Howling at the moon

These are the new wolves of Madison County — human predators far more dangerous than their iconic ancestors.

Oral history has it that Hershel Porshia’s grandfather, an immigrant from France, killed the last wolf in Madison County more than a century ago near Big Bald Mountain. The animals whose lupine cries still haunt many of the deeper coves, ridges and valleys in these mountains are probably the result of interbreeding with dogs gone wild. Wolves, once found almost everywhere in the mountains, have become as extinct hereabouts as the self-sufficient farmer and his loyal, functional family.

The wolf’s reputation as predator and killer of livestock was inflated by fiction and folklore, but they fell victim to hunters and traps, snares and poisoned animals left for them to devour. Wolf Pit Road in Madison County reminds us of one such baited trap. And like the elm, chestnut, pigeon, bison, beaver and elk, wolves exist today primarily as icons and place names — not as magnificent, living creatures.

Wolves and bears now abound in these parts as symbols of a newly “discovered” rustic paradise. Their images and names dot mountain roads and freeway exit signs, part of the lure of a wild that no longer exists. A wolf baying at a quarter moon greets visitors to the Wolf Laurel resort, while at Wolf Ridge — where expensive, Lincoln Log homes are bolted to the side of a now-treeless mountain — the ridge top is dominated by a “hunting lodge” where tourists can enjoy steaks and ribs but little else that’s natural.

Soon, visitors will be able to fly directly onto the mountain, seeing only those parts of the countryside artificially manicured for their enjoyment. As one Floridian observed, “This is one of the most scenic and beautiful places I’ve seen, but all the trees get in the way.” Not for long. Several real estate companies — all with a wolf or bear in their names and logos — are eagerly peddling such rustic dreams, vistas and “mountain lifestyle” to well-heeled outsiders.

These are the new wolves of Madison County — human predators far more dangerous than their iconic ancestors.

Like many mountain counties, Madison finds itself at the focal point of what one travel adviser calls a “perfect confluence” of time and place: rising insurance costs along the coast, with the threat of worse hurricanes to come; baby boomers facing retirement and flush enough to buy pricey second homes; a perceived need for more security in a post 9/11 world; the affluence of the last two decades; and the relatively unspoiled ridge tops of Appalachia. It’s a coming together of circumstances that will make this area — for a few years, anyway — a developer’s dream and a resident’s nightmare.

The fearsome baying of wolves has been replaced by the sound of grinding gravel trucks and angry chain saws. Perhaps the bulldozer, not the atomic bomb or the automobile, may turn out to be the most destructive invention of the last century. We should all beware.

Madison County has seen such convergences before — with the coming of the timber companies in the 1880s, and again in the following decades, when resorts and lodges drew those seeking a rustic Eden. Back then, you could actually hunt bears and other animals for sport. Now people “lodge” in Madison County seeking not the strenuous outdoor life but the security and peace of a gated community.

When you stumble on the ruins of a 19th-century inn like the Buck House, or the outlines of the old Mountain Park Hotel, you can almost see the dreams and conceits of the past. Who knows? Perhaps Mountain Air and Wolf Ridge will one day remind us of our current delusions.

Corporate developers, today’s packs of human wolves, don’t look or sound like predators. Dressed in sheepish overalls and ordinary work clothes, they beguile unsophisticated county commissioners, rubber-stamping zoning boards, passive voters and innocent residents while howling against those who oppose them. They’ll lead us to our doom if we let them, all the while promising feel-good things like better jobs and progress. Who could possibly be against those?

In the end, they’ll devour not just the pristine tops of mountains but a culture that’s existed here for a century or more. Gone will be the trout streams and tree-topped ridges; the small, unspoiled Appalachian river valleys; the quaint farms and homesteads — and with them the sense of place, of community and family, that has set Madison County apart from its urban neighbors. Instead we’ll have public housing for the rich at 4,000 feet.

The threat of wolves at the door has haunted Western minds and mythology since the Dark Ages. These days it’s something of a cliche, but perhaps it will remind us that we need to protect a cherished way of life that’s disappearing fast.

Admittedly, we tend to cry wolf over any development, though few actually threaten us. Most of these latter-day wolves would simply like to coexist with us, sharing a common habitat and obeying rules and codes (both natural and human-made) governing land use, storm-water runoff, ridge-top construction, public safety and health. They understand that all of us — notwithstanding our pretensions and “planned” communities — owe our existence to a 6- to 10-inch layer of topsoil, a few trees and the fact that it rains a lot.

But it’s time to cry wolf for real in Madison County now — over both the scale of many developments and our elected officials’ behavior. Most terrifying of all, we must fight our own government to save our environment and way of life before it’s too late.

[Milton Ready lives in Mars Hill. A UNCA history professor emeritus, he’s the author of The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 2005).]

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