Reflections from the Learning Tour: The Appalachia I Didn’t Know

View of the rolling hills of farmland in western Virginia.

View of the rolling hills of farmland in western Virginia.

According to my college buddies, I am “Appalachian.” I’m from western Virginia, listen to bluegrass and old-time music, square dance, can fix pretty much anything with the right tools and enough time, and love me some venison. I guess compared to a New Yorker working solely off of popular stereotypes, yeah, I am pretty “Appalachian.” But after traveling around Central Appalachia for two weeks, I realized I’m not really sure what being “Appalachian” means outside of those popular stereotypes, or even what it really truly means to me. The tour showed me that I don’t know very much about the region with which I’ve been so strongly associated.

AppFellows visit the Coal Mining Museum in Benham, KY. Photo courtesy of Catherine Venable Moore.

AppFellows visit the Coal Mining Museum in Benham, KY. Photo courtesy of Catherine Venable Moore.

I think it says a lot about how I had previously narrowly conceptualized Appalachia that I was so stunned by the diversity of the geography of the region we toured. Although the whole region exists within the Appalachian Mountains, that doesn’t mean it all looks the same. Indeed, the part of Appalachia in which I was raised boasted a rich valley bottom land through which our roads ran and our farms spread. But in my new home in Kentucky, I feel hugged in by the steep, tight mountains that deny any easy road construction or farm field. And it’s not just valleys and mountains. Ohio’s mountains looked and felt more like rolling hills, but they’re just as much Appalachia as the awesome peaks of West Virginia.

A Confederate flag march on Lee-Jackson day in my hometown of Lexington, VA. Photo source: http://vaflaggers.blogspot.com/2013/12/lee-jackson-day-in-lexington.html

A Confederate flag march on Lee-Jackson day in my hometown of Lexington, VA. Photo source: http://vaflaggers.blogspot.com/2013/12/lee-jackson-day-in-lexington.html

Within these hills and valleys and peaks and hollers live the histories of Appalachia. While the region is bonded in an ancient geologic history, I have found that the predominant narratives vary widely place-to-place. For example, while the history of coal continues to inform and shape today’s ideas about the politics, economy, and future of the Eastern Kentucky region, aspects of the Civil War are doing the same in my hometown. I’m sure more time spent across Appalachia would prove this theory further—that Appalachian history is not all one. Seeing and noticing the different histories and the ways those histories continue to present themselves provides some good food for thought as to how those histories came to be, and came to be preserved.

Dark regions show where mining is present. Source: http://irjci.blogspot.com/2011/06/study-indicates-that-mountaintop-coal.html

Dark regions show where mining is present. Source: http://irjci.blogspot.com/2011/06/study-indicates-that-mountaintop-coal.html

Obviously these histories are informed and shaped by the economies of the region. But as obvious as that is, it was still eye-opening for me to witness the very tangible presence of Appalachian economies that were not farm-based. This variety of economies is necessitated by the geographic and geologic diversity across the region. Farming makes sense in my area, but not so much in the close quarters of Eastern Kentucky where all the flat spaces of notable size are the result of mining. (Though small farming in EKY is on the rise) As I readjusted my conceptions of Appalachia’s economy, I had to ask, was I really so Appalachian if I had never seen a strip mine—if I had never witnessed the workings of such a huge sector of Appalachian economy?

From the physical appearance of Appalachian communities—compare Asheville and Hazard, for example—to the individuals coming from them, the diversity is much more than my own understanding of Appalachia previously allowed. The spectrum runs broad: staunch “Friends of Coal” and disillusioned and disenfranchised coal mining families, loggers and radical environmentalists, hunters and vegans, people just dealing with the day-to-day and people trying to change what that day-to-day looks like.

AppFellows, Host Community members and Management Team Members at the Highlander Research and Education Center during orientation.

AppFellows, Host Community members and Management Team Members at the Highlander Research and Education Center during orientation.

Even as an Appalachian born and raised, I have so much to learn about this region. While these differences may seem obvious—and in theory I was aware of them—to be witnessing them in a real way inspired me to record that new awareness, that sense of realizing I don’t know squat! But stories fill these mountains and I want to hear them all. While Appalachians are joined by a life among the mountains and all they have to offer, every place has its own spirit and individuality. I hope to explore the different spaces, histories, economies, and communities more in later posts.  I may not know a lot about Appalachia, but I’ve come to learn with open eyes, open ears, and an open heart.

 

--Mae Humiston