatures of these rivers. We must keep them attached to their mountain kin. Both the people and the watery creatures of this place are rare finds on this earth. They need one another to survive. They just haven't realized it yet.

CURWOOD: Commentator Virginia Shepherd comes to us from member-station WMRA in Harrisonburg, Virginia. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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