Tag Archive: Appalachia


More Ahhhhhhhs

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.

This political season is particularly difficult in Appalachia-As-We-Know-It.  Charlatans are force-feeding the naïve the cheapest brand of boloney and telling them it’s steak, and people who have thrust themselves into leadership are failing us because they feel they must, to maintain their positions. And indeed, we shudder to think of what may happen if Fool Number Two or Three gets into an office where he would wield the least bit of power.

 

 

Sailing the Seas, by Ian Bode

West Virginia’s Governor Joe Manchin, a candidate for the late Robert Byrd’s Senate seat, is suing the EPA because the agency’s new policies under President Obama are “threatening our way of life” in Appalachia.  This news caused an eruption of black mirth around our breakfast table.  It was reported not long ago in the same paper that, statistically, the greatest levels of poverty are found in the Appalachian coalfields. Poverty is short-hand for ignorance and the brutality it breeds against the land and people. It seems to me that a threat to that way of life would be welcome.

 

Then I see that John Raese, the Morgantown, West Virginia, limestone extractor and news media tyrant who keeps trying to get into some office somewhere, is being aided in his efforts to win Byrd’s seat by national Republican money.  The National Republican Senatorial Committee paid for an ad depicting flannel shirted, ball cap-sporting actors playing hicks—their word—fearing for their jobs if that rubber-stamping Democrat Joe “Obama” Manchin wins. 

 

Everywhere I go I am bombarded by propaganda, distortions, prevarications and lies. They’re smeared on billboards, ooze out of the teevy, and seep into print.

 

So I went to the movies looking for a little relief.  I was there to catch the late show of “Social Network.” While waiting in the empty theater for the movie to begin, I was treated to a pitch from Southern Community and Technical College in Logan, West Virginia, to come train for a career in the coal mining industry. I was shown footage of heavy equipment pushing dirt around on what appeared to be a massive mountaintop removal site. Millions and millions, and millions more, of Federal dollars have been dumped into the State of West Virginia to train people for new careers, and what does the current leadership do with that money? They refuse to recognize that the smart money is going to train people in jobs where they use their minds, not their backs. The bureaucrats who control training money are saying to our people, “Look deeply into my eyes, and repeat after me:  I have no choice. There are no jobs except coal mining jobs.”

 

Then the movie started.  I watched the story unfold of how a 19-year-old college student who knew how to write computer code imagined himself into the reality of becoming the world’s richest man and the youngest billionaire in history. Meanwhile, our young people are told, repeat after me:  I have no choice. There are no jobs except coal mining jobs.

 

“Social Network” tells how a brilliant outsider kid upended the cool kids who casually assumed the nerd would be grateful to be used in their new Internet start-up. When the cool kids complained to Harvard’s president that a mere nerd had trumped them by not playing by the rules, the president told them to man up, that every Harvard student is an entrepreneur who is starting up some kind of company, and you don’t win just because you think you ought to.

 

What do our bureaucrats and politicians tell us?  You have no choice. There are no jobs except coal mining jobs.

 

One has to wonder—whose way of life is threatened if things were to change in Appalachia?  Mr. Manchin’s?  Mr. Raese’s?  The bureaucrats who pay for the Southern Community College ads with money that was meant to expand horizons? 

 

I left the theater that night having caught a glimpse through writer Aaron Sorkin’s lens of how even fledgling power brokers do the deals, and it hit me harder than ever:  To the rich and powerful, and the would-be rich and powerful, a place like Appalachia is only good for what they can suck out of it. The people in leadership positions here, and that includes bureaucrats in charge of funneling money to pet projects, conspire to keep Appalachian people right where they are:  working for The Man, playing by The Man’s rules. 

 

Meanwhile, in the sleek penthouses of the towers of commerce, the game is rapidly changing. You can bet Appalachian coalminers will be left on the slag heap when The Man moves on to smarter technology.

Is this you? (Photo of our Kentucky cousins by Shelby Lee Adams, copped without permission from the Internet.)

“We are going to a new world… and no doubt it is there that everything is for the best; for it must be admitted that one might lament a little over the physical and moral happenings of our own world.”
– Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 10,  Written in 1759

It’s fun to dream of a Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia where bright, optimistic people create opportunities for themselves, and aren’t reliant on somebody else—government, for the most part—to take the lead in every aspect of their lives.

West Virginia, in central Appalachia, is often described as the ultimate Appalachian state. It’s the only state that is entirely within the region the federal Appalachian Regional Commission defines as Appalachia. The word Appalachia has been stigmatized, made synonymous with poverty and ignorance, and West Virginia, as far as many observers are concerned, epitomizes Appalachia. If you don’t believe that, simply Google the word and see what you come up with.

Wikipedia defines Appalachia as a cultural region, mentioning that popular media continue to perpetuate the image of Appalachia as a culturally backward region, and that poverty continues to blight our prospects. The list of resources that pops up on the first page of Google includes Images of Appalachia, four thumbnail photos of toothless old men (all white, by the way), hound dogs, and shacks surrounded by debris.  ‘No, no,’ we Appalachians who think of ourselves as middle-class, protest. ‘That’s not an accurate picture of who we are,’ and we hasten to show images of gleaming, mirrored towers of commerce in the state capitol of Charleston.  Some real estate companies try their darndest to depict a West Virginia that looks like Everywhere Else, USA.  The photos in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, a state publication, show lovely locales in the state.  ‘That,” say we indignant West Virginians, ‘is more like it.’

Or is this you? (Photo of happy diners somewhere in the Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia by unknown photographer, shamelessly copped from Google Images of Charleston, WV.)

But recently it has come, irrefutably, to my attention that activities in the gleaming towers of commerce in Charleston are directly related to the stereotypical images of poverty that is the Appalachian brand throughout the world.  And the activities in the gleaming towers are inextricably connected to what transpires under the ornate gold-plated dome of West Virginia’s capitol building. 

Lately I have hesitated to write a report from the Transcendent New Nation, as I am bogged down by the realities in the Current Nation of Appalachia. One way of dealing with reality is to ignore it.  Another is to deny it, and yet another is to accept it and build a life around what is. The latter, it seems, is the tactic most often employed by West Virginians and others in the central Appalachian region.  

That tactic no doubt contributes to fatalism, the infamous characteristic most often ascribed to us as a people, and the characteristic that leaves us at the merciless disposal of tyrants.

My usual Panglossian optimism has been severely challenged lately, as I share office space with a new organization called WVGreenWorks.com.  Every day, as I observe the executive director of WVGreenWorks endeavoring to bring opportunities to West Virginia that are commonplace in other areas—opportunities such as fast, convenient access to excellent training in weatherization and energy efficiency—I marvel at systems entrenched here that are designed to firmly anchor West Virginia at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and to crush any fledgling opportunity. 

The images of West Virginia that we so often protest are in fact only the tip of an iceberg of inertia and ineptitude compounded by avarice. That’s right, folks.  Supposedly well educated people in well paid positions work every day to see that West Virginia doesn’t budge an inch from the status quo. Thirteen thousand nonprofit organizations are out there supposedly striving to improve the lot of West Virginians—three thousand more than in Haiti. Yet things remain very much the same here in Wild & Wonderful, as an editorialist in the Daily Mail also observes, quoting Henry Harmon, president and CEO of Triana Energy, as saying, “It seems we ask the same questions decade after decade.”

Perhaps the truth is that life ain’t all that bad for the folks in power, and the rest of the populace has learned to cope with their reality.  “We just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day,” to half-quote Randy Newman.

I’ve colored a lot of the front page of today’s Charleston Daily Mail bright yellow, highlighting passages that strike me as ironic, outrageous, shameful, or all of the above. 

For example: 

New life for old schools not easyThe East End’s Roosevelt Neighborhood Center, housed in the former Roosevelt Junior High that closed in 2000, has gas and electricity bills that often top $8,000 a month in the winter.

Note that millions of dollars have come to the State of West Virginia earmarked to train people in weatherization jobs, and there are no training programs to show for it. 

Or how about Disability numbers on rise—that entire item is neon yellow with highlighter, but this passage stands out:  Another 14,835 West Virginians were listed as dependent spouses or children of those (91,273 persons) on disability, bringing total beneficiaries to 106,108.  More than five per cent of our state’s population is considered disabled.  State Senator Dan Foster says our high ranking can be attributed to poor health habits.

Note that, during the 2009 legislative session, a group of chortling state legislators were shown on the evening TV news sucking down biscuits and donuts as they defeated a bill designed to improve their constituents’ health.

Today’s Charleston Gazette didn’t provoke as much highlighting, except for Ken Ward’s story on a WVU study linking C8 with unhealthy levels of cholesterol in children in the Parkersburg region of the Ohio Valley, and the oddly comforting quote on the editorial page from former U. S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “If a person goes to a country and finds the newspapers filled with nothing but good news, there are good men in jail.”

And so the Transcendent New Nation disappears once again albeit temporarily, obscured by current issues in the Land as We Know It. 

Check back tomorrow for thoughts on “If you’re smart and you ain’t here, why you should be.”

Taking a dip on a hot summer’s day in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. Photo by Queen Joy, used with her permission.

This report, promised back on June 20, is from Queen Joy, Appalachia Today’s roving reporter:

Here we are in the northern Appalachian province of Iceland, in Reykjavik, in a cozy apartment for a three-week home exchange.  To keep it straight in your head, remember that Iceland is green and Greenland is ice. (Eric the Red, in one of the earliest known real estate marketing scams, called the island Greenland to spur immigration 1000 years ago.) Iceland is an outcropping of Appalachia’s volcanic Mid Atlantic Ridge, and a big eruption occurred just before we arrived. The spewing had stopped and rain tamped down the ash just before we arrived. Whew!

These Icelandic Appalachians are totally down home. They’ve built great museums and galleries, and maintain fascinating historic sites. Today we saw the house where Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty to end the Cold War with Russia in 1986. We found a terrific little coffee shop nearby that serves big, dark, hot chocolates with whipped cream that is practically butter.

We are heading north for four nights in two different areas to see more of the island. We’ll do a boat ride where we hope to see puffins and whales. This is a land of raw beauty with waterfalls, steam and geysers erupting all over from geothermal fields. Somehow, I can’t help but think these fields are connected to the hot springs of the Allegheny Front. Think White Sulphur Springs, Berkeley Springs, Saratoga Springs…Yes, it was Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted twice last April, halting air traffic in northern Europe. Those people needed to take a break anyway.

I was so happy to find a photography exhibit of the early work of Cindy Sherman at Iceland’s National Gallery. She is my favorite photographer. She makes all her costumes and sets, and makes self-portraits in settings of old American movies. After the gallery visit, we lounged at the coffee shop Babalu and played a game of Backgammon there, eating quiche and drinking cappuccino.

We also enjoyed “The Volcano Show,” in the lifetime work of filmmakers Ósvaldur and Villi Knudson. Villi personally presents the movies.  “I’m always just waiting for the next one to go off.  This current one stopped long enough for us to elect the world’s first openly gay prime minister. The volcano will probably will start blowing again on Friday.” Everywhere we went, folks were cool with Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. It appears they take a live-and-let-live attitude here in northern Appalachia.  What’s more, Jon Gnarr, the new mayor of Reykjavik as of June 15, is a writer, actor, and satiric comedian—no joke.

We drove the “Golden Circle,” an all-day trip to a national park with the largest lake in Iceland and nearby huge canyons created by the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates that are separating a little each year.  

You may have heard of the Blue Lagoon, an enormous geothermal pool that gets its color from silica and natural chemicals in the hot water. We had a beer while we soaked, and met fellow soakers from Germany, France, Quebec and DC. Some tourists go there directly from the airport if their planes get in early and they can’t immediately check into hotels.

Then we drove the back roads through lava fields to the Viking Museum, containing a replica of a Viking ship Gunnar Marel Eggertsson built to remind the world that Leif Ericson and his exploring pals were actually from Iceland, although other nations often claim them. (Imagine that.) Eggertsson sailed his ship, the Islendingur, to New York City in 2000 to celebrate the 1000-year anniversary of Erickson’s discovery of North America.

We are getting used to trying to sleep while it is still light out. We have taped the drapes closed to keep out light leaks, as the sun is still bright at midnight.

Dancing as always,

Queen Joy

Loose Him and Let Him Go

An AP photo taken during Byrd's funeral, yesterday.I’m surprised at myself, that Senator Robert C. Byrd’s death has made such an impact on me. Usually I take a fairly cynical view of government, the people who choose it as a career and the sycophants who toady up to them. I’ve hardly been Byrd’s adoring fan, but a recent project allowed me to get a glimpse beyond the marble cage of national politics to where the real man lived. 

I felt compelled to make the six-hour trip to Washington DC for Byrd’s funeral. I kicked the idea around, knew it was crazy to go, that I had my own business to attend to. Then on Monday at 2 p.m., I decided on the spur of the moment that I must.  My husband and I jumped in the car and off to DC we went. 

I was glad we got there early.  At about 8:45 on Tuesday morning, we were among the first in what would become a long double and triple line of friends, family, acquaintances, and maybe some like me, who were fascinated by this moment in American history. The line wrapped around the outside of the Memorial Baptist Church on Glebe Road in Arlington.  We stood there until 10:15 in temperatures that were already approaching 1000 until we were allowed inside the church, which was large, bright and airy, but not showy.  Sharp-eyed ushers knew we were strangers—nobodies?—and deftly ushered us into the balcony, which was fine with us.

The front rows on the left section of the main sanctuary filled up with dignitaries.  I recognized Senator John D. Rockefeller and his wife Sharon, Governor Joe Manchin, Congressmen Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, and I’m told that some of the Kennedy family was there.  In the center front was Byrd’s family, which looked like a small gathering of the United Nations. Byrd’s daughter married Mohammed Fatemi, a man of Iranian descent, and a grandchild married an Asian. 

The rest of the congregation included a substantial number of African-Americans. In the balcony with us was a black man sporting the most impressive set of coiled dreadlocks I have ever seen. From my balcony perch, I watched as an older white woman made her way toward the family, her long gray hair piled on top of her head in the fashion of Pentecostal Holiness women in rural Appalachia.

The first person in Byrd’s family to speak was his niece, a daughter of one of Byrd’s eight brothers left behind in North Carolina when he was adopted as an infant by his mother’s sister and brought to West Virginia. Jassowyn “Jackie” Sale Hurd had never heard of Byrd until she was 18, when her mother enlisted the senator’s help in locating Sale’s father. “He was the only one of the brothers who ever showed an interest in me,” Jackie Sale said.  In his honor, she sang an acappella version of an old hymn, “On the Wings of Dove,’ in a quavering voice, saying Byrd was like a dove from God to her.

I went to the funeral because I figured I would learn about a side of Byrd that wouldn’t be spoken of anywhere else, and I was right.  The family told stories about their Papa, a man who, after Erma’s death in 2006, cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors. 

Aside from his now-retired pastor, the hospice chaplain, and Senate chaplain, his grandchildren were the main speakers about Byrd the man.  Erik Fatemi spoke of his Papa Byrd quizzing him about American history and civics beginning when he was five. Correct answers were rewarded with a quarter coin. “I learned at an early age the awesome power of appropriations,” he said.  Byrd’s daughter,  Marjorie Byrd Moore, read a poem Byrd wrote extolling the virtues of his girlfriend, Erma James, when he was 15. 

At the funeral, I learned that Byrd and Erma were baptized in the Crab Orchard Baptist Church, in Raleigh County, West Virginia. I learned that one of Byrd’s favorite stories from the Bible was about Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus.  Byrd liked the story so much that he chose a portion of a verse from it to be inscribed on his head stone:

And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.” (JOHN 11:44).

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is the world's longest mountain range, but it takes a strong swimmer to visit most of it. Iceland is its most accessible region.

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, actually, so today I decided, as the commercial says, to just do it.  To be precise,  I should probably note that some sneaker ad writer co-opted the popular phrase ‘just do it’ and got paid gobs of money for stating the obvious–but I digress.

The real news today is that I’ve finally taken the leap and annexed the Mid- Atlantic Ridge, which was arguably ours in the first place.

According to Wikipedia, my favorite, if sometimes questionable, quick source of information, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge tops off the Mid-Atlantic Rise. Here’s my favorite part: it’s described as a progressive bulge that runs the length of the Atlantic Ocean.  It is, in fact, the world’s longest mountain range.  The ridge crowns the highest point of the bulge.  The Fundy Basin on our Atlantic coast between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia harks back to our ancestral Mid-Atlantic Ridge. 

I  hope to have an on-the-scene report soon from Iceland, an outcrop province of our newly acquired Mid-Atlantic Ridge.