A Keeper of Shenandoah National Park’s Forgotten Memories

The wreckage of a remote plane crash. An old carbide gas reservoir. A vanished gristmill. And lots of forgotten family burial plots. These are a few traces Sue Eisenfeld has teased from the wilderness of Shenandoah National Park. The physical changes wrought by humans’ hands will soon vanish from the landscape of one of the nation’s most cherished places, but thanks to Eisenfeld, the stories those remnants tell will live on.

Shenandoah National Park

Ruins of the Pocosin Mission, Shenandoah National Park

I had occasion recently to connect with Eisenfeld, a Virginia-based writer, hiker and naturalist, and author of the forthcoming book Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal (University of Nebraska Press), which will hit shelves in early 2015. Eisenfeld’s book chronicles Shenandoah National Park’s lost communities as seen through the lens of the ethereal paths that wander through them.

Shenandoah National Park is a trove of disappearing history. Although the soft peaks and forested hollows are enjoyed by many for their natural beauty, Shenandoah is not the untouched sanctuary some suppose it to be. I wrote earlier of the Pocosin Mission, one of many Blue Ridge communities forsaken when the government bought vast swaths of property, sometimes against landowners’ will, to create the park in the 1930s. It’s a scale of sacrifice that few visitors to Shenandoah genuinely appreciate.

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Remnants of the vanished communities in Shenandoah National Park. Images courtesy Sue Eisenfeld.

I’m eager to read Eisenfeld’s work, and thankfully she’s writing a blog, The Memory-Keepers of the Mountains, that gives a taste of the stories to come. Her skill with language and with drawing the human stories from vanished places are evident in her description of a day trip from a blog entry called “Slaughter Trail.” She writes:

“After a visit to the Lams and Roches in a nearby off-trail cemetery where we remember those we never knew who once made their homes in these mountains, those who lived and loved and perished here on these lands, we trek back to our cars, drive the road to its highest point, break bread together and eat heartily, then wind our way home in the cold, in the dark, in fog thick and threatening enough to erase the landscape and all the stories and memories within.”

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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