On the Margins in the Uwharries
I grew up in the days when cartoon offerings were limited to Saturday mornings. We watched them on a black-and-white TV with rabbit-ear antennas. Even after we bought a color TV and installed a remote-controlled, roof-top antenna, we couldn’t depend on getting a good picture. The signals came from stations in Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh. In the Uwharries, we were on the edge of their range. A cloudy, windy evening might ruin The Brady Bunch. Even today, I toggle between NPR stations in Chapel Hill and Charlotte when I’m driving in the region.
The economic boom in the urban centers of the Piedmont also fizzled before it reached the heart of the Uwharries. We had always been subsistence farmers. Working our own land certainly had more inherent dignity than sharecropping, but fertile bottomlands are narrow in these hills, and there’s not much yield from rock. My parents’ generation kept their land but made a meager living in the trades, the textile mills and lumberyards. Now, for some, it’s Wal-Mart, meth and pot. The cops bust up a still and confiscate some firearms on occasion, but a market for bootleg liquor seems awfully quaint these days.
Most everything is marginal in the Uwharries. A relic stand of white pines clings to a north-facing bluff above the river. A few miles east, endemic longleaf pines straggle down a mountain’s southwest flank. Neither species is common in the Piedmont – white pines are generally confined to the mountains west of here and longleaf to the coastal plain down east. This is perhaps the only place in the state where they exist within a half-day hike of each other. Here, the mountains and the coastal plain belly up to one another, as if the rest of the Piedmont didn’t exist.
Species drop out of the landscape when they can no longer tolerate the conditions, so individuals at the edge of their range often struggle to survive. The place where I live isn’t an easy one, but as every naturalist knows, there’s an undeniable richness in an eco-tone.