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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Changing the Appalachian State of Mind: Scioto Eco-psychology

"Hillshadow" by Kenner Beckley
Time is measured by the peaks;
the backlit sun all at once speaks.
But here our plodding, muddled wills
live in the shadow of the hills.

Poet Kenner Beckley reminds us that Appalachia is not just a place but also a state of mind. He states, "They (the mountains and hills) represent the daily tension between the hope of what lies beyond the peaks and the reality of where we live in the valley where horizons are so limited." Beckley believes this is kind of existential blindness.

I, like Kenner, believe Appalachia represents the struggle of the individual against the collective. First inhabited over 16,000 years ago by the pre-Clovis culture, then by the Adena and Hopewell of the Archaic period, and later by Native American tribes such as the Shawnee, native groups all developed strong cultures here that eventually experienced the ultimate fall to the white settlers of colonial America.

The Western movement of colonial Europeans first came into the area in the 18th century.

Settled largely by the indomitable Scots-Irish seeking cheaper land and freedom (considered by some Quaker leaders as "savages"), the people of Appalachia helped shape the American identity with very definite, independent traits: loyalty to kin, extreme mistrust of governmental authority and legal strictures, and a propensity to bear arms and to use them.

As they moved to Appalachia during the same Western movement, large populations of German and English settlers also adopted the same stubborn, mountain wilderness ideals. Thus, the archetype of the American frontiersman was born. Most of the character traits and beliefs of these early Appalachian inhabitants have survived. The hillbilly of today is the product of generations of isolationism who understands the necessity of clannish, distrusting opposition to any form of outside control.

Yet the Appalachia of America has historically been exploited by collectivist institutions: unions, the War on Poverty, giant corporations and utilities, and cronyism. A student of history soon understands the paradox of  the Appalachian people -- to this day, they remain so utterly individualistic, yet so enslaved. Kenner explains the "fight" in Appalachians very well when he notes the following:

"This fight is a part of the greater struggle against death. One experiences dying as an individual, not as a collective. So to bury one’s identity within the collective is essentially to die."

(Kenner Beckley, "HillShadow," Appalachian Mountains,

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The Land, Transcendentalism, Eco-Psychology, and You 

We Appalachians have been entrusted with the beautiful, rich land.

When American philosopher/naturalist Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. When he retreated to Walden Pond to reflect and find his moorings in nature, he followed a loose and idealist philosophy advocated by Emerson, Fuller, and Alcott. They held that an ideal spiritual state transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and empirical, and that one achieves that insight via personal intuition rather than religious doctrine.

In their view, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expressing the "radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts," as Emerson wrote in Nature (1836).

Thoreau called the philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s transcendentalism. The movement was a protest to the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.

Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They thought that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. Transcendentalists believed that only from such real individuals could community be formed.

Today, a person who follows transcendentalist beliefs might be known to practice eco-psychology. This term identifies the profound human need for connection with the natural world and the disease that erupts when we are disconnected or when the world around us is toxic.

In the Appalachia of today, and more specifically in the Scioto County of today, most residents have accepted the fact that they live in a nation where outsiders consider their home as a blight on the map of a mighty country, a center of low living standards, undeveloped industrial bases, and low Human Development Indexes.

It is evident to me that most people in Scioto County need better employment with higher wages. They need better, affordable housing; they need better shopping and recreational facilities; and they need better health care. We residents pray, wait, and speak about change, and we hope our dreams will become reality. Yet, the general attitude about achieving any important change is "no one is going to invest in a poor, depleted region." So, residents are content to watch the dust and rust accumulate as they reminisce about "the good old days."

Still, Americans have a collective longing for happiness, ecstasy, and taking exciting risks that accompany the acquisition of pleasure. And, since Scioto County lacks so many available, healthy resources needed for wholesome living, people young and old escape the depressing reality of their home and seek temporary satisfaction.

Unfortunately, almost all here bow to peer pressure and natural drives to achieve desires. We find our special cliques; then, we socially lubricate ourselves with substances and acquire unnecessary status symbols we believe will aid our quest for contentment.

Our human brains are hardwired for the experience of ecstasy. We really can't escape that. But, many in Scioto County cannot exercise the necessary restraint needed to cope with inevitable unhappiness when it occurs; they simply cannot cope with any modicum of physical or mental pain. These people often become dependent upon the things that help them maintain their ecstatic state, and too many of them become addicted to these tools that produce a false perception of a long term, pleasurable existence -- sex, food, money, drugs, gambling, etc. begin to control individuals as they bask in serotonin secretions.

Here, so many give in or give up. Instead of seeking those things that bring real happiness, finding people to provide them with better relationships, and educating themselves to acquire improved skills that will allow them to give back to their neighbors, they become just more "sad victims" of Scioto deprivation. Isolated within their circle of consoling, sad, bitching friends, they find enough empathy to survive on food stamps and other forms of government assistance. Hope and ambition die. Then, they lose the best of the Appalachian character. They are no longer strong, independent hillbillies, and they become dependent, pitiful believers of a cursed destiny.

Felicitas Goodman (1914-2005), Hungarian-born linguist and anthropologist, developed a theory that ecstasy deprivation is the underlying cause of all addictions. Even though addictions are related to genetic predisposition and faulty neurology, the basic biology that produces the physical experience of ecstasy has gone haywire in a culture that does not teach us how to achieve it naturally, drug free.

Goodman researched the history of trance to accomplish natural connections. Indigenous cultures and the civilizations of antiquity were aware of this and developed specific rituals to induce and channel trance energies to detoxify and nourish the subtle body in order to experience the ecstatic reality that gives life to matter.

Now, I'm not a big believer in trance to achieve altered states of consciousness, but I do believe, like Goodman, that ecstasy is essentially a spiritual experience. We become ecstatic when our conscious awareness transcends our ego but at the same time aligns with our body, allowing us to be fully aware.

Could eco-psychology reawaken the Appalachian's need for connection to the natural world and the satisfaction and ecstasy we can tap from our environment? Is there pain and delusion without nature?

Ecopsychologists have begun detecting unspoken grief within individuals, an escalation of pain and despair, felt in response to widespread environmental destruction. The field of eco-psychology intends to illustrate how environmental disconnection functions as an aspect of existing pathologies, without creating a new category.

The contention is that if a culture is disconnected from nature, then various aspects of an individual's life will be negatively impacted. Listen to these wise words from author Theodore Roszack:

"Over a century ago, Emerson lamented that 'few adult persons can see nature.' If they could, they would know that 'in the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace or calamity . . . which nature cannot repair."
"When highly stressed people are asked to visualize a soothing scene, nobody imagines a freeway or a shopping mall. Rather, images of wilderness, forest, seascape, and starry skies invariably emerge. In taking such experiences seriously, ecopsychologists are broadening the con- text of mental health to include the natural environment. They are hastening the day when calling our bad environmental habits "crazy" will be more than a rhetorical outburst. The word will have behind it the full weight of considered professional consensus.
"This, in turn, could be of enormous value in opening people to our spiritual, as well as physical, dependence upon nature. The time may not be far off when environmental policy-makers will have something more emotionally engaging to work with than the Endangered Species Act. They will be able to defend the beauties and biodiversity of nature by invoking an environmentally based definition of mental health."

 (Theodore Roszack,"The nature of sanity," Psychology Today, January 1 1996)

The theory contends that if our culture is out of balance with nature, everything about our lives is affected; family, workplace, school, community—all take on a crazy shape. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  (DSM) defines "separation anxiety disorder" as "excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and from those to whom the individual is attached." But, according to Roszack, no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world.
Proponents also believe that without the influence of nature, humans are prone to a variety of delusions, and that to some degree life in the wild forms the basis for human sanity and optimal psychological development. The topic is explored in detail Paul Shepard's book Nature and Madness.
It is also proposed that separation from outdoor contact causes a loss of sensory and information-processing ability that was developed over the course of human evolution, which was spent in direct reciprocity with the environment.

(Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness, 1998)
My View

Scioto County Appalachian residents have been living on this land for thousands of years. Many changes have occurred. Wars have been fought, and entire civilizations along with their customs and ways have been displaced from their Southern Ohio homeland. Some have completely disappeared.
As a European descendant, I must acknowledge my own responsibility for part of this forced alteration and destructive change. I honestly don't know how to address this without saying "I am sorry for great losses." I do know that my ancestors, the pioneers, held a deep love and respect for their new land. In this beautiful setting, they were proud, brave and independent people.
But, within the last fifty years or so, the Scioto County resident's state of mind has altered. In my own lifetime, I have witnessed the county weather setbacks and adapt to change with considerable industry and grace. To me, little of that gutsy, fighting, positive individualism remains.
Today, discouraging words seem to be the only description of our county coming from most native tongues. Besides relating a few fond memories -- the A-Plant boom, the shoe factories, the bustling business downtown, Dreamland Pool -- people express dissatisfaction with life in Scioto County.
Despite some evidence of the contrary, these words slowly burn into the brains of our young, and they, in turn, express disgust for their county. Tragically, many of these fine young Scioto Countians leave upon graduation to find colleges and jobs, and they have no desire to ever return. 
It is as if we residents cannot open our eyes to the natural setting in which we dwell. Kyle T. Kramer described our land like this...
"To see creation at its finest, visit the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. A region of rugged beauty, the southern Appalachians are the oldest mountain range in North America and one of the most ancient on earth. They teem with more than 10,000 known species of flora and fauna, the richest biological diversity in the temperate world. Lovely beyond words, these green hills echo Eden."
(Kyle T. Kramer, "Appalachia's Wounds," October 4 2010)
We live in a wonderful setting, but we need a new state of mind here -- a mindset that we and our resources can become better together through good leadership, determination, positive attitude, and, most of all, hard work. We need thousands of Scioto County residents to improve conditions with individual actions. These actions must begin in the homes, extend to the educational facilities, and bloom into the roads and streets of our land as we become a much tighter, more caring community.
By community, I mean Lucasville, Wheelersburg, New Boston, Portsmouth and all the other villages and hamlets. For too long we have kept our faith, protection, and love restricted in isolated communities all around this county. Appalachians are clannish and distrustful of strangers, yet in this new "smaller" world" of technology, we are all so dependent upon each other. Interaction and wider concern should change divisive minds into inclusive minds. We must learn to protect, help, and defend each other no matter whether we live in Franklin Furnace or in Minford.
Eco-psychology would have us clean up our county in word and in deed. To restore our proper relationship with nature and homeland, we must tackle our own problems with the gusto of the pioneers, who also faced overwhelming odds.
We all know we can never escape the Appalachian attraction of nature -- the hills, the rivers, the wildlife. How can we be so negligent as to try to escape our obligation to improve this dismal mindset that we helped create?

In a noble land so grounded in rich history and in proud accomplishments of our deceased ancestors, we have taken a negative attitude that perpetuates itself. We need to become good stewards of the ground beneath our feet and good "keepers" of our brother and sister citizens. Think out of the box. Taking care entails improving yourself, your family, and your area; however it also calls for us all to come to the aid of all Appalachians. Scioto is a small county of 80,000 people who need each other.

Perhaps, just maybe, the land is the key to solving all our miseries. We are occupying the land here for a while, then, eventually, we too will pass on this treasure to someone new. You see, land is not something you can really "possess." You can build a house on it, raise your children on it, and live your dreams on it. Still, Mother Nature, God, and time control every aspect of your so-called "possession." Your final contribution to the land will be the flesh and bones of your body as "dust turns to dust." That is nature's way.
Eco-psychology is seeking to expand the definition of sanity to embrace the love for the living planet that is reborn in every child. .
A Little "Food for Thought"
"There is no value in life except what you choose to place
upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself."

--Henry David Thoreau
"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought
will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path,
we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think
 over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

--Henry David Thoreau
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave,
find your eternity in each moment.
Fools stand on their island of opportunities
and look toward another land.
There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

--Henry David Thoreau

“Apply yourself both now and in the next life.
Without effort, you cannot be prosperous.
Though the land be good, You cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.”

--Plato quotes (Ancient Greek Philosopher)
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