The ‘understory’ of Appalachian forests and culture is ASA conference theme

ASA Understory 1

Brianna Stanley

This year marks two firsts in the Appalachian Studies Association conference’s 43-year history — the first time it’s being held at UK and the first time it’s had a main focus on the forests of the region.

The theme of this year’s ASA conference, “Appalachian Understories: Growing Hope and Resilience from Commonwealth to Global Commons,” refers not only to the understory of the forest ecologically speaking, but also to the stories of beauty, cultural pride and growth in Appalachia that are so often overshadowed by derogatory stereotypes.

Within a forest context, an “understory” is the biodiverse plant, animal, and fungus life that exists below the tree canopy, often growing partially in shadow. It’s the overlooked nutrient-rich leaf litter, the mosses and acorns and soils, the seedlings striving towards the light. It’s the future of the forest.

“If you’re only paying attention to the canopy, you’re missing most of the forest,” said Dr. Kathryn Newfont, conference chair and professor of environmental history at UK.

For Newfont, this focus on forests is a long time coming. Sitting in her office, framed by hundreds of texts on the subject of Appalachian forests and beyond, she explained why “Understory” is such a fitting theme for the conference.

“Forests are absolutely central to creating a more robust, healthy and vibrant future in Appalachia for everyone,” she said.

She stressed that there has always been a “deep connection” between Appalachians and their forests, and that connection is far from gone.

From mine land reforestation, to food and medicinal plant production, to recreation, the Appalachian forests hold many keys to financial revitalization of the region as it increasingly moves away from coal. Newfont said she’s excited that the 43rd ASA conference will have plenary sessions focusing on the role of forests in Appalachia both culturally and economically.

Newfont also emphasized that the ASA conference is not just about the Appalachian landscape. The Understory theme encompasses stories of Black Appalachians, women, gender and sexuality, health and healing, and hope spots, with the goal of bringing “light to the many voices of Appalachia that are often obscured.”

The conference centers on the relationship between forests and hope and resiliency in Appalachia, and the methods by which these stories come to light. One of these that the ASA conference plans to highlight this year is Appalshop, a studio in Whitesburg that is celebrating 50 years of documenting the understories of the Appalachian region.

Given the way in which forests are intertwined with Appalachian culture and livelihood, it may seem surprising that the ASA conference has never highlighted the forests so directly before. Newport said she isn’t entirely sure why there’s been such a delay, but she cited the increased presence of natural scientists in the ASA for the shift in focus, as well as the research and work that UK does to revitalize forests in the region, such as through partnerships with the Green Forests Work non-profit.

It may also have something to do with larger patterns of “taking the world beyond humans for granted,” Newport said. We tend to downplay the relationship between our physiological and psychological health and plants— until those plants, and the ecosystem benefits they provide, are no longer around.

For good reason, previous conferences have focused on more human dimensions of Appalachia, such as poverty. According to Dr. Kenton Sena, a lecturer in the Lewis Honors College who holds a PhD in Integrated Plant and Soil Science, discussion of forests and Appalachian economic growth are far from mutually exclusive. He highlighted mine land reforestation as an important pathway forward.

“Surface mine sites that are not grown back into forests are like open wounds on the landscape. They’re scars that aren’t properly healed,” said Sena, who completed a large part of his PhD out in the Appalachian region.

“Mine land reforestation in Appalachia is one of the most powerful tools that we have to improve land value in Appalachia,” he said.

Even if the current generation won’t financially benefit from the reforestation, it leaves a legacy for children and grandchildren who could log the land or sell carbon credits, or at the very least enjoy the beauty returned to a land previously stripped bare.

Overall, Newport and Sena hope that ASA conference attendees take away a new appreciation for Appalachian forests, and that they begin to see that “forests are as fundamentally appropriate to the region as mankind.”

The conference will be held from March 12-15 and is free to UK students with a student ID. For more information on sessions, visit the Appalachian Studies Association website.