“Listening to the Land: Stories from the Cacapon and Lost River Valley”
By Jamie S. Ross.
Photographs by Tom Cogill.
West Virginia University Press, 2013.
“Not for sale.” These strong, simple words resonate throughout a gentle, funny and provoking book that documents the land and people of a West Virginia river valley with two names, incredible natural beauty and whole cast of characters determined to preserve it.
Ralph Spaid is the first valley resident to step forward, at the opening of chapter two. Ralph’s family has been in the Cacapon and Lost River Valley since the Revolutionary War and came to settle on a lovely, secluded tract known as Little Egypt.
Soon after Ralph inherited the land, he was asked to meet with a lawyer.
Ralph knew something was up as soon as the lawyer called him “Mister,” he said. He joked with the lawyer to “watch his tongue” and “just call me Ralph” but, really, that didn’t help the lawyer’s cause at all. He offered Ralph $1 million, $2 million, and then $5 million for his land.
Ralph said no. The purpose of this book, “Listening to the Land,” is to understand why.
The Cacapon and Lost River Valley is a narrow band of bottomland in the West Virginia Appalachians, about an hour west of Washington, DC. Most of the state ripples farther west and south, full of the wilderness for which West Virginia is well-known.
But this valley, tucked in the Eastern Panhandle closest to the nation’s capital, is remarkably tranquil, too. There are roughly 20 people for each square mile, compared with 75 per square mile throughout the state and 9,500 per square mile in the District of Columbia. More than 80 percent of the land is forested, often in large, continuous tracts that have become so rare in the Chesapeake region.
A geological trick earned the river two names. It starts at the southern end of the valley near the town of Mathias and flows north for roughly 30 miles toward Wardensville. There, during times of low flow, it disappears — dropping into the earth as an underground river. When it re-emerges about a mile away, the “Lost” river becomes the Cacapon. From there it runs north in a series of hairpin turns and joins the Potomac River near Berkeley Springs.
Beginning in the 1990s, changes began to reshape life in the valley. Power projects, a four-lane highway and increasing numbers of subdivisions have rattled some long-time residents and driven some, like Ralph Spaid, to protect their land through conservation easements.
The Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust was gifted with many of these easements, which inspired the trust to commission “Listening to the Land.”
In the preface, director Nancy Ailes explains that landowners often share emotional stories with trust staff about their relationship with the land and their passion for protecting it.
“The idea of this book was born when I recognized the potential that these remarkable outpourings had for documenting the valley’s history, introducing newcomers to local values and encouraging land protection,” Ailes wrote.
But rather than a collection of case studies, “Listening to the Land” is a work of art, beautiful to read and to view.
Author Jamie Ross has a front porch, story-telling style that allows the voices of valley residents to sing off the page. By the time you’re done reading, you feel like these steady, thoughtful and humorous folks have just paid you a visit.
Becky Rudolph Ganskopp recounts how her father walked home in a blinding snowstorm by letting a cow lead the way, and her brother, Jack, explains how to check the ripeness of hay by its feel.
Bobby Ludwig returned to the valley after a Wall Street career because, he said, “This is where I am myself.” He has protected his family land and bought other parcels to protect them, too.
Butch Mills still climbs the tree house his father built more than 40 years ago, and Karen Hahn Findley describes the powerful draw of Dutch Hollow and the old family home on Sauerkraut Road. “I can be having a terrible time feeling like I might, just might, come apart, then I come over here for two hours and as the song goes, ‘all is well with my soul,’” she said.
The book is generously illustrated with images of land and people by photographer Tom Cogill. His work is both majestic and personal, conveying a strong sense of place and character that complements the text but communicates without it.
“Listening to the Land” gives warm testimony to the relationships between land and people, but the book also reveals the ways in which those relationships strengthen bonds between humans, too. Its stories remind us to value our own relationships to the land, if we have them. And if we live in a place where those bonds are weak or absent, we might wonder how our lives and neighborhoods would change if we did.
Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities champions this concept in the book’s preface. He writes that the book “articulates the promise that neighbors have made to be in a relationship with the land and with each other, and the stories recounted here seem to me as vital to us all as the oxygen we breathe. They remind us that there are other ways of living together.”
“Listening to the Land” is available from a variety of booksellers. You can also it order directly from the Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust for $25.99, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Trust. Visit www.cacaponguide.com/land-trust or mail a check for $30.99 (includes shipping and handling), payable to “Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust”, RR 1 Box 328, High View, WV 26808.