It’s a bright, summer day at the Yew Mountain Center in Hillsboro — a “Wild Wednesday” to be exact.
Ten area children have gathered for an afternoon of nature activities and education, social interaction and fun.
The kids, ranging in age from 2 ½ to 10, are fast learners, many of them already comfortable with a compass in hand, playing in a creek bed or picking up something slimy.
“Hey, guys, look what I found!” Elam Craten calls out during an outdoor portion of the program.
“Do you know what it is?” Yew Mountain Center Facilities Manager Robin Tywoniw asks.
“It’s a snail,” the 3-year-old with long blond hair and a baseball hat says, scampering off to the creek to show the rest of his 5-and-under friends.
“These kids are raised in the woods,” Tywoniw says. “Some of them know more than I do.”
And director Erica Marks says the Yew Center’s mission is to help the children continue to learn, while also reaching out to the community and beyond.
“It’s of this place,” she says of the mission. “It’s taking the best features of living here and celebrating the locality of the region. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Yew Mountain Center will celebrate its third anniversary in November, but in February 2016, just 10 months before the nonprofit opened, the future of the 500-acre Pocahontas County property was up in the air.
Although it had always been privately owned — the first owner built it as a hunting lodge, the second owner operated it as a B&B and mountain biking destination, and the third mostly used it as his home — local residents had come to consider it a part of their lives as well.
“People would come up and walk around and swim in the pond,” Marks says, explaining the most recent owner was a friendly nature-minded man who had no interest in operating a business, but didn’t mind sharing the land with his neighbors.
But when he left the country and returned to his native England and then passed away, his estate came up for sale.
“The whole neighborhood was very concerned about what would happen to the property because it was such an integral part of the community,” Marks says.
So they did what a lot of neighbors do — they had potluck dinners and talked about what they would do with the property if they could buy it.
“And we thought, ‘Well, we should all pull together our resources,’ and we took an anonymous survey and I think we had something like $4,500.”
Though they realized they could not raise the close to $1 million themselves, the dream remained. And that March, Marks — a teacher by trade — was stuck in bed with an illness and decided to put all of the ideas she and her neighbors had talked about on a website as though the Yew Mountain Center already existed.
“It was like, ‘Here’s this opportunity,’” she recalls. “‘You’ve got 500 acres and it’s ready. You’ve got this invested, engaged community and you could buy it (property) and let us do this thing we want to do.’”
And by November, a “friend of a friend” of Marks’ husband’s family connected to a conservation-minded company, Lobelia, LLC., checked out the land and signed the lease.
“Then it was like, ‘OK, let’s see if we can do this now,’” Marks says.
The center itself has a lot to offer — six bedrooms used for retreats, a seasonal Airbnb business or simple overnight stays for those looking to get away — a great room for community gatherings, dinners, weddings and other events and a full kitchen.
That, Marks says, has helped provide income and will, she hopes, generate increased money in the future.
But the most important part of the Yew Mountain Center, she says, is the land upon which it sits.
And she says most people are surprised to know it’s actually located in the Yew Mountain Range.
“It took me years of living here before I found out I was living in the Yew Mountains,” says Marks, a native of Roanoke, Va., who has traveled throughout the world but has called Hillsboro home for 12 years. “The Yew Mountains start here and include the mountains along the Highland Scenic Highway.”
Most of the 500-acre property is forested and includes 20 miles of trails, though not all developed, which snake through the wilderness.
Educational signs mark the differences between pine and maple trees and provide a bit of information.
Marks walks down a trail past a short zip line used during Wild Wednesdays, and heads toward a spot heard before seen, as the sound of salamanders and tadpoles splashing and crying frogs guide the way to a small frog pond.
“This is yarrow,” she says, reaching down and picking up a piece of feathery vegetation. “It’s one of the oldest medicinal herbs. I had a neighbor who was attacked by her rooster and he gouged a hole in her hand. She was bleeding a lot and feeling dizzy and she put a bunch of yarrow into her wound to stop the bleeding.”
Across the way, Marks points out a small growth of goldenseal, whose life cycle is three years, that she and a neighbor planted and cordoned off from deer.
She says the center is working with a coalition to improve West Virginia’s share of the nontimber forest product industry, helping people who might own pieces of woodland — even small plots — grow in-demand crops like goldenseal, ramps, black cohosh and ginseng.
“It’s a form of agriculture that uses the existing forest ecology to grow these plants in wild conditions with a little help from people,” she says, explaining training would be offered at the Yew Mountain Center. “The worldwide demand for plants grown this way is growing and largely unmet.
“The demand from herbal companies for forest-grown verified products is big, so black cohosh might sell for $3 a pound, but if it’s forest-grown verified, all of the sudden it’s $60 a pound.”
Back inside, parents talk while their children — 10 including Marks’ three daughters — wait for today’s lesson to get started.
“We’re going to be learning the difference between a butterfly and a moth,” Marks says as microscopes with different specimens are set up on tables in front of the kids.
Elam’s mom, Holly Bradley, looks on from the side of the room before heading out. She’s lived in the neighborhood since the center’s inception, but wasn’t involved in the formation. Nevertheless, she says she’s there up to three times a week, either bringing Elam to programs or coming for something like a community dinner.
“I’m super grateful for it (the center) because it’s been like a community center for all of us in Hillsboro and a way to connect with people from all over and learn about nature and stuff,” she says. “It’s really awesome for the kids. It’s like their second home.
“It’s a beautiful place with a lot of opportunities for great things to happen.”
Ten-year-old Penelope Campbell started coming as soon as the center opened and says she can’t list everything she’s learned through the years, but mentions a few of her favorites.
“Swimming in the pond, the parties, classes, wildlife,” she says. “I love it.
“It’s just so far from town and stuff and it’s just so peaceful and quiet,” she continues. “You meet so many people.”
And she’s even learned survival skills.
“I learned to fish,” she says, adding she put the skill to use the day before. “I caught two trout. My grandma is probably doing whatever she does with them right now so I’m looking forward to my dinner.”
After the group finishes with the microscopes and a short art project, they head outside to check for butterflies and learn about milkweed.
“The butterflies can eat the leaves, but not many things can eat milkweed because it’s poisonous,” Marks tells the group, as they sniff the blooms and spot a few butterflies approaching.
The older children then go with her on a scavenger hunt guided by compass while the younger children head to the creek with Tywoniw.
Wild Wednesdays are over for the season, but other programs including Midsummer Strings, an August camp for musicians of all ages, the September Wild, Wonderful Women in the Woods retreat, November’s Appalachian Broom Making workshop and the Yew Center third anniversary celebration are scheduled.
Marks says things will slow down from December through February as navigating the twisting Pocahontas County road to get to the remote center makes things a bit tricky.
But a full slate of events including campouts, a mushroom foray and more will kick back up in the spring.
The center also offers field trips to local schools. Because of her teaching background, Marks says she pulls together the curriculum to meet the state’s standards, and she says she’s open to providing tours to parents or individuals who might be interested in visiting before the weather turns.
“We can always take someone on a nature hike,” she says.
She just wants to get the word out, offering as much education as possible and inviting people to visit, whether it is for a day or an overnight stay.
“I think what strikes most people about being here is how peaceful it is,” she says. “It really is a place to forget about the rest of your life and just find connections in nature.”
She says she hopes the center serves as a way to dispel stereotypes about Appalachia by telling a positive story and by hopefully instilling a love of the land in future generations.
“I think it’s so important just to instill a sense of pride and place because all people hear listening to the media is just how poor Appalachia is,” she says. “Just how unhealthy it is. But there are people who get super excited about the ecology of this place and maybe if we can show students, we can help them love this place deeply and maybe help them want to stay and pick a career that’s connected to the sciences or the old arts that are here.
“That’s what it really boils down to.”
The Yew Center is located at 9494 Lobelia Road in Hillsboro. Visit it online at www.yewmountain.org for more information.