Tucked between the highway and a steep, wooded hillside near the southwestern Virginia town of Abingdon is a scrap metal yard called Gross Recycling. On an early fall afternoon, I drove there from my home near Roanoke to meet the owner, Mary Lawson. Mary purchases scrap metal throughout the year, but she also deals in medicinal roots, which local diggers bring to her from the hills and forests of the region. I had come because of one root in particular—ginseng, something I have been fascinated by ever since my neighbor told me that he planned to send his kids to college on the proceeds of his one-acre patch.
In the scrap lot, surrounded by the expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a few employees were helping customers unload. I found Mary inside, sitting behind a desk in a tiny office, negotiating with customers, paying cash for both roots and metal. On the wall was a handwritten list with the going prices for metals as well as foraged items such as goldenseal, black cohosh, blue cohosh, bloodroot, and cherry bark. The entry for ginseng simply read, “Ask.” The buying and selling of wild roots can be a contentious affair. And with the market value of ginseng fluctuating rapidly, Mary has to assess the quality and size of the roots before offering a price.
“Some of these diggers think they’re gonna put one over on me,” she said as she counted bills into the palm of a white-mustached sheriff’s deputy who was selling a large quantity of steel pipe. “But I know my ’seng.”
When the deputy was gone, Mary pulled a plastic Kroger bag from under her desk and unwrapped a bundle of half-wilted plants. Undried ginseng, known as “green ’seng,” can fetch as much as $400 a pound.
American ginseng is an unassuming herbaceous perennial—knee-high at its tallest, with several palm-sized spreads of three to five leaflets. The roots are woody and delicately ringed with indentations that are just deep enough to push your fingernail into. Most of the roots that Mary buys during ginseng season—September through December—aren’t much bigger than the size of a Bic lighter, but now and then someone will bring in a much bigger specimen. She showed me photos of some of the most valuable ones she’s ever bought, which were reminiscent of mandrake roots, their protuberances shaped like arms and legs.
Every year, Chinese and Korean exporters drive around Appalachia purchasing thousands of pounds of roots from local dealers like Mary. Most of those roots are then certified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shipped to Hong Kong, and from there distributed across China and South Korea. Americans may know ginseng from the labels of energy drinks, male enhancement supplements, herbal teas, and even cosmetics, but most of those products contain farm-raised ginseng. For the people who dig and buy wild ginseng, that might as well be a different plant.
Mary reached under her desk again to show me a few cultivated roots— they’re “slick,” she explained, lacking indentations and uniformly shaped, like grocery store carrots. Sometimes, diggers try to mix wild roots with “woods cultivated” ginseng (which is grown in tilled plots under a natural forest canopy, and almost looks wild) to get a better payout. But Mary says she can spot the offending roots with a glance.
The medicinal plant trade in Appalachia stretches back to the days of Daniel Boone, when animal skins, whiskey, and roots were the area’s main exports. During the 1890s, the region provided more than three-fourths of all the botanical medicines sold in the United States, and ginseng was by far the most valuable. This culture has continued to flourish, and in the first decade of this century, ginseng sales were bringing, on average, more than $30 million a year to Appalachian root diggers.
But now things are changing. Ginseng is getting smaller and much harder to find, with biologists projecting that it could be gone within the next three decades. In an age of many such distressing ecological changes, ginseng’s decline is notable because of the plant’s deep cultural significance. For root diggers, ginseng embodies an oddly contradictory set of American rural values—cultural pluralism and national pride, communal life and rugged self-reliance. Maybe most striking of all is that people from traditionally conservative areas, who might seem least likely to sound the alarm on climate change, are doing just that, faced with the demise of both the land and their livelihoods.
Wild ginseng is bagged and sold to Marv Kraus of Elkader, one of three licensed dealers in Iowa, on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. Ginseng can only be harvested in September and October on private land with permission of the landowner. (Liz Martin/The Gazette via AP)
In 1711, a Jesuit missionary named Pierre Jartoux, stationed in northeastern China, wrote to the procurator general of the Jesuit missions in India and China about the extensive medicinal and commercial potential of a plant not yet known in Europe. “The most eminent physicians in China,” he explained, “have writ whole volumes upon the virtues and qualities of this plant, and make it an ingredient in almost all remedies which they give to their chief nobility.”
The Jesuits were eager to profit from Europe’s growing demand for exotic plant products, but by the time Jartoux wrote this letter, ginseng was already hard to find in China. During the previous century, the Manchus had gained a monopoly on the trade, using forced labor to collect vast quantities of the root. The resulting wealth helped them overthrow the Hans and establish the Qing Dynasty. With depleted populations of ginseng and demand still high, Jartoux saw a tremendous opportunity for anyone who could find a new source of the root. He’d read about New France, and he believed that the climate and geography were just right for the plant.
When Father Joseph-François Lafitau, a young Jesuit missionary stationed in the Caughnawaga area of what is now southeastern Canada, read Jartoux’s report, he wondered whether the rolling hills surrounding the St. Lawrence River might support ginseng. He scoured the lakes and ridge sides, and eventually, a Mohawk woman helped him find a specimen not far from the mission. The plant matched Jartoux’s description in almost every particular.
Unbeknownst to Lafitau, the two plants were not the same species (Panax ginseng grows in China, Panax quinquefolius in North America), but they are closely related. In any case, Lafitau was ecstatic. For years, he’d been looking for “universalizing” organisms—that is, plants and animals that would help show that human traditions and languages across the globe were closely related. Ultimately, he hoped to prove that all living things shared a common origin in the Garden of Eden.
Lafitau’s language strikes harshly on the modern ear—he called the Mohawks “savages,” suggesting that they could not grasp the significance of their own botanical proficiency. But unlike most naturalists of his time, he also refused to separate plants and animals from their local cultural significance. He carefully noted which ailments the Iroquois treated with ginseng, as well as the ceremonial conditions under which treatments proceeded. For Lafitau, culture and nature were always bound up with each other. You couldn’t study one without studying the other.
In his 1718 tract on ginseng, Lafitau argued for a kind of globalization of knowledge, by which Chinese, European, and indigenous understandings of plant medicine might challenge and inform one another. Imagine Lafitau’s excitement, then, when he discovered that “man’s thighs,” roughly the meaning of the Iroquois word for the plant, garentoguen, was similar to “man-root,” the meaning of the Chinese word ginseng. (The Cherokee term, yunwi usdi, or “little man,” is even closer.) Because of these linguistic similarities, Lafitau wrote that people from Asia might have come across a northern land bridge into North America—more than 200 years before the theory gained scientific credibility.
But other matters drew attention to Lafitau’s work. French exporters caught wind of a certain line buried in his writings about the Mohawks’ use of ginseng. In Asian markets, Lafitau wrote, the man-root fetches “three times its weight in silver.”
Before long, trappers and hunters were pulling up as much ginseng as they could find. In 1784, when the trade ship Empress of China left New York Harbor for Asia, 30 tons of New World ginseng had been loaded into its hold.
Driving over Pound Gap from Virginia into eastern Kentucky, I was met with a view of the Alleghenies that must once have been spectacular. The mountains go on and on into the horizon, reflecting the sky in various shades of purple and blue. Today, almost every slope is terraced from strip mining. Not far from the bottom of the mountain, a massive coal-powered plant sprawls across many acres, though the industry employs many fewer local workers than it once did.
Most ginseng diggers are territorial about their productive spots. So, when I asked Mary Lawson whether she knew anyone who’d take me out hunting, she sucked her lip and shook her head. Then, a week later, she called me with the name of a digger and self-taught naturalist, Joe Pigmon. I was on my way over Pound Gap toward a town called Fleming-Neon to meet him.
Joe turned out to be in his mid-30s, with a goatee and a slabbish, imposing strength. He spoke softly, showing me the rare chickens he raises in his back yard. His dog lunged playfully at the birds, sending them scattering. We hopped in my truck and headed into the foothills. As we drove through a tract of state forest, he pointed to a stripped ridge. “Some of these mountaintops they knocked off,” he said. “Before they did that, you could go dig two pounds of select ginseng in an afternoon, just taking every third mature root, leaving most of it where it grows.”
A few minutes later, he added: “I worked for those coal companies. They lay you off, they hire you again. You never know.”
Later, I’d press him for more on that subject, but in that moment, I had only one thing on my mind. “Think we’ll find any?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s out there still,” he said. “In pockets.”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the rush to find a root worth “three times its weight in silver” depleted populations in southern Canada. Even in ideal growing conditions, ginseng takes six years to reach reproductive viability, and it doesn’t attain its ideal harvestable size until it is 15 or 20 years old. Therefore populations are extremely slow to recover from any sort of disturbance.
Not long after Lafitau’s discovery was made public, fur traders and exporters began to realize just how widely spread the plant really was—its historical range reached from Maine to Florida, and west as far as Nebraska. Today, however, almost all remaining American ginseng is concentrated in the southern Appalachian Mountains, especially in North Carolina and West Virginia, where the plants hide out in the steep topography.
Economists have found a backward-bending supply curve in the ginseng market, meaning that even as prices rise, supply remains steady or decreases—a pattern that suggests the plant’s increasing rarity. Last year, the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in North Carolina and the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky did not issue ginseng harvesting permits because of low population levels. “Every year, we’ve seen fewer ginseng plants,” said Gary Kauffman, who works as a botanist for the national forests of North Carolina. “The danger is that they’ll completely disappear from this area.” With these closures, the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia is now the only major tract of federal or state land in the country open to harvest. Joe said he thought that the forest service would soon be closing or restricting this area, too.
The reasons for ginseng’s accelerating decline are complex. White-tailed deer populations are exploding around developed areas, and the increased browsing pressure takes a heavy toll on ginseng, since young roots don’t develop properly without nutrients from their foliage. Along the Virginia-Kentucky border, coal companies are still leveling large tracts, and natural gas extraction also destroys ginseng habitat. Human encroachment is another significant problem. Several ginseng diggers in the Blue Ridge of south-central Virginia told me that their best patches had been ruined by the runoff from golf courses or housing developments. The extra moisture spreads fungal diseases into the plant’s root system, quickly killing off populations that have been growing for generations. The newest threat to ginseng, though, comes from the changing climate.
Joe took me to a plot that had once been the site of a mining operation. When I asked him who owned the land now, he said he wasn’t sure—it had probably changed hands a few times, but nobody would care about our being there.
We made our way up the terraces that had been carved into the mountainside a decade earlier, stopping often so that Joe could tell me about different plants. He pointed out blue cohosh, a lush, waist-high herb that’s commonly used to ease menstrual cramps (check your local health food store). Near a small spring, we found goldenseal, a low-growing plant with a leaf shaped like a coat of arms. He also showed me a small fern he called “granny ’seng”—supposedly a sure sign that ginseng is nearby. Despite the damage caused by mining, these plants had managed to reestablish themselves in the holler’s cool microclimate.
Ginseng, however, has a harder time regaining a foothold. Joe cut his education short to work in the coal industry, but he knows a tremendous amount about plant biology. He explained that Panax quinquefolius has followed a peculiar evolutionary path. Its fruits, which appear in the fall as a Ferrari-red bunch, aren’t usually spread by birds or squirrels. In most instances, they simply fall off, the next generation beginning a foot or two away from the parent plant. This mode of reproduction selects for individuals that are most adapted to the hyperlocal ecological niche in which they find themselves. Over generations, a small patch way up in a holler will develop markedly different genetic predilections than one farther down in the valley.
The result is that each population is highly evolved to thrive in a specific microclimate, and even tiny shifts in average temperatures can stunt growth. Plant population biologists at West Virginia University have confirmed that ginseng everywhere is already suffering from these changes—much more so than most other plants. Just how much ginseng actually remains in Appalachia is a matter of debate. While we hunted through the underbrush, Joe swung back and forth between two positions. “There’s plenty of it out here,” he said several times. But he also spent a good part of the day worrying out loud about climate change and overharvesting. The past few seasons, he hasn’t found nearly so much ginseng as he once did, and the plants he does find aren’t as big. I’d soon learn that Joe’s contradictory ideas on this subject are shared by a majority of ginsengers.
Numerous Facebook groups are devoted to ginseng digging. Members post pictures of big harvests while bemoaning the plant’s increasing rarity or encouraging other members to dig selectively and “plant back” the fruits, distributing seeds a few feet from a harvested plant. Several diggers I spoke with began by telling me that reports of ginseng’s decline were overblown, but they then related nostalgic stories of “mother lodes” and “honey holes” they’d dug in the 1980s and ’90s.
At the top of the ridge, where Joe had expected to find ginseng, we struck out. A pileated woodpecker clacked raucously. At the time of our excursion, the maple trees had already turned, and Joe wondered out loud if the ginseng had died back already, if someone had simply harvested it all, or if this was the year it had finally fallen victim to changing temperatures. As we drove back into Fleming-Neon, he delivered a long and eloquent rant about how sad it was that ginseng was being pressured from all sides—deer, climate change, the mining companies, irresponsible diggers. Finally, he said, “I’ll always dig it, though. Can’t help myself.”
Long before they were federally owned, sections of forested land, such as this stretch of the Pisgah National Forest, were considered to be the commons— shared by the local community. (Kevin McCarthy/Alamy)
It’s painful for diggers to acknowledge the plant’s decline. By focusing on the plants they do find (sometimes, still, they find lots), they’re able to temper their unease. Several buyers told me that because rarity pushes up the root’s value, they’re still making as much money as ever, or even more, despite taking in fewer and fewer roots every year. The perverse logic of the market means that ginseng will continue to be dug as long as it can be found. Nevertheless, people so thoroughly versed in the rhythms of the mountains and woods cannot completely ignore the fact that things really are changing for the worse, and that these changes may portend the end of a certain way of life.
A week later, I was headed into the mountains again, this time with a digger named Timmy, who asked that I not use his last name because he’s afraid of being cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When I climbed into his truck, I noticed a pistol casually stuck in the cupholder. “I’m an America-first kind of guy,” he told me. We drove west into the Blue Ridge, stopping briefly in the parking lot of a small church to tie a bandana over my eyes. “For your good, and mine,” Timmy said. We pulled onto a dirt road, and the cab of the pickup went quiet. “There’re some monsters out here,” he said when we finally pulled to a stop. “I can feel ’em.”
Though Timmy is older than Joe by a few decades, you wouldn’t know it. He spoke in rapid bursts, laughing often and loudly as he related stories about ginseng expeditions gone awry, like the time he fell 200 feet down a ravine into a creek, or just narrowly missed stepping on a rattlesnake. Every autumn, he and a group of close friends hunt ginseng in different areas of the country, including upstate New York, where the plant is very rare but, because of soil conditions, often of extremely high quality. He told me that back in high school he was the class clown—he said that he once shook a particularly phallic-looking ginseng root at his history teacher.
Timmy was taking me to the edge of the Jefferson National Forest, onto land belonging to a local doctor. He told me something I’d already deduced: that few ginsengers heed the laws prohibiting digging on federal and state land, where many of their families have been harvesting for generations, long before the land was federally owned. Despite numerous attempts to enforce permits and track harvests, as much as 90 percent of wild ginseng on the international market is dug illegally. “We’re not exactly the kind to order around,” Timmy said, grinning.
There’s a sense among root diggers that the mountains belong to the people who understand them, and that restrictive laws unfairly target those who rely on ginseng or goldenseal or log moss (which upscale nurseries buy as décor) to pay their winter power bill or buy Christmas presents for their kids.
Knowing that overharvesting is significantly contributing to ginseng’s decline, I found myself sympathizing with Timmy. Why is it that energy companies are allowed to continue to demolish thousands of acres of valuable ginseng habitat while new regulations eliminate harvesting on national forest land that is supposed to be owned by and belong to the people?
Despite efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—including a number of high-profile sting operations on ginseng buyers and a program to inject GPS chips in protected roots—it remains exceptionally difficult to police wide swaths of steep terrain. A digger named Brad Smith, who in 2015 was arrested outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for harvesting out of season on national forest land, told me that he came back to the very same spot later in the season and dug just enough to cover his fines and court costs. “It’s always been part of my life,” he explained. “Since I was a little child, my whole family dug. As long as I was back by dark, nobody was gonna tell me where to dig or where not to dig. Yellow root, bloodroot, ginseng, I dug all that, wherever I could find it.”
The history of ginseng digging on shared-use land goes back to the Civil War. After General Philip Sheridan burned his way through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, crippling the region’s agricultural markets, many Appalachian communities came to depend on collecting ginseng, lady’s-slipper, and bloodroot (which is added to animal feed for its antibiotic properties). They bartered these forest products for staples like flour, soap, and building materials.
This unconventional market flourished in the decades after Lee’s surrender. As demand for botanical medicines continued to rise around the country, more and more people chose foraging over farming until, for many communities, gathering was more important to survival than growing. There were, as yet, no national forests in Appalachia. Instead, people dug in the “commons”—forested areas that were informally acknowledged to be owned by the community. The land between agricultural fields was free and open for anyone to supplement their living by hunting, trapping, harvesting syrup and honey, or collecting firewood, feathers, and medicinal plants. The consensus that all woodlands should support nearby communities continued well into the 20th century. For example, during the coal strikes in the 1930s, and again in the 1970s, ginseng sales allowed workers to maintain the picket line. For decades, root harvests have remained tacked to unemployment rates—whenever jobs get scarce, people take to the mountains to help fill the gaps in their income. And every year, the most impoverished areas of Appalachia supply the most wild ginseng to the international market.
When Joe Pigmon said that he didn’t know who owned the land we were on but that nobody would care that we hunted there, he was invoking the commons. The land, many ginseng hunters believe—especially national forest land, which was appropriated by the government during the first half of the 20th century—is there to support people who are trying to scrape together a living, regulations be damned. Joe told me another story. When he was 12 years old, his home burned down. The next morning his grandmother took him deep into a holler (they didn’t own the land, but it wasn’t not theirs), where he dug six pounds of ginseng from a patch she’d had her eye on for years. The money become part of a down payment for a new doublewide. “What’s left of the woods here,” Joe said, “that’s our safety net.”
For generations, people have believed that the woods will always be there to support their families and neighbors in difficult times. But as more and more second homes appear in the mountains, cordoned off with gates and “private property” signs, as the government becomes increasingly prone to restrictive regulations, and as energy companies continue to destroy large swaths of forest, the American ideal of the commons feels further and further away. When diggers talk about ginseng getting smaller and harder to find, they’re talking about that, too.
Timmy and I stuck to the legal protocol for our expedition. With written permission in hand, we crossed a rushing creek behind the doctor’s hunting cabin and began climbing a steep ridge. We used ’seng hoes—repurposed ice climbing picks—to keep our balance as we traversed the slope. Once or twice, I slipped on the loose soil and caught myself only by sinking my pick into a clump of laurel roots.
As we struggled upward, Timmy talked about the declining ginseng population. Like every one of the dozen diggers I spoke with, he brought up recent shifts in weather patterns and temperatures. Timmy was not necessarily a person you would expect to acknowledge climate change. But then, root diggers, I’d already noticed, don’t often fall within neat political delineations. Mainly, though, Timmy’s ire was focused on a man named Tony Coffman, a ginseng buyer from West Virginia who featured in a television series called Appalachian Outlaws.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a digger rant about the show, which aired on the History Channel in 2014 and 2015. Outlaws follows diggers and dealers fighting to collect as many roots as possible during a “ginseng gold rush.” Diggers everywhere hate the series because it advertised a widely inaccurate sense of the value of ginseng, not properly differentiating between the prices for dried and green roots. Robin Black, West Virginia’s ginseng coordinator, barely concealed her anger when I brought up Coffman’s name. Once the series began airing, she said, people from all over the country showed up in the Monongahela National Forest, digging up every plant they could find, thinking they’d strike it rich, and reportedly depleting local populations.
By the time we clambered up to an old fire road, Timmy was out of breath from the effort of climbing and cursing out Coffman. We began to search along the bank for ginseng’s characteristic spread of leaves, and the conversation moved from television to opioid addicts. Several diggers told me that addicts have started foraging for ginseng when they need a quick dollar—doing what their grandmothers did when they were hard up for money. Only they’re doing it out of season, often pulling plants that are too young to reproduce (which is not only illegal but against the diggers’ unspoken code of ethics). This kind of harvesting, driven by desperation, has made ginseng almost impossible to find in easily accessible areas, and also in many remote areas. Brad Smith (the man arrested for illegal harvesting) told me that he knew people who had traded young roots directly to pill dealers in Johnson City, Tennessee. He said that it’s common for street-level opioid dealers to accept ginseng as payment, since they’re then able to sell it at a higher profit to unscrupulous buyers. Black confirmed that this kind of thing does happen. But still, I found myself skeptical of Timmy’s claim that opioid addicts and hunters inspired by a television show were significantly affecting ginseng populations.
Timmy has more than 50 years’ experience hunting ginseng, and we’d now been hiking for three hours and not found a single plant. Only when you spend some time wandering the southern Jefferson National Forest do you realize just how much land is out there, and how difficult it is to find ginseng—one can walk within yards of a plant and miss it completely. Indeed, it’s tough to imagine anyone without local knowledge of the terrain and the plant’s preferred habitats collecting significant quantities. And it seems equally unlikely that people looking for a quick fix are roughing it over streams and up steep hollers. I grew up in the Blue Ridge, playing in the woods and later collecting plants and mushrooms, and I’d never happened upon a single ginseng plant (though I was hoping to change that soon—Timmy and I had resolved not to leave the mountains until we’d found at least one). Ginseng is hard to find, and the characters in Appalachian Outlaws don’t actually strike it rich. In fact, the opening sequence tells us just that: “This way of life won’t get you rich quick.”
When Timmy and other root diggers described how the show and fentanyl were driving ginseng decline, I sensed that their acrimony ran deeper than they were willing to say. In the early 20th century, after the “discovery” of Appalachia by writers seeking local color, newspapers and magazines were filled with sensational descriptions of the “primitive” people in the region’s mountainous backwoods. Hillbillies had a romantic connection to the idyllic landscape, these articles said, but were also dirty and ignorant and had quick tempers. Shows like Appalachian Outlaws and Smoky Mountain Money trade in similar clichés, giving the ginseng world an aura of cartoonish violence. There’s hardly a scene in Outlaws in which a bearded man is not guzzling moonshine or waving a gun or a knife at another bearded man (although, I have to admit, the show ultimately deals more sympathetically with its characters than I’d expected).
Father Lafitau was afraid that ginseng’s value in the global market would occlude its cultural significance and prevent the exchange of ideas between cultures and continents. But by this point, I’d become convinced that, at least to a certain extent, Lafitau’s ideal of globalized botanical knowledge exists today in rural America. Here, as in China, roots with arms and legs and male genitalia are thought to be the most potent. Asian myths about ginseng hiding, playing tricks on hunters, and bringing bad luck to those who dig too much are also in circulation in the Blue Ridge. The idea—fundamental to Chinese medicine—that one ought to balance the body before illness strikes, rather than simply treat acute symptoms, is widely accepted by Appalachian herbalists. And many buyers and diggers have close relationships with Chinese and Korean exporters, leading to an interesting international exchange of knowledge and customs. For example, Mary Lawson was able to tell me that green ginseng, cooked as a vegetable, is currently in vogue in upscale restaurants in Seoul. She knew this because South Korean buyers had been pressuring her to ask diggers not to dry their roots before bringing them in to sell.
Many diggers are eager to connect their way of life to Native Americans. More than half of the ginsengers I spoke to claimed indigenous ancestry (though I couldn’t always parse whether they meant this literally, or were simply expressing a spiritual affiliation). Others talked about finding arrowheads and other artifacts while hunting for ginseng. More meaningful, perhaps, is the long tradition of botanical healing in Appalachia, a meeting of European herbalism and indigenous medicine. Early Irish and English settlers of the region brought their own traditions of plant medicine and gleaned what they could from nearby tribes, whenever the two groups were not warring ferociously. Wild ginger and jack-in-the-pulpit, for example, quickly entered the new immigrants’ pharmacopeia. Joe told me that his grandmother would chew bits of ginseng for energy and also to soothe an upset stomach—the former use is suggested by Chinese medicine, the latter by Cherokee practices.
The story of ginseng is a timely corrective to the notion that southerners in rural areas are climate skeptics and sectarians. Botanical pluralism and the ethos of the commons are, by any measure, solidly liberal values. They reflect a cultural complexity overlooked in many accounts of the area—Hillbilly Elegy and others as well. And yet, there’s another, apparently contradictory value represented by this odd little plant.
Without exception, every digger and seller whom I interviewed told me some version of this story: that Daniel Boone and his men, including two of his young sons, dug and purchased several tons of ginseng from around a trading post in central West Virginia. Boone planned to take these roots north to Philadelphia, but on the way up the Ohio River, near the mouth of the Kanawha, his vessel was swamped and the cargo ruined. Far from fazed by this development, the crew simply returned to the mountains and gathered up another load.
According to Daniel Boone scholar John Faragher, the story is apocryphal. When the boat sank, Boone didn’t return to West Virginia but instead continued on to Pennsylvania with his sodden and near-worthless cargo. Stories about Boone, Faragher said, often say more about the people who tell them than about Boone himself.
The tale of the swamped boat allows diggers to identify their way of life with the frontiersman tradition. Timmy and Joe both carried long knives in leather sheaths. They spoke often about toughness and resourcefulness in the face of difficult times. At one point during our expedition, Joe mentioned that he “worked scrap” for a while after he left the coal industry. I asked him why he thought so many ginsengers were involved in metal recycling (five of the dozen I spoke to either bought or sold scrap at some point in their lives). Joe had to think for a while before he said, “I guess we’re not keen on the clock-in-and-out life style.”
Boone lived with the Shawnee, sold skins and ginseng, and speculated in land. The anecdote about losing his ginseng and returning to the mountains evokes something of the stubbornness and independence and self-reliance of ginseng hunters. In the myth, Boone doesn’t blink when the boat sinks. He simply sets to work recouping his losses. It’s a bootstraps-type lesson of a kind that remains important to many people in rural areas. When work in the coal mines became less dependable, Joe turned to harvesting ginseng and cohosh and goldenseal, selling scrap, taking odd jobs. He worked tirelessly to support his family. Phrases that may sound ironic to some—“rugged individualism,” “self-reliance”—are still sacred here.
The story about Boone and the lost cargo is also a wistful look backward, to a time when ginseng was comparatively common in the Appalachians. In the early 1800s, it really would have been possible for a skilled woodsman to harvest a second hold’s worth of ginseng in just a few days. Today, of course, such a woodsman would be hard-pressed to find that much ’seng in an entire season.
Ginseng somehow embodies this set of contradictory values: here are people who hold on to an age-old communal ethos while also demonstrating self-reliance in the face of untold disadvantages, who consider themselves unapologetically American but also embrace values and ideals from Native American and Chinese traditions, who love a plant even as they contribute to its decline.
One of the great mistakes of the Anthropocene is our assumption that we are separate from nature—that rivers and mountains can be modified for our convenience without long-term repercussions. We tend to act as if power runs in one direction. As nature is changed, human culture may continue unimpeded—indeed, life will only improve, at least for those of us in the prosperous West. Ginseng digging is a model for a different kind of relationship with the natural world—one in which everything is entangled and complex. When one thing changes, all else follows suit. Diggers often bemoan the fact that young people in Appalachia are less and less interested in gathering medicinal plants. “They’re too busy on their phones,” Joe complained. “It’s video games and social media,” another digger told me. What they mean to say is: Our way of life is getting rarer. It goes the way ginseng goes. How could it do otherwise?
In the culture at large, complex ideals are seemingly getting harder to come by. It’s easiest nowadays to stand one’s ground atop a clearly defined cause, to do it from the perspective of one identity or political camp. Even better if one can do it in 280 characters or fewer. Meanwhile, forest ecosystems—the most complex of communities—are suffering. Human beings are breaking them down through habitat destruction and climate change, creating an ecology that is at once simpler and less resilient.
In ginseng, I sense an alternative to both of these distressing realities. If more of us had a relationship with something in nature as rare and complex as this root, the difference would no doubt be reflected in our attitudes toward the environment—and perhaps also in our political discourse, and in other areas of life, too. However much one might want to disparage Timmy’s “America first” declarations or Joe’s “I’ll always dig it” sentiment, these men offer a possible alternative to anthropocentrism. “I couldn’t live without the woods” is a line I heard countless times when talking to ginsengers. Whether we know it or not, this is true for all of us. As a part of the natural world, we depend on all other parts. We don’t own the land; the land owns us.
Timmy and I spent almost six hours clawing our way up steep ridges and pushing through overgrown fire roads before we finally stumbled on a patch of ’seng— seven or eight plants growing in a shady crevice between two rocky outcroppings. Timmy gave a howl of victory, then settled in to dig. He pushed away the leaves and used his pick to make a narrow trench around a large four-pronger. He carefully replanted each of the dozen or so red fruits. Then he loosened the soil around the root and reached in.
“Ain’t nothing comes easy these days,” he said, brushing off a delicately ringed root and laying it in my palm.
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