Fairmont/Marion County Arboretum

The Times West Virginian, Fairmont’s daily newspaper, carried a full-banner, top-of-page article October 14, “MCPARC hopes to develop East Side property.” MCPARC is Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission. Rather than rehash the full newspaper tale, I will hit THE Highlight. Recently (we can’t determine exactly when), a rainbow’s end paused along the Monongahela River, east side, within the city limits, adjacent to May Brothers Co on Wabash Street. How do we know? It left a pot of gold!

Forty-six acres of green gold – acreage that Marion County has owned for some time, but that time (and memories of former city officials) had forgotten. Because at heart I am a forester/applied ecologist (I just stumbled into higher education administration), Fairmont, WV community leaders invited me to tour the property and help envision its future. I also viewed that future through my Fairmont State University (FSU) interim president lens. We began with discussion indoors at the MCPARC offices. From there, several of us convoyed to the property. We parked at an old concrete materials-handling pad. The May Brothers buildings, built solidly a century ago, still stoutly anchor the site and the current operations. The buildings, in fact, are senior to the adjacent forest trees. We quickly exited our vehicles, descending a jeep trail into the forest.

What did I see, beginning with the indoor session? First, overwhelming energy and enthusiasm by MCPARC’s John Provins, May Brothers’ Mike Staud and Ronnie Nichols (the proprietors), Main Street Fairmont’s Nikki Lewis, and Northern West Virginia Brownfields’ redevelopment specialist Kate Greene. I saw an emerging dream, one with vision, determination, and a dedication to action. Without those three elements, a dream is merely a fantasy. I saw possibility leaning toward probability. I saw yet another opportunity for FSU to engage reciprocally with business, government, and citizens to ensure a brighter future.

Feeling as though I was playing hooky from Hardway Hall (FSU’s “Old Main”), I spent several hours of an August-like afternoon wandering (and wondering) through a remarkably diverse parcel along the river, and transected by a feeder stream falling from alongside May Brothers. I have held for many years that every forested property has a legacy story… a natural and human history. The remnant infrastructure reminded me of the WWII bunkers, armaments, barriers, and hillside roads remaining on Dutch Harbor, mid-arc on the Aleutians. Recall that the Japanese had occupied a couple of the west-end islands, recaptured with great expense and considerable casualties (1,000 American dead; 2,000 Japanese). Whether military act or industrial development, we leave our mark.

A Rich Legacy

This newly re-discovered (rainbow enabled!) Marion County property (I’ll dub it the Fairmont/Marion County Arboretum (FMCA)) has a deep legacy story. Our too-brief trek served as a teaser, hinting at the possibilities and evidencing the rich past. Two railroads intersected. Long-span trestles bridged the hilly topography, one actually passing under the other. Railroads competed back then. History left palpable traces — no, much more significant than mere traces! The old concrete trestle abutments, disassembled bridge beams, abandoned rail-bed ties still in-place, and even a lovely brick pump-house riverside. All speak to the rich human history. As do the woods paths, dirt/gravel roads, and actual rail beds that as hiking trails will offer easy access to the entire FMCA.

The land legacy story should be told. I’d like to write it. I want to examine old aerial photos that may trace the past 70 years. Photos that will confirm (or challenge) what I might interpret from the land and the current forest. My assumption is that photo coverage will easily reach back to a time when the trains still ran, when the May Brothers site took root, and when the hills supported little forest cover.

The rugged terrain, which extends from ridge top to river flood plain, provides for a wide range of soils and site productivity. Human influences from industrial activity, to road and RR construction and maintenance, to fuel-wood harvesting and occasional fire, have created a diverse forest… one rich with species and serving as a great base for the FMCA. I tallied nearly thirty tree species on our short hike. We all felt a sense of wilderness, although the tract is far from being “untrammeled by man.” I saw a few non-native species, most-likely naturalized citizens of this riverside plant community. I envisioned a systematic species inventory, perhaps by a botany graduate student. Mike and Ronnie would like to re-purpose their buildings — senior-level or master’s project fodder for our architecture majors. I’d like to see low-altitude, drone photos of the FMCA. Another student project. Opportunities for learning and research are unlimited.

The old railroad beds along this east side of the river stand as one of the unconnected links in a 1,400-mile Rail-to-Trail network. John told us that from one of the bluffs, downtown Fairmont is clearly visible, and surprisingly close. The rails to trail connecting from Prickett’s Fort to Palatine Park transects the FMCA. Ultimately, many thousands of hikers/bikers will visit the Arboretum annually. The FMCA will be one more pearl on a necklace that will make Fairmont and Marion County soar and prosper. Our Fighting Falcon students will bike from campus to FMCA. In fact, we will attract students who otherwise would enroll elsewhere. Same for workers, businesses, residents, and retirees.

One of my FSU Presidential frustrations is that when I bemoan some element or other of FSU’s current situation (e.g., we have one of the lowest percentage out of state students among our peers), I hear reasons (excuses?) for why that is the case. Instead, I want ideas, dreams, innovations, and actions that will inspire and lift us. The same holds for Fairmont and Marion County. Don’t tell me why Fairmont/Marion County doesn’t have nor ever will have an Arboretum. Instead, dream with John, Mike, Ronnie, Nikki, and Kate – make it happen. Invite me back for the ribbon cutting! I ended my Times West Virginian column with those words.

Unfortunately, such contentment-sentiment can infect and stifle innovation and creativity, whether a university, NGO, governmental agency, or business. Once again, Nature offers some sage wisdom and common sense. Recall the tried and true folklore wisdom that only the turtle willing to extend his neck makes progress. Poor old Rip Van Winkle — the world swept past for twenty years as he slept. Remember the story of the ant and the grasshopper. So many North-central West Virginia communities have slumbered. Jobs and workers have out-migrated. Yet this is a region with abundant natural and aesthetic resources. The group I accompanied is following the advice I have oft-repeated in these Great Blue Heron posts. We must Look, See, Feel, and Act. My role is to help them see more clearly what lies before them. To deepen their appreciation and sharpen their inspiration. They are ready to act. I am ready to assist by directing them to expertise and to those who might share their mission and accelerate their action.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

And I can tell the tale that connects the land’s past to a truly vibrant future… one rooted in a commitment to Earth stewardship, conservation, and responsibility to the future. The Fairmont/Marion County Arboretum must be linked to the past, and anchored to Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. For generations hence, today’s Land Legacy Tale will be extending one day, one year, one decade at a time… and beyond.

As I complete this post, I found and am playing Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow:

“Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
there’s a land that I have heard of once in a lullaby
somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
and wake up where the clouds are far behind me
where troubles melt like lemon drops
way above the chimney tops that’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
birds fly over the rainbow why then oh why can’t I?”

The lyrics are apt. The FMCA I envision is indeed idyllic. No ruby slippers or witches, yet certainly bewitchingly appealing. Dreams, when dared, pursued, and hard-won, really do come true. Wishing upon a star alone won’t do it. As Louis Bromfield said about his beloved Malabar Farm: “The adventure at Malabar is by no means finished… The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”
The FMCA team members are ready to apply the power of their beliefs to the service of translating dream to reality. They are harnessing the power and passion of Nature. Heart, brains, and courage — they have what it takes!