By Sheila McEntee
This year, I celebrate 30 years as a West Virginian. I was born in Maryland and later lived in Massachusetts and North Carolina. But I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in the Mountain State.
I came here in 1989 as a young, married woman with two small children. We moved from Durham, North Carolina, to Charleston so my husband could take a management job with a computer company.
I remember the first time we drove into the city on Interstate 64 and passed the smoking, eerily lit DuPont chemical plant in Belle. Later, while scouting out housing, we saw acres of smoking stacks and pipes at the Carbide and FMC facilities in South Charleston. It was July, and the heat was sweltering. In all our travels, nowhere did I see the quaint, mountain town of my imagination. On our drive home, I cried.
Now, of the four of us, I am the only one remaining in West Virginia. Years ago, my father, who could be curmudgeonly, would pipe up, “When are you going to get out of that backwater state? Everyone is leaving there.” And I would say to him, “Ah, but that is precisely why I want to stay.”
I told my father there was work to be done in West Virginia — good work — and good people who were doing it. Early on, I had found some of those people at West Virginia Citizen Action Group, where I helped produce a newsletter that reached environmentalists across the state. I later found myself where I never imagined I’d be: inside the state Capitol, advocating for the environment and, in particular, state funding for management of threatened species and other nongame wildlife.
After several years and, incredibly, passage of a constitutional amendment, we had a major success: the establishment of the nongame wildlife license plate, common on our roads today, which helps fund stewardship of species not covered by hunting and fishing license fees.
Through this good work, I met people who were deeply knowledgeable about nature. On walks in our state forests, they taught me about wildflowers and birds of the deep woods. I learned to recognize the fiery flash of the American redstart. I fell in love with the flute song of the wood thrush. I marveled at the breathtaking beauty of the dwarf crested iris.
Through the years, the forest became for me a place of both discovery and refuge. When I was grieving, angry, worried, unsure, I’d go to the woods. There, I walked and walked — through a divorce, through the deaths of my parents, through job losses, through my young daughter-in-law’s cancer treatments.
Through many struggles I’ve kept walking. Each time, the tall beeches and pines, the soft mosses and ferns, absorb my worry and grief. Like the lifting off of a heavy pack, they are eased from my body. This relief is not so much from physical exertion, for often my hikes are just ambles. No, it is simply the embrace of the forest that offers me peace.
But there is something more. I’ve hiked with my children, who’ve returned to North Carolina, to beautiful destinations along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The forests there are lovely, too, but they are peopled. On trails, we encounter many other hikers coming and going. We smile, nod and, sometimes, offer a brief hello.
Yet, in West Virginia, I most often find myself alone with my dogs on forest trails. This is part of the joy and healing. After 30 years, it’s hard for me to imagine living any place where woodland solitude is not nearby and available anytime I need it.
On a recent hike in Kanawha State Forest, I stopped and stood quietly, turning to observe the trail behind me. The packed earth wound through tall trees and beside a rushing creek, swollen by recent rains. It was late afternoon and the birds were hushed. The creek’s voice was the only one I could hear. In that moment, one word sprang to my mind: Home.
My father’s words still echo sometimes. Indeed, West Virginia’s out-migration continues to be of great concern. But in the forest, I do not worry about it.
Sheila McEntee is a writer, editor and musician in Charleston. She was editor of Wonderful West Virginia magazine from 2006 to 2014. This article previously appeared in the Charleston Gazette.