HRI is excited to feature a guest blog post from UNCA graduate Finnigan Digman. Finnigan tells the story behind an especially meaningful hemlock treatment training workshop that HRI held this spring.

After departing from the traffic of Patton Avenue, a short jaunt brings you to the peaceful Violet Hills Cemetery. Violet Hills was founded in 1932 by prominent community member and physician, Dr. L.O. Miller. At the time, Asheville’s cemeteries were segregated, leaving no decent place for the black community to be buried. Dr. Miller created the cemetery as a befitting space for Asheville’s diverse people; lawyers, doctors, educators, activists, and filmmakers rest alongside plumbers, business owners, laborers, and every profession in between, regardless of race. At Violet Hills Cemetery, many important members of Asheville’s African American community are buried under decades-old hemlocks, elms, maples, and oaks.

Hemlock trees at Violet Hills Cemetery.

Once, a greenway of forest and field connected the Violet Hills Cemetery to the Burton Street Community. Residents would pass under towering canopies and dodge cow-fences on their way to visit departed loved ones. The Burton Street Community was founded by E.W. Pearson in the 1930s as a platform for black empowerment in Asheville. Burton Street was the first community of its kind in Asheville and remains a strong center of African American culture and community today. After his passing in 1946, E.W. Pearson was laid to rest in Violet Hills. His children once walked along the greenway to visit his gravesite. However, in the 1950s, the construction of Patton Avenue severed the connection between living and resting spaces. Burton Street saw dozens of homes condemned, and became isolated from Violet Hills. Access to the space became much more dangerous and difficult, but the cemetery remained, and visitation never faltered.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Miller’s son and grandson, the cemetery remains an active burial site for anyone wishing to rest on its shady slopes. Dr. Miller’s grandson, Quentin Miller, is the current owner and caretaker of the property. He offered valuable insight into the importance of cemeteries like Violet Hills.

On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, cars shuffle in a game of musical chairs to gain access to the gravel loops of the cemetery. It is a sacred space, “hallowed ground,” as Mr. Miller puts it. When a loved one passes, cemeteries serve as vital places for remembrance, for coming together, and for grieving. In cemeteries, one can find solitude or community. Not only do cemeteries have significant cultural importance for the community and families they support, but they are also a veritable directory of past events. Buffalo soldiers are buried under granite headstones. Dates on headstones in a special area for infant graves dwindled when increasing access to medical care in the African American community left the section almost unnecessary. Ruben Daley was the first black man to be elected to the Asheville City Council in 1969. His grave rests under a massive eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis); it is one of 16 such trees on the property. The trees were rooted long before Dr. L.O. Miller laid the first stone in Violet Hills. According to Quentin Miller, the trees have a unique and demanding presence; their distinguished form gives Violet Hills Cemetery a feeling of dignity and tranquility.

Hemlock trees at Violet Hills Cemetery.

When I met Mr. Miller on a windy day in February, we talked about the site’s history for a few minutes. Mr. Miller’s white pit bull hung his giant head out of the half-open window and stared inquisitively, as if to ask, “is a cemetery in the winter really the best place for an interview?” I asked Mr. Miller which trees he believed were worthy of Treasure Tree designation. The Treasure Tree Program is operated by Asheville GreenWorks and creates a designation of cultural and ecological importance for special trees. I had hoped to help preserve some of the cemetery’s future beauty by giving Mr. Miller access to that designation. However, he led me to a more impactful course of action. We scanned the horizon, and he pointed out to beautiful, scraggly elms and two old white oaks. I marked them on my map and asked if there were any other potential Treasure Trees. He looked wistfully at one of the giant hemlocks and said: “well, I would say the hemlocks, but they’ve got the adelgid and they’re going to die soon anyway.” I think he was taken aback by my massive grin.

Infestations of the non-native insect hemlock woolly adelgid have changed the entire ecosystem of the Southeastern United States. Countless acres of public and private land have lost these precious trees since the 1980s, but there is hope. The remedy for hemlock woolly adelgid is effective and surprisingly simple. Hemlocks usually die within 4 to 10 years after initial infection, so treatment must be hastened before the health of the trees is irreparably compromised. A single dose of insecticide will kill the parasitic infestation and can keep newcomers at bay for 5 or more years. Hemlocks are hugely important to the ecosystem of Western North Carolina; they provide dense canopies and shelter streams where fish, insects, and salamander spawn. They provide food, protection, and ideal growing conditions for many species of migrating birds, unique lichens and mosses, and mammals like the black bear. The danger posed to hemlocks threatens the health of the ecosystem; which humanity relies on for the functioning of their economy and for their mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. “Without the hemlocks,” Mr. Miller says, “Violet Hills would never have been the same.” 

This is where the Hemlock Restoration Initiative (HRI) comes to the rescue. With funding from the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and the US Forest Service, HRI is able to restore hemlocks in public and private places by mitigating the damage caused by hemlock woolly adelgid. This action ensures hemlocks in North Carolina can resist the deadly hemlock woolly adelgid and survive to maturity. HRI chose the Violet Hills Cemetery as an ideal site for educating volunteers and landowners about the technicalities of treatment.

HRI organized a workday on a beautiful Friday in April, hosting a team of enthusiastic volunteers from UNCA’s Invasive Species Management class and Asheville GreenWorks. The students worked in teams guided by HRI staff to learn tree health assessment skills and treatment methods, and then proceeded to treat every hemlock at both Violet Hills and nearby Green Hills Cemetery. Mr. Miller, the owner of Violet Hills, says the result is dramatic. He had given up hope after years of watching the hemlocks lose foliage, but this spring he saw their crowns perk up and tender new tissue emerge along new stemwood. “The hemlocks are a ray of sunshine,” expressed Mr. Miller. Thanks to HRI and a devoted team of volunteers, the hemlocks will survive for years to come, honoring a sacred resting place with their magnificent spirits.