Archive for October, 2011

Our Answer to the Amazon

An ordinary autumn day in Appalachia

This is the nursery that reseeded the North American continent after the last Ice Age.  There are few other places on Earth as biologically diverse as our Appalachian hardwood forest.  Like all ecosystems, its intricate balance can be thrown off kilter by human action, but it can also be amazingly resiliant if left undisturbed.  Someone recently asked why some of us stay and fight so hard what often seems to be a losing battle against wholesale degradation of the land, air and water.  One of the answers is right before your eyes.

I don’t know who took this photo.  I found it on Jim Shaver’s Facebook photo page, but I think it may be another Troy Lilly shot, of fame.


Long Point on Summersville Lake, by photographer Karen Underwood

This is the time of year when it seems that anyone with an eye in Appalachia is snap-happy.  Views like this are part of the reason so many of us are loathe to leave, and others who have left yearn to return.  Even if you live in a town, you don’t have to go far to get to woods and water.  The Gauley River, pent-up behind Summersville Dam, creates this lake in central West Virginia.  Just downstream, the river courses through a boulder-strewn riverbed made famous by the whitewater recreation industry as the Upper and Lower Gauley.  Every fall, the US Army Corps of Engineers draws the lake down to winter pool. This year, the Corps drained the lake lower than usual to inspect the dam, creating a longer and even more furious whitewater season.

Fayette County, WV, photographer Karen Underwood, who took this photograph, predicts that this weekend colors will peak here, just in time for Bridge Day.

Appalachian Autumn

A view from Cheat Mountain by photographer Troy Lilly

Cheat Mountain is not just one big hill in West Virginia, but a high ridge that snakes more than 50 miles from the southernmost tip at Thorny Flats in Pocahontas County, where Snowshoe Mountain Resort takes advantage of the range’s highest elevations, to a northern point near Parsons, in Tucker County.  Alpine and Nordic skiers know Cheat Mountain as Snowshoe, Elk River,  Timberline, Canaan Valley, and White Grass ski areas.

The region was once the  home of the largest red spruce forest south of Maine.  The area pictured here was still an unbroken wilderness until just before the Civil War.  It is still hardly populated, except for a few small towns and hamlets lining ancient Indian paths that are now two-lane roads.

West Virginia photographer Troy Lilly took this picture. Many thousands of people apparently know his work. I’ve just recently discovered him  via friends on Facebook.  I look forward to sharing more of his photos, as they come close to creating the feeling you get when you actually experience an Appalachian autumn evening.

View from the Top

Photographer Troy Lilly's view from Spruce Knob, West Virginia

According to his website,, photographer Troy Lilly hikes the mountains of West Virginia with his young son, Rusty, taking photos that he then offers free of charge to webmasters and publishers.  This one turned up on the Facebook page of writer Jim Shaver.  I thought he had taken the photo since there was no photo credit, so apologies to both Troy Lilly and Jim Shaver, and a big thank you to Jim for straightening me out.

Spruce Knob is in the extreme southwest corner of Pendleton County and is the highest point in West Virginia.  What you see is the Spruce Knob National Recreation Area in the Monongahela National Forest, a favorite destination for hikers, mountain bikers, and seekers of solitude.  There’s plenty of it here.

Saturday afternoon at the movies, in Sutton, West Virginia.

The 12th Annual West Virginia Filmmakers Festival wound up today
in Sutton, after screening 30 new films, eight of them for the first public
showing ever.

Actually, most of the work was done on digital video cameras, putting the art and craft of making movies within reach of anybody with the desire, equipment as humble as a flip camera, and a computer editing program. Some of the work was, indeed, shot on flip cameras, and some of it on very sophisticated equipment that, in the hands of experienced videographers, yielded luscious images.

All the movies I saw were ambitious, from 15-year-old Jacob Schedl’s first
person short of how it feels to be 15 (Memory Trail), to three full length narrative features taking on the subjects of the struggle to maintain integrity in a foreign culture (Ai Means Love, set in Martinsburg), the ambiguities a race element can add when a relationship goes very wrong (The Deposition, set in New Martinsville area)  and the horrors of being cooped up for a weekend with three very unpleasant hare-brained women, three dopey guys, and one ingénue. Enter the wild-eyed guy with an ax (Year of the Donkey, location unknown). Sorry, I couldn’t stick around for the denouement of that one. It was after midnight, and I had been sitting in the Elk Theater since 1 p.m. Friday with nothing but a box of popcorn between me and starvation. (Note to next year’s schedulers: Leave a block of time, maybe 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., for folks to grab some dinner.)

Hundreds, no—thousands—of people missed the world premiere of Romeo Must Hang, a documentary about Harry Powers, the mild-mannered, bespectacled merchant of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, who turned out to be a serial killer. Festival planners no doubt meant well when they slotted it on Thursday night, but a cold rain drove away all but the most determined festival goers, who weren’t yet many on that first
night. The movie explores the social milieu of the late 1920s when the man born in The Netherlands as Herman Drenth set up shop in the Harrison County farm community and began corresponding under several aliases with ladies who responded to ads in lonely hearts club magazines.

Documentarian Bob Wilkinson did a good job of recreating the story visually, but it was difficult to hear well in the reverberating old church sanctuary that is the Landmark Studio for the Arts. I had the same difficulty with The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s chilling classic based on West  Virginia novelist Davis Grubb’s book that followed Wilkinson’s piece. I would like to have seen both in the Elk Theater, just down the street, where the sound for movies was excellent. The two were great companion pieces, as Grubb named his terrifying villain Harry Powers, and used his memories of actual mob scenes related to trying the case in Clarksburg to develop his fiction.

Festival planners were shocked at the turnout on Friday evening for Elaine McMillion’s documentary, Lincoln County Massacre. The theater swarmed with burly, bearded Brothers of the Wheel and their consorts, who came from West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky to see the story retold on screen of the time in spring, 1980 when a surprise 4 a.m. visit from the state police turned what the Brothers say was a simple family campout into a melee. McMillion, a journalist who has the advantage of being from Logan County, knows that people aren’t always what they seem. She gets beneath the surface that so often trips up outsiders to produce a thoughtful exploration of culture, image and prejudice.

Saturday afternoon, childhood’s golden hours for watching movies on a cold, rainy day, proved golden once more. Give Up the Fuzz was a blast of funkadelic fun that had everybody rocking out for a few minutes with Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, the McDowell County boy who moved to New Jersey and national fame with George Clinton, The Parliaments and Parliament Funkadelic. Filmmaker Steve Schmidt pulled a few miracles out of the air to put the piece together, directed a group of friends to re-enact Fuzzy’s early days in West Virginia and on the road with the band, and deftly worked in TV footage, movie clips, still photos and old posters to pop everyone squarely in the eye and heart.

We hadn’t quite recovered from The Fuzz when we were abruptly transported to places in Morocco where westerners are rarely welcomed. Robert Peak of Berkeley Springs used the universal language of music to work his way into the confidence of fellow musicians in a coastal walled city, a village of cave dwellers, and a town in the Atlas Mountains. It was somewhere close to astonishing in Musicians of Morocco
to see players cast the same spell with an assortment of stringed instruments that you sometimes encounter in a place like Clifftop, during the Appalachian String Band Festival. Peak frames their beautiful faces and enchanting music with expert skill.

Then we were off to northern California with writer/director Laura Holliday, who told us the story of a 16-year-old boy who yearns to be famous. Rockstars: The Pete Weaver Experience has funny, perfect pitch dialogue and a plot that is only implausible when a real rock star makes Pete’s dreams come true, but the piece is otherwise so well written, directed and acted I was willing to forgive.  I expect we’ll see much more from Holliday, who, we were told, was 17 at the time she created this piece. I didn’t catch her connection to West  Virginia, and it may only be that a festival juror saw the piece at another festival and liked it. I was happy to see it, too.

There was an entertaining piece of claymation, a funny little film ballet of a pair  of OCD hands shaking pills in a plastic bottle, a few heartfelt and informative docs, a couple of scary pieces, one goofy feature, and several pieces that I didn’t see, as my time was up in Sutton.

The newly crowned West Virginia Filmmaker of 2011 and winners of $2,000 in prizes are announced on the WVFilmmakers’ Festival site.