For audio, visit the Community Farm Alliance’s Woven Roots Fiber Blog: http://cfaky.org/woven-roots-fiber-story-a-dream-of-indigo/
In late August, CFA Appalachian Transition Fellow, Sam Hamlin, travelled to the Edmonton, Kentucky to visit Hill and Hollow Farm, where one family is growing natural dyes and a whole lot more. Nestled in the rolling hills of south central Kentucky, Hill and Hollow Farm is home to dozens of sheep, acres of organically-grown vegetables, a small plot of Japanese indigo and the farm’s dedicated owners, Robin Verson, her husband Paul Bela, and their lovely children.
When we pulled up to the farmhouse, Robin, who is wearing a beautifully-colored, naturally-dyed deep blue indigo shirt, warmly welcomes us with a big smile and stories of her most recent natural dyeing workshop on harvesting indigo leaves to make a natural textile dye.
Years before moving to Kentucky, Robin and Paul dreamed of owning and operating their own organic vegetable farm. Robin fell in love with farming in her twenties by accident. She came to agriculture by-way of her passion for local, organic food and healthy food access. She started volunteering on a farm outside of Chicago as part of a work-share program in a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). During her first weekend on the farm, she met her two great loves: organic farming and her husband Paul, who was also volunteering on the farm. In the late 1990s, she and Paul went on the search for affordable land. They settled on a 60-acre plot in Edmonton, Kentucky, just two hours northeast of Nashville and one hour west of Somerset.
Robin and Paul now operate Hill and Hollow Farm, which has found its primary success as a certified organic vegetable farm, operated through a CSA model. Each season, about fifty families sign up for CSA shares, which Robin delivers weekly to the farmers’ market in Nashville.
In addition to growing organic vegetables, Paul and Robin have a flock of several dozen Jacob and Dorset sheep. Robin jokes that though the sheep won’t listen to her, Paul is the true shepherd of the family; the sheep dutifully follow his every command. Robin and Paul sheer their own sheep and get their wool processed through a few different mills in the region. They sell yarn, roving, sheepskins, and a select number of hand-woven and knitted items through their Etsy page and at the Nashville Farmers’ Market.
Once again by accident, Robin discovered her love for fiber and natural dyes. In 2006, Paul was offered sheep as a payment for a fencing repair job. Paul and Robin have a good amount of pasture on their land, so it made sense to invest in livestock. After they obtained other sheep by chance from a friend, word got out that they accepted sheep and their flock grew substantially, as did Robin’s love for natural dyes. Robin laughed as she told us the story: “Once people realized that we’d accept sheep, it seemed like it went on and on from there. So that’s how the fiber started. And once you have wool, you want to turn it colors, inevitably.”
In 2007, friends of Robin’s from Nashville came up to Edmonton to do a natural dye workshop at the farm. At the time, Robin was not growing any plants to use for dyes, though, they did use walnuts harvested from the farm to create brown hues. Robin explained how fun and exciting the workshop was and that next year she decided to see what plants she could grow for color. She tried working with Hopi sunflowers, marigolds, and Japanese indigo. The deep blue color created by the indigo blew Robin away, so she decided to focus on raising and perfecting her Japanese indigo crop.
Indigo has been harvested as used as a source for natural dye across the globe for thousands of years. The earliest known Peruvian indigo-dyed fabric dates back to over 6,000 years ago. Often harvested by hand, artisans can make vats of indigo dye by combining fresh indigo leaves with water. Indigo is known to be one of the most practical and environmentally-friendly dyes, given that unlike most others, it does not require a mordant. A mordant is an a chemical added to a dye mixture to ensure that natural fibers will hold the color in a lasting way. Indigo makes dyeing without a mordant possible, which not only means that less chemicals are used in the process of dyeing, but also that artisans require less equipment to create vibrant colors.
Robin harvests all of her indigo by hand during the peak harvesting season in August. Just up the road from her farm she runs a natural dyeing studio, where she dyes her own yarns and holds natural dyeing workshops. To make indigo dye, she mixes fresh indigo leaves with cold water to make a vat. She directly dips cloth and yarn into the vat; cloth and yarn made from animal fibers, such as wool and alpaca, take up color best. The longer the cloth or yarn stays in the vat, the deeper blue is the color. In addition to indigo, Robin also uses wild-harvested goldenrod, which grows abundantly right next to her dye studio, to create a vibrant yellow dye. While she creates vibrant yellow goldenrod yarns and deep blue indigo yarns individually, she also creates a green yarn through a process called overdyeing. Yarn that is overdyed is first dipped in an indigo vat and then dipped again in a goldernrod vat, creating a beautiful mossy green color.
Robin sells skeins of naturally dyed yarn processed from her own sheep, as well as yarn made from a sheep and alpaca blend. On Hill and Hollow Farm’s Etsy page, fiber enthusiasts can find Jacob’s sheep roving and yarn, Dorset sheep yarn that is naturally dyed with indigo and native goldenrod, lamb skins (available seasonally), and hand-knitted and woven items created from fiber that came straight from Robin and Paul’s farm. For more information about Hill and Hollow Farms, visit their website at www.hillandhollowfarm.com, and find them on facebook and Etsy.
 6,000-year-old fabric reveals Peruvians were dyeing textiles with indigo long before Egyptians. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-oldest-indigo-dye-20160915-snap-story.html
Photos by Jake Degler; courtesy of Tree of the Field
As part of my fellowship with Community Farm Alliance, I launched a brand new podcast dedicated just to natural fiber agriculture in Kentucky called Woven Roots. On Woven Roots: The Appalachian Fiber Story Project, we tell the story of how Kentucky farmers, artists, and entrepreneurs are building strong regional economies around natural fiber.
Kentuckians have a rich history of growing plant and animal fibers to make the most basic of human necessities, such as clothes, shoes, and rope, to spinning fiber to weave together beautiful quilts, tapestries, and rugs. While many fibers are now made from synthetic materials, there is a movement growing to return to natural fiber textile production. Natural fibers that come from plants and animals such as flax, kenaf, hemp, wool and alpaca fleece can produce fine quality textile right in our backyard in ways that aren’t harmful to our environment. Supporting the natural fiber sector benefits community farmers, as well as the health of our planet.
In the most recent episode Woven Roots, I interviewed three women about their innovative work with kenaf. Kenaf, which has been grown for thousands of years for fiber, is an annual row crop in the same family as cotton and okra. It can grow as tall as 20 feet, and can be harvested and processed for the fiber in its stalk. Though most kenaf grown internationally is produced in India and China, kenaf grows well in Kentucky and the U.S. South and can be used to make a variety of products, including rope, twine, packaging materials, paper and cardboard, and even biodegradable plastics.
Click here to listen to this episode of Woven Roots!
Hear about kenaf’s present, future, and past in Kentucky. Robin Mason, founder of Tree of the Field, talks about her innovative work with kenaf across the state, including in eastern Kentucky on top of mountaintop removal sites, as well as the potential future of kenaf in the sustainable energy sector. Elisa Owen, cofounder of EcoBridge Industries, speaks about the potential of kenaf to have big impacts on the economy in Kentucky and on the production of biodegradable materials. We close out the show with a conversation between me, CFA staff Maggie Smith, and and Irene Thornsburg, a long-time member of the CFA, who grew kenaf in the 1990s as part of a CFA program to support tobacco farmers in figuring out new economic opportunities.
The sweat pools on my hands and threatens to erase the jail support number written on my thigh. The air is thick as cotton. I can still feel the teargas stinging my tongue and lips, can still see the white t-shirts and hip hair-cuts of the hundreds of Nazis marching through downtown Charlottesville. The governor of Virginia has just announced a State of Emergency, effectively cancelling the Unite the Right rally before it officially begins. Confederate flags battle with a banner that reads “SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY” in the flat blue August sky of the Shenandoah. Scattered empty water bottles and respirator masks litter the streets. I can still hear them shouting “We Will Not be Replaced” over and over in horrific chorus, can still see the heads of black clergy bowed in prayer, can still see their white knuckles burning into the bodies of my screaming friends.
For a moment though, we are not running or screaming. We catch a reluctant breath. Local organizers lead a march past Justice Park, and community members honk in solidarity as we chant “Charlottesville We got Your Back We Got Your Back We Got Your Back!” To our surprise, at an intersection we are met by hundreds of other counter-protesters carrying Black Lives Matter and IWW flags, a welcome contrast to the seas of white nationalists who poured down these same roads just hours before. For a moment, it feels like we’re winning. I catch myself spitting out a laugh as we talk about how well we blend in with the UVA preppy-chic in our strategic “Chad and Becky” bloc. The rally is shut down. White supremacists have lost a platform, once again. The pavement trembles against our feet and my bones relax. This ritual feels familiar, this march like every other march I’ve ever been on, feels almost comforting in comparison to the anachronistic nightmare of the morning.
Then there is a sound that is something like gunfire, something like limbs cracking. I happen to be on the sidewalk of the intersection. I run into a side street. The chants and singing collapse again into screams and confusion. I see a scattering of empty shoes, tattered banners. The sun shines like a belt buckle.
“Someone got hit” my friend from East Kentucky says, face plastic and panicked with tears. The cops cars role in, the sirens begin their low persistent moan.
My friend rushes to provide medical support for Heather Heyer. The police pull him away from her as he is doing chest compressions, despite the fact that no EMTS are nearby. My hands grow hot and sticky and the air smells like rust. My friend from Kentucky is crying on the sidewalk, her leg twisted and broken from the trampling crowd. This moment feels like loss.
But what I realize, in the days afterward, when my world becomes a flurry of anxious text messages and the country erupts into stormy rhetoric, is that this was in fact a victory. That the Left was attacked that day in Charlottesville not in a moment of weakness but a moment of strength. That the politics of the neo-confederate, white supremacist alt-right are at their core reactionary, regressive, envious even.
At the moment James Fields hit Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville, we were singing. There were masses of us. Despite our ideological and tactical diversity, on the street we supported each other, praying clergy working in tandem with militant black-blocs, medics and legal observers ensuring our safety when the police would not. Blind to the institutional power whiteness already affords and eager to claim victimhood, the far-right craves the comradery and collective resilience we have built for ourselves on the left, despite centuries of oppression and violence. Naming multiculturalism rather than capitalism or state oppression as the enemy of freedom, neo-nazis parrot and distort ‘identity politics’ to fetishize heritages of whiteness. They want our solidarity. They want our power.
These reactionary politics parallel and are informed by Trump’s rise following both the Obama administration and the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blaming both the neoliberal elite and racial demographic changes for the weakening white American middle class, white nationalists and Trump supporters locate hope in an autocratic return to 1950s, neo-confederate populism.
But there is only so much power in reaction, in nostalgia for a history both brutal and imaginary. True power rests not in nostalgia, but in faith. In a vision for the future that presents something better than what this fucked up, extractive, colonial world offers us. We gain strength not by pacifying our radicals and catering to the center, not by the Hilary Clinton-esque “unity” preached by mainstream Democrats, but through solidarity. Solidarity means collective struggle that respects a diversity of tactics, from punching Nazis to prayer to potlucks. Solidarity means honoring the leadership of people of color and the legacies of our ancestors who fought fascism in America and the world over. Solidarity doesn’t mean erasing our political differences, but strategically acting in coalition as the moment calls for it. Solidarity means addressing the economic conditions exploited by the Nazis and developing our own anti-racist/anti-capitalist movements for the social redistribution of wealth. Solidarity means recognizing the power that is inherent in standing on the right side of history, in sacrificing personal comfort for the survival of our fellow human beings.
The left tends to wallow in a narrative of weakness, of loss. I’ve even heard friends become so nihilistic as to say that winning isn’t even the goal, that going for wins in these times is to promise the impossible. But what I realized from the horror in Charlottesville is that neo-nazis have nothing on the gravitational pull and power of Black Lives Matter and Queer liberation activists, of antifa and DSAers, of indigenous and immigrant-led struggle. In the words of Assata Shakur, repeated like a prayer by activists in the shivering twilight of the blue hills of Virginia: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom—It is our duty to Win. “
This past week, at the annual Highlander Homecoming at the center in New Market, Tennessee, we remembered how to sing. I was honored and privileged to gather and break bread with organizers, healers, radical educators and revolutionary artists from across the various landscapes of the South. After leading us to braid our hands together in the same holy, powerful chain our movement ancestors have woven together for centuries, we sang “Which Side Our You On” with some of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, our voices echoing in the glittery twilight of the Smoky mountains. This felt like liberation to me. This felt like power.
Although I grew up in the northeast, for most of my adult life I have lived in rural towns in the Rust Belt and Central Appalachia. Confederate flags spring up on car decals and bay windows all over the towns I live and work in—but so do “No Hate in my Holler” t-shirts and ‘Goodnight White Pride’ stickers. The Traditional Worker’s Party, the KKK, and other neo-fascist organizations are actively trying to recruit working class white Appalachian people into their organizations, promoting white nationalism as the answer to crippling de-industrialization and systemic poverty. While much noise is made in the media about “backwards hillbillies” and “Trumps supporters who deserve to die if Medicaid gets cut”, I don’t often read about the everyday work community members are doing to uproot racism in the mountains. Or the fact that very few members of the local community in Pikeville, KY where the TWP hosted a rally this April, showed any kind of enthusiasm for the Nazis coming to town and in fact organized their own counter-event. The narrative that working class Appalachian communities are responsible for the current rise in white nationalism, or even the ascension of Donald Trump, reflects a misguided and factually inaccurate narrative with long historical roots. (https://www.nationofchange.org/2017/07/10/notion-white-workers-elected-trump-myth-suits-ruling-class/)
Coastal elites have consistently scapegoated Appalachian people for the racism that pervades every corner of American society and geography. While neo-confederate and white nationalist sentiment certainly exist in Appalachia, so to do movements to abolish prisons, challenge the police, and create democratic and inclusive communities. Where I live in Eastern Kentucky, we host a weekly radio show connecting the families of prisoners to inmates, run an active campaign to prevent a prison from being built on a mountain-top removal site, and host rallies and dinner table conversations centered on challenging racism and upholding the movement for black lives. Additionally, the narrative of “white racist hillbillies” erases the many communities of color that have made their home in the mountains for centuries. Affrilachian (or African American Appalachians) were in fact the first non-native people to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. (Check out Will Isom’s research on Blacks in Appalachia to learn more!)
While confederates, the KKK, and neo-nazi groups have always tried to recruit from the rural working class, it is important to recognize that these groups maintain their centers of power elsewhere, and that Appalachia has a long history of defecting from both confederate and white supremacist causes. During the Civil War, West Virginia split from Virginia in rejection of the confederacy and many counties in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina voted against secession. During the dramatic “mine wars” of the turn of the century, the UMWA was one of the first unions in America to demand that black workers be paid the same wages as white workers. This is not to absolve Appalachian communities from responsibility for the pervasive, ugly, systemic and interpersonal racism that does exist in the mountains, but to challenge the national narrative that explicit white supremacist groups are solely organized by the southern, rural working class. Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute (which sponsors the white supremacist American Renaissance policy think-tank) are slick, white collar, wealthy politicians. The “western chauvinist” Proud Boys draw on upper-middle class frat culture to build their racist base. Even the purportedly “socialist” Traditionalist Workers Party has roots in Indiana and the upper Midwest. And let us not forget that Trump himself hails from the urban-northeast megalopolis of New York City.
Most importantly, resistance to white supremacy exists and is powerful in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. Counter-protesters overwhelmed Nazis not only in my home state of Massachusetts but deep in the coalfields of Pikeville, Kentucky. The question that remains in the aftermath of these demonstrations is how do we use these impressive displays of solidarity to leverage actual power?
In the everyday, long-haul, economic transition work I do in Hazard, Kentucky, community leaders are working to build bridges between diverse populations of black, immigrant, and white working class folks to develop a collective vision of what we want our future to look like in the mountains. This means hosting celebratory potlucks that highlight the cuisines of Syrian, Indian, Mexican and other populations that are an essential piece of Hazard’s community fabric, while spurring discussion about the complexities of Appalachian identity and what we can do to make Hazard a more welcoming place for all people. This means hosting poetry workshops with black community leaders centered on defining and re-envisioning home. This means ensuring that city development ideas must recognize and respect the economic and infrastructural needs of everyone up and down the holler, regardless of class or race.
In Appalachia, I believe that we need to draw strength from traditions of militant direct action and multiracial struggle against corporate enemies, from coal mines to Walmarts. We need to build a locally owned, dynamic solidarity economy that values the health of workers and the environment. We also need to do the slow, intentional, long-haul work of unseating centuries of structural and institutional racism. The work to resist prison expansion as a form of economic development, to advocate for single-payer healthcare, to fight gentrification and address environmental racism. That work has been happening for years before this most recent display of white brutality and it will continue now. If we are to actually prevent white nationalism from taking root in the mountains, the urban left must support and respect these ongoing campaigns and struggles in the rural south.
As Highlander Director and fierce change-maker Ash-Lee Henderson so often says, “The South’s Got Something to Say!” It is high time that everyone across the country
The population in urban spaces has grown dramatically over the last few decades. Many small towns are small and getting smaller. As the cities grow, waves of migration wash over small towns leaving residents to pick up the pieces. Grandparents accept that their purpose in life is to enjoy retirement with a daily trip to the cracker barrel, not to care and tend and provide wisdom to the incoming generation who are being raised in the nearest urban center.
Migration happens for different reasons. Some stick around post college, some are drawn to cities for high paying professions like architect or doctor, and some for entrepreneurial opportunity or working class jobs. And then others are there for resources. For the mental health care, VA hospitals, homeless shelters, SNAP agencies, transportation, food pantries, and other social programs that help people who have been forced into cycles of endless capitalism-induced struggle. Such strikingly different situations.
For a while I thought cities were a part of the problem, a concrete nightmare of traffic, pubs, restaurants, car exhaust, and moms driving their “kiddos” from the suburbs to soccer practice. That view has changed over time. I always feel drawn to the natural mountain spaces, the backwood waterfalls, the rolling pastures and deep valley floors that swell rich with a cool wetness. But the appeal of the city is there too. The ease of obtaining, the ability to bike and avoid driving, the constant potential for connection and friendship. The realness of it all. You see humanity in the city, in all its glory and kindness, in all of its despair and selfishness.
No matter what brings you to a city, or whether you have been there your whole life, it is a decidedly different lifestyle than the rural. Both with potential and both with very different circumstances and accolades. In Huntington, WV I walk to my nearby Kroger, over behind the tow yard, a path through the brush and across the tracks, check both ways for the train even though you’d hear it coming, and whisk myself across. I walk the somewhat awkward gravel, track side. I watch for needles. I talk to the guy hanging out nearby. When I reach the destination, coming out just behind the dumpsters, there is often a cop car stationed outside. I wonder to myself if this just serves as intimidation to deter petty theft. I understand that my trespass on the tracks won’t land much attention at all because I am a white woman. And I also understand that this simple walk to Kroger I enjoy is less likely in the rural, where most trips require a car ride.
I feel perpetually torn between the rural and urban, like two parts of me are being pulled in opposite directions. With a passion for farming I long for the ability to shape a piece of land. To learn all about its every curve and hill, to work with the land to cultivate life and sustenance. To discover from the land itself what I can and cannot do. But in the city I find easy connection. On the trip across the tracks that I value so much, I can meet people. I can ask what they want out of life. I can work with them for common goals.
And I wonder, can the truly desperate and most ostracized of our world exist in the rural countryside? Can they consume the abandoned waste from dumpsters without question, or encounter enough passersby to scrounge the money needed for a fix or a meal? Does this mean cities are one of our best hopes for a life built on solidarity for the many and not the few? Or is it that in the country, people rely more on one another in those desperate situations because the institutional support net isn’t as strong, or because travel becomes more difficult? I really don’t fully know those answers.
Maybe the point isn’t what they provide as opposites, but how the two can work together. I have hope for what this relationship could look like. In the perfect vision of a city there are parks and food and gardens and fruit trees. Clear running creeks meander through, ponds collect. People live in shared spaces, working together, using tools to help them collectively gain ownership. We are honest, we share our pain and frustrations, we admit guilt and mistakes, and we move forward. Power production is sourced through spinning windmills and solar arrays. Water is easily collected, purified, and stored. Bike paths cross through and weave the city into a beautiful basket. In the ideal city you find remediated and cleaned soil hosting food throughout.
In the small towns, in the country, we have to maintain the quality of life that makes the rural so wonderful. The small town feel, the neighborliness, and the connection with nature is what can be most promising in these places. In the ideal small town farms are plentiful and the infrastructure needed for processing of locally grown foods is readily accessible. Resources can be moved from these small towns to cities and back again, and with diligent methods we can create sustainability. It doesn’t have to be this hard we just have to put some real thought and resources into it. By putting food, shelter, water, and people first for both the urban and rural spaces, and with a focus on collaboration between the two being essential, we can create small ecosystems of abundance.
I have started to see the city and the countryside, not as opposing ideals, but as complementary ones. We need solutions that model synergy, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects”. In this practice the city continues to do what it does best, even better, and the countryside the same. They work together to fill in the gaps and places where the other leaves off. They share and manage resources, production, and food. City and country work to perfectly support one another, and their inhabitants, in a way that is positive, life-affirming, and helps people control their lives with dignity and truth. Their partnership unites the forces inside all of us. The forces that guide us toward connection, to both land and to each other.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I was asked to help facilitate a poetry workshop for the congregation at Common Bound Ministries, one of the historic black churches in Hazard. Along with Hazard native Emily Hudson, we led a room full of grandmas, babies, young people, and teenagers in writing poems about what the concept of home means to them, using an exercise developed by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon. Many of these people had grown up in Hazard, some had left and came back, some moved up from across the mountains and found themselves in this little city.
The process of writing and sharing these poems as a group made me think of what it means to define ‘place’ as a collective, along with who is invited to evolving conversations of what a place becomes when industry, development, and time change the landscapes we call home. In Appalachia, the loss of a thriving coal industry and efforts towards “just” economic transition have provoked questions about what regional identity means without this infamous industry. However, the homogenization of Appalachian cultural and geographic identity by mainstream media has already historically erased the complexity of the stories and identities of people living in the mountains. Until the 1960s, many academic journals formally defined the world “Appalachian” as ‘a white person living in the rural mountainous region of the eastern United States’. Frank X. Walker, founder of the “Affrilachian Poets” sought to challenge this racist, narrow definition by giving a platform to black poets with roots in Appalachia.
Why is it so important that a plurality of voices be involved in the communal defining of any place, and particularly of Appalachia? This collective storytelling matters because it is so easy for those who are awarded structural and political power to determine the economic and infrastructural future of given localities in times of transition. When “home” gets taken away by processes of deindustrialization, corporatization, environmental destruction, and neoliberal capital flight, too often it is only the owning class or political elite that are invited to “imagine” the future of cities and rural places. Often, this translates to city officials and financiers supporting economic development efforts that have the effect of dislocating low-income residents.
We need to start having a conversation in Appalachia about the difference between gentrification and community controlled economic development. Contrary to popular opinion, rural gentrification DOES happen in this country, and does happen in Appalachia, with Asheville, NC and the surrounding towns/cities as the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Gentrification is dangerous because it is a false solution to unemployment and post-industrial recession. The displacement, rising housing costs, and increased policing that so often accompany the creation of elite “creative economies” do not represent a “just” transition from extractive industry. They simply replace extraction economies with exclusive, expensive, tourist enclaves. Without community control over both industrial and downtown/main st development, the story of a place becomes one that is told only by economic and political elites, not by the diverse communities who are deeply rooted in the area.
When I talked to the poets at Common Bound Ministries about what they imagined the future of Hazard would look like, they emphasized a vision that reflected a desire for both growth and continuity, for the physical and economic spaces they call home to become more vibrant but to remain stable. Everyone wants more jobs and prosperity, but no one wants to be rendered expendable as a result of development.
Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to share ideas and to make cultural shifts toward a just world. Telling the stories of how our people are experimenting with innovative approaches to economic development is one way that we can contribute to transitioning our region’s economy. Building off of the long tradition of Appalachian storytelling and community-made media, former App Fellow, Mae Humiston started Breaking Beans: The Appalachian Food Story Project with the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) back in 2014. What started as a monthly, hour-long radio show on WMMT (Appalashop’s community radiostation), grew into a multi-media project that features written pieces, photos, and audio interviews featuring stories of Appalachian farmers and food advocates growing the Eastern Kentucky local foods economy.
This Spring, I joined CFA’s amazing Sister Kathy Curtis and Maggie Smith on the Breaking Beans team and expanded the focus of the project to cover fiber agriculture. Throughout the fellowship, I will be interviewing fiber farmers, processors, makers, and entrepreneurs who are paving the way for a strong natural fiber economy in Kentucky and the broader Appalachian region.
For our first fiber podcast, I was lucky enough to collaborate with App Fellow, Hope Hart of Appalshop, who took pictures for the project. Together we visited two farms, herded alpaca, fed a lamb, spent time with two wise female fiber farmers, and learned a whole lot about the natural fiber system in Kentucky. Check out the first fiber podcast, Stories from the Field. In addition, check out our extended interview and blogpost on Alvina Maynard, Kentucky alpaca farmer and fiber entrepreneur, Alpaca, Fiber Farming, and the Emerging Slow Fashion Movement.
And make sure to look out for written pieces and more beautiful photos over the next months!
Riding the rails due west through the rolling hills and plains of breadbasket America, I stitch some letters into a felted pillow for a friend. His wedding is this Saturday and the gift we bring is a pillow with scenes of abundance, home, and place sewn into its body. At the bottom it reads a simple quote by poet Wendell Berry, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”
Sitting in the lounge car of the Amtrak Zephyr I hold in my hands a reminder of the last few weeks. A souvenir from the Rage and Hope workshop at the Highlander Center, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, its edges beginning to curl like an orange peel missing its contents. But the contents of this book are all there, and I am immersed in them like I devour a cool watermelon slice in the heat of summer.
The workshop was a momentous experience as complete strangers came together in a room and faced one another with unadulterated vulnerability. We shared deepest thoughts and fears not holding back on the emotions that poured forth. Like the song we sang together said, “The Ocean refuses no rivers”, we created a collective river in those few days together, its path leading to the bigger pool of human experience, joy, and pain. And as the river leaves us, the river heals us, too.
A friend gifted this book to me, knowing that from the small minute of time we shared I would enjoy the value it carries. And I do. I remember a time in my early twenties when I had only begun to think of what the experience of this world means to me, as I started to challenge the Christianity of my childhood and look for a spiritual rational that fit what I truly knew deep within myself. I landed on relationships. Not simply romantic or familial, but a bigger belief that all interactions are relationships even if just brief in existence. I found that the definition of relationship was so broad and untethered in my mind, a constantly moving force that changed with time and action. A relationship between two individuals will become an entirely different organism with the addition of another being, and so forth. So I decided at that point I would personally replace religion, with relationships.
Emergence is described by Nick Obolensky as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” Emergent Strategy is the practical lessons we can pattern our life around that put the simple and small in the forefront. Many small relationships and connections lead to something much bigger and more powerful than any state government or large corporation could ever even imagine. Many drops in a powerful river, perhaps.
Emergent strategy is dynamic, changing, chaotic, and at its roots requires collaboration and love that is based on the designs of the natural world from which we come. We often fail to see that the patterns of nature have designed us and brought us to where we are today. It is my personal belief that we ignore these lessons, but only through them will we be able to move forward to a better society.
Brown draws influence from inspiring leaders like Grace Lee Boggs who tells us that “critical connections instead of critical mass” are what truly lead to lasting change. We can get thousands of people to march on Washington and we can get thousands to sign a petition. But before the soles of their shoes have cooled from the pavement protest, people are back to their everyday lives that literally embody all the -archy and -isms we stand against when we stand on the streets.
Why is that? Have we derailed from our original purpose? It seems to me that we have failed to focus on making lasting change in the ways in which we carry ourselves through the world. What do Adrienne Brown and Wendell Berry and Grace Boggs all have in common? What I see in all of these leaders is a passionate emphasis on “good work”, “community”, and of course “relationships”. Right now people go about their lives: some organize, some work in non-profits, some small businesses. AND we go home to our apartments. We cook dinner. We eat over the sink. But organizing social change doesn’t just happen between 9-5 or the hours that we have a scheduled event. It is a part of all aspects of living. And people are hungry!...for food, for community, for change. So let’s give it to them by creating new ways to connect, to share, to dance, to celebrate, to cry, and to laugh. And if we do this under the auspice of working together to cover the many basic needs we all have for safety, food, shelter, art, and love….then we will be on the right track.
At the recent AppFellows regional gathering in Benham, KY, after spending the day scheming, dreaming, and arguing over what it means to create a “just transition” in the Appalachian economy, we emerged from the conference room to visit the Kentucky Coal Mine Museum. At the Coal Mine Museum, we heard two former UMWA miners talk about their experiences both fighting for the union and fighting against mountain top removal. Then, climbing up a narrow flight of stairs to the roof of the museum, we were met with a fleet of solar panels glistening in the early mountain sunset. This image, which has been both ridiculed and celebrated by pundits commenting on the irony of installing such “green infrastructure” on a museum dedicated to the history of the infamous fossil fuel, illustrates the complexity of the regional debate around “Just Transition.”. According to a PSA about the project I heard on the radio, the solar panels were installed mostly to save money on utility costs, not to make a political point. But the image made me wonder— if the coal industry is fading regardless of political intervention, and people in Appalachia are forced to consider economic alternatives regardless of their personal ideologies, does it matter whether or not our communities and our allies agree with our views? Additionally, to what degree does the mainstream media erase nuances in Appalachian political thought, making the installation of solar panels on a coal museum so surprising to outsiders?
I have met many retired miners who are both dedicated friends of coal and fighters of mountain top removal. That “contradictory” stance comes from deeply felt economic realities, and represents a positionality I wish more of our political leaders would respect. The danger, however, in allowing for and embracing such ideological diversity, in making the tent of ideas that exists under the ‘Just Transition’ framework as wide and open as possible, is that a wide tent also makes room for projects that bear an eerie resemblance to the exploitative mono-economies we are supposedly “transitioning” away from.
Take the proposed federal prison in Letcher County, KY, for example. The proposed USP Letcher would take $444 million of federal money to build a maximum security prison on a reclaimed strip mine, in a country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population (in particular, people of color) than any other country in the world. But because this prison will bring relatively higher paying jobs to a county in deep economic distress, I’ve anecdotally heard many refer to the prison as a step in the right direction for East Kentucky, if not explicitly a “just transition” away from coal.
This raises the question of whether or not we are working to push forward the collective education of our communities—specifically, collective education around power and structural violence. If we want to move away from the kind of industry that once paid miners in script and forced children to work for 18 hours a day in dangerous and back-breaking conditions, why would we support an industry that produces billions of dollars in profit for essentially unpaid labor—and relies of structural racism to justify this practice)? While I do not believe in activists self-isolating into ideologically pure subcultures that refuse to engage the people we are supposedly organizing, I think there is an immense danger in allowing terms like “Just Transition” to be appropriated and diluted by the power elite. And I believe we have a duty to be vigilant about recognizing when conversations around economic transition in Appalachia intentionally and unintentionally exclude people that will be directly impacted by whatever economic future happens in the mountains. [jh1]
Directly after the regional gathering, I attended a separate, larger conference about economic development in Appalachia. While the conference introduced me to [jh2] many exciting projects and ideas, I believe [jh3] there were fewer than five black people present at the entire event, and few if any participants I met [jh4] were currently working in the manufacturing or service sector. It is less than surprising to me, given these demographics, that the keynote speaker of thesaid conference was an enthusiastic advocate for capitalism as a way to “get things done and create social change”—a statement that was met with applause and affirmation by most (if not everyone) in the room. Similarly, when I have attended more local gatherings about economic development in eastern Kentucky, there are very few people of color present, and rarely any attendees who do not work in professional non-profit or government sectors. Where are the Dollar General and Walmart workers at these meetings? Where are the unemployed young people struggling with health issues or addiction? The jargon-heavy language used in such spaces is exclusive and alienating, even for many people who have had access to college education like me.
I believe a diversity of ideologies, strategies, and tactics will be necessary to build the new world we want to see in Appalachia and across the country. But I can’t quite come to terms with the contrast between environments like The Highlander Center, where we talk about collective liberation and critiquing the machine of capitalism,, and events like the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, where aluminum plants and military drone launch pads are promoted as innovative steps forward for Appalachia. Does the term “Just Transition” really mean anything at all if such contradictory visions for the future can be encompassed within it? Is it still useful, however, to embrace these spaces of contradiction and political tension? In Appalachia, there is a growing consensus that we need to work with the Trump supporter and the tree-hugger alike if we want to build any kind of real political power. I think it is deeply important to organize a base of diverse backgrounds and political persuasions, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get the world we’re fighting for if we prioritize networking with business owners and politicians over creating community with workers and unemployed people. I think we need to think critically about the term “Just Transition”—who defines it, who implements it, and who ultimately remains in power when the framework is applied.
Our Communications AppFellow Hope Hart, based at Appalshop, has been visiting each of the Fellows and documenting the work they are doing in their host communities. Check out this excellent album of photos to see the work and places our AppFellows are becoming embedded in!
At the current moment, I’m tired. Physically and mentally worn out. With my project in full swing, a garden, a family, and a house to tend to at home, throw some traveling in there and I’m done for. Fortunately, I’m not normally this much of a Debbie downer, I just so happen to be writing this with a mild case of the “Mondays”.
As I’m sitting here at my little desk in Abingdon, VA at the Appalachian Sustainable Development office, I’m stressing out about the mountain of laundry that needs to be done, the puppy hair tumble weeds bellowing about on the hardwood, the streaks of dried water from an unknown source ruining the shine of the stainless steel, all while planning and scheduling, designing, and facilitating….the list goes on and on. As tension may seem high, I can’t help, but feel grateful. I’m grateful that I get to walk through the doors of an organization that actually strategies and executes meaningful work. I’m grateful that my sunflowers are sprouting. (I was scared to death that I screwed that up!) I’m grateful that when I came home from the our first AppFellows Regional Gathering, that my husband was waiting there, with a smile that would make any heart melt, ready to scoop me up and shower me with “I miss yous” and kisses. Most of all, on the Monday-est of Mondays, I’m grateful, that in a few short hours, I’ll have the best work buddy ever, sitting beside me and spinning around in an office chair, even though her feet don’t yet touch the ground. The best part of being involved in this work is the freedom to have Annabel Lee beside me when a baby sitter falls through. Thank goodness for decent, understanding folks and the absence of ridiculous rules and regulations.
Sunday’s are family night at Casa De Roop. We put on our jammies, pop some popcorn on the stove, and pick a movie to watch together. Last weekend Annabel got to watch “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time, and a time before that “Harry and the Henderson’s” (If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s really funny!). Sundays are a time to relax and enjoy the presence of those you love and cherish the most in your life….at least that’s how we like it. This past Sunday, however, was a little different.
Appalachian Sustainable Development had the second FUNdraiser of the year Sunday the 21st. Our Director of Communications and Development, Sylvia Crum, came up with the brilliant idea to host a family style Sunday supper at the brand new, up and coming events facility in Blountville, TN: The Ron Ramsey Regional Agricultural Center. Lindsey Keen, the Farmer’s Market Promotion Coordinator, and I were on the planning/execution team this time around…known as the “Biscuits” per Sylvia. The tables were set up like long harvest tables adorned with white table clothes and a variety of beautiful, random dishware. The center pieces were made up of a variety of fresh cut flowers; peonies and lilies from my garden, roses from Lindsey’s, and wildflowers from the fields of Sylvia’s land. An assortment of rustic décor (Most of which came from my mother. Thanks, Mom!) And informational pieces were scattered about the lobby were a cocktail reception was held; can’t beat BYOB! There was locally sourced food prepared and served by ASD Board member, Chef Mike Archdeacon, owner and operator of the local food truck “Foodie Fiction” and his team. Set up began at 2:00pm Sunday afternoon and cleanup was finished up by 10:00pm with a 30 minute drive home to follow. It was a long, busy evening. Our dogs were barking, eyes were heavy, and bodies felt like a bunch of limp noodles, but this was, by far, one of the most rewarding experiences I have been a part of yet with ASD.
Though our quaint little family night was interrupted, I wouldn’t have had it any other way this weekend. The rewarding (and nostalgic) rush of planning and executing an event, even with a few qwerks, is like no other. The best part was getting to spend the slow moments in between the hustle and bustle with amazing new friends and my undyingly supportive husband and mother. There isn’t enough thank yous in this world to express my gratitude for a life that I wouldn’t dare trade for anything in this world.
Walking down Main Street in Hazard past the Kentucky River on one of the first t-shirt hot days in April, I noticed a group of teenagers spreading flakes of colorful sawdust into images of flowers and football regalia on the sidewalk. They were constructing Alfombras, a traditional Spanish folk craft made at the beginning of Easter, meant to represent the coming of spring. Made from such delicate materials, it is understood that the Alfombras will blow away at the first high gust of wind, leaving only a kaleidoscope mash of colorful dust behind.
The temporary nature of these Alfombras made me think of how much the work we do in community is ephemeral—moments of joy and celebration and resistance that fade after the last song plays or the last tomato is sold, after the rally ends and (in a darker vein) we kick the Nazis out of town. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time planning events and programs that are by their nature fleeting, locked in particular moments in time and space? From InVision Hazard community gatherings to summertime arts festivals to even the mobilization against the Nazi rally in nearby Pikeville, I often wonder what impact is left by these events after the proverbial sawdust blows away.
While it is easy to dismiss such events-based organizing as un-substantive, perhaps the moments of beauty, joy and power created by these temporary spaces give us the strength to keep moving, to do the long-haul, unsexy work of building a new economy and a new resistance. As we discussed at our last AppFellows gathering, the bravery required to build what often begins as temporary, small-scale acts of participatory democracy—planting a community garden, creating a coffee cooperative, painting a mural downtown, etc.—can be leveraged into larger scale transformations in the ways people determine the future of the land they live on and the economy that governs their lives.
In similar vein, when I think of the patchwork quilt of new economic paradigms proposed by AppFellows projects—a fiber shed, a food and dance trail, film/tech coops, farmer’s markets, a star park, Hazard’s downtown—I wonder if these projects can scale up to a new economy resilient enough to exist and thrive against the competitive threat of mass-produced goods and strip malls. The “no silver bullet” concept seems to be a favorite phrase of community economic development experts here in eastern Kentucky. There is an understanding that a diverse, decentralized “economic ecosystem” that supports new entrepreneurs without relying on a single, monopolizing industry will be the most effective model to lift Appalachia out of structural poverty. But does the formation of a new economy need to be centrally planned and implemented in order for it to succeed against global capitalism?
I don’t know. What I do know is that whether it involves revitalizing a downtown or fighting the spread of white supremacy in these hills, bravery is a requirement in scaling up. And while beautiful moments and colorful spaces are so necessary to keep our movements vital and strong, we must find a way to make this work impactful for years and generations down the road.
It has been 5 months since the 2017 AppFellows adventure began and everyone seems to be getting down and dirty with their host community projects. Here in Virginia and Tennessee, we have hit a couple of potholes in the road with the Working Groups. Some are very active with very promising projects underway, others yet to meet or have stopped meeting all together. Unfortunately, the time our members invest into these groups is strictly volunteer time, whereas my full time job is to focus on the group’s success.
After applying for and awarded a small $5,000 grant through the Central Appalachian Network (CAN), the Policy and Economic Development Working Group will act as the steering committee for a program titled Building Political Capital in Northeast TN and Southwest VA. The program will begin with a one day, region wide Policy 101 Workshop that will teach its participants basic local, state, and federal policy knowledge. Following the Workshop, we will be scheduling a series of 3 Roundtable Flash Talk and Small Group Discussion Luncheons: the first with local officials, second with state officials, and third with federal officials. The project is structured to increase community capacity and leadership, develop a more “policy wise” region that is comfortable communicating with their elected officials and identifying when they can lead community efforts through policy change. Members of the other 4 working groups will be invited to attend. We also hope to get the Fellows down to participate as one of their scheduled monthly workshops!
The Food Access Working Group will be developing two projects this year. First, they will be working with different organizations throughout SWVA and NET who have up and running Summer Feeding Programs in order to develop new sites in the neediest counties. Second, the group will create a plan of action titled “Farm to summer” for getting fresh, local foods, prepared on site (at the markets) and served to the children registered with the program. The action plan will then be presented to Market Managers, local elected officials, and Summer Feeding program operators in October. We hope to hold two pilots (1 in NET and the other in SWVA) in the 2018 Farmer’s Market season.
The Workforce Development Working Group has two very active group Chairs meaning all I would really have to do for them is take the minutes. AWESOME! Not only that, but these two very driven women want to focus on creating pathways for High School Agriculture and Culinary Arts students to College Courses with CET dual enrollment programs. VERY AWESOME! Sadly…this group has yet to meet for the year, but I’m not giving up hope and continue to badger them on a regular basis!
Beginning in June 2017, a pilot program titled “VeggieRX”(Modeled after the very successful “Farmacy” in Whitesburg, KY) will kick off for the duration of the summer months in Washington County, TN. The Food and Health Systems working group is currently acting as part of the Steering Committee. The goal for participation is, since the group is made up of SWVA and NET folks, that in 2018 when the successful program broadens, that it will be carried across the VA/TN border. Unfortunately, only a few members of the group have been able to participate in the planning meetings so far. To add to the discouragement, the Food Production, Marketing, and Distribution Working Group met once in March this year. We scheduled a follow up meeting in April to plan for our Farmer/Producer Regional Assessment, but no one ended up making it to the meeting. The lack of participation from these 2 Working Groups means 1 of two things: Going back to the drawing board and revamping the groups or deleting them indefinitely.
When I started this journey, it was a pretty bumpy start, what with being away from my family and diving head first into the unknown world that is nonprofits. Thankful for being a quick learner and fairly adaptive, I took the steering wheel from my predecessor (The previous Working Group facilitator, Mary Beth.) and, despite the bends and bumps, my Host Community Project is still trucking right along, even if we seem to have 2 flat tires. AND! I already have an amazing plan laid out for my Appfellows individual project. Stay tuned for further Working Group updates!
Lately, this phrase has been popping up a lot in my life:
“It’s up to us to make it how it used to be.”
My husband and I have started taking a “Master Homeowner” class, offered by our local Habitat for Humanity. It’s pretty cool—we will learn about multiple aspects of home ownership, from the legal and financial issues of buying a house to how to rewire an electrical outlet or fix basic plumbing issues. Modeled after Master Gardener classes, it’s a good mix of practical and theoretical skills that home owners need to know.
We’ve spent the last two weeks talking about neighborhood relations and home safety. We covered the city’s expectations of property upkeep and maintenance, how to deter burglary, and how to be a good neighbor. Throughout all of this discussion, the importance of knowing and talking to your neighbors has come up again and again. It’s an underlying thread that helps people maintain high property value, feel safer, and respect their neighborhoods. But both instructors and our other classmates have said, “It’s just not like it used to be.”
Here’s how they say it used to be:
People knew their neighbors. They knew their names, their children’s names, their grandkids’ names. They knew their schedules; when they came and went, about what time they turned off their lights at night, and where they liked to park. They would help each other out—grab mail or water plants when someone was out of town, mow their grass if they were sick, and lend cups of flour or sugar.
This made neighborhoods safer. People knew if something was amiss in the neighborhood, and they would check on their neighbors. Someone found their car had been broken into? They would tell everyone on the street, to make sure everyone was vigilant and no one else was missing anything. People felt more secure; they knew if something happened to them, their neighbors would call them or their relatives to check up on them. Did Old Jane’s lights stay on all night, and she didn’t move her car today? Someone would knock and make sure she hadn’t fallen. Neighbors would chat over fences or while weeding their lawns; if something was wrong, you had a relationship with your neighbor and could talk it out. Sometimes, it was annoying--especially if you were a kid. Your mom would know any trouble you got into before you were even home! But, people who tell these stories laugh about it fondly, wishing their kids were watched after by the whole neighborhood like that now.
And at the end of these reminiscences, our instructor always reminds us that “It’s up to us to make it like it used to be.” That is to say, if you want to live in a good neighborhood, start by being a good neighbor.
This discussion comes at an opportune time for me. It’s getting warm here. We have a big front porch on our house that we share with our housemates, and we’ve been spending a lot of time on it recently. A young family just moved into the house next to us, and the mom is an acquaintance of mine. We’ve started inviting them over to “porch sit” with us.
With these recurring words in my head, I started a Facebook group chat for our housemates and new neighbors. It’s already helped us become closer (and saved one of us from a parking ticket).
But I still don’t know my other neighbors. Who lives across the street? What are the names of their kids? Who lives on the other side of us? What do they even look like?
As my husband and I consider and work toward buying a home (outside of our current neighborhood), I find myself wondering if it’s worth investing my time and resources into getting to know my neighbors. I hate that I ask myself that—I don’t think I would have, if we were living in the world as it “used to be.” Is it worth forming new relationships if we might leave soon? Would my neighbors invest in me if they knew I was leaving? I think about my other Fellows, many of who are in communities or neighborhoods they won’t stay in after this year, and wonder if they feel the same way. Do their communities feel that way about them? What is the balance of forming relationships that you know will soon change, with people you know will soon leave?
As I mull over these questions, I’m also reminded that it’s up to us to make the world we want to live in. I want to live in a world where people are kind and considerate, and where they enjoy fellowship with one another and look out for one another. For however long they’ll be around, I want to enjoy fruitful friendships with them that will let us help each other grow. So, I guess it’s up to me to initiate them.
Growing up in my quiet hometown of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, what I remember most distinctly was that there was one of everything downtown. One coffee shop, one pizza place, one gas station, one pharmacy, one ice cream parlor. All locally owned, no franchise businesses or strip malls. I would bike down the hilly, tree lined streets past the 60 year old elementary school and meet my friends for a greasy calzone or sugary cup of iced coffee. That this particular experience was representative of a dying small town tradition never occurred to me. I thought our town would stay the same forever.
Of course it didn’t. The local pharmacy has been replaced by a CVS and the coffee shop now competes with a Starbucks, along with a host of other chains, in a strip mall down the road. While the political contexts of rural New England and Appalachian Kentucky are dramatically different, the slow corporatization of Hazard and Hopkinton share distinct parallels. In Hazard, what was once a vibrant and busy downtown is now still and quiet—aside from city buildings and professional offices, downtown is comprised largely of residential or abandoned/unused properties. As of now, there are no restaurants downtown, and few retail businesses.
Working with InVision Hazard, the community group organizing to revitalize Hazard’s downtown, has led me to wonder why it is that we fight to hang on to our hometowns. Collective attachment to a place that is unique in its particularity, embedded in our memories of home and community, is in many ways contradictory to the forces of global capitalism that dissolve idiosyncratic local spaces. Hazard is surrounded by the kind of strip-malls that now engulf the majority of small-town America, monotonous in their identical repetition, the WalMarts and the RiteAids stretching like concrete mountains from Maine to Florida. In the strip mall parking lot you could be anywhere. A sense of place is exchanged for the sterile ease of uniformity, free of particular associations, free of story or memory.
Over the past few weeks, I have come to appreciate the tight social bonds and deep community memories that form the story of Hazard. I have come to understand that the objective of revitalizing Hazard’s downtown is not only to provide jobs and income to small business owners, but to create more of those increasingly elusive “third spaces”, where people can gather to celebrate collective social experiences that transcend work and home boundaries.
One beautiful and bittersweet example of the necessity of such third spaces in Hazard is the story of the Tree House Café. When I met with Jenn Noble, the visual artist and Hazard native who started the Tree House (which was Hazard’s only coffee shop) she spoke to me about the sense of joy and community visitors brought to the TreeHouse. Packed with diners that travelled as far as Lexington to sample a taste of Hazard, the Tree House brought vibrancy, art and necessary social space to town. Jenn hosted poetry readings and political debates while serving up fresh and healthy local food. A TV crew from Japan even came to document the restaurant’s success.
Unfortunately, high utility costs and the difficulties of running a business in an old building with a difficult landlord forced Jenn to close the Tree House. Too often, this same story has become the narrative of locally owned businesses in small Appalachian towns like Hazard. The structural reality of absentee or uninvolved property ownership in Hazard, where landlords charge high rents for buildings that are poorly maintained and thus difficult for small businesses, parallels the larger history of absentee and corporate land ownership across Appalachia. When common space is controlled by wealthy or powerful elites, be they local or outsiders, the reclamation of both rural landscapes and downtowns becomes an act of community self-determination.
Make no mistake, however, downtown revitalization efforts are also a response to a blunt economic reality in the coalfields. According to the 2016 Kentucky Center for Economic Policy report on “The State of Working in Kentucky:” “In June 2016, Kentucky had 10,600 fewer coal jobs than in June 2009. With an average weekly wage for Kentucky coal workers of $1,394 in 2015 compared to $831 for all workers in private industries it’s not easy for displaced coal miners to find employment that pays them as well” (4).
Of course, there are questions about the long-term sustainability of small-businesses in towns like Hazard, where few residents have the disposable income available for a $5 latte or a new hip record. However, by building a strategic, democratically designed plan for downtown Hazard, community members hope to build a diverse and resilient economic ecosystem that reflects the needs of Hazard’s residents.
“Actually, it turns out to be beautifully accurate when you once make the plunge and compel yourself to open your eyes in the limpid depths under its confused surface.”
The Mud Bog refers to a specific event, not existential or moral torpor. For the uninitiated, Mud Bogs are a kind of spectator sport, where an audience gathers to watch vehicles of discrete builds slog through a large viscid morass, flinging shit colored mud wherever they drive, and denuding the ground so that what remains resembles the bare and etiolated earth of an abandoned strip mine. But on a different scale.
It’s a sport with many varied Appalachian and West Virginian traditions contained within in it, but probably the most important one, as I see it, is the tradition of a complex relationship between the people that live here and the environment they inhabit. A sociocultural disposition alternating between hostility towards the impassive dismissal of life wrought on Appalachians by their natural surroundings or by the exigencies of their working lives, and the need or desire to extract their livelihood from the land. The mud bog seems to channel unabashed contempt, or at least vague indifference to the land, while at the same time celebrating rural life. Rurality, as such, in opposition to urbanity, but also in opposition to, or dominion over, the vagaries of the natural world.
The park board has been in open and vitriolic dispute about the proposed continuation of the Mud Bog, and why not? It fits squarely outside of, and squarely within, two competing visions of the future of the park. One, is typified by sedate activity, and mostly family oriented events, the other, is amenable to the open din of a modified truck slamming into dirt and disgorging that dirt in every direction as it toils onward, also, probably people drinking, carousing, & c. I find myself agreeing with both sides for various reasons.
I think this is where it would be helpful to explain how I’ve come to see my goals for the park. There are essentially two main goals for the park. One, the explicit reason I am here, is to facilitate the edification of the Dark Skies aspect of the Calhoun County Park, to help in any way with its eventual establishment, through grant seeking, brochures and whatever else. An unstated aspect of this goal and that of MOVRC and its partners, is that it seeks to attract wealthy tourists to the park for purposes of redistributing their wealth to the actual residents of the county. The other goal I have is to augment in any way possible, the perception of the park as a place for people to congregate, through: farmer’s markets, gun shows, old time shows, fairs, etc, so that the the people living here come to view the park as a resource, their resource. And so this is why I’m torn on the issue of the Mud Bog, though I don’t take part in the park board’s discussion over it, I feel that either way, it’s a loss either for the park or for the community at large.
The point of talking about the Mud Bog is that it facilely illustrates the difficulties rural towns face when confronting competing needs and interests, specifically, environmental issues versus the needs of a community. To think of it this way, it’s important to understand the role that the Mud Bog plays in bringing people together where otherwise they wouldn’t. It’s one of the few activities left to rural communities which can largely be funded and participated in, usually, in some degree of proximity and with little monetary dislodgment. The issue is that unless the land is reclaimed afterwards, it will eventually ablate the surrounding ecosystem, eroding the banks of hills, eradicating grass, becoming generally uninhabitable for anything or anyone else. If the event were judged solely upon the material costs as opposed to financial benefit , it would be a no brainer: the event itself operates at a financial loss for the park as well as a material and environmental loss, so it doesn’t make much sense for it to continue; however, if the non material, non quantifiable benefits are examined: being one of a hand full of activities likely to attract people in large numbers or the importance of shared, communal experiences, especially, in our supremely individually atomized modernity, then, I believe, its value to the park and to the community is more difficult to ascertain.
You can extrapolate a lot about the divisions in rural life when money, work, and young people have abandoned or retreated from it. A lack of access to these resources does not always encourage people to band together, and here, more often than not, it seems, these issues over ostensibly petty disagreements foster an atmosphere of contempt, resentment, and disaffection from the community at large. This has larger implications for political changes, if there were any on the horizon, in that, small towns and communities are often prone to petty squabbling, repression and revanchist tendencies, which is the frustrating truth about rural America and small scale communities, at least, experientially: that life in them, often portrayed as being less complicated, more mundane and straightforward, is often more complicated, more divisive and potentially more acerbic. In cities or large towns, the anonymity and solitude afford less day to day conflict and less interest in who does what with what resources.
An economic argument often presented for the promotion of capitalism centers around the idea that capitalism breeds excellence, innovation, and thought. Those notions claim that capitalism is natural to our systems of order, that it exists in animal and plant ecosystems in the form of competition and “survival of the fittest”, and that these forces guide animal and human societies alike. But the concept found in Darwinian thought isn’t complete, and the emphasis it places on individual struggle and competition is lacking and narrow, if not entirely incorrect, in my perspective.
This competition-based view is only one part of the story in a far greater epic of evolution and life. The missing piece is a tale of cooperation, mutual aid, mutual struggle, and mutual confidence. Meaning, the forces that have shaped evolution and society have relied equally, if not more, on working together, than on competing for our own individual interests. What we have been taught about capitalism, or what has been imposed on is, simply isn’t true.
Recently, at the Appalachian Studies Association annual conference, I woke up to the foggy stupor of a dream that caught my attention for its metaphorically relevant nature.
With a ping my eyes shot open, and I considered what I had just seen.
In a large stone building, I had been running down the steps when abruptly the steps ended with a dramatic drop to the floor below. The other Fellows were meeting downstairs and I was stuck up here.
I called the Appfellows leader, Kierra.
Courtney: Hey, Kierra. The steps aren’t here and I don’t know how to get downstairs!
Kierra: Okay, don’t worry, we can figure this out.
She called back a few minutes later to tell me that they would meet me at the steps. I ran back to the location and down below I could see Kierra and Samir.
They held out their arms.
Courtney: What? No, it’s like 40 feet, I am not doing that!
Kierra: Come on, it’s okay, jump. Everyone else already jumped. [Meaning the other Fellows.]
Courtney: [Thinking there had to be another way down] But how did you get there? Who caught you, when you jumped??
And my dream ended there. I don’t remember actually making the jump, but it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. The point that my inner self was trying to make is simple, and it really highlights the movement for a better world that so many people, our fellowship cohort included, believe in.
In Peter Kropotkin’s book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, he writes,
“And yet the ants, in their thousands, are not much destroyed by the birds, not even by the ant-eaters, and they are dreaded by most stronger insects. When Forel emptied a bagful of ants in a meadow, he saw that “the crickets ran away, abandoning their holes to be sacked by the ants; the grasshoppers and crickets fled in all directions; the spiders and the beetles abandoned their prey in order not to become prey themselves; even the nests of the wasps were taken by the ants, after a battle during which many ants perished for the safety of the commonwealth. Even the swiftest insects cannot escape, and Forel often saw butterflies, gnats, flies, and so on, surprised and killed by the ants. Their force is in mutual support and mutual confidence.”
I am not saying we should create an army (or am I?), but the point is that the lies of individual competition are at the root of the current structure in America. While I am very often intimidated by community organizing work that requires me to “put myself out there,” I know that it is important to challenge the ideas of individualism and learn to ask what we need of each other; ask for help, ask for consideration, and ask for support. And in turn, offer that to others as much as possible. Because at the end of the day, someone has been in your position, someone has taken a leap before you came along, and someone will be scared to jump long after you are gone. But we are a force so very great in our numbers and even greater in our love for humanity and our desire to see it thrive. So, let’s remember the power we have. Let’s be like the ants.
In my fellowship thus far, I feel like I am looking at a table overflowing with piles of roughly organized seed packets – herbs and flowers, peas and beans, cabbage and collards, tomatoes and peppers. Then, we discover this special winter squash from a friend, this beautiful bean seed we must plant, this tasty kind of melon, this interesting mustard green. Then, we look at the maps of gardens that came before, to make sure we’re not duplicating, make sure we’re not taking too much of one thing from the soil, but also giving back. Then, we consider perennial fruits and herb terraces and magical bean pole labyrinth forts to build. Then, we notice a whole container of seeds we overlooked and should also sort through.
There’s more possibilities than practicalities. So what are our parameters? How do we understand our limitations but create space for growth and nourishment and beauty? How do we push the edges of the garden while protecting it from being overtaken by wildlife? Are we the best people to be deciding about this garden? Are there other ideas and visions we’re missing? The process, the tangle of thoughts, is both inspiring and paralyzing at the same time. And metaphorically, in my work, I have felt a similar dance between optimism and confusion.
With gratitude, I’m learning about endless dance and food happenings and hopes in Eastern Kentucky: long standing community dances, plans for community canning kitchens, square dance calling mentorship, growing farmers’ markets, farmer support, food access efforts, culture based community organizing, and dreams of square dances on farms. Every week I learn more, talk with more folks, and feel inspired by the creativity, pride, and ingenuity moving all around.
As I immerse in this project that will highlight food and dance in Eastern Kentucky, I can feel overwhelmed by the prospects, the questions, the choices, and the ways this work fits into a bigger picture. How does this connect with larger Appalachian transition and justice work? How does a wide vision translate into day to day details? How do we measure work that feels abstract and difficult to quantify? How do we branch out beyond our comfortable networks to hear a diversity of voices? How do we create spaces where people can gather and organize around common ground? How are we careful to complement, not duplicate, existing efforts? How do we support emerging leaders who have potential to create change in their communities? How am I contributing a project that will live on beyond me in a sustainable way? How does tourism help to strengthen local communities without being another form of extraction? What do we mean by heritage? Who gets to define it? How is this work both dynamic in the present and respectful of the past?
The questions will remain. The questions should be pondered, revisited, and pondered again. Still, there are gardens to plant, one seed at a time. There are harvests to work towards. There are hands to join with and dance. Accepting uncertainty with patience, but also striving towards movement, I hope the penciled plans we have created will turn into something fruitful and good. The soil is warming. The daylight is lengthening. I’m excited and thankful to be a part of spring and to watch what grows.
It has been almost two months since this new journey began and for the most part, it has been like nothing I have ever experienced before. I have been working since I turned of age to do so without parental consent and if you are familiar with the food production industry, you know those concrete floors and 50 pound bags of flour are more than unforgiving. I do miss the constant activity: the rush of a lunch shift, the rewarding feeling of tired feet, and the sizzle of a fresh, hot meal ready to be served to eager, watering pallets.
The kitchen realm is one focused on time. If you are waiting tables, your tip gets lower with every passing minute. If you are the cook, you have servers starring daggers at you to get that food on a plate. Then there is management, the jack of all trades: Creating menus, recipes, and procedures, training and scheduling multiple staff members, ordering supplies, inventory counts, surprise health inspections, covering shifts for no extra pay, whether you’ve already worked 60 hours that week or not. The worst part? Dealing with your own supervisors. You know the ones…nothing is ever good enough, nothings on time, you’re not doing enough because they can’t see your every move while you’re stuck in that boiling hot, fluorescent, concrete and stainless steel cave. When your every move is scrutinized, you get good (fast) at documenting and reporting, disciplinary action and delegation, time management, and organizing. So good, in fact, that it is engrained in every fiber of your being, making it much harder to adapt to such a laid back environment. Though the world as I knew it before becoming an Appalachian Transition Fellow was high stress and required me to have no life and little relationship with my family, the skills I have developed have been extremely useful in the work I have been able to produce with Appalachian Sustainable Development so far. (Luckily, all of my colleagues here are driven to the MAX!)
Since January 17th, the working groups have begun the decision making and planning process for their 2017 projects, I have met with the Washington County Virginia School Boards Nutrition Director to create a working bond through their backpack program, there have been clear intersections developed between ASD, First Tennessee Development District, and 2nd Harvest Foodbank of Northeast Tennessee through Senior SNAP outreach and the potential VeggieRX program, planned to pilot in Bristol. I have also completed a short side project for Sylvia Crum, the Director of Communications and Development with ASD; a NO FARMS, NO FOOD flyer for our Farm to Table themed events that can be reused throughout the year.
There has been more than enough to keep me busy each day and, for the first time in my life, I really look forward to coming to the office every day and to go home without a million pounds of stress and bitterness resting on my shoulders. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the work, that I view through previously hindered eyes, to be larger than life. Though I still have a lot to learn, I am ready and willing to use a newly developed passion and wisdom gained through hard work and constant scrutiny to make a difference in our region, our communities, and our families’ lives. With a clearer mind, rested body, and happiness in my heart, maybe those premature grey hairs will stop sprouting from my 26 year old scalp!
If you would’ve talked to me five years ago, I never would have thought that as a new college graduate I would be greeting the new year by packing my bags and moving to Whitesburg, Kentucky, a small town in the heart of central Appalachia.
I also would not have guessed I would be taking a bus tour of Appalachia as an orientation to my new job, a year-long position at Appalshop in Whitesburg, as a part of the Appalachian Transition Fellowship.
I grew up in West Virginia my entire life, but the world of Appalachian advocacy is relatively new to me. As an adolescent I didn’t consider that my family’s views on hardship could be a part of a specific mountain ideology; I didn’t realize my grandmother’s quilting hobby or my grandfather’s love of finger pickin’ banjo music could be tied to a larger cultural narrative.
Perhaps most strikingly, I was naive to the history of oppression and exploitation this region has endured for centuries. With industries extracting our natural resources of coal, timber, and natural gas though the cheapest means possible, lacking any conscience for its negligence towards the local people and their land, it’s no wonder we’re in the position we are in. “The rest of the country treats us like we’re the cost of doing business in America,” Daile Boulis, a resident of Loudendale, W.Va., sums it up well. But there are silver linings. As we know, the world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.
We AppFellows took a tour of the region to become better oriented with the new and unfamiliar surroundings. In five days traveling the region, we visited thirteen organizations all fighting to make their communities better places for all people who live there.
In Kingsport, Tennessee we attended a conference focused on food and health in Appalachia. It was held at the Second Harvest Food Bank, an organization that processes 1.5 million pounds of donations every month. Their massive warehouse reminded me of a Sam’s or Costcos, except the shelves and freezers were full of food no one was going to have to buy to eat.
In Norton, Virginia we visited the nonprofit Appalachian Voices who is collaborating in a land study to identify who owns the land in the surrounding area. An alarming portion of land in Appalachia is not locally owned, and absentee land ownership is a huge obstacle for the economy. In 1982 a survey of 20 million acres of land and mineral rights found that almost half was owned by 50 private owners and 10 government agencies, with the federal government being the largest owner of property in Appalachia, controlling over two million acres.
In Hazard, Kentucky we met with the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, Inc. (MACED), two organizations committed to community development through food access and entrepreneurship.
Unlimited Future is a business incubator in Huntington, West Virginia who provides financial support, rental space, and training to budding small businesses to increase their likelihood of success.
Traveling to Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we learned about What’s Next, WV, a two-year old communications effort that is actually succeeding at getting people to look beyond their differences and disagreement and actually start having productive conversations to identify problems and work towards solutions in their communities. Who knew this was possible?
We also stopped by KISRA in Charleston, who are growing the most visually satisfying and cutest lettuce I have ever seen in their farm-to-table greenhouse project, but then in Calhoun County, West Virginia, the cuteness of this historical village surpassed all expectations, the restored buildings all located in a local park and preserved by a small yet very passionate and dedicated historical society. The park is one of the few dark zones left on the East Coast, meaning light pollution is low there, which allows incredible views of the night sky. Known as the “Dark Skies Project” and the “Star Project,” one fellow is dedicating his year to updating the park to make it more tourist-friendly.
But these aren’t the stories that usually get told. Usually the only good thing I hear about Appalachia is that it’s beautiful. Our mountains, rivers, and forests tap deep into the souls of those who witness them.
But you rarely hear kind words about the people and our culture.
My new position is at Appalshop, a media, arts, and education center that’s been around for almost 50 years. My focus will be on regional communications with the hopes of strengthening our connections within Appalachia and beyond to the nation and world.
As we were in the van weaving in and out of the mountains on the tour, I kept thinking about if there’s something about Appalachia that has perhaps been overlooked, muting our struggles in the stillness of the mountains.
There’s no easy answer, but perhaps the first step is to simply share that we’re here too.