I am super excited to say I got to visit the LBEEC here in Big Sandy Mush - I didn't even know there was an environmental education center 3 1/2 miles from my house until a week ago. Sometimes the best places, with the greatest cause are hidden in the woods, unknown to those who don't often go off the beaten path. This is an off road path worth exploring for anyone who comes to or lives in the Western North Carolina area. The Enviro Center is not like some hippie haven/eco village but rather a logical, functional, and information packed community resource for anyone interested in learning about native plant species, perma culture, growing heirloom trees (such as chestnuts and fruit), solar heating, composting toilets, raising bees, trout, and a plethora of green building techniques that utilize on site materials (natural and upcycled). The center resides on 1,635 acres of conserved and protected mountain land and is 100% dedicated to preserving native flora and fauna. It goes much deeper then just saving an endangered plant or animal though, as the head of the center Paul Gallimore pointed out, " it's a whole ecosystem we are protecting".
When you first pull up the bumpy gravel onto the Long Branch Center there is an old chestnut wood barn with an incredible amount of bee boxes all stacked up against the outside wall. Honey bees are vital componants to pollinating the 5 acres of organic gardens, berry bushes, edible fruit and nut trees. What you see next is the green house & welcome center (see very top pic) and the awesome solar hot water heater standing on an angle right in front (see pic above). The solar heater can get up to approximately 175 degrees, which is plenty hot for a good shower and some squeaky clean dishes - it stays hot even during the winter, only cooling down on a string of cloudy days. The tanks appeared to be metal, painted black and nestled in a cushy silver insulated padding.
There's a very zen & quaint trout pond with relaxation friendly benches and chairs, begging you to sit and watch the wildlife come to the water. The pond is about 8 feet deep, and when Paul threw in some supplimental trout pellets the fish where jumping right out the water!
It was a feeding frenzy. A small 2 foot long water snake swam right through it too - Paul explained that this kind of snake looked alot like a copperhead and is commonly mistaken for one, but are not venomous. It did look almost exactly like a copperhead (sorry it wasn't in the picture below when I took it.)
We moved along into an area I was very curious about and that was their Chestnut Tree restoration project and heirloom fruit tree & shrub production. The American Chestnut Tree had been a major source of food for wildlife across the US until a disease called Endothia parasitica wiped out nearly all the trees, beginning in 1904. Even the ones that tried to grow back from stumps still to this day will die back after growing to a certain height (usually not over 30 feet.). The only way to fully restore the chestnut is to cross breed them with the blight resistant japanese chestnut tree - it's a solution that will help wildlife have the right sources of food in a delicately balanced eco system. Paul explained that acorns from the Oak Tree took the place of the chestnut when that food source was wiped out, but now the oaks are being threatened too by disease, 'sudden oak death' & pests - making it imperative for us to plant the blight resistant chestnut varieties. There are small pieces of our ecosystem that have huge impacts on life, things we may not notice during our busy lives- but without the acorns or the chestnuts many animals like the black bear will not have enough to eat and would likely starve during winter months.
Me and Paul spent a long time talking about the state of the world in relation to nature and possible solutions to the problems we have been creating as a species, all while he pruned his 'family' of blueberries. He keeps special blue plastic cylinders around the new growth to protect it from freeze and being stepped on - he felt that this was one case were plastic seemed to work in a beneficial way and uses it extensively in order to ensure he can grow alot of healthy trees and bushes (the cylinders are all re-usable!). His philosophy is greatly entwined with conservation and restoration, using organic techniques that won't damage the earth and some modern techniques that will ensure there's a food source for humans and animals alike.They keep mulch and cardboard patches on the ground to attract tons of earthworms. There are also coffee grounds added to the soil to create better acidity for the blueberries and also they attract more heat into the ground due to the jet black color.
There was an entire hill terraced with berries and right on the other side of it were fruit tree orchards - apple, peach, pear, nectarine, etc... (all my most favorites!)
Paul shared an extensive knowledge of native edible plants and invasive species in a short amount of time - he even ate some newly opening poison ivy leaves "to prevent catching poison ivy" next season and said the Native Americans used to eat one poke berry a day for their heart health (even though poke berries now are considered poisonous to humans.) He offered me some leaves to native plants to eat, but due to my damaged digestive & immune system from Celiac Sprue I decided to safely sniff on them, touch and feel them and save the eating for a different day. A moment like that really drove home the point of the LBEEC, which is that preserving the earth in it's natural state, keeping a safe and chemical free eco system promotes health - not just for the soil & food we grow and not just for the animals we love, but for optimal health of our own human bodies.
And good health leads to good spirits!
I can't wait to go back to the Enviro Center again to see all the things I missed this time - the passive solar composting toilet is something I need to try out!