Stories and photographs from the Cacapon and Lost River Valley are featured in a book just released by West Virginia University Press.
Listening to the Land features the stories of several owners throughout the watershed who have chosen to preserve their land through the Cacapon and Lost River Land Trust.
“When we signed some of the first easements that the Land Trust did, people started sobbing, literally, in the easement signing in the attorney’s office,” Nancy Ailes, executive director, said. “And I started realizing that there are these great stories behind those tears.”
Ailes wrote a grant proposal and received $50,000 from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to produce the book. The Trust hired documentary writer Jamie Ross and photographer Tom Cogill to traverse the valley documenting the people, their land and their stories.
“The land is beautiful, I think this valley could be a national park,” Cogill said.
Cogill is primarily a portrait photographer so he approached the landscape the same way he would if he were capturing an image of an individual. There are photos in the book of teenage girls hauling in a deer they shot, scenes of farms, livestock and hay, as well as the highway and power lines bisecting the land.
Cogill is particularly fond of a photo that shows a weathered wood plank wall with graffiti scratched in it.
“It’s the two page spread for the section called ‘The Pull of Home,’” Cogill said. “Probably 100 people have written their name and the date, just kind of scratched it on the wall, some of them have extended stories, others it’s just initials and dates.”
“It’s a portrait, it’s a short story, it talks about the people who live here without showing any of them,” he said.
While Cogill shot photos, Ross interviewed people. The Land Trust chose about 30 whose stories might be interesting, including those who still live in the valley as well as those who grew up there and moved away.
The 150 page book documents families like the Hahn’s, Mongold’s, Slonaker’s and Mills as they participate in activities such as hunting, farming, enjoying meals and gathering mushrooms.
One of Ross’s favorite stories is that of Josh Frye, who comes from a long line of Frye’s who have worked on the family’s farm near Wardensville since Colonial times. Frye’s father and two of his brother’s died in farm accidents.
“And still they could not bring themselves to sell the property,” Ross said. “And part of that too goes with all the funny stories that go along.”
The book details how Frye’s mother was embarrassed when her husband bought a hearse that he parked in the field so he could sleep there and keep an eye out for predators trying to eat the turkeys raised on the farm.
“And Josh speaks so warmly about farming when people used to move from farm to farm to accomplish the task,” Ross said. “They would do haying as a group and move from one place to the next.”
Another profile features Bobby Ludwig from Baker, who the book says went off to college in New England and built a lucrative career on Wall Street.
Ludwig no longer lives full time in Hardy County but he’s bought and preserved thousands of acres of farmland to prevent developers from building houses on it.
Ross said Ludwig had a good comeback when officials wanting to widen the state highway near his farm suggested he could just go buy another piece of property in exchange for the one they’d take.
“And he said ‘well how about I take your girlfriend and spend the night with her and you just go get another one,’” she said. “It’s not just the attachment it’s the wit and wisdom and everything.”
Ross said there were two thoughts she heard over and over again as she interviewed people: it’s important to leave the land better then you found it, and your word is your bond.