By Ryan Powers
The Ridges and its surrounding cemeteries have a reputation for being haunted; the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) seeks to change that.
Dr. Thomas Walker, Ohio University professor emeritus and NAMI member, headed a project that built the nature trails connecting three cemeteries surrounding the Ridges. The purpose of the trails is to beautify the cemeteries and educate the public on the plant and animal life within the forest.
Walker said the Fox Family Channel aired a special called “Scariest Places on Earth” showcasing the Ridges and the cemeteries, which he regarded as rude. It was also criticized by Athens residents. The NAMI project believes it has been successful in eliminating the haunted stigma of the cemeteries.
OU owns the Ridges and surrounding lands, but NAMI is mostly responsible for its upkeep. Walker explained how OU acquired the land.
“OU got it in the 1970s,” Walker said. “Bought it for $1—all the ridges from the Department of Mental Health. One dollar and a promise to maintain the cemeteries.”
Walker said OU has been “waffley” on their obligation to maintain the cemeteries.
“They decided as a cost-cutting measure they weren’t going to maintain the cemeteries, so we had to go back and show them the documents, and they began maintaining them again,” Walker said. “My definition of ‘maintain’ is a little more strict than their definition.”
NAMI’s project began at the turn of the century, and now it is mostly concerned with maintaining the trails used by 500 people weekly, according to Walker.
Given its popularity, Beta Fish Magazine sought to learn about the history and natural life of the Ridges. Sometimes, the link between past and present is literally visible.
“The oldest tree I know of in Athens is located in of the woodlands on The Ridges,” said Dr. Phillip Cantino, Ohio University plant biology professor in an email. “It is a white oak and is over 250 years old.”
Trees this old are rare due to the history of deforestation in Ohio and eastward, which occurred to make way for settlement and to produce goods for the Industrial Revolution.
“I’m not from here, but if you talk to an old guy like me who grew up here and you ask him, ‘what was it like growing up here,’ there wasn’t much in the way of trees,” Walker said.
He also said if one asked this “old guy” when he first saw a deer, he would say the 1960s.
“Prior to that, big game was groundhogs.”
During the Industrial Revolution, wood from Athens trees were often used to make pot ash, a substance used to make soap, which was shipped to England, according to Walker.
It was not until the 1920s and 30s that the deforestation ceased as wood became unnecessary for its primary uses, such as heating, fuel and packaging. Also, agriculture began to move west where the land was better, Walker said.
Since then, the forest has been growing back naturally and is currently in the third stage, the canopy stage, of the three stages of reforestation.
Much of the forestry from the first growth stage, such as sassafras, dogwood and redbud, are dying out, according to Walker. Other species, often nonnative and invasive species, are becoming more prevalent. These nonnative species include honey suckle and hollyhocks, and although many people automatically think invasive species are bad for an ecological area, Walker said they are not harmful to this forest.
“All over the world now, we have a mixture of native and invasive species,” Walker said. “Some things like the multiflora rose—I don’t know where that comes from—it’s sort of a pain in the neck; it scratches you, and it gets in the way and gets in farmers’ fields and so on, but it’s part of nature… they’re not necessarily bad.”
A specific invasive species may be a point of interest for those who hike the trail.
“We have quite a few Osage Oranges, which are a very, very hard wood, very thorny, and the Osage Indians from Missouri used them to make their bows for bow and arrows,” Walker said.
Early settlers used these thorny trees as live fencing to keep animals out of parts of the land.
Another point of interest for hikers is Abundance Hollow.
“That is really beautiful because there’s a huge beach tree which produces beach nuts, and it’s hollow, so it provides den space for lots of animals and birds,” Walker said. “There’s just such an abundance of food produced there and good nesting space that it’s just really wonderful for the animals.”
Some animals in the forestry include bobcats, though they are difficult to find due to their timidity, according to Walker.
From ghosts to bobcats, tombstones to trees, the Ridges is full of diverse stories and areas to explore.