Unlocking the mystery of Graveyard Fields: Why there are so few trees and so many people
While lines of cars zip down the Blue Ridge Parkway and hikers scurry along its zigzagging trails, Graveyard Fields moves at its own pace.
The high elevation meadows of Graveyard Fields are a crowned jewel of the Shining Rock Wilderness. No trees means great views — views without scrambling up a mountain peak or peering out from intermittent windows in the tree canopy.
Graveyard Fields is a hiking experience more common to the Rockies where the combination of cold and elevation keep the treeline at bay. Here in the Southern Appalachians though, the wide-open spaces found at Graveyard Fields are a rarity, an exception in the otherwise lush and densely forested slopes.
But Graveyard Fields wasn’t always this way, and it won’t always be.
It is mired in a slow march to return to the forest it once was — but progress is unnoticeable.
A fire ravaged the area on the day before Thanksgiving in 1925. Typically, the forest would have nearly grown back by now. But the botanical regeneration has progressed so slowly, it’s what you’d expect a couple of decades after a fire — almost a century later.
“Here we are, nearly 100 years after that big fire, and we are in a stage we would be at normally 20 years afterward,” Parkway Ranger Emily Gamble told a group of curious hikers who joined her on a guided hike through Graveyard Fields last Friday.
The short jaunt across Graveyard Fields was a first for some. Others had visited the area many times before, but this time saw their stomping grounds with new eyes thanks to the added expertise of the rangers lifting the veil that hangs over this unique landscape.
Graveyard Fields is stuck in time.
Typically, following heavy logging, a big fire or a devastating windstorm, a forest’s rebound from a barren, denuded landscape is a process called succession.
But nearly a century has only brought Graveyard Fields two decades of advancement. It remains an expanse of dense thickets, shrubs and grasses with only a smattering of trees.
“We see them coming in now,” said Parkway Ranger Carol Petricevic pointing to the intermittent trees sprouting up in the valley. They’re the harbingers of the forest to come, “as long as there aren’t any more fires,” she added.
Graveyard Fields is taking its sweet time to become forest again, still reeling from the big 1925 blaze that charred some 25,000 acres. The fire was sparked by a train wreck along a logging railroad line.
The fire was so intense — fueled by an inordinate amount of slash and debris littering the ground in the wake of logging operations — that it sterilized the soil, Petricevic said. Another fire hit in the 1940s, and the floods that followed probably further destabilized the ground and washed away the nutrients plants needed to grow.
The result is a unique, mountain gem tucked along the Parkway.
“It’s not very common,” said Petricevic. “And one of the most popular spots.”
Drawn by its one-of-a-kind landscape — a rolling meadow at 5,000 feet in elevation, with fields of blueberry bushes, a rocky meandering creek bed, swimming holes and two waterfalls — visitors swarm to the location. The Graveyard Fields installment of the Parkway’s weekly hike series proved one of the more popular so far this season, likely witness to the popularity of Graveyard Fields itself. The parking area on busy summer weekends is so full a line of waiting cars jockey for spaces as they become free.
In addition to the big-picture ecology of the Graveyard Fields, Petricevic and Gamble, the rangers leading the hike last Friday, took time to point out the little treasures the place has to offer: the minnow in the stream the average walker might miss or the seemingly unimportant plant more likely to be stepped on than understood.
Like the primordial lychophytes, they look like a small pine sampling, so the hikers were surprised when the rangers explained that the vascular plant once stood as tall as trees when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The plants fossilized ancestors are also one of the main ingredients in coal.
St. John’s Wart and Angelica are two more unsuspecting plants. St. John’s Wart is used to treat ailments like depression. The nectar of the Angelica plant is opium-like to the bees that drink it. Petricevic said she has poked and prodded bees sucking away at an Angelica plant, but the insect pays no mind and keeps slurping.
“It’s a bit of a narcotic — it makes them slow, stupid and drunk,” she joked to the cadre of hikers who had formed a semi-circle around her as she pointed out the Angelica plant.
Meanwhile, many of the hikers seemed distracted by an equally powerful narcotic: wild blueberries.
The acidic soil and open canopy at Graveyard Fields is ideal for blueberries, which struggle to find adequate sunlight in the dense Appalachian forest.
“Blueberries like a lot of sun,” Petricevic stated plainly.
The blueberries in turn draw wildlife. During blueberry season, Petricevic frequently spots bear scat with a deep purple hue due to the copious amounts of berries it ate. The hordes of humans at Graveyard Fields staking out the blueberry bushes with pails in hand will probably fair no different.
The group of hikers following Petricevic and Gamble that day struggled to maintain an orderly procession down the trail as individuals strayed into the thickets to pick handfuls of the blue and purple fruit. Many braved stepping off the wooden planks through one of the low-lying areas and onto the soggy ground in chase of the perfect blueberry.
Unlike the coast, where low-lying wetlands and swamps are commonplace, mountain bogs like the one tucked into Graveyard Fields comprise another special cog in the make up of the rare landscape.
At Graveyard Fields, boggy areas not only host high-elevation amphibians but also the endangered bog turtle. The turtle grows only three inches in length but lives up to 30 years. Coveted as pets and stolen off public lands, rangers keep the turtles’ whereabouts secret.
“They’re so small and so cute; people get them and take them for pets,” Gamble said.
Yet, with so much life in the valley, many ask where it got a name like Graveyard Fields. And the answers diverge.
Some say it was given as moniker to describe the site following a tree blow down hundreds of years ago. The chunks of ground and roots left erect at the base of the toppled trees were eventually covered in moss and resembled gravestones.
Another theory, along the same lines, says it got the name following extensive logging that left a valley of stumps that were similarly covered in moss to resemble headstones. Either way, proof of either theory would have burned in the massive fire. Rangers assured hikers there are no secret graves in the valley.