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Monday, January 26, 2015

Stick a Needle In My Eye: An Appalachian Experience

Appalachia is home to one of the world's oldest mountain ranges. It is also a place with a rich history of diverse peoples who have inhabited the region -- the hilly lands have forever shaped the people who settled there. The Appalachian mountains and the all the groups of humans who called them home have had a unique, dynamic interaction rooted firmly in both natural and human history.

Historians found evidence that the first humans arrived in Appalachia as early as 12,000 B.C. As they settled, they developed a complex and sophisticated relationship with the natural world. They were also likely to be the first people to discover that the geology of their home was linked to their ultimate destiny. No one really knows the fate of their sizable civilization. Without written or oral confirmation of the actual names of their cultures, later European Americans dubbed them "Mound Builders" for the mysterious earthworks they constructed that survived both time and future human expansion to attest to their storied existence.

Appalachia’s principal people at the time of European contact -- Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Iroquois -- forged vibrant, adaptive cultures with their intimate relationships to their environment. These groups existed in complex ecological communities with amazing biological diversity.

Then, of course, the arrival of the Europeans signaled vast cultural and biological upheavals in the mountains and foothills of Appalachia. The Native Americans and Europeans collided in a monumental struggle for control of the land. As Europeans forged west, surveyors and mapmakers came first to mark the land followed by road builders and cabin builders who served to help open new colonial horizons.

History speaks of ecologists, anthropologists, and geographers witnessing vast differences between the Native American and the European perceptions of the land and its bountiful resources. It was soon evident that those bent on property ownership could not share resources with Native peoples.

As these pioneers carved out a life on the Appalachia frontier, they too came to terms with the vast wilderness while creating a way of life unique to the mountains. New strains were put on the land. Virgin timber, an abundance of wildlife, rich soil, and precious natural minerals such as coal attracted huge waves of immigrants who used primitive roads and river freeways to reach all points of Appalachia. The pioneers eventually forced the Native Americans from their beloved lands.

Sociologists and ecologists have pointed to something they call "Appalachia’s own inner eye," the ways in which trouble and pain, discovery and self-discovery fortify the region’s soul and backbone. This "inner eye" is linked directly to the mountains and the rugged, beautiful nature of the land.

(Jamie Ross and Ross Spears. Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. Film Series.
The University of Tennessee.

From prehistoric native inhabitants to early European settlers, these traits -- pain, endurance, and self-discovery -- have been vital parts of the character of Appalachians. Without significant appreciation of nature, environmental interactions, and frontier spirit, people living there now suffer a kind of "natural soul damage" as their minds and lives show indifference to their land and even to their own genetic make-up.

Losing the ability to love and to protect the environment, many Appalachians lack the backbone to realize the strength in the ancestral fabric of their true identity. In short, they rebel against their isolated homeland by cursing the land and even by abusing themselves. Lost appreciation for nature and lost respect for human life lead to a quickly decaying existence for any culture.

Ross and Spears say that the land has been "romanticized, maligned, discovered, rediscovered, exploited, redefined, but only vaguely understood." They conclude, "In fact, more is known about Appalachia that is untrue than about any other region of the country."

Although Appalachia is a treasure, the modern struggle of its people to find a true and proper relationship to the natural world has led to the self-destruction of the Appalachian inner eye. Once the prize of America, Appalachia is now characterized -- even by most of its own inhabitants -- as distinctly backwards and disturbing: a backwoods of "silly and ignorant hillbillies."

Residents blame outsiders for the stereotypes while outsiders find the residents living up to the conception of many negative characteristics. Ignorance and indifference breed more ignorance and indifference in a land with no clear direction or future. Struggles only mount.

I strongly believe it is time for residents of Appalachia to find the common denominator for change and success in the fabled history of the past -- our ancestors knew it was the mountains, the natural beauty and abundance, along with the loving harmony of the inhabitants that mattered most. Just as a resident of the American coast cannot ignore the impact of the vast ocean, Appalachians cannot dismiss the rich topography and a need for a renewed, cherished relationship with their home: a relationship grounded in respect and in pride, not in shame.

So, you ask, "What is a resident to think or to do to accomplish the roots of his present existence?" Let me suggest a look at what some historians and sociologists consider to be important Appalachian values. Perhaps it would behoove us Appalachian residents to follow some old values while seeking important change.

Ten Values Common to Appalachians
by Loyal Jones, scholar and co-founder of the Berea College Appalachian Center

1. Individualism: Self-Reliance, Pride - most obvious characteristics; necessary on the early frontier; look after oneself; solitude; freedom; do things for oneself; not wanting to be beholding to others; to make do.

2. Religion: Values and meaning to life spring from religious sources; fatalistic (outside factors control one's life, fate, believe things happen for a reason and will work out for the best); sustains people in hard times.

3. Neighborliness and Hospitality: Help each other out, but suspicious of strangers; spontaneous to invite people for a meal, to spend the night, etc.

4. Family Solidarity or Familism: Family centered; loyalty runs deep; responsibility may extend beyond immediate family; "blood is thicker than water."

5. Personalism: Relates well to others; go to great lengths to keep from offending others; getting along is more important than letting one's feelings be known; think in terms of persons rather than degrees or professional reputations.

6. Love of Place: Never forget "back home" and go there as often as possible; revitalizing, especially if a migrant; sometimes stay in places where there is no hope of maintaining decent lives.

7. Modesty and Being Oneself: Believe one should not put on airs; be oneself, not a phony; don't pretend to be something you're not or be boastful; don't get above your raising.

8. Sense of Beauty: Displayed through folksongs, poems, arts, crafts, etc., colorful language metaphors, e.g. "I'm as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs."

9. Sense of Humor: Seem dour, but laugh at ourselves; do not appreciate being laughed at; humor sustains people in hard times.

10. Patriotism: Goes back to Civil War times; flag, land, relationships are important; shows up in community celebration and festivals 

The list of real things lacking to stimulate progress in Appalachia is as long the range of mountains itself. But, without people building respect in themselves, nothing significant will be accomplished.

And, how can anyone feel self-respect without improving the very nature of his or her existence. The trees, the hills, the woods, the air, the water, the soil -- these are the precious components that allow human beings to live, to thrive, and to love. We cannot afford to ignore or to abuse Appalachia or Appalachians.


up on the hill
the view of the ohio
river is magnificent
in the rising sun.
below a rusted barge
is puffing against
the current
working hard
to meet its
this is the rigid life
of this small
Appalachian town:
fighting the current
or stepping in
and drowning.
everyday choices
have to be made.

the barge chugs along.

June 27, 2011
Jim Brewer
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