A few days before I traveled to Williamson, West Virginia, I was speaking to a university friend from Chicago about visiting the Appalachian region. He told me that his uncle passed through eastern Kentucky, just across the Tug River from Williamson, in the early seventies. When he stopped to ask which was the best route back to Chicago, an old man by the side of the road paused and said, ‘oh, I don’t think you can get to there from here.’ This story somehow captures the sense of far away, and of inwardness, that reverberates through the American imaginary of rural Appalachia. It’s a region that has a mythical quality to outsiders, a place of coal, “hillbillies,” and bluegrass.
Appalachia keeps you grounded, close to the land and close to the people. Sustainable Williamson, the collective that hosted our congregation of Fulbright Amizade Students and alumni, is trying to reinvent centuries-old connections to the land. With the discovery of coal in the 1880s, Appalachia’s rolling hills became known as much for the riches they contained as for their quiet beauty. The earth here is quite literally coal-soaked; since the turn of the last century, billions of dollars worth of coal has been extracted and the commodity has become the mainstay of the local economy. Sustainable Williamson’s espousal of agriculture is an attempt to shift the region’s soul to the land’s surface, an echo of the hills’ nineteenth century agrarian existence before the discovery of black gold.
Over the past century, the coal industry has left striking marks on the landscape. Mountaintop removal in particular reflects more recent and aggressive attempts to get at lucrative underlying coal seams. In some places, the Appalachian panorama is abruptly interrupted by missing peaks. I can’t help but feel that such invasive mining is destroying much of Appalachia’s wilderness forever, but it’s the price that the region has been told it must pay if its core industry isn’t to die out entirely. What to do with these sites, sometimes reconstructed into their former contours but often left flattened, is a pressing question for the local community.
Standing atop leveled hills I pondered the acute local awareness of outsider perspectives on the region. Hackneyed ideas that reduce Appalachia to a place of poverty and misery, of backwardness and stagnation, still hit a nerve. The hillbilly caricature in particular provokes ire for many people, but is also one that some ex-miners have tried to repurpose to capture a fading way of life. Harold, a former miner and veteran, nonchalantly said, ‘yea, I guess I’m a hillbilly. My dad certainly was.’ I got the impression that to refuse the hillbilly’s existence would be to wipe out a precious rural way of life.
Jane Moran is an 81-year-old public interest attorney focusing on child abuse and neglect who’s been practicing in Williamson since 1975.
“People tell stories down here, that’s their way of communicating,” Jane explained, referring to the intricate and interesting storytelling style of rural Appalachia. During her early days in Williamson, Jane would try to hurry clients to get to the details of their cases, facts that would have currency in the courtroom. When she cut them off they would reply, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
It took her a few years to realize that she was rushing people at the expense of understanding them. Her advice to me was to listen to what people were telling me. Speaking to Jane made me think about what people’s stories articulated about Appalachia, and how these narratives echo bigger issues. Romantic or totalizing narratives of Appalachian life never quite capture the complex and contradictory nature of the area and its history.
The stories I heard while in Williamson were about identity and livelihood amid changing economic circumstances. They were about refusing to be lumped together or to have their lifestyles – crucial for so much of America’s twentieth century development – mocked by outsiders. Appalachia remains a place often unfairly maligned in the wider American imagination. Its people – or at least the handful I have had the pleasure to get to know – are warm, insightful and tireless. I hope for the sake of the hills and their people that these historic communities can remain dynamic and optimistic in a changing world.