(Originally published on Yahoo! Voices on June 18, 2013. All references extracted in 2013.)
There are people from all around the globe who have been requesting that I write about life in Appalachia. I have avoided delving too deeply into the subject thus far because, like everything else in life lately (including personal choices in groceries), it is becoming an increasingly politicised one. I am completely neutral in political and social issues and this article is not meant to be political or activist in any way. I do not endorse any particular view or issue over another. This article is meant rather to present an accurate report on the development of Appalachia to date and its current state, as written by an Appalachian.
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Appalachia is a very complex and rich region. To the Native Americans, it was a most beloved home and much of it was considered as sacred ground. It was one of the first regions in North America to be settled. Recent research suggests that settlement occurred in this order:
First, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples came as abandoned slaves and various other unfortunate ways. Second, peoples of European descent arrived, as has been well documented. Third, African peoples were brought in largely as slaves on plantations. Lastly, over the course of the last decade in particular, a scattering of peoples from all over the globe have come into the region as migrant workers and legal and illegal immigrants, mainly seeking employment in the medical field.
All these varied peoples blended blood, cultures, and languages into a people and language unlike anywhere else in the U.S. and the world. For several hundred years, this unique culture developed independently due to the natural isolation caused by the inaccessible terrain.
About the 1850s, however, the region's rich resources attracted the attention of the outside world which was eager to exploit those resources. The people of Appalachia were subjected to slave-like wages and lifestyle as they were employed to cut its vast rainforest for timber and mine its equally vast coalfields. Appalachian coal - from Pennsylvania to Alabama (with its largest and most important coalfields in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky) - fueled the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. and Britain.
It was about this time that Appalachians began to migrate out to other regions in search of better and safer employment. The Great Appalachian Out-Migration, as it has become known, continues down to this day. Its peak was from the 1920s through the 1960s. During this peak period, scholars estimate that 3 to 5 million people left the mountains. Record keeping has always been neglected and spotty at best in the region, so that the actual numbers may be significantly higher.
Because of this phenomenon, aspects of Appalachian culture came to be disseminated to and influence the national culture. For instance, the music genres of Bluegrass, Old Tyme Mountain Music, and Country all have their roots in Appalachia. U.S. Route 23 - which carves a winding path through Eastern Kentucky - is named "The Country Music Highway" because of all the music stars and legends who hail from communities accessible from that road. In time, Country music contributed to the development of Rock n Roll.
Another dominant feature of Appalachian culture is the people's intense zeal for a plethora of Christian denominations. Even within denominations, doctrines can vary widely - often being completely opposite - so that it is not uncommon to have more than one church of the same denomination on the same street or hollow. Much of the region is part of what is known nationally as "The Bible Belt". Certain denominations originated in Appalachia, including those who handle snakes and Pentecostals. A unique style of preaching developed there during the 1700s that is variously called "hacking" or "hiccupping". It continues to be popular in the region to this day. Gospel music and singing is deeply engrained in cultural rituals and day to day life. The Great Appalachian Out-Migration spread some of these practices throughout the English-speaking world. Which ones and to what degree vary according to country and region.
Conditions for those who remained in the mountains began to change with the advent of labor unions. Bloody conflicts - known today as the Mining Wars or the Union Wars - broke out all over the region. This began in the very early 1900s and, in the most isolated areas, continued until the 1980s. These were revolutions to ensure fair wages, an improved and more independent lifestyle, and safer working conditions.
These wars became even more critical and frenzied in the 1930s. This was, of course, the period of the Great Depression. If you are appalled by the economic sufferings of the world in general at that time, I assure you Appalachia was not exempt. The majority of its people had no other recourse but to eat weeds and grass just to put something in their stomachs. This decade saw the invention of such cultural dishes as Dandelion greens, Mustard greens, and Poke Salad. It may also account for the popular stereotype of "hillbillies" dressed in tatters and with bare feet. During those bleak years, it was common for people to hunt game with Civil War era guns and homemade knives just to survive the winters. That may be a reason that the culture continues to be gun-oriented and survivalist to this day.
Some relief came from government work programs like the CCC and the WPA which offered a few jobs. The programs resulted in projects that built the very first government sponsored infrastructure in Appalachia besides the vital-to-coal-production railroad system. Road building, bridge building, and the installation of the first community parks were among these. But the people were aware that the work programs were temporary. Coal was, in comparison, more permanent and reliable, hence the wars to improve the situation of miners continued. The psychological toll of all this was immeasurable. The scars remain indelible on the hearts and minds of the Appalachian people.
In the 1970s, Appalachia experienced what is called "The Coal Boom". The increased prosperity of that decade brought a kind of modernisation to the region. Indoor plumbing became common. Gone was the reliance on horses, public transit, and mainly your own feet because many families were now able to own a car. New road systems were built and many were paved. People could afford to buy groceries at the market so that the family garden generally became a hobby rather than a necessity. Telephones and televisions were introduced into individual homes. Farm animals were no longer kept as a vital means of sustenance. Hunting became entertainment. New school systems were organized with bigger buildings and larger faculties. People began to travel more.
But the Coal Boom was also negative. The Great Appalachian Out-Migration continued. As the region slowly began to open up to the outside world, its people became increasingly aware that they were different and they encountered fierce prejudice. Shame for their way of life, their language, and even themselves as individuals became deeply engrained in the fabric of its society, affecting especially the educational systems of the region.
As time progressed into the next decade, the devastating and defining factor was a single fact: the coal was running out.
I attended school throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I can tell you from first-hand experience what the dominate attitude was in the school systems of the most isolated areas at that time. The emphasis was on leaving. Teachers were exasperated that they were grooming young men primarily for the mines (women would marry, have children, and keep house). Even as young students we didn't need teachers to tell us that to go into the mines meant putting your life at risk every day. Those who survived the often catastrophic work accidents were physically broken men by the age of 40 at the latest. The brightest minds would migrate out to other regions where their talents - whether in the various arts or rocket science or any field - could be cultivated and put to use. It was assumed that this was the only option available to anyone who couldn't or didn't want to work for the coal companies.
Practically every day, we were presented with the mounting evidence that the coal reserves were finite. In a region where coal has the monopoly on the economy, this was the absolute most horrifying reality to contemplate, let alone accept. A common refrain was: "In 20 years, there will be no coal left. Appalachia will be nothing but ghost towns like the ones in the Old West." The solution: go to college and get out. If you couldn't win a scholarship, you were encouraged to join the army. Or, if you loved the mountains too much to abandon them, the disappointed, half-hearted advice was to prepare for a job in tourism or the medical field. The overall outlook was consistently pessimistic.
While the 1990s were prosperous for the world in general, terms like "economically depressed" and "backward" were applied to Appalachia. The reason was that the rest of humanity was moving on from coal in attempts to find renewable, clean, green sources of energy.
The coal companies, such as Massey Energy (also called A.T. Massey), responded by mounting publicity campaigns to convince the people that coal was the only resource available and the only possibility for the people's survival. The unions began to slowly collapse under the pressure. This process accelerated throughout the 2000s.
Today, the situation is at the breaking point. This makes it a very interesting period in Appalachian history and culture. How so?
The coal seams that remain to be mined are thin, yet whole mountaintops are literally blown away to reach them. Every week the equivalent of one atomic bomb (comparable to Hiroshima) is released on Appalachia in a process known locally as strip-mining and worldwide as Mountaintop Removal (MTR). The unique eco-system of this deciduous rainforest is almost completely devastated. Whole species of animal, plant, and insect life have become extinct. The once abundant wild beds of valuable herbs like ginseng, goldenseal, St. Johns Wort, and the like are seriously endangered. Nearly all of the water is polluted with lethal poisons like arsenic. Clean drinking water is nonexistent, even in municipal systems. The highest cancer rates in the nation are found in this region, as well as the rarest forms of cancer. Entire small communities have disappeared because of the combined forces of cancer deaths, poor development planning, and mine operation related disasters. Birth defects are spiraling. Still, the coal that is mined is increasingly of low quality. Some companies have resorted to spraying the waste with chemicals so that it will burn and thus can be sold. Today, most Appalachian coal is exported to countries like India. The coal is indeed running out, and so are buyers.
The coal companies' response to this growing crisis has been to step up the publicity campaign to mania. Slogans like "Coal Keeps the Lights On", "Friends of Coal", and "Don't like Coal? Stop Using Electricity" convinces people that the majority of electricity in America depends on Appalachian coal to fuel it. Everywhere you look billboards and news media spread talk of a so-called "War On Coal" in which the Environmental Protection Agency and the government is supposedly conspiring to ruin the coal industry, destroy Appalachia, and starve its children. There is a Coal Awareness campaign with an Awareness ribbon and Coal Rallies are organised regularly.
All of this whips up people's emotions to fanaticism and almost to violence. The unions are now almost completely nonfunctional entities. In many places, they no longer exist at all. Following the presidential campaign of 2012, there were some who called for secession from the union and another Civil War. The reason? To save coal. People are near panic because they believe their very lives are at stake.
At the same time, there is a growing number who are working for solutions and envisioning Appalachia after coal. New ideas are being brought to the table and gradually put into action. Many of these efforts center on diversifying the economy. Already companies are tapping into the biggest natural gas reservoirs in the country, which lie largely in Appalachia. Politicians are actively seeking to build prisons as a source of employment and community revenue. Appalachia is the premiere region for the development of green energy such as wind, solar, and water power. Initiatives to explore these and use them are well underway. It is also an area that is used for government sponsored agricultural research. There are seed banks nestled on some of its mountaintops for the preservation of seed for future generations. As coal severance tax revenue declines with the coal industry, a variety of other taxes are being implemented to balance the coffers. The revenues from these new taxes are mostly put back into encouraging the growing tourism industry.
In fact, it seems the majority of initiatives to diversify the economy involve tourism. With this in mind, new, expanded infrastructure is being built. This includes new and more efficient highway systems, parks, and attractions. The arts (which have always been prominent and highly valued in Appalachia, but not generally encouraged as viable careers) are receiving increased funding and opportunities.
The most encouraging side-effect of all this new activity is that it is creating an environment in which a renewed pride in Appalachia - its beauty, its resources (plural), its culture, and its people - is slowly awakening.
Interestingly, these combined and opposed forces are acting like the forces that pressure a lump of coal into a diamond. They are, actually, changing the culture. Just as the 1970s brought modern appliances and conveniences to the region, the current period is bringing about a gradual modernisation of mind and heart, with both the positives and negatives inherent to that outcome. It is causing Appalachians to increasingly look outward in the sense of seeing themselves as part of a larger whole. They are beginning to understand just how their region and what happens there is connected to, effects, and is effected by, the rest of the nation and the world. As a people, their horizons are widening beyond the mountains that afford them views of only narrow strips of sky. The final death of isolation is underway.
What will Appalachia be in another 20 years? It is difficult to say; I am no prophet. However, at least two things are certain. First, it will not be a region of ghost towns. Second, it will be very different to anything we have known until now.
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