The Pisgah National Forest rolls over the Appalachian Mountains, covering half a million acres and surrounding the booming town of Asheville, North Carolina.
Though it’s not the largest forest in the Union, life swirls inside these woods at Biblical magnitudes. From moonshiners to teetotalers, and from industrialists to environmentalists who worship the land itself, cultures have clashed here for generations. This is, perhaps, to be expected of a region that takes its name from the place where Deuteronomy describes Moses seeing the Promised Land after wandering the wilderness for 40 years.
James Hall, the Scotch-Irish minister who is said to have given the Pisgah region its modern name during a military offensive against the Cherokee Indians, may well have thought he had reached a new Canaan. Early settlers were, after all, operating on the similar notion of Manifest Destiny when they seized the land from its original Native American inhabitants.
All of these traces remain, though life looks much more complicated (and, in places, less faithful) than Hall probably hoped. A spot of blue encircled within a mostly rural red state, the East Coast’s hippie capital is grappling with rapid growth as it evolves from small, sleepy city to bustling tourist destination. It’s a place where you’ll now find women with henna-dyed hands cynically browsing glossy magazines that tout Asheville’s place on top-10 lists of places to visit. Downtown Asheville, revitalized over the past couple of decades, has caught the eye of a growing number of out-of-towners. As a cashier at a local restaurant pessimistically confronted us: “What the hell are you doing in Asheville? We’re trying to keep this place a secret.”
Well, the secret is out—not least to the beer geeks who flock to the city’s score of breweries. And what this cynicism overlooks, unfortunately, is that even as downtown is “lost” to the tourists, other gritty districts are all around—and have been all along for those curious enough to venture outside the city center.
In this issue, we listen to itinerant buskers passing through town via railroad, delve inside complicated neo-primitive communities seeking to live outside of civilization, meet a French World War II survivor who has devoted her life to building an art cathedral, and much more.
Social divisions are often tangled in misunderstanding. Carefree vacationers exist alongside deeply philosophical counterculturalists, who in turn live next to artisans quietly practicing their craft as they have for generations. Just as in the Canaan of old, coexistence doesn’t come easy. We must continue the endeavor to find each other where we live.