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“There is a phenomenon called ‘Trail Magic'”*…

 

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Each year, about a thousand people complete a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, walking the 2,192 miles that run from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Millions more follow the trail for some shorter stretch, whether along the alpine ridge of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, or the downtown sidewalks of Damascus, Virginia, making the trail corridor one of the most well used and widely recognized recreational sites in the world.

But the original concept for tracing out a hiking path along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, dreamed up almost a century ago by the planner, forester, and idiosyncratic social reformer Benton MacKaye, was so radical that MacKaye himself feared it would be dismissed as “bolshevistic.” What MacKaye envisioned when he first proposed the trail in a 1921 article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects was something far beyond a woodsy recreational amenity. This “project in regional planning,” as MacKaye called it, was meant to be a thoroughgoing cultural critique of industrial modernity — a template for comprehensive economic redevelopment at a scale never before attempted in the United States. The project drew on ideas ranging from forest conservation to socialist central planning, and its effects were intended to be felt just as strongly in the booming urban centers of the eastern seaboard as in the devastated hill towns of the Appalachian uplands…

In its original concept, the Appalachian Trail was more than a hiking path. It was a wildly ambitious plan to reorganize the economic geography of the eastern United States: “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.”

* Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods, an account of his hike along the Appalachian Trail

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As we walk the walk, we might recall that it was on this date in 1932 that an act of Congress created Hot Springs Reservation, to be “preserved for future recreation,” in Arkansas.  Established before the concept of a national park existed in the U.S., it was the first time that American land had been set aside by the federal government in this way.  It became a National Park in 1921.

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Pool of hot spring water in Hot Springs National Park

 

“We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity”*…

 

According to Bioversity International, an international research and policy organization, just three crops — rice, wheat and maize — provide more than half of plant-derived calories consumed worldwide. This is a problem because our diets are heavy in calories, sugar and saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables…

Generally, agrobiodiversity is significantly lower in wealthy nations, where the industrial food system pushes toward genetic uniformity. For example, federal agriculture policy in the United States tends to favor raising large crops of corn and soybeans, which are big business. Crop subsidiesfederal renewable fuel targets and many other factors reinforce this focus on a few commodity crops.

In turn, this system drives production and consumption of inexpensive, low-quality food based on a simplified diet. The lack of diversity of fruit and vegetables in the American diet has contributed to a national public health crisis that is concentrated among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Low agrobiodiversity also makes U.S. agriculture more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change.

To connect these conditions to agrobiodiversity, consider potatoes. Although the United States has 10 times more people than Peru, only about 150 varieties of potato are sold here. Six varieties account for three-quarters of our national potato harvest. They dominate because they produce high yields under optimal conditions and are easy to store, transport and process — especially into french fries and potato chips. Federal policies have helped these varieties become established by reducing the cost of irrigation…

Global shifts of urbanization, migration, markets, and climate can be compatible with agrobiodiversity, but other powerful forces are undermining it: “Agrobiodiversity Is Disappearing at a Time When We Need It Most.”

To put all of this in (very) deep historical perspective, see also: “Why Did We Start Farming.”

* E. O. Wilson

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As we value variety, we might spare a thought for Benton MacKaye; he died on this date in 1975.  A forester, planner, professor, and conservationist, he wrote widely on land preservation and on the need to balance human needs and those of nature, and he co-founded The Wilderness Society.  But he is best known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail— a 2,000-mile footpath from Maine to Georgia– an idea he presented in his 1921 article titled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.  The Benton MacKaye Trail, some portions of which coincide with the Appalachian Trail, is named for him.

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