Winding up the curvy mountain roads from Leicester into the area known as the Sandy Mush community, you’ll find yourself gazing out into expansive rolling fields dotted with old barns, rows of crops, an occasional tractor and small home nestled within. As you continue to navigate your way up, up, up the mountain on a series of gravel and dirt roads, you’ll eventually reach a lush cove humming, wild and alive. A solar-powered community center greets you, it’s reclaimed glass-paned windows collecting the sun while sheltering a treasure trove of succulents. A creek rushes close by, it’s “water song” filling the air, as Paul Gallimore, the visionary behind the Long Branch Environmental Education Center, says. He steps out and asks, “Do you hear the bird song,” sweeping his hands outward over the sea of green his nonprofit ecological sanctuary encompasses.

Aptly named as the area sits on the long branch of the Sandy Mush Creek, Gallimore protects and inhabits the 150 acres the ecological sanctuary calls home, conducting environmental research and leading restoration, preservation and conservation projects. He also protects the 424 acres nearby at the headwaters of Willow Creek and the 220 acres that sit along the South Turkey Creek, altogether ensuring that around 1400 acres around Sandy Mush Bald are all safe havens for plant, animal and human life to coexist. Gallimore’s eyes glisten as he shares the history of the land, his dog wanders nearby under the shade of a walnut tree, and a bunny hops alongside an old airstream covered in vines. Gallimore, his wife and daughter have called this magnificent biological haven home for 43 years after leaving their home in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 70s.  

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“We started Long Branch Environmental Education Center in 1974,” Gallimore shares in an excited whisper. “It came out of my two great disillusionments. These disillusionments told me that this (the dominant culture) is not the world I want to create, be a part of or support. I knew that as a species we had to completely reinvent our relationship with ourselves, with each other and with nature.”

From Hawaii to a 3-acre plot in the Shenandoah Valley and from Virginia to Polk County in an old bus with a teepee in tow, he and his wife and daughter chose Western North Carolina on a map because of the diverse ecosystem. The Long Branch Environmental Education Center (LBEEC) was born after Gallimore and his family were introduced to an elder woman living nearby. Upon first glance, they knew it was home. Shortly after, they held a barn-raising, inviting the community out to help build the passive solar community center. That communal workshop style was the vision they held for bringing people together to help maintain and nurture the land while providing a space for the community to learn specific skills related to natural building, sustainability and preservation while connecting in and with nature.

“We started out wanting people to come and see what could be done, what our options are as a species,” Gallimore shares, walking up a small slope toward a gushing waterfall and surrounding trout pond. “This is an extraordinary part of the world. We have more biological diversity in these ancient mountains than anywhere else on Earth outside of the tropical rainforests and one national park in Ecuador. There are things that precede commercial values and these are the things we need to start paying attention to in on our very own backyards, taking care of all of this because it’s ultimately taking care of us.”

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And that is exactly the work of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center–to conserve, protect, research, restore and improve environmental quality. Since that barn-raising in the early 70s, Gallimore has created a space to not only protect the land and wildlife around him but to guide important work in habitat restoration and preservation. The American Chestnut project is one prime example of that work in action. The LBEEC is home to a back-cross hybrid of the Asian and American Chestnut, which is a variety that hopes to continue the life of the American Chestnut over time, perhaps restoring the original native altogether. After travelers brought the Asian Chestnut to America in the early 1900s, the Asian variety shared a fungus, cryphonectria parasitica, that the American Chestnut had no resistance to. Yet you can go into the woods and find many of the American Chestnuts flowering, which means they’re still alive and trying to overcome the blight, yet ultimately succumb at an early age. Through backcrosses of the Asian and American varieties, LBEEC and others are helping to continue the life of the American Chestnut, inspiring those that come to take a tour, attend a workshop, or come to pick berries (which we’ll get to next), to learn more about this ecological issue and consider playing a role in helping as well.

“This is what we call a seventh generation project,” Gallimore shares, his voice sharp, impressing his concern. “To us, this must be done now to try and bring this food producing giant back to the area so we can have wildlife. Because right now the black bear and white tailed deer and wild turkey are all dependents on the acorns because the oaks come in as a response to the disappearance of the American Chestnut and are providing the food for these birds and other animals. If the oaks disappear, the wildlife will too because they’ll have nothing left to eat. It’s not like we can just send them to Wal Mart to get what they need. So if we can bring the American Chestnuts back, perhaps there is a future for wildlife as well as for us.”

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There are numerous ways to get involved in the work of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center. In addition to the Chestnut project, there are rows upon rows of blueberry bushes spanning the fields next to a second passive solar home, which was constructed communally along with the composting toilet and moon view cabin all in a row. For a small $10 donation, any and all are welcome to visit LBEEC and wander the wild rows of green branches dotted with bluish-purple berries and fill a bag until their heart’s content. After berry-picking, you’re free to enjoy the land, exploring miles of hiking trails, have a picnic next to the trout pond on one of many picnic tables, or take a tour alongside Paul and listen to his stories of this rich ecosystem and the plants and animals that call it home, peppered with glowing recitations of Native American wisdom and indigenous cultures.

“Do you like wild things? Do you know this one?,” he laughs as he holds a leaf upward to the sky. “This is the one we call wood sorrel or oxalis,” he says as he places it in his mouth and chews a leaf. “There’s a lot of programming and conditioning from the dominant culture which wants us to be disconnected from nature, to be good consumers and materialists because that forms the basis of our reality. You are what you wear. You are what you consume. We’re really at a turning point as far as whether we go forward as a species or become extinct. I can live with us doing the latter. I just don’t like to see the other billions of species who are, through no fault of their own, going to go extinct,” his eyes glaze over as he stares up into the tree canopy.

“I feel a sense of personal responsibility to try and intervene,  speak some truth to power and raise consciousness about how we are the ecology. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It is all nature. It is ecology. And without that, we don’t exist.”

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The Long Branch Environmental Education Center is open to groups who wish to take a tour of the land, visit during berry picking season this summer, and volunteer or intern and learn hands-on about passive solar construction, invasive plant species, composting, and so much more. You can contact Paul at paul@longbrancheec.org or via phone at 828-683-3662. 

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