A Conversation with Erica Marks, Yew Mountain Center

As part of Forest Botanicals Week, I spoke with Erica Marks, Director of the Yew Mountain Center, to learn more about what brought her to this work and what inspires her most. Yew Mountain is part of the new West Virginia Forest Farming Initiative, a collaborative project of the Yew Mountain Center, Sprouting Farms, Appalachian Sustainable Development, Rural Action, United Plant Savers, and Natural Capital Investment Fund.

You can learn more about the work of the West Virginia Forest Farming Initiative here and more about Yew Mountain Center here.

Erica’s words captured for me what is so important about these plants and the Forest Botanicals Week campaign.

Erica is a science teacher by profession, teaching middle and high school life sciences, chemistry, and biology. In her early 30s while working on the dry arid side of the Andes in Peru, she  began craving the Appalachian mountains where she had been born and raised. The lush forests reminded her of home. After several years, she was finally able to return to West Virginia to work with High Rocks Educational Corporations. Among other things, Erica took teens into the forest where she told them stories about the plants and introduced them to their beauty and lore.

Forest Farming is About Being in the Woods

They’d look at bloodroot, for example. “It’s a wow thing to be able to show people the red of those roots,” Erica said. Or they’d come across ginseng and talk about ginseng. Together they explored the plants and talked about the habitats and why they should care for the forest.

“It was really therapeutic. Many of them were not that comfortable in the woods,” Erica continued. “By giving the plants names, they began to see that they were in the company of things they knew. And in that way, the forest began to feel more like home.”

After Erica had a family, she left that work to teach part-time. Four years ago, in 2016, when the property near her home came up for sale, she helped form a group in the community to find a buyer. That land is now the site of Yew Mountain Center.

The Plants Were Driving the Train

Christine LaPorte who was working with Sacharuna Foundation visited. She then hooked them into the other work in the area that was focusing on developing markets for non-timber forest products as a way to steward the forest botanicals and, in turn, the forests.

They joined the round table in 2019. “It was remarkable to be in a room of people from different agencies and non-profits and be able to see so clearly where we fit in,” Erica said. It was as if “there was a niche waiting for us.”

Since then it has been building more and more momentum. “The plants have really been driving that train,” she said. “They’ve been showing us the next step each step of the way.”

Economic Resilience

I asked about her vision for the WV Forest Farming Initiative that the Yew Mountain Center is coordinating.

Their vision is to help develop forest farming in West Virginia, she explained. They have received funding to develop a sustainable culture around harvesting products so that these products can become a true source of income for the woodlands. In the future she hopes to see households with small woodlots becoming forest farmers across the state. At Yew Mountain, they are working to see how to help meet the demand and market needed to make the vision a reality.

Erica added that their goal is to protect the forests and it’s also to help families achieve greater economic resiliency.

There are very slim margins in West Virginia. Rather than harvesting timber stands and impacting the soil and everything else, our goal is to provide a way to increase the property value of the forest and to provide an economic incentive to keep the forest standing with all of the benefits that has for biodiversity, soil health, and economic resilience.”

Metaphors to Live By

Erica personally has another vision for this work, one which comes from her time with young people in the woods, seeing how that experience opened their eyes to what a magical place the forest is.

Erica paused and said, “There is a pride in place that is part of the culture in West Virginia.” She wants to help teens see the ways that pride can be connected to stewarding the land, to tending the forest and the woodlands. “To have young people with that understanding is a really good thing for the future and the future of the state,” she said.

She also sees that time in the forest helps teens develop empathy. She described talking with students about coming across a patch of ramps. She would explain that that ramp was maybe twenty years old, for example. And that ramps only get sun from March to May. That’s it. And then they have to wait for another year. The story of how ramps survive offer another metaphor to live by, she said.

Or say the idea of survival of the fittest. She instead talks about another model, one where you “get in where you fit in.” “And so we talk about looking at diversity as a way in,” she said. “In these ways, these botanicals reveal that there are so many different ways to prosper. The forest offers metaphors for cooperating and so much more.”

Keeping the Forest Intact

It helps the teens appreciate the forest and the woods. They begin to see that it isn’t just a sea of green, but that all these other things are happening.

When they are deep in the forest, Erica will ask them to notice how they feel. Are they super focused? Or are lots of ideas going off? Are they calm or agitated? She asks them to observe what happens when they are able to relax and just be in the woods. “It changes how you see and hear.”

“It’s very different than looking at a shelf full of supplements,” she continued. “Think of the difference between looking at black cohosh in a plastic container on a shelf in a store and coming upon black cohosh with its fairy wand of tiny white flowers growing in an Appalachian forest. It’s really hard to replicate the feeling you have coming upon black cohosh in that forest.”

That is why, she said, it is worth doing all we can to keep the woods where these forest botanicals grow intact.