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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Is Your Home Suffering "Poverty of the Soul?

I live in an Appalachia of incredible beauty settled by native Americans, and later, by adventurous pioneers who understood the incredible natural gifts here, gifts provided by the Maker and entrusted to its human inhabitants for safekeeping. From the beginning of habitation people have long recognized Appalachia as an area teeming with spiritual landscapes. The woods, mountains, and waterways have always inspired myth, worship, and freedom.

J. E. Mills explains that the definition of spiritual landscape follows the basic ideas of a “sacred place” and focuses only on natural landscapes in combination with the human element of perceptions, experiences, and feelings. It seems that sacred places often are connected to some historical references.

The spiritual landscape draws “the vital principle or animating force 
within living beings…the soul….
the part of the human associated with the mind, will, and feelings.” 

(Mills, J.E. 1992. Spiritual Landscapes: A Comparative Study of Burial Mount Sites in the Upper Mississippi River Basin and the practice of Feng Shui in East Asia." University of Minnesota Dissertation.)

Spirituality is more about how humans as individuals and within groups see themselves fitting into this world. The numinous, cosmic, and aesthetic dimensions of spirituality are important in understanding spiritual experiences people have in the physical world around them, especially at certain natural places.

According to Mills, numinous, cosmic, and aesthetic dimensions of spiritual experiences, define a spiritual landscape. A spiritual landscape is when these experiences or events are tied into a particular landscape for an individual or group. 

The definition of a spiritual landscape, according to Mills, closely follows three of the axioms derived for sacred landscapes, which includes the following: 

* The place “chooses” to be revealed (numinous and aesthetic);
* It is an ordinary place made “sacred” through ritual (cosmic); and
* It has a center that is local and universal (cosmic).

(Beldon C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

So what is the relationship between a person's spiritual experience and a particular spiritual landscape? Spiritual landscapes lie within the physical and material world, often part of everyday life. What makes a landscape spiritual, however, are the perceptions, beliefs, and experiences that individuals and groups have at that particular landscape. 

History of the Appalachian Spiritual Landscapes

Research shows Native American tribes hunter-gatherers first arrived in what is now Appalachia over 12,000 years ago. Several Archaic period  (8000-1000 B.C.) archaeological sites have been identified in the region, such as the St. Albans site in West Virginia and the Icehouse Bottom site site in Tennessee. In the 16th century, the de Soto and Jaun Pardo expeditions explored the mountains of South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, and encountered complex agrarian societies populated by Muskogean-speaking  inhabitants.

By the time English explorers arrived in Appalachia in the late 17th century, the central part of the region was controlled by Algonquian tribes (namely the Shawnee) and the southern part of the region was controlled by the Cherokee.

"People began traveling not only down rivers and wooded pathways, 
but through invisible realms. Humans began to delight in a sense of beauty, 
they felt the unseen powers, and they cultivated a sense of the holy. 
From that distant point until now, humans have found themselves 
existing not only in the bio-physical and social worlds, 
but also in the worlds of the spirit and imagination."

(Mills, J.E. 1992. Spiritual Landscapes: A Comparative Study of Burial Mount Sites in
the Upper Mississippi River Basin and the practice of Feng Shui in East Asia."
University of Minnesota Dissertation.)

Mills says, "The early Scots-Irish and German settlers evolved their own unique mixed culture through their language, music (dulcimer and flute), religion, and politics. The people in this region have a strong sense of community, shared identity, shared values, shared work ethic, and strong church ties."

Although many of the people living in the region outside of urban areas live scattered apart from neighbors there is a sense of belonging to a larger family for many. Appalachian people have a unique love of their land, and value the place where they live. Many Scots and Cherokee intermarried; this may be due to a shared love and perception of the land. The Scots-Irish and German settlers also are known for their folktales and traditions which became stronger in the Appalachian Mountains than in either motherland. (Steve Jackson.  "Peoples of Appalachia: Cultural Diversity within the Mountain Region" in A Handbook to Appalachia. ed by Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox. Knoxville Tennessee: The University of
Tennessee Press, 2006)

According to Mills, in the late 1800s Coal mining managers often recruited workers for the coal camps and railroad lines at Ellis Island. Italians, Polish, Hungarians, Albanians, and Greeks came in high numbers into the Appalachian Mountains for work. The various ethnic groups kept to themselves around the camp towns. In 1909, the West Virginia Department of Mines in four counties counted 18 different ethnic groups.

Spirit and More Modern Times

I understand and acknowlege it is difficult to conceive of an accurate statement of cultural spirit for some 25 million people living in 13 states, especially given a high annual turnover rate in the population through in- and out-migration. But, I believe, this spirit, akin to belief and behavior sets, is tied to specific places in Appalachia although it is not descriptive of everyone in the region.

In more modern times, the understanding of positive aspects of Appalachian spirit 
has taken a turn for the worse. 
Inhabitants have come to perceive their nature from people
in a position of what author Gurney Norman calls "a presumed cultural superiority." 
This stereotype developed over the years as greedy individuals, 
often foreign to the land, exploited Appalachia's nature and human resources
while dehumanizing its people. 

(Gurney Norman and Katherine Ledford, Back Talk From Appalachia: 
Confronting Stereotypes, 1999)

Appalachian residents soon became commonly known as a disassociated group suffering what Norman calls "poverty of the soul." Outsiders viewed the residents as passive victims of fate, so dumb, greedy, and shiftless as to have caused their own pitiful fate. Of course, this is terribly distorted conception of the native people.

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently ran a photographic spread on University of Cincinnati students spending their spring break in Eastern Kentucky. The subhead read “Cultural appreciation course takes students to meet those in need,” and the brief five-paragraph story has three more references to Appalachian “culture."

The eight photographs show students helping people too poor or physically limited to maintain their own homes. Nowhere in the text is this “culture” defined but the inference is that an Appalachian “culture”exists, and it is one of inability, dependence, and need. (Phillip J. Obermiller and Michael E. Maloney, "The Uses and Misuses of Appalachian Culture." Urban Appalachian Council Working Paper No. 20, May 2011)

“…a widespread discontent has developed with the use of ‘culture’ as it, like most
words of fashion, has become an all-embracing term that pleads immunity to doubt.”
J. A. Sorenson in The Concept of Culture

In truth, according to Norman, even in modern times (1983-1990), Appalachia is the site of "some of the most dynamic examples of creative civic participation in the spirit of true democratic liberalism in North America." By liberalism, Norman refers to the work of ordinary people who have resisted enormous forces that controlled and oppressed them.

For an example of this liberalism, Norman writes of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth movement. In this instance, the work over several decades of grass roots political and cultural organizing by ordinary local citizens, working people, came to fruition.

In 1998 Kentuckians for the Commonwealth mobilized voters to amend the state constitution to outlaw the infamous broadform deed by which coal companies gained control of minerals beneath the soil owned by private families. The deed had oppressed small landowners and hillside farmers for nearly a century. It allowed coal operators to invade private lands and extract coal by strip mining without protection or compensation to the owners, many of them extremely poor. After 23 years of unremitting effort by local citizens, the Kentucky State Constitution was amended by 83% approval.

The Appalachian tradition has always been known to employ resistance to oppressive forces. The mountains are the birthplace and home of many leaders and teachers of civic virtue in the nation. The true spirit of Appalachians, even today, is grounded in the inspiring spiritual landscapes.

Perhaps we residents of Appalachia should fashion our new activism within our own spiritual landscapes, keeping in mind our ancestors' uniquely positive qualities while rejecting any stereotypical concepts of "poverty of the soul." The major hindrance to improving the Appalachian spirit is believing condemnations of our culture from others and from some of our own inhabitants.

Just For Fun and Thought

Jim Casada writes some remembrances of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains and hearing advice and repeated sayings common to most from the region. Here are a few:

1. “Make do with what you’ve got.”
2. “Waste not, want not.”
3. " We are poor but proud.”

Jim remembers other traits commonly displayed such as a hatred of dependence on the government, loyalty, the ability to hate long and hold a grudge even longer, quick tempers, deep and abiding religious faith, susceptibility to suspicion that could sometimes verge on paranoia, and stoicism in the face of even the harshest adversity. He says all belong as components of mountain character.

(Jim Casada, "Born Stubborn: A Musing on Mountain Character," The Tuckasegee Reader, February 3 2011)
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