A Place of Our Own: Appalachia

I want to talk to you about Appalachia.
It brings to mind images of toothless, aged creatures with dirty faces fresh from the mines, images of barefoot, barely dressed, children wearing feed sacks with barren landscape as a background, doesn’t it?
Maybe, modern day stereotypes conjure images of welfare recipients, overweight, diseased people, strung out on meth or opiates living in old coal towns with no future? You think of coal tipples and air dirty with soot from the mines and people as dirty and unsavory as the very energy you consume, don’t you?
This is not Appalachia.
Let me tell you about my Appalachia.
When I think of Appalachia, I think of green hills, fertile soil, hidden creeks with crawdads and creatures no science lab could emulate, and the people who tells tall tales about seeing these creatures with wide eyes and hand gestures to help make the case. I think of caves and caverns and tiny water falls no one sees. I think of exploring. I think of Black Bears and Whitetail Deer, of beavers and squirrels and flocks of turkey in the backyard. I think of an America most of you can only dream of. One with privacy and wildlife, where a person can economically own a piece of property that they can live on and have no visible neighbors, a little piece of heaven, we call it; a place we call home. It’s a place of our own. A land we can work and from which we can live forever and always have.
This is my Appalachia.
When I think of Appalachia, I think of my father in a straw hat with a sparkle in his eyes as he shows off his first harvest of tomatoes. I think of my mother calling the family to let us know that they are cooking their first “mess” of corn and green beans, or the first harvest of “ramps” in the spring. I think of my father receiving his diploma from West Virginia University in the 1950’s for Agricultural Engineering and Business and marrying my mother, who went on to earn a master’s degree in education.
I think of neatly tilled rows of corn and green beans, cucumbers sliced on the kitchen table in vinegar and water fresh from the garden. I think of eating watermelon sprinkled with salt on the porch with my sister as kids and walking to the garden to pick a jack-o-lantern for Halloween and to the woods for a Christmas tree, not Wal-Mart. I think of my father riding his 40-year-old lawn mower yesterday, at the age of 84, still keeping his yard neat, trim and green.
This is Appalachia, too.
I think of pride and resilience when I think of Appalachia, of surviving and thriving, in spite of the odds given us. I think of laying down in the shallow creek in our woods, letting the water roll over my sun-browned skin as a child and feeling as though I was a part of the world, the real one, the natural one, a world larger than you or I could ever imagine.
I think of my grandfather proudly tending his bar in the 1940’s on the same property we lived on as children, his fiery red hair, an apt match for his Irish temper. He was a self- made man who entered the work force at the age of 10 after he was orphaned in 1905. I think of his bride, an educated school teacher, and Morse Code operator in the 1920s, not long after women won the right to vote. I think of them proudly holding Polka Dances at their own establishment, my grandfather, a veteran of the Great War, determined to see the young soldiers off to battle. The couple proud to own that land; that piece of heaven.
This is Appalachia, too.
In fact, it’s the only Appalachia I know.
My people grew out of the dirt here. Some strands settled the county I live in. They were here before West Virginia. That is, before West Virginia succeeded from Virginia in opposition to slavery, and became its own state. Other lines of the family founded nearby counties. They, too, were the frontier people, the settlers, rugged folks from Ireland and Scotland and England. It surprises me how many people from outside West Virginia don’t even know that we are a state, much less the proud reason that we became one.
When I think of Appalachia, I think of the moonshiners and bootleggers, who proudly made their own money and their own booze during the depression and prohibition era, in spite of the law when the law was wrong, as history would later prove. Perhaps, your grandparents drank the liquor my grandfather made or ran. I’ve been told he ran it all the way up to Chicago and Al Capone.
Perhaps, it’s not so different than my Appalachian brother’s digging the coal that supplies you with electric.
You are not innocent here… you who uses electric. Stop wiping your hands of us and acting as if you don’t benefit from the coal and oil and gas. Stop acting as if you didn’t drink the liquor made from our still. You know your family drank that shine, and you know you use the electric.
Why do you see us as other?
Is it because the coal dust on our hands and the sweat on our brow reminds you of the cost of your electric? Are we the reflection of the thing you most hate about yourself? Is that your Appalachia… America’s dirty secret?
Not my Appalachia. We here, are strong.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. ejwalkerwrites says:

    I’ll be hiking through the 8 miles of West Virginia the Appalachian Trail passes through in a few weeks. It’s one of my favorite trail sections. Thanks for reminding to slow down and experience THAT Appalachia. Great read.

    Liked by 1 person

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