- Every road tells a story about a place.
And the past falling away in the rear view.
I'm in West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, a region whose magnificent mountains and verdant forest have shaped an outdoor way of life that goes back generations.
With that much history, you might think this place is stuck in the past, but travel these roads long enough, and you'll see, just as I have, what's most exciting is what lies ahead.
(soft music) My name is Baratunde Thurston.
I'm a writer, activist, sometimes comedian, and I'm all about exploring the issues that shape us as Americans.
This country is wild, and its natural landscapes are as diverse as its people.
- [Man] There it is, there it is.
- [Baratunde] How does our relationship with the outdoors define us, as individuals and as a nation?
- [Announcer] "America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston" was made possible in part by a grant from Anne Ray Foundation, a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropy.
This program was also made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
Appalachia, it's a region that's best known for its vibrant culture, one that's rooted here In the Appalachian Mountains.
In the shadow of these peaks, indigenous groups, European settlers, and enslaved, as well as free black Americans, built tight knit communities, creating a distinctive way of life that's centered on food, music, and a deep connection to the outdoors.
But the mountains have never been tall enough to keep out change.
And today a new generation has started to redefine this place.
Locals whose families have been here for generations, and newcomers who are bringing fresh perspectives to what the outdoors here can mean for everyone.
So how are people forming that new relationship with these mountains?
That's what I've come here to find out.
As far as where to begin, there is one thread connecting it all.
This is the Appalachian Trail, the AT, America's trail.
Over 2100 miles, traveling through 14 of our states attracting three million of us every year.
Some of us to hike just for a day, others for a section, a small few to hike through the whole thing.
The whole thing is the world's longest hiking path, spanning the entire densely forested, Appalachian mountain range, from Georgia, all the way up to Maine.
And those few intrepid hikers who attempt to complete the whole trail in one go, they're called, through hikers.
And Jennifer Pharr Davis is one of the fastest in the history of the Appalachian Trail.
- Hello, Jennifer.
- Welcome to the shelter.
- Thank you, my I join you?
You wanna hike 2,000 miles?
- 2,000 is a lot of miles.
- Well, let's start with coffee.
Let's be honest.
I'm not gonna be hiking 2,000 miles, but I feel like I'm still gonna need a boost to keep up with Jennifer.
It's like a rocket launch in front of my face.
That's 'cause she's like the Serena Williams of through hikers.
She's hiked the entire Appalachian Trail straight through, not once, not twice, but three times, and set records along the way.
- So how long do you think it would take you to walk that far?
- So I would think that I could maybe do 15 miles in a day, because I know how much time it can take and I need sleep and food.
And to use the bathroom every now and then.
- Yeah, that does happen out there.
- 15, maybe 25, if it's flat.
- At the 13 mile per day average, it would take you six months.
- 2,000 mile trail, six months, you're you're pausing your whole life for this.
- Or are you starting your life?
- Oh, snap.
(laughing) - I'm following you.
- All right.
- [Baratunde] It's a daunting idea, starting your life.
I'll be happy just to make it to the top of this first hill.
Through hikers like Jennifer, often plan and train for years before attempting a through hike.
And even then, only about a quarter who start out actually finish.
- Okay, here we have a trail marker.
So do you wanna go to Georgia or Maine?
- This time of year, Maine.
- It's cooler and they have lobster, and I feel like lobster right now.
- All right.
It's farther to Maine.
- Then Georgia, did I say Maine?
I definitely meant Georgia.
Because I want to eat, they have lobster in Georgia.
- Do they?
- I'm sure of it.
- I figure you've seen a lot of these on all these trails in your life.
What was the first time you saw a marker like this?
- It wasn't exactly like this, but I started in Georgia when I was 21.
I wasn't a hiker, I wasn't a backpacker.
I just needed time to figure out my life.
The trail is a time and place where you can think.
So I got out here, right away I got lost.
It wasn't horrible, but I just thought it was a huge mistake.
Like you don't get lost.
And then I realized at some point everyone, even on a well-marked trail gets lost.
It's just part of any long journey.
I think the Appalachian Trail is so good about reminding us, It's okay to take wrong turns, like it's okay to struggle.
It's okay to not always know where you are.
The important thing is to be able to find your way back and to keep going.
- [Baratunde] That ability of nature to reorient us in life, and challenge us to persevere, was a big part of why Jennifer kept coming back to this trail, but it was also the seed of the original idea for the AT, a century ago.
In 1921, a forester named Benton MacKaye dreamed up a wilderness trail, spanning the Appalachian Mountains, as he was grieving the death of his wife.
He understood the therapeutic qualities of nature, and saw the trail as a way to make them accessible to anyone who might want or need them.
- What's unique about this trail is there aren't the barriers.
You don't have to have the ticket.
It's here for all of us.
- [Baratunde] But while the trail is open to everyone, not all hikers feel equally welcome.
Jennifer's experienced some of that first hand.
- When I started there weren't a lot of single young woman doing it by themselves.
There were times when I felt talked down to because just of my gender.
One of the biggest things is like I would make friends with guys on the trail, and we'd all be hiking together, and they'd have like beards down to here, and we would pass someone who's out there for a day.
And they would stop to talk to us, and they assumed all the guys were doing the whole trail.
And they would think I was like a girlfriend that was out there for just a few days.
- [Baratunde] But Jennifer was in it for the long run.
After finishing her first through hike, she decided to raise the bar.
So she set out again, and this time she wanted to set the record as the fastest woman ever to hike the trail, something that had never been measured before.
- There were really good parts.
There were really hard parts, but something just didn't like feel right when I got to the end.
- What do you mean?
- I realized that in the beginning, I just told myself that what I do would not be as good as what the guys did.
And I told myself a really strong women's record would be like 10 days behind the men's mark.
So that is exactly where I finished.
- You met your own expectations.
- I met my own expectations.
We always think about other people's expectations for us.
But I realize that sometimes the most limiting are what you think that you can do.
I had limited myself, and I had seen it through a gender lens.
And my body was kind of telling me the whole way that it could do more.
- [Baratunde] In 2011, Jennifer set out a third time to break the overall speed record on the AT, male or female.
She'd need to average 47 miles per day, a blistering pace on a course trail, with constant changes in weather and elevation.
- It's so holistically challenging.
Like the day you feel good physically, it's hard emotionally.
The day emotionally, you feel strong, it can be challenging socially.
It just comes at you at every angle.
So it's physical, it's emotional, it's mental, it's spiritual, and it's relentless.
- So are you talking about the Appalachian Trail, or are you talking about life?
- Both, definitely both.
Good things happen when you can take one more step.
Out here, you're constantly overwhelmed if you think like I'm hiking to Maine, so you don't, you just take the next step.
- That adds up.
It added up to 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes.
But Jennifer did it, completing the entire trail one day faster than anyone ever had, with nature throwing everything at her, every step of the way.
- It's rain and cold and snow and heat and bugs and mountains.
Then you have to work through a lot of those valleys alone.
And then the next day work through more valleys.
Because the trail does not discriminate.
If it's raining on me, it's raining on you.
- [Jennifer] Everyone has to climb that mountain, you know?
And so the experience itself does not discriminate.
- [Baratunde] So this is a big hill.
- [Jennifer] You know, on the Appalachian Trail, they call it the green tunnel.
- [Baratunde] I did not know that.
So often you're not in places that are exposed or you get great views, but you're walking through the forest.
- You get green tunnel vision.
- You get green tunnel vision.
- [Baratunde] But every once in a while.
- [Jennifer] Oh man.
- [Baratunde] The dense canopy of trees gives way.
- [Jennifer] Look at this.
Is this it?
Is this the end of the trail?
I did it.
I hiked the Appalachian Trail.
- [Jennifer] Life changing.
- [Baratunde] Looks like lush, thick green carpet.
- A blanket, right?
- Just wanna curl up in the Appalachians.
(acoustic guitar music) - There's actually this saying that hikers use sometimes, that it's like the trail gives you what you need.
At different times I've needed solitude, that other times, a friend, sometimes a challenge, sometimes like a warm rock to sit on, you know, but the trail, it just like always seems to have a way to like give you what you need.
- [Jennifer] And I love that.
- Hmm, me too.
The land gives you what you need.
That idea has captured the Appalachian way of life since well before the trail existed, when small scale farming, hunting and fishing sustained these mountain communities.
Actually, they still do.
Just ask Mark Lilly, a native West Virginian, who's seen up close how well nature can provide for people.
And also what happens when resources run out.
- How are you?
- Doing great, how about yourself?
- Great, Mark Lily.
- Baratunde Thurston, good to meet you.
- [Mark] Why don't you come up and sit down and let's talk for a while.
- I love rocking chairs.
How long has your family been in this area?
1700 and something.
They moved to this area, a lot of them were like Scottish and Irish immigrants.
They just wanted to make a wage.
They weren't looking to get rich.
They just wanted to be able to support a family.
Times were tough there.
They moved here and I suspect the hills probably reminded them of the hills where they grew up at.
- [Baratunde] The mountains here weren't just a link to the past though, because buried within them was something that would change Appalachia's future.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal transformed this region's economy and culture.
And for over a hundred years, mining these deposits pumped billions of dollars into the region.
- There was such an economic boom.
And I think everyone in the back of their mind knew it wouldn't last forever.
- [Baratunde] By the 1990s, the most accessible coal had been mined out.
Many ecosystems had been disrupted or destroyed.
And since then, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost.
- I've lived here my whole life.
These communities I've kind of slowly watched them fade, from the 70s and 80s when the coal boom was going, into basically towns where they're isn't anything.
Now you're seeing people that just look hopeless.
They didn't know what the future held.
- They needed to help, they needed an idea.
Think outside the box.
- Actually, in this case, the idea came from inside a box.
A box full of bees.
And more importantly, honey.
It turns out beekeeping is an Appalachian tradition as old as the hills.
- When this land was settled, every small farm here, there'd be a cow and some chickens, and a couple of hives for sweetener.
And I think we're just getting back to that now.
- And this area's unique natural environment is the perfect setting to create an array of honey flavors, unlike any I've ever heard of.
- This is the Appalachian forest, one of the oldest forests in the world.
So we have the different varieties of honey, sourwood, black locust, tool of poplar, gas wood.
Each floral season produces a different taste.
- Sounds like you're talking about wine.
- [Mark] Yeah, exactly.
- [Baratunde] Mark is a master beekeeper for the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people in former mining areas, earn income making and selling honey.
- [Mark] We provide them with bees and equipment and mentors.
So they take care of the bees.
We take the boxes off, bring it back here to our plant.
And then we extract it for them, and pay them immediately.
And then we bottle it, market it and sell it.
- [Baratunde] And while it's not anywhere near as profitable as coal mining, in these communities, every dollar counts.
- For many people, an extra three or four thousand dollars a year seems like not a lot of money, but if you're in some of the poorer areas of the country, that's big.
Here's your jacket.
- [Baratunde] Thank you.
Mark tells me beekeeping isn't for the faint of heart.
Not because of the bee stings.
I feel like an astronaut.
But because it's hard work.
We're going where no man has gone before.
Lynn Reid first took Mark's class in 2018, and she's been growing her colony ever since.
How many hives do you have here?
- Whoa, that feels like a lot, as someone who has zero hives.
If 13 hives feels like a lot, it sounds like a lot too.
The buzzing in my head is insane.
Does the buzzing ever drive you a little mad?
(buzzing) - Do you hear the hive when you're not in the hive?
- Okay, just me.
I guess you could say that Lynn lets her bees do the talking, all three million of them.
I have never just stood among bees like this in my life.
I'm surprised at how calm I am, but you two are calm.
So I'm like, if you are aren't freaking out, I'm not gonna be the one to freak out.
(electric guitar music) As I pretend to be cool with all this, Mark and Lynn are looking for full frames to take back to the collective's processing facility for harvesting.
But while I'm assured that bottled honey is absolutely delicious, Mark tells me that honey eaten right off the frame is even better.
- You're just going to scoop out somewhere here in the middle, just like scooping ice cream right now.
All right, let's get a little taste.
- They make good honey.
- That is so sweet.
- [Mark] So good.
- This is the best honey I've ever had.
Like you don't even have to wash the spoon, I did it for you.
It's super clean.
Sometimes you just have slow down and taste the honey.
What have the bees taught you?
- Patience, above all, patience.
Everything slows down in a hive.
If you're in a hurry, and you're creating a lot of bumping and vibration, they defend against that.
So as long as you're slow and steady, kind of move with them, they're relaxed.
- [Baratunde] Slow and steady, instead of boom and bust.
It's a completely different way of moving with nature for many of these former mining communities.
But, change is hard, especially in a place where nature and identity are so tightly knit.
- When you start to talk about environmental issues, sometimes depending on the area you're from, you feel a little drawback, right?
But I can say this, well, don't you want your children and grandchildren to have every bit of the clean water and beautiful forest that you had?
What can you do?
And then what can this community do?
What can we accomplish?
So that's what you want to see blossom.
Just these communities.
Instead of being covered in coal dust, we want to see flowers and things blooming.
- [Baratunde] Dusting off the old to make way for the new.
I'm starting to see how Appalachia is a place of reinvention.
And one case in point is where I'm headed next.
The New River Gorge, our country's newest National Park.
It was created in 2020, in part to boost the local economy, but it also seems pretty effective at raising people's spirits.
- The Gorge is one of the prettiest places I've seen.
- The views are amazing.
- It's all about the scenery, bridges and mountains.
- I think the thing that is really great about this particular area are all of the overlooks.
I don't think there's a more beautiful drive in all of the east coast.
- Come here Red Rose, come here baby girl.
Would you sit down, please?
- [Baratunde] It seems that original idea behind the AT, that nature can be therapeutic, applies elsewhere in this region, and to all kinds of people.
- It's also just peaceful and so relaxing.
- It's a great way to de-stress.
- Being out in nature for me, it just brings me back down to Earth.
- [Baratunde] Of course for some of us, getting outdoors isn't about lowering our blood pressure.
- [Baratunde] It's about getting our heart pumping.
- Appalachia is a playground for everyone.
Mountain biking, hiking.
- Running and hiking.
- Road climbing, zip lining.
- Playing disc golf.
- Just even getting in the tubes and going down the river.
- Man, I love it all.
- You're a good girl aren't you?
Are you good girl?
- [Baratunde] But if I really want to get a dose of adrenaline, there's one thing everyone here agrees I've got to try.
And I'll find that on the New River itself.
But don't let the name fool you.
It's over 300 million years old, making it by far, the oldest river in North America.
It also contains some of the world's most merciless currents.
But if I was able to handle three million bees, surely I can survive these rapids, with the help of a man who's learned to master them.
- How's it going?
- Nice to meet you.
- [Baratunde] Meet Eric Thompson, a class five river rafting guide, and outdoor accessibility advocate.
He's taken on some of the toughest rapids in the US.
Today, he's taking me out on the river he calls home.
I mean, I've done this once before, but it's been a very long time.
- So this is gonna be a much larger experience, everything will be much bigger.
It's gonna be fun, it's gonna be splashy.
Just be a great introduction to this river.
- [Baratunde] Eric was born and raised West Virginia, and he's always been an outdoor fanatic.
For over a decade, he traveled the country, living, working, and playing in the best of this country's wild spaces.
But in 2012, a car accident changed his life in the blink of an eye.
- Before my accident, I loved getting outdoors.
I loved teaching outdoor sports.
I worked as a ski patroller and an EMT in the winter.
- Whoa, so you were on water and frozen water.
- That's correct, the best low paying jobs in the world.
When I became injured, I ended up paralyzed from the chest down.
Had to start living life as a TA paraplegic.
- [Baratunde] Before, Eric felt at ease navigating some of the most extreme environments on Earth.
Now back home in West Virginia, he was in a wheelchair, and challenged by even the most basic tasks.
- I had a whole new world of accessibility issues opened up to me.
And so first things first, like figuring out what type of equipment works for everyday life, just for, you know, shopping, how do you reach top shelfs?
And the worst place for accessibility was welcome home to West Virginia.
The town that I lived in 22 of 26 businesses had steps that I couldn't get into with my wheelchair.
- [Baratunde] If getting in and out of local stores and restaurants was difficult, accessing outdoor spaces, like the national parks and rivers Eric loved, that was even tougher.
Eric set out to change that.
It sounds like you experienced partial paralysis, but you kept moving, right?
- Yeah, I wasn't gonna let it stop me.
You know, it's not going to be easy, but it's not impossible it's just harder.
- [Baratunde] While there were some outdoor activities Eric loved that were already adaptive, getting back on the rapids wasn't as straightforward.
- Those vehicles that I used to use and love getting out on.
None of that worked for my situation after I was paralyzed.
I'd either be cargo, or I wasn't gonna be able to paddle effectively.
- Describe what you mean when you say you'd be cargo.
- You could sit on the floor, you could watch, get splashed.
That's a lot of fun, but it's more fun if we can just paddle effectively.
So I had to figure out a different way to do that.
And that led me to being connected with the people from Creature Crafts, and these rafts were made for extreme white water, and rescue, where you just really do not wanna swim.
With the help of all my friends we brainstormed, modified it.
So this was the first boat that I got in and tried.
And the second that I got in, we knew game on, this was gonna work.
This allows me to run classify plus white water solo by myself.
Okay, let's get on down to the river.
A little muddy.
- [Baratunde] The original raft was designed like an inflatable roll cage, to keep someone completely out of the water in the event it tips over.
- [Eric] You hand made those orders in a second.
- [Baratunde] Eric's crucial modification was the addition of a high back seat, which keeps him upright and lets him steer and paddle using only his arm muscles.
Let's get wet.
- You ready?
- Let's go rafting.
(laughing) - Okay, that's a drop.
(hooting) My man, give me some love.
So this is why you do it.
- This is why I do it.
This is our first step up and we got a lot more to go.
- [Baratunde] What does it do for you, being so close to nature like this?
- [Eric] It puts me at peace, really.
A little bit of quiet.
Chill, but also get a little excitement.
A lot of times we were dancing with the river.
- Dancing with the river.
I love that.
It's kind of romantic.
Sometimes that dance is a ballet.
(acoustic guitar music) - [Eric] So we're gonna get a little bit of splash.
- [Baratunde] Other times it's a little more avant garde.
- [Eric] There we go.
- [Baratunde] Either way, it's a dance that Eric wants everyone to be able to enjoy as much as he does.
- [Eric] I love my life.
- [Baratunde] That's why in 2013, Eric started a nonprofit adaptability business to help increase disability access to national parks around the country.
- The largest minority in the United States are people with disabilities, both in West Virginia and across the US.
And so all the activities we do here, be it biking and climbing and boating and caving.
You know, any of those activities, with a little bit of hard work and bubble gum and duct tape, there's an ability to make an adaptive version of it, that allows people of all abilities to enjoy the same thing.
So how do you feel right now?
- I feel amazing.
- It'd feel like that for everybody.
There's always a way to do whatever you love.
So anybody who's out there, if you have a deficit, doesn't really matter.
At some point in our lives, we all have deficits.
So think what it is that you want to do, what is that passion?
If you can't do it yet, let's figure out how to do it.
- [Baratunde] Overcoming obstacles to reconnect with natural wonders.
That seems to be what's happening all across Appalachia.
If you think of Appalachia as a place that's stuck in the past, think again.
Yes, it's steeped in tradition.
It's old, like the mountains it's named for, but like this river, it's not sitting still.
It's moving forward, carving a path through seemingly impenetrable stone, carrying this old place into new territory.
At every turn, Appalachia has struck me as a place that defies expectation.
And it's hard not to wonder what other surprises it has in store.
Well, hello there.
What have we here?
A gourmet meal being prepared to classical music?
No, I haven't been magically transported to a high end New York City restaurant.
This is The Shack, a James Beard award-nominated restaurant, owned by Chef Ian Boden, located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.
And most of the ingredients in those world class dishes he's cooking, come from right here in the valley, foraged wild by this man, Tyler Trainer.
What's up, man?
- How you doing?
Nice to be here.
- Nice to have you out.
- Where is here?
- We're at Autumn Olive Farms.
It's a family farm we run.
We do sustainable free-range hogs, and we also do a lot of foraging naturally, on the property.
There's a little combination, a little of everything.
- [Baratunde] You have everything here.
- Yeah, yeah.
- [Baratunde] How long has the family been in this area?
- We've been in this area for four generations.
- What's been the impacts of being in this region for so many generations?
How does that affect your food, your lifestyle?
- There's a lot of history with it, and there's things that are passed down.
We've always ate pretty wild, growing up.
- When you say eating wild, you mean going out and getting your food?
- Yes, yes.
- Not from the store.
- Not from the store.
- [Baratunde] Not in a can.
- No, not frozen, not boxed.
- [Baratunde] So what's the wild you're talking about?
- Deer, rabbits, mushrooms, watercress, different types of garlic, mustard greens.
It was just really endless.
- [Baratunde] Foraging is an Appalachian tradition passed down from indigenous groups across centuries.
Now Tyler's helped to turn that tradition into a business with his family.
And while they do produce some free range hogs, cattle and fruit trees, the real crops are found in the farm's 17 acres of forest.
So you got me hungry and curious.
Can I see some of these wild foods you've been talking about?
- Love to show you.
Your trusty steed's right here.
- Oh, this is what you call a steed, huh?
- That's a modern horse.
(acoustic guitar music) - [Baratunde] I can definitely see how such lush land would produce great food.
And the geology of the Appalachian Mountains plays a really big part in that.
- [Tyler] In these valleys the mounds have eroded down over millions of years, and the soil's so fertile and there's nutrients and there's almost a terroir in our food.
- I like that word, terroir.
What does that mean?
- It's a big term in wand, but it's term for a flavor that the environment creates.
- [Baratunde] As these mountains eroded over time, mineral rich soil built up in the valley, and that unique soil gives the plants here flavors found nowhere else in the world.
- [Tyler] This is one of my favorites, 'cause it has a nice canopy.
This has been called the bread basket of the South, 'cause we have everything from apples to pigs to corn, to all these heirloom things dating back since this valley was settled.
- [Baratunde] These natural ingredients are the same ones Tyler's great great grandparents would've foraged and eaten a century ago, a far cry from the fruits and veggies at the supermarket, many of which have been bred to extend their shelf life, or improve how they look.
So when I think about picking food, I think about what aisle of the grocery store I'm in.
- [Tyler] Absolutely.
- I can sort of find my way around like a backyard garden.
I have no idea what I'm looking at here.
- Yeah, the grocery store has kind of taken that instinct away from us.
Oh, we have some sassafras.
- I love the sound of that word.
- [Tyler] It's fun to say.
- [Baratunde] Okay, between me and you.
I've definitely heard of sassafras.
- [Tyler] I've got one of these little guys here.
- [Baratunde] But I have no idea what it actually is.
Woo where'd that knife come from?
- Yeah, on the hip, on the hip.
- [Baratunde] Oh, you're processing it for me.
It's a different, I think of like autumn spice, like cloves.
Is this root beer?
- That's how they used to make it, old sassafras root beer.
- I'm so stupid.
It's a root, and then you make the drink out of it.
So it's literally root.
I thought root beer came from a root.
- Old, old, yeah.
- Oh that's dope.
Can we make some root beer with this?
It's surreal to realize that the taste I've known all my life, comes from this raggedy brown root I'm pretty sure I'd never seen before.
Yeah, you're going in my basket.
- [Baratunde] All right.
It makes me wonder what other flavors are hiding in plain sight.
- [Tyler] Oh nice, here's some turkey tail.
- Turkey tails.
- Turkey tails.
- Turkey tail mushrooms.
I'm looking for a bird man.
Tyler's foraging expertise feels hyper local, thanks to family roots here, that run deep.
- [Tyler] All right, let's see what else we got in here.
- [Baratunde] But he's also part of a nationwide movement to recover wild food traditions that we've lost in the supermarket era.
A sign that Appalachia's connection to its past can actually put it ahead of the curve.
- To go out and harvest something, have it come back and give you health and happiness.
It's a feeling that's very hard for anyone to understand until they do it, to come out here and to find this wild mushroom, and to saute with some butter and just, it's a euphoric thing for me.
As more people try it, they'd find that too, 'cause there's so many different types of flavors and textures and complex things that we don't have in our diets nowadays.
We got some blackberries.
- What's the best outcome, if we get more of our food through foraging in this way?
- [Tyler] With the more knowledge that's out there, I hope people start seeing how blessed we are to live in a place like this.
That's bountiful for us, and gives to us as long as we treat it right, and don't take too much.
- [Baratunde] Foraging this way is so in sync with the land.
But here with Tyler, it also feels like a way of life, one where the outdoors can be a part of your every day.
To me that's brand new.
- Very fragrant.
- [Baratunde] But here that's just tradition.
- I like that this was passed down to me, and I've been taught this, and I like to progress it, and be able to share with other people, hopefully ignites an interest in them like it did me.
Once you get out, it's just puts you in tune to things that we haven't been in for a long, long time.
- [Baratunde] It's another way that experiencing outdoor Appalachia can feel like going back in time, while looking ahead to a better future, even as escaping modern life gets more difficult.
I'm headed to Shenandoah National Park, in Appalachia's Blue Ridge Mountains, to meet someone finding new ways to connect to nature in our evolving world.
His name is Jared Blake.
- Baratunde, nice to meet you.
- Jared, nice to meet you.
Jared hails from Connecticut, and works as a landscaper, thanks to his love of being outside.
But in 2018 he decided to embark on a side project that changed the way he saw nature, or rather the way he heard it.
- When I got started, I was filming audio and video of myself, hiking around with a GoPro.
And when I got into post-production and I was editing everything, I was really disappointed with the audio.
So I started researching, how do you go about recording audio out in the woods?
And that's how I stumbled into field recording.
- [Baratunde] Jared's recordings revealed a dimension of nature many of us don't give much attention to.
What can we get from the sound of nature, versus the sight of nature?
- There's an excitement aspect to it, hearing a sound that you've never heard before.
And that's something that really keeps me motivated in this field is capturing those sounds that very few people on this planet have heard, and not a lot of people will ever hear it.
(animal ticking) - [Baratunde] Jared is on a quest to record unique sounds, and he won't be satisfied until he's documented the breadth of nature's soundscape all over the country.
So far he's built a sonic museum of over a thousand natural sounds.
(animal moaning) (animal hooting) (splashing) (animal calling) - So many of us are living disconnected from the natural world, largely.
And for a lot of people they're only experience with nature is leaving their house, getting into their car and then driving away.
And that in between times.
- And like a shrub in between.
- You know, what was really interesting was that the sounds of most people's everyday life, which is cars, traffic, AC running.
- Electrical buzz.
- Exactly, buzz is a great word.
There's always a buzz around you, it never stops.
And what people have found researching that, is that it has a negative effect on the body over time.
- [Baratunde] Studies have shown that overexposure to human made sounds produces a stress response in our bodies.
- [Jared] Wildlife, they're also impacted by the sound.
For example, if there's sound in the same frequency spectrum that a wildlife species makes its call at, and it's human made, and it never stops, it will actually prevent those species from reproducing in the numbers that they normally would, because of the interference at that same bandwidth of sound.
- We're like jamming their signal.
- [Baratunde] In humans meanwhile, the sounds of nature seem to restore us to a better mental state.
(birds singing) - [Jared] One of the main reasons that I enjoy recording, is that my collection of sounds is a portable collection of pure peace.
Put the headphones on and close your eyes.
- And then just really tune in.
And that's really what it's all about, is slowing way down.
(birds chirping) Tuning into the sounds of nature, and just allowing whatever comes to you to come.
(birds chirping) So in a lot of it's very meditative.
- Today, Jared's excited to record in the Park's Big Meadows, located at the top of a mountain and surrounded by dense Appalachian forest.
It features a unique combination of mountain, forest, and meadow ecosystems that Jared has never captured before.
- What I'm really hoping to capture in the meadow is really biodiverse landscape of sound, because all those pollinators are out there, pollinating the plants.
- All those birds are out there eating the pollinators.
So we're gonna see what it sounds like.
- Listen to the circle of life.
(acoustic guitar music) - Welcome to the Big Meadow.
- I see why it has the name.
- [Jared] Yeah.
Right now the sun is starting to go down, which is actually a really good time to start recording, because wildlife is starting to wake up.
People are starting to go to sleep.
Those roads are quieting down.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
So it's like rush hour.
- [Jared] Yeah, it may be pretty busy out there.
- [Baratunde] Even in this high mountain meadow, it's impossible to escape human made sound.
(aircraft overhead) But it should quiet down enough at night for nature to rise above the din.
- So let's pull off to the side here and set up our mics.
- All right.
(cricket chirping) - [Baratunde] As I scan the meadow, different sounds slide in and out at the silence.
(chirping) It's like a radio with thousands of different stations.
As I point it up, I don't hear much.
And then right at the tree line, there's like a, a cricket right there.
Yeah, there it is.
(cricket chirping) Wow.
(cricket chirping) This is creepy.
In a good way.
And this is just the opening act.
What can we expect to change sound wise, as the sun goes down?
- The birds are gonna really quiet down, as they come back home and go to sleep, and the insects are gonna really come alive.
I think there's gonna be a ton of crickets, and we may hear even some moths with that, buzzing around, then it may even be really, really loud with the insects.
They tend to be very high decibels.
- [Baratunde] As the daylight makes its exit, sound takes center stage.
(birds chirping) (insects chirping) (animal hooting) (animal howling) My ears are open to sounds I have never experienced before.
from small creatures with so much to say.
What do you want people to know about sound?
- And I think people are really like feeling the effect of missing nature.
And one of the things that I use my collection of nature sounds for, is to bring me back to that connection with nature, so that when I don't have the time to get out here in the woods, I can still experience it.
And it just is another way to bring my body into being connected with planet Earth.
- Which is really where we're meant to be.
That's where we came from.
- There's a memory associated with sound too, just as there is with photos.
So I look at a picture from a trip, and it kind of takes me back to that trip.
And sometimes I hear a sound, I hear a song, I hear a sound, I'm like, oh, it takes me back to that moment.
But what you've just described feels like a deeper memory, almost like a species level memory.
- [Jared] Yeah.
In sync with, in tune with the environment.
In tune with the environment, it means more than just how we hear.
It's how we stay connected to all the facets of outdoor life.
I look out over these blue ridges, and I listen to the sounds of nature I usually tune out, and I see people adapting, physically adapting, economically adapting, which is hard.
To change and to grow and to prepare for a future while staying rooted, that's a difficult trick, on the one hand, but on the other, it might be the only way to grow, to be rooted and reach up at the same time.
This really is a place rooted in outdoor tradition, but the Appalachia I've seen, isn't stuck in the past.
It's a place that's inspired by it, and is moving ahead.
Whether it's age old ways of life being rediscovered, ancient landscapes inviting trailblazers to break down barriers, or natural wonders drawing in new people and new perspectives.
Sure, this place has seen its ups and downs, but the Appalachia I found is full of hope.
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