My Appalachia is cradled in the folds of the oldest mountains in the world. It is nurtured by the oldest River, born in the oldest of seas and returning again to that same tidal call.
My Appalachia is covered in forests; oaks and hickories, ash and maple and tulip poplar, pines and cedars, walnut and chestnut, lost orchards of apple and cherry and pear trees blooming each spring above the fading foundations of some forgotten homestead. Stripped of almost 98% of her timber by the second decade of the 20th Century, my Appalachia is a place of healing wounds and continuing abuses.
My Appalachia is a hundred generations of women and men, seeking a new start or a place of peace, looking for solace and solitude.
There are archetypes here, as there are in every corner of the world, characters that come dangerously close to caricature and traditions that threaten at every turn to stereotype a people who are complex and varied, inspiring and pathetic, heroic and villainous by turns; resolute and solitary, communal and cordial, reserved and determined. They are Mountaineers, and there is something in that name that goes beyond the simple view all too many of us, myself included, have come to accept over the years.
There are many faces to this ancient landscape. Someone once said, “There is more known about Appalachia that is not true than any other place in the world.”
Here there are green valleys filled with wildflowers and crumbling cabins, and rocky slopes covered with blackberries and clear cuts and whitetail deer. Giant trucks roar down new highways past old towns and retirees putter along twisting backroads below climbers lost in an unimagined volume of adventurous ascents. Fishermen chase trout and bass down the stocked rivers and mountain bikes wend the ridgetop trails, agape at the beauty all around them, blind to the plight of the people who live in the midst of Eden.
A thousand years ago the tribes of the surrounding region of North America had ended their wandering, sorted themselves out and settled into nations with very different ways of life. The Seneca, the Catawba, the Shawnee, and the Delaware; all of these were peoples who walked ancient trails through these mountains to reach the abundant game that filled the forests and streams. They fought each other and the newly arrived settlers, and none can say on whose side the first or last blows fell. The signs of the Amerinds are few, these days, mostly road signs and the highways we still use, the occasional striking profile or headful of coal black hair among the population.
In many ways, it is a mercy that most of the First People of this continent are gone, for here too there are scars, the silent scream of outraged nature, echoing among the flat-topped tels and overburden-filled valleys where mountains once stood, streams once ran, and tiny communities once thrived. Here there are a hundred towns like Buffalo Creek, buried under a sudden tsunami of coal ash and mud and floodwater. Coal towns and chemical towns, towns where men and hope die young and girls grow into mothers who grow old before their time. Towns where the piles of felled wood lie as hills in sullenly glowing pools of tannic acid and sulfuric poison, a harvest of forests still recovering from near 98 percent destruction by the early years of the last century. The last of the hemlocks are falling, the mighty green sentinels of the mountainsides now only rotting logs and tinder piles in the wake of the fuzzy adelgid. The shadow of the chestnut blight stretches across the years. Another invasive species, another void in the forest ecosystem.
In the winding commute from Petersburg to Smoke Hole Canyon along Route 220, you will likely pass 86 year old Paul, hobbling determinedly along, a stick figure with a snarl of beard wrapping his tanned burl of a face. Several years ago, Paul was knocked unconscious in a car crash, which also ignited the car. Some unknown soul pulled the old man from the wreckage, covered him with a jacket, and left before the ambulance arrived. Although badly burned, he made a recovery that would have been impressive in a man of half his years. But there is far more than meets the eye to this unremarkable-looking man.
Seventy years ago, Paul was a young soldier, one of the early paratroopers who would go on to jump into the combat theaters of Europe. He logged dozens of jumps and served with honor, traveled the world and the settled back home to raise a family. But life in the hollows and mountains is never what you think, and Paul wound up alone in his singlewide trailer, tucked into the forest ridge below mountains he knows and loves so well.
Now he limps along the shoulder of the highway and on rare occasions visits with friends on his way to a cup of coffee and an hour of solitary company on the front bench of Kile’s Grocery in Upper Tract. From time to time, inclement weather will drive him inside to share jokes and observations on the weather, stock market, or local politics with “The Liar’s Club”, generally four to six men of ages from mid forties to late eighties. Carl Kimble and Skinner, Dave the proprietor or Marsha his wife, Mike Alt, the local EMT coordinator, any one of a dozen delivery drivers, salesmen and local farmers all pass the time and pass in and out of the tiny, crowded store.
Carl and his family owned most of Smoke Hole Canyon at one time, an acreage that accounts for a fair amount of Pendleton County. Skinner is a local veteran of the foreign wars, lean, sly, sharp, lustful for the younger shapes curving through the narrow aisles of the store, eyeing budding beauty and aging grace alike with an avid gleam that is thinly disguised as polite humor.
Behind the counter, Dave will smile from behind his enormous mustache, or Marsha will cast a weary eye at the gathering of Old Crowes behind you, wiping her hands as she finishes another sandwich and says “Beritewichanaminit, hon, k?” with a look that tells you that Marsha might have been a good time and a tough customer, back in the day. More often than not, someone in the group will offer Paul a ride back home, but unless the rain is falling in a flood, or snow is blowing like a blizzard, it is a rare occasion on which the old man will accept.
He is a “tough old codger“, old Paul; bent by years and injuries and sorrow and loss, bewildered by the changes in a world that seems to have forgotten his sacrifice and discounted his worth, but marching resolutely onward, determined to make it on his own, if he can.
This is Appalachia… MY Appalachia.
The town in which I once spent so much of my time is filled with characters like Paul, broken soldiers who served their country in one of three or four wars we’ve managed since the start of the Age of Reason. There are, as well, the last of the Old Guard, sons of the original settlers and older landholding families, like Carl Kimble and his brother Harlin, whose father bought up parcels of land in the years of the Great Depression to keep his neighbors from losing them to the government and out of state logging companies for back taxes. They persist, these last heirs to an empire of forested mountains and rich valleys without end, empires that have so silently, thoroughly vanished when they were not looking. They are racists without apology, but not a one of them would turn away from a man in need, no matter the color of his skin. They are gentlemen to a lady even if she is not, and ladies even when not in the company of gentlemen.
Appalachia has been betrayed so often and so badly that the concepts of novelty, progress and change are equated with the locals’ perception of rampant destruction of the American way of life. The state divided itself from the capitol of the Confederacy and was rewarded, in the aftermath of the Civil War, by being treated as an occupied territory filled with war criminals, just like the rest of the South. If one looks at predominant attitudes among the general population today, it is possible to see what the long-term outcome of military occupation looks like.
Local culture and heritage has been erased, overwritten by the program of consumerism and narcissistic regard. America’s current love affair with the “thug” is personified in nine out of ten of the local youth between the ages of 12 and 20, and persists late into life, incongruously blending with a country slant that is most often described as redneck, an ignorant slap in the face of the miners who fought for their basic human rights and denoted their dedication to the cause with a red bandanna.
Around these citizens of the global village circulate a lot of country folks, young adult urban couples of what was once referred to as the Middle Class, out-of-work Moms and Dads of Class of Lowered Expectations, an increasing number of drifters and transients, mostly itinerant workers (one of the reasons many of the Moms and Dads are out of work, but also victims of corporate greed), the usual suspects, carrying on the usual black market activities that include but are not limited to drugs, weapons, alcohol, and technology.
Amid this populace dwells a tiny group of (mostly retired) intellectuals who patronize the Arts and read all the important journals and donate to missionaries and relief organizations and have not a clue what life is like for 98% of the people around them.
Petersburg, this contradictory place from which I sent my electronic consciousness out into the larger world, straddles the confluence of two of the most heavily-stocked game fish rivers in North America, and is home to its own particular mutation of the native trout, the Golden. It has been estimated that more than 75% of all trophy game fish caught in West Virginia come from these rivers. I have met piscadores from South Africa and Great Britain, from France and the former Soviet Bloc enthusiastically beating the waters to foam in search of their finny prizes.
But there is neither a boat sales nor is there even the vestige of a fly fishing shop in the closest city to one of the most popular fishing spots on the planet.
Petersburg sprawls within sight of the northern terminus of a trail that has been voted “Best in the East” by hikers and mountain bikers who have crossed America and the globe, and yet there is no outdoor shop selling maps and backpacks and assorted camping gear (unless one counts the military surplus store, which sells equipment that is appropriately out-of-date by a mere two decades). Here you will find no mountain bike sales or rental center, no trendy little café catering to the bohemian tastes and appetites of the cash-ready tourists who fill the local roads every weekend, no seasonal festivals of local artists or musicians.
This is not true across the entire state. In the towns bordering the New River, Fayetteville and Beckley, whitewater rafting companies and rock climbing guides and mountain bike rentals sit side by side with taverns, hostels, pizzerias and the renovated homes of vegans and environmentalists and world-famous outdoor athletes.
Thirty years ago, Fayetteville and the incredible rock climbing of the Gorge were just a little known backwater in the American extreme sports cosmos. But unlike Petersburg, that region saw an influx of eager young college students and urban professionals with families, most from more progressive cities in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. With the coal (and the powerful interests who controlled the region) long gone, the cities around New River Gorge desperately needed something to save them from the creeping oblivion that has rendered too many small towns little more than a road sign at an empty intersection of roads that lead nowhere. There was vision and energy, a need perceived and an answer offered and accepted. Property was cheap and easy to come by, regulations were sparse and rarely enforced, interest rates and fees were low, and soon New River Gorge was a growing idea with a bright future.
In ironic contrast to the middle-of-nowhere status of the Gorge, Petersburg sits directly on the route between major tourist dollar sources like D.C., New York, and lower New England to the north and one of the oldest climbing areas in the country, Seneca Rocks, to the south. The cliffs of Champe and Nelson and Judy Gap and the virtually untouched adventure potential of Smoke Hole Canyon all wait within a half hour drive. The skiing and snowboarding of Canaan and Whitegrass are less than an hour to the west. The Allegheny Front rises impressive and blue to the south and west.
But on these decaying streets you will find no shops selling skis or climbing equipment or guidebooks, no catchy graphics art signs announcing the offices of a rafting guide or climbing school, no fit young liberals lounging over a cup of espresso while debating “An Inconvenient Truth” or anticipating the next Banff Film Festival or trip to Burning Man.
This town and indeed most of this state is ruled by old men dreaming of an age of glory and missed opportunity, many of them in the halls of power, trying to turn back the clock to a past that never existed, or young men filled with the hatred and ideals of the old, opposed to change, opposed to exposure to outside concepts and lifestyles and answers. They are afraid and reactionary and strident in their opposition. The world they knew or imagined is gone, and the world they cling to is fading. Because Appalachia is once again emerging into the world, and life as it has been known here is changing.
And yet the story is one that has been told again and again in the history of the state and the country. Mentally-fragmented and physically-disabled military veterans, homeless families and immigrants legal and illegal appear in their streets in increasing numbers, and outside business presses close, offering compromise and desperately-needed jobs in return for just a little more of the states vanishing heart. “Humanitarian” efforts do little to end the misconceptions and stereotypes that are so useful as fundraising tools, and the inherent “us and them” of any “relief organization” comes inevitably into play, whether consciously or not.
Appalachia; myth and dream, a land of contradictions and paradox. West Virginia was the first state, THE FIRST STATE in the Union to create public schools for black children during the Civil War. Today, West Virginia’s children, black and white, cannot take books home from school to study at Circleville elementary, because there aren’t enough books for all the children to start with. Most of them will end up dropping out of school because they are pregnant, or have gotten someone pregnant, or because their families need the paycheck from a job at the mill or the mine or the poultry plant more than they need another high-school graduate with dreams that will never come true under the corrupt system of out-of-state ownership of resources that has been West Virginia’s doom since Grant was in the White House.
A thousand feet above this community sits an international agency with several hundred acres of private property, a multimillion dollar budget, and offices on three continents, a mountain institute whose credo states a goal of “preserving and advancing mountain culture.” While this lofty ideal sounds as good on paper as saving Tibet or the whales, in practice they have consistently tried to “ensure responsible stewardship and appreciation of Appalachia’s natural, cultural, and community resources” in spite of the people, instead of in support of the people. They have approached their goals in precisely the wrong order. You cannot save the forests and mountains, nor the predominately inaccurate illusions of mountain culture, without first saving the people, and ensuring the future, namely through the children of the small communities.
Not that such a thing hasn’t been tried, and by this very institute‘s founders. The plan was an interesting mixture of ideas that had failed a decade before and concepts that had never been tried at the time. But again, there was the persistent perception that the local people were far too backwards to be included in the process and they were, instead, presented with a fait accompli after private meetings and negotiations between institute founders and government officials in the distant capitol. Decisions had been reached for the good of the people in spite of the people and the local school superintendent was the last to know, informed in a congratulatory phone call that assumed he was already part of the process. A school board meeting had been called without his knowledge and the deal was all but done.
The bureaucrats and the intellectuals had forgotten that they were dealing with the first mountaineers. Phone lines hummed and lunch counters and barber shops and beauty parlors were abuzz with the news. On the night of the board meeting, almost 900 people turned up, some of them heavily armed, the rest desperate and ready to do just about anything to “save our schools“. Local police and sheriff’s departments as well as dozens of state troopers stood in a cordon around the crowd, unable or unwilling to interfere.
The Institute’s founder stood up and told what amounted to a series of very obvious bald-faced lies about how the entire situation had come about, according to him, “just by coincidence.“ Given that he had tried the same tactic some years previously, after leaving guests standing in a freezing rain at a locked gate, few were surprised, but many were amazed that the Institute would continue to treat them with such contempt when the truth, as they saw it, was so obvious.
Months passed, during which the founders of the institute and the school board chairman met again and again in urgent sessions, all while claiming that nothing was happening. The founder’s wife, writing for the local paper, had completely erased the confrontation between locals and her husband in her version of the story, in which the record attendance was not even mentioned, and the agenda was reported as “the board discussed alternative education.”
In the end, the “coincidental” coup failed. Within a few more years, the Circleville High School was closed and the school district integrated with that of Franklin, a community on the opposite side of the mountain geographically and the opposite side of the world culturally. Many still see this as punishment by the state for not cooperating in their bright vision of the future.
Since this time the institute in question has changed names and the faces at the top of West Virginia’s highest mountain and on the upbeat PC website are not those of the clueless self-promoters who once tried to steal a school district and who endorsed using local farmlands to farm fallow deer, harvesting and selling the spring waters of a county that routinely suffers severe drought, and “shipping” the unemployed out of state. The same folks who used Institute co-signatures on home loans (thus ensuring that, if they defaulted, at least part of their loans would be paid with grant money derived from taxpayer dollars) and who so divided the Pendleton EMS community that to this day, almost two decades later, that region still has trouble maintaining a firefighting and rescue staff beyond the good old boys who love having lots of lights on their trucks and an excuse to drive like hell with the siren on every time the scanner chimes their song.
But you can find their names sprinkled throughout the organization’s staff training manuals, where they are identified as “founders”, “friends and long-time employees” of the current incarnation of the institute, which insists, despite this seeming contradiction, that it has nothing to do with the bad old days.
Please don’t mistake my point- there is no denying that this institute and others like it do a great deal of good to and for people all around the world. But they began their story in the heartland of what the world perceives as “Appalachia”. Began their mission with good goals and bad ideas, and followed that launch with brilliant theories and poor execution. Time and again these institutes have shown skilled maneuvering in the rarified atmosphere of the boardroom and the halls of power, but incredible ineptitude when confronting the challenge of simply talking to their neighbors in the surrounding mountains to seek some insight into what the people they are “just trying to help” think of their assistance.
As one local put it, “You can pee down the back of my neck, and you can tell me it’s a warm spring rain, but don’t expect me to like it or to rush out and start planting corn on your say-so.” A brown stream of tobacco juice and a squint of pale blue eyes in a weathered face. “Them folks up there-“ a head jerk toward Spruce Knob- “may have changed their names, but they still think we‘re a bunch of dumb hillbillies and they make millions sellin‘ that crap to city people who ain't never been here and don‘t plan on comin‘.”
Meanwhile, down in Big Run and Cherry Grove and Circleville, there are still not enough schoolbooks to go around.
In contrast to whatever contradictions the folks atop the state’s highest peak may or may not be able to resolve, the folks at Elkins-Davis College have done a fine job of repairing some of the damage their institute’s namesakes did to West Virginia during their rise to power. Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins were both heavily involved with coal, timber, and the railroads in the jolly days of stealing land from local landowners for a song or at gunpoint or by corrupt government.
However, the fine liberal arts college that bears their names has produced some truly authentic views into mountain life, primarily by letting mountain people tell their own stories, and respecting them without patronizing them. There are opportunities for employment, and real attempts to enrich the day-to-day lives of native West Virginians are made by people who want to know about the world in which many of those natives were born and raised and still live. It is because of this empathy and the college’s pragmatic approach to cultural preservation that so many of West Virginia’s own young people enroll in programs here every year. Quite simply put, Elkins-Davis is dedicated to saving Appalachian culture and biodiversity through empowerment, instead of regulation and legislation.
Non-profits in the region seem bent on simply being one more group that will not identify itself as West Virginian but are making a lot of money being in West Virginia. There are a number of great people involved in the mission to improve local living conditions and/or minister to the poor, whom they do not see as vicitims of out-of-state corporations and corrupt government so much as simply "backwards". Appalachia, it has been said, has been saved so much that it’s been damned near saved to death.
I know in my heart that the staff of many of these organizations well and truly believe that they are helping local people by coercing them into sharing the mission and goals of the organization. I know that there are also a great number of people for whom it is just a job, nothing more, a way to bring home a paycheck and make ends meet in an increasingly desperate world.
No matter what happens in middle management and down below where the rubber meets the road, at the top of this heap, hidden like viruses among the idealists and pollyannas, I inevitably find slick pros who are massaging environmental ethics and the current green market for a buck; corporate conmen looking to soften their resume with a touch of humanity.
Mixed liberally with these are manipulative control freaks who have slept or back stabbed their way to the top, sometimes both, in order to control the incredible flow of funds and resources that are mostly wasted on the effort to improve the housing of the poor in this country. Most West Virginians involved in these programs wind up being treated like a show pony or cultural exhibit, something the institute has accomplished, just another sound byte or PR image, rather than being seen for what they are, which is another human being with equally valid dreams and goals, potentials and problems of their own.
It is so hard for the missionary who brings the Word not to confuse themselves with the Word. None who sit at the head of the table can ever long resist the temptation of looking down from some height, be it moral, intellectual, or simply economic.
It is most often from this breathtaking height that Appalachia is seen, and it is from those biased perspectives that the misconceptions spring.
If these groups and corporations do indeed care about the place in which they conduct a very lucrative business, how in the name of Almighty God can any institute- government, private or spiritual- how can any group or cause which claims to care about mountain people, in this life or the next, sit idly by as billion-dollar coal interests attack not only the people of the Appalachians, their economy and their ecosphere, but the very geography of the region?
The corporations that have for generations stolen the wealth that belonged to every West Virginian and shipped either the resources or the profits out of state are now stealing even the mountains, among these the oldest in the world. I do not know of any other country in which 500 mountains have been destroyed in the middle of one of the richest biospheres on the planet, a place almost recovered from its original and ongoing rape of the early 20th Century, a place absolutely and quite literally soaked with the blood of history.
Where then are the mountain institutes and colleges, the churches and the humanitarians, the petitioners and the protesters?
Where are the multi-million dollar airlifts and fundraising concerts to bring aid and relief to the victims of a war that is being waged against the mountains themselves?
Which famous rock climber, kayaker, hiker, skier, mountain bike rider, fly fishing authority or motorcycle enthusiast has spoken out against this corporate assault on life itself?
West Virginia contains some of the most sublime examples of each of these, and yet who has truly taken this battle to heart? And of those who may have, how deeply and currently are they involved in the battle to save one of the oldest biospheres on the planet? Which institute has led a protest to shut down mine operations, if only for an hour?
It is fine and good to send aid to the peoples of the world.
But to do so while ignoring so many of the problems and rampant injustices in the world right outside your door is not only idealistic and foolish, it is losing the fight before you begin. The children of the people you are not reaching in the surrounding community will grow up to vote against every program you create today. They will be the enemy of all your fine ideals and theories forever simply because you cared far more for a child you had never seen than one you drove past every day on your way to and from work and meetings and saving the world.
And the corporations who smile and hand you a check and slap you on the back are the hands and minds behind the lower-tier companies that rape the land and steal the future from the people, who pay pennies on the ton and forty dollars a day and defend themselves with the cry of “Jobs!”
Every relevant agency and organization will quote you numbers and figures, volunteer headcounts and encapsulated programs that are as much sales brochure photo-op or sound byte as true, survival-level response to the destruction of life, all life, in an area that grows by acres every hour of every day and will continue to do so until a loud enough cry is raised to “STOP!”
In the name of expediency and the false promise of jobs and short-term profits, corporations are creating a region of devastation visible from the space shuttle as it circles this fragile lifeboat on which we live. And the institutes and the churches remain silent, or put up a feeble token effort, a check or a truckload of food and clothing, as if full stomachs and warm bodies could create hope and opportunity. Letter writing campaigns that trickle away into disinterest with time, time that means nothing to corporations that think in terms of decades.
You cannot replace a mountain of stone with a mountain of paper.
By falling prey to one of the most unjust preconceptions in the world, the myth and stereotype of Appalachia, we are allowing and abetting the destruction of one of the most amazing regions of life anywhere on earth, and remaining blind to the true beauty of the very real region that is the Appalachian Mountains.
I desperately wish I could break down this barrier between us with more than the blunt force trauma of words, and give you a look into my Appalachia. You will never truly know it until you sit on a mountaintop in fall, watching a thousand colors of red and gold fade into the rising silver of the full moon.
You will never feel it until you have paused, hands locked into stone hundreds of feet from the rocky earth, the wind a wild song in the sky, watching an eagle soar past fifty feet away, or paddled into an eddy under graceful oaks and towering tulip poplars to watch a mother black bear and her fuzzy, tumbling clown of a cub cross a stream, the youngster chasing crawdads and scampering past its lumbering parent.
Appalachia is leaning against a 100-year old oak, sweat drying after a long ride in a breeze carrying the smell of fresh-cut hay and honeysuckle, as a pair of whitetail deer walk delicately past you in the dusk, the fawn awkward on new legs.
Appalachia is sagging fences outlined against the sky, cows lowing in the distance as a tractor sputters to life in the fields far below and a trillion stars fall silently into the night. It is the burning stench of trash and food waste against a background of pork barbecue and frying chicken; barking dogs and sagging trailers, giant trucks and open containers, bad tattoos and plentiful weapons, the dust that blows across the wastelands that were once proud mountains and the silence of the voices that should be crying out. Appalachia is can-do and make-do in the face of necessity, and it is a quite humor in the wake of disaster and injustice and the daily comic tragedy that is Life.
It is patriotism and bigotry, craftsmanship and hand-me-downs, decaying family homes and brand-new double-wide trailers, steam trains and satellite television, smartphones and Facebook.
It is miners and loggers and truckers, heavy equipment operators and waitresses, opera houses and meth labs, hunt clubs and poetry readings. Quiltin’s, funerals, christenings, baptisms and weddings, planting and courting and strikes and the terrible tension between the past and the future.
Its spirit lives in every note from a banjo or guitar echoing out over a holiday crowd from the front porch of Shreve’s Store, in the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon, in the roar of a WVU kickoff crowd in Morgantown and in the endless sigh of the wind across the open tundra of Dolly Sods.
It is the thing visitors from north, south, east and west look upon and marvel at and buy a little piece of to call their own, all without ever understanding.
My Appalachia is a flower many have claimed to nurture but have too often failed to feed.