by Cindy Carpenter
Sometimes in frontline interpretation, what we convey to our audiences is not what we intend. I’m always grateful for a visitor’s question during or after a program that gives me the opportunity to correct or clarify a take-away message. Being aware of how a sentence can be misconstrued has helped me communicate more concisely. Speaking specifically takes practice. It also requires questioning on the interpreter’s part, and research that can separate folklore from fact.
I’ll give a specific example. Congress in 1968 established my interpretive site in the Pisgah National Forest as the Cradle of Forestry in America. A unique combination of forestry firsts occurred here. This is where forestry was first practiced in America, where America’s first forestry school was founded, and was the first tract purchased under the 1911 Week’s Law for a National Forest. Orientation materials and the first tour guides I spoke with made the point that poor logging and farming practices resulted in worn out land that needed a trained forester’s hand.
While there is truth in this broad brush approach to the site’s history, specifics reflect a true historical integrity. I’ll address the statement about the condition of the land. To do so I need to give you a bit more history. Today’s 6,500 acres designated as the Cradle of Forestry in America became part of George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate when he purchased them with about 100,000 more acres in 1895. He named the vast tract Pisgah Forest. As he had done with his 7,000 acre Biltmore Forest near Asheville, North Carolina in 1892, he placed Pisgah Forest under the care of a forester and a regular system of forest management. And this is where a difference comes in.
Much of Biltmore Forest, close to the city of Asheville and Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House, had worn out soils and needed care while holding potential for beauty and profit. Eroded slopes needed healthy young trees. Overgrown farmland could be thinned to provide Asheville with firewood while making room for a thriving, natural forest stand. But miles to the southwest, Pisgah Forest was in pretty good shape. Subsistence farms dotted the valleys, creating edges even the first foresters understood as important on a landscape. Most mountain slopes held high quality timber and beautiful forest stands. Simply making this distinction in geographical areas paints an accurate picture of the historical landscape and the forester’s work.
I know there have been times my words did not convey compellingly enough the significance of my site’s stories. Continued study and critical thinking, from our sites’ earliest interpretive plans to new perspectives gained, helps us organize program content with specifics and deliver a richer visitor experience.