West Virginia Issue
Hill Run Leaving Elmore, West Virginia by Kevin Scanlon
Will West Virginia with our views, both real and metaphorical, and our little mountain patches we call our own become a disaster destination by default? And, if so, will it be perceived as Almost Heaven, the state slogan?
If a terrorism attack strikes the eastern megalopolis, evacuees will flee and most will head west, or inland. That is where West Virginia is, readily available by I-68 from Washington and Baltimore. The scene in a suburban DC household hold might go something like this:
"Well, Molly, I see where they've ratcheted up the terrorism alert to a Max 10. Attack imminent. What do you say? Let's gather up the kids, the dog and the portable computer and head out to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia?"
"Sure, Joe. Hope those hill fellows don't shoot us with their long rifles."
That scenario is hypothetical, of course, but the Mountain State would be one of the logical destinations if life in the big cities becomes uninhabitable or next to unlivable. Some say it already is but that's content for another essay. The pioneers who first took up residence here were fleeing a kind of terrorism - that of the state, especially when the state gets religion and wants everyone else to subscribe to its particular brand. The West Virginia history books are full of allusions to the original Scotch-Irish stock fleeing the Church of England, or other oppressive institutions of Europe. Even the eastern seaboard cities of America interfered with the immigrants' quest for pristine freedom, so they chose to come here and as time went by they burrowed even further back into our mountains and valleys, hills and hollows. To survive, in large measure, they adopted the hunting and agricultural lifestyle of the native Americans.
Later, southern and central Europeans, fleeing a landlord system that wouldn't let them rise, came to work in the mines and mills. Many if not most were farmers, and with aptitude and strong bodies they adapted naturally to bring in the "coal crop," even as they, too, learned to grow their own and take sustenance from the forest.
The new immigrants who might arrive after a future cataclysm east of us will have to learn time-honored ways, too. In a worst case, we all might.Those treasured but for the most part inaccessible survival skills that you still see practiced in our mountains would come in mighty handy. Don't throw away your Foxfire Books, folks. Those describe Appalachian how-to talents.
This flee-and-find scenario may be more familiar than far-fetched. What if gasoline supplies dried up? How would the goods and services get to the new immigrants, not to mention those of us already here? There won't be enough horses to go around. No, all of us would have to learn to raise their own, hunt their own, fix their own in our own place.
A few up on Snake Hill, where my patch serves, still cling to this old-time lifestyle and indeed working the land fortifies the mind as well as the body. It is much less disruptive of the environment and therefore conducive to a healthy planet than the lifestyle over east, where the pollution cloud from automobiles at rush hours shows in satellite imagery.
My West Virginia friend the late writer John O'Brien called the new arrivals "Come Heres." What might happen if the Mollys and Joes by the thousands come here? For one thing, they might stay. For another, they probably will learn to like it here. Even if the feared terrorism doesn't materialize, once they have tasted life in these mountains, they might not want to go back where they came from. Some evacuees who fled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have planted themselves deep in our soil. They will tell you those comedians and media talking heads who foster stereotypical images of Appalachia as a place impoverished in mind, body and culture have it wrong, or at least miss a hell of a lot. "Come Heres" often decide that compared to where they came from, the mountains are a plateau up toward heaven, almost.
Trillium Acres, a place on Snake Hill that for three decades I called home, has counterparts on almost every ridge. This is Old America. The Appalachians formed the ancient frontier during Revolutionary Times, but now they very well could constituted the New America, too.
What the Snakes Took
My cousins slept, and I slipped from the room to pee in the chamber pot at the top of the stairs. There was no plumbing on the second floor back when dad’s undershirt hung past my knees, when the doorknobs brushed my ears. From Grandpa’s bedroom, snores hummed like pruning saws on the far side of the cove. Shivering in the unheated hall, I stilled when I saw it.
The black snake undulated gracefully down the hall, its movement in sensuous counterpoint to the hard bare lines of the floorboards, as if defying their symmetry and order, and by extension, Grandpa’s. As the scythe-wielding farmer snored, the snake slipped under his door, tail disappearing with a wink. The old man wouldn’t notice because snakes were like grandchildren, easily ignored.
Many family stories involved run-ins with copperheads or rattlers at far corners of the orchard; nothing was said about the snakes that lived in the house. Grandpa made much of how these far-flung encounters demonstrated character, illustrated moral themes. One legend says my uncle averted disaster by listening to his father for once and standing still on the rocky outcropping as Grandpa killed the two copperheads coiled behind him with the sharp end of his hoe. But nothing was said about the snakes who were supposed to be benign.
Even years later, when I filled my own undershirts, when Grandpa was too old and consumed by grief to notice or care, I saw corn snakes sliding through the foundation stones into the basement. Grandpa sat in the sinkholes of his brown couch, scratchy as a hair shirt, reading Newsweek and petting Gorbachev, his cat.
After Grandma died, he’d stopped pretending to have absolute dominion over his house, and more of the outdoors crept in. Even the moss and lichen seemed bolder. Grandpa captained his own accidental ark, dry-docked on top of the mountain, and sank deeper into the couch, prophesying to anyone who climbed Red House steps that the only cure for what ails us was world federalism and the muscular rule of international law.
There were close to a hundred snakes living in the Red House by the time it burned down. Some said they served good purpose. They came from the fields for the mice living in the attic and walls. The mice fed themselves from the stacks of family letters and other precious, forgotten documents—birth and death certificates, obsolete academic tomes, rain charts, newspaper clippings.
I don’t know how much history was eaten by the mice. I don’t know how many mice were eaten in turn by the snakes. I don’t know how many snakes escaped Grandpa’s hoe or how many survived the Red House when it burned, and carried something of our family off into the empty corn crib, or the underground apple cellar built into the hillside, or even the dark mountain itself.
I don’t know what secrets went with Grandpa to his grave, like where the family madness started or why he kept his heart in a crate. And now no one ever will. We still have our stories, just not the paper to prove them.
All my life, no matter where I am, people know I am not from there. Know, perhaps, that I do not belong there. As I know.
I wrote once, long ago . . .
Everything I have ever done,
every place I have ever been,
has seemed no more than a temporary stop
on the way to someplace else.
And something always tries
to hold me back.
Just let me be gone
and be done with it.
I always want to be gone, to be someplace else, to be done with it.
And in that wanting, I never quite know where I'm from, never quite figure out what forms me, hardens me.
And when I think about it, all I get are images . . .
Images . . .
. . . mountains that seem to form us and send us tearing along their sides and down across the ridges to run staring-eyed out into the world like mythical beings charging out of the forests of Valhalla.
. . . hollows, those dark, pungent, quiet places that instill in us a way of moving, a way of seeing, a way of being. Hollows capped with smoke and mist, bottling us up, aging us, keeping us still, our lives clear and silent, like Mason jars of crystal moonshine gathering dust on a wooden shelf in a shed long forgotten on the back side of an abandoned ridge-top farm.
. . . hickory trees and chestnut split-rail fences and walnuts that fall in their soft and bursting black husks, rolling near-silently down the sides of hills.
. . . blackberry brambles woven into masses of thorn-guarded stands too thick to allow my arm inside, and rambling rose tangled so tightly against the leaning fences that, when the fences have long since disappeared, no one notices.
. . . paw-paw bushes.
. . . spike-hard stands of rhododendron.
. . . the smell of the hardwood forests in autumn, a smell so thick and rich that it can flow through your veins like blood -- and indeed it is. Blood. Enough blood from the bodies of Mountaineers to raise forests from hard desert and then lie in wait for us to come and breathe it in, again. It is not by accident, that color of old maple leaves.
. . . thin, wispy strands of acrid smoke escaping softly from the ends of long guns held by men, and sometimes women, who could hold those long guns for hours, days, years, generations.
. . . creeks, with their slow moving water the color of green eternity, glistening softly in the tiny shards of sunlight that manage to penetrate the overhanging limbs of trees that finger down into the softly moving clouds of dragonflies.
. . . sounds of banjo music played on front porches that have rails just high enough to put your foot on -- if you're sitting in a rocking chair. The music . . . hard, ringing notes of pure, clear transcendence that maybe only front porch string pickers can ever really achieve.
. . . "kin", kinfolk, who sometimes, only sometimes, only forever sometimes . . . forgive, but who never, ever, forget. Kin. Old men and older women who lived lives that we will never know, can never be recorded, but lives that have become part of the evolutionary threads of which our lives are woven, lives of many colors, spread across the earth.
They are always with me, no matter where I am.
And when I think about it, I know where I'm from.
There has never really been any question.
There is only one such place.
“Once upon a time a tribe of people went off into the woods and nobody ever heard of them again…” These words from the 1972 commune journal of West Virginia filmmaker, dancer, wood sculptor, mask-maker and teacher, Jude Binder, tell only part of the story of the back-to-the-land movement’s impact on West Virginia. While her words may have echoed the sentiments of those who came during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the quote has proven naive. Not only were they heard of again, many made an indelible mark on their adopted state. Without them, the cultural landscape of the state would look very different. Quite possibly there would be no Tamarack, the nation’s first statewide collection of its own fine arts and handcrafts, and no Mountain Stage, the weekly live musical radio program broadcast on NPR to thousands of listeners worldwide since 1983 – two of West Virginia’s best advertisements.
According to well documented social histories by Judson Jerome, Timothy Miller, Irwin and Debbi Unger, and Todd Gitlin, following the tumultuous 1960s - especially 1968, often described as ‘The Year the Dream Died’ – the youth of America lost heart. Unable to sense that their activist approach on civil rights had been effective, disheartened by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, disgusted by the National Guard killings at Kent State and the brutal attacks of the Chicago Police Department during the Democratic National Convention, and horrified by the intensification of the Vietnam war and the bombing of Cambodia, youth across the country began to drop-out, to set up a new world for themselves. Despite mainstream stereotypes, it wasn’t necessary to take drugs to drop out; it was more a way of life, a philosophy, a rejection of the current state of affairs, a matter of survival. If they couldn’t change things, they could simply stop participating.
Nationally, the numbers of those who went back-to-the-land are staggering, even if the counting methods were somewhat imprecise. Both Timothy Miller and Jeffery Jacob reported that by the end of the 1970s the number of those living on the land, either in communes or as independent homesteaders, topped one million in rural North America. Enclaves of homesteaders began to dot the US map in rural areas of California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maine, among others. (Eleanor Agnew, Back From the Land, 2004.)
This migration contributed to a dramatic population shift in West Virginia as well. Census figures from the WV Department of Health and Human Resources’ website reveal that the only decade in the last fifty years to see a significant increase in population was the 1970s when the population swelled by more than 200,000. Of those, 110,000 were added through the influx of newcomers alone. Although this increase cannot be attributed solely to the back-to-the-land movement, it did help reverse an alarming trend of out-migration by the state’s youth, which began in the 1950s and had continued un-abated in the 1960s. In that twenty-year period, WV lost almost 700,000 due to out-migration alone. According to some estimates the influx of young people in the late 1960s and the 1970s – predominantly middle-class and college educated - brought more than 10,000 to West Virginia in search of a better life in the hills. (Paul Salstrom, The Neo-Natives: Back-to-the-Land in Appalachia’s 1970s, Appalachian Journal, Summer 2003.)
But why West Virginia? The majority of those who came as part of this national movement were drawn by the romantic ideal of living off the land and bolstered by articles in the new publication, Mother Earth News or by the homesteader’s bible, Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life. Dedicated back-to-the-landers, searching for a place to build their alternate lives found a story touting cheap land in West Virginia in the third issue of Mother Earth News. (May/June 1970) Its feature article, by Lawrence Goldsmith, boasted “much inexpensive acreage” in WV and described newly purchased land in Lincoln County for which he paid only $29 an acre. According to economic historian Paul Salstrom, Goldsmith’s neighbor at the time, the magazine's publisher subsequently used the article to advertise his new magazine on Ohio radio stations. The story prompted many to give the state a look and they liked what they found. Although no part of the state was rejected out of hand, the new settlers did tend to gravitate to the more rural counties where farming and homesteading had the greatest chance for success. Braxton, Calhoun, Greenbrier, Lincoln, Monroe, Pocahontas, and Roane were among the areas of the greatest concentrations.
A number who came were active anti-war protesters, registered conscientious objectors, draft counselors, former escapees to Canada or dedicated pacifists. For them, leaving a war-based economy was part of the decision. Despite his anti-war stance, Monroe County furniture maker Joe Chasnoff was the lone member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at Columbia University who argued, unsuccessfully, against the student campus take-over that resulted in police brutality and the closing of the university. Initially, Tom Rodd could neither vote nor practice law due to his felony draft resistance conviction, but the former potter-turned-law clerk moved to West Virginia from Pittsburgh, obtained a pardon from President Jimmy Carter and went on to become one of the state’s leading environmental lawyers. During the Vietnam War, Braxton County potter and musician Keith Lahti was actively opposed, marched on Washington and worked with the Quakers as a draft counselor before coming to WV in 1973. Furniture designer and builder John Wesley Williams, who now lives atop Butler Mountain in Monroe County, had Conscientious Objector status, but left the country for Canada rather than support the war effort in any way. One of the original Putnam County Pickers and now Mountain Stage cellist, sound engineer Bob Webb was a pacifist whose band during that period had the dubious distinction of being the last USO band to tour Vietnam.
For others, like multi-talented singer/songwriter/poet Colleen Anderson, photographer/community organizer Ric MacDowell, Cabin Creek Quilts organizer James Thibeault, furniture maker Jim Probst, and Dick Pranulis of Wolf Creek Printery – the unrest of that time spurred them into alternative services with Appalachian Volunteers or VISTA - Volunteers In Service To America. The popular counterculture sentiment, ‘if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem…’ struck a chord with Anderson when she heard the Eldridge Cleaver line in a radio ad. Not wanting to be part of the problem, she dropped out of school and joined VISTA. She was assigned to work on a clean water study in WV but became part of Cabin Creek Quilts in rural Eskdale outside of Charleston instead.
In some instances, a past experience or childhood memory of camping, caving or rock climbing in West Virginia drew them back. Tom Rodd’s wife’s family had owned a farm in Hampshire County and Bob Webb had vacationed in Pocahontas County as a child. Potter Bob Zacher came from St. Louis because earlier settler Joe Chasnoff told him about the beauty of the state after camping in Franklin County at the similar urging of back-to-the-land wood turner Allen Ritzman.
One trip to the state for musician/songman Ron Sowell did it. Born in New Mexico, he came via New Orleans to play a gig for a few days and stayed, drawn in by the beauty of the land in Putnam County and the urging of Greg Carroll, now an archivist at the state capitol complex. Lead guitarist for the former Putnam County Pickers, Ron now heads the house band on Mountain Stage.
Gerry Milnes, who came from New Jersey with a classical music background, enjoyed the coincidental good fortune of selecting a farmstead in Braxton County close to that of the late Melvin Wine, one of the state's most outstanding traditional fiddlers. Their collaboration resulted in a much higher profile for Wine and a job working for Milnes teaching other traditional musicians at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College.
Often the state’s hidden beauty was discovered by friends who then encouraged others to come join them. Photographer Chuck Wyrostok made his way from Long Island on the recommendation of a friend, as did former candle makers Steve and Gail Balcourt. The natural beauty of the state lured naturalists and nationally-acclaimed dulcimer makers Sam and Carrie Rizetta out of Washington, D.C., Windsor chair reproduction artist Mark Soukup from Washington State and mime Glenn Singer from Chadds Ford, PA.
Communes had their draw as well. Although the number in WV isn’t well documented, stories of intentional communities in Greenbrier County and Spencer, “The Farm” in Putnam County, The Isle of the Red Hood at Hinton, and the “tribe” that came with Jude Binder to Calhoun County are well told by those who lived there, including Chinese potter Joe Lung and fabric artist Niki Coates.
The opportunity to carve out their dream where they believed it was financially viable overrode the ignorance of farming and the naiveté of youth that often accompanied the homesteaders. However, in Back from the Land, Eleanor Agnew’s first-person account of 1970s life on the land, she suggests that the experiment was ultimately a failed utopia. Without quoting numbers, she states that most of those who once hoped to live an alternative life-style are now quietly walking around undetected in middle-class lives, forced to abandon their dreams as life grew too difficult. For them idealism was no match for the lack of heat, indoor plumbing, and running water or the back-breaking labor and un-relenting poverty that often accompanied self-sufficiency.
No doubt many who came to West Virginia made similar decisions. According to some who did stay, their number may represent less than twenty-five percent of the original back-to-the-land population. Those who succeeded now say they simply didn’t entertain the idea that they wouldn’t. Perhaps they were better prepared or more determined but perhaps it was something else entirely.
Regardless of the draw, the timing of the influx couldn’t have been more fortuitous for either the artisans or the state. According to early artisan advocate, Don Page, the State of WV, under the direction of then Governor Hulett Smith and Director of Commerce, David Callahan, was eager to support working artisans to showcase their works as a tourism draw. Prior to 1963, they had begun to search for highly skilled indigenous artisans to present at a craft fair for the state’s centennial celebration. Additionally, the state had received federal funding to send technical representatives throughout West Virginia to locate and identify people who were making arts and crafts, to evaluate their marketability, and to improve their techniques and skills to an acceptable marketing level. Once done, the state began to develop markets for these artisans.
While crafts had long been a part of the Appalachian heritage, these skills were in some danger of being lost or forgotten. With the out-migration of the youth in the 1950s and 1960s, the practicing artisans had no one to teach until the back-to-the-landers came along. Don Page reports that among the older artisan practitioners he discovered during this statewide search there were also back-to-the-landers who, naively, had come with college educations, but very little knowledge of subsistence living or farming. Suddenly they had realized they needed to supplement their income. Rather than “work out” i.e. taking a job off the land, they looked at the work of the elder artisans and wanted to learn it. Soon they became proficient and with their college background in design, many took their adopted craft to a new level of sophistication.
Encouraged by the blossoming West Virginia Artists & Craftsmen’s Guild and often supported by state supported apprentice programs or on-going workshops at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley, these young artisans filled the booths and tents at the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair during the 1970s. Soon they were the premier producers of baskets, metalwork, pottery, wood, candles, photography, furniture, leather, and silk-screening in the state, if not the nation. Page and others who were instrumental in its development believe the roots of Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia, the nation’s first showcase of handcrafts, fine art and regional cuisine, can be found in those who came during the back-to-the-land movement and either brought their art with them or developed it as Page described.
Tom McColley, who with his wife, Connie, developed highly sophisticated basket forms often displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, said, “A lot of the artisans stayed because they were the ones that figured out some way to survive.” Connie ventured this as well: “I think you have to be really brave to take your soul, your art, and lay it out on the table to let the world see. You also have to be very brave to move into West Virginia with little knowledge and planning.” Perhaps it’s the correlation between being an artist and being gutsy enough to attempt the rigors of homesteading that resulted in the high rate of artisan back-to-the-land success stories.
Additionally, those who made it work did so against all odds and usually with the help of elders who were already seasoned veterans of homestead living. Time and again, artisans who stayed talk of feeling “adopted” by the elders who lived on adjacent farms or down the holler. Joe Chasnoff said, “The only way we survived was because of the McMahan family…they started teaching us how to survive. How to live out here, what you can eat, how to skin a deer, trade vegetables for helping them tie up pans of tobacco….”
According to Loyal Jones, noted expert on Appalachian life and values, “We mountain people are the product of our history and the beliefs and outlook of our foreparents. We are a traditional people, and …more than most people, we avoided mainstream life and thus became self-reliant.” (Appalachian Values, 1994.) No doubt those who met the newcomers soon recognized their own desire for self-reliance, the same values they had inherited from their ancestors. Little did any of those newbie homesteaders imagine that their migration to the hills would be as significant to the history of the state as that of their 1600s and 1700s counter-parts. Yet, it was an almost perfect marriage of timing and circumstance that has resulted in a rebirth of handcrafts, a renaissance of heritage music and a spot on the national map marking West Virginia as the home of Tamarack and Mountain Stage.
It happens at a lot of gatherings in West Virginia. As the people arrive, so do the stringed instruments: guitars, mandolins, a banjo, a bass, and a fiddle or two. They collect in the corners of the living room while people greet one another, eat dinner and drink a beer — but before long the music starts, and it doesn’t stop for hours. The players come and go, and on the edge of the music people tap their feet, tell stories, smoke, and fall in love. But the music is the main thing.
I remember coming to this place from Michigan when I was twenty — still a child, I would say now — and feeling so foreign. The way the mountains took up so much of the sky; the way people were afraid of floods instead of tornadoes; the way they ate pinto beans and cornbread and greens — everything was strange and new to me. For two or three weeks I couldn’t understand my neighbors on Cabin Creek. They talked to me, and I nodded my head, but they might as well have been speaking a different language. I couldn’t understand a word.
It was in those days when I first heard mountain music. Music that rushed along at the pace of a stone-strewn creek in spring. Music with a high, painful edge, and melodies that jigged around in crazy ways, and spooky, hair-raising harmonies.
These days I mostly take it for granted, but now and then, for a song or a whole evening, I’ll hear it that way again and marvel at all it holds: the jagged mountains and the ancient rivers, the peaceful valleys and the bloody battlefields, the rhododendron and the wood thrush. It washes over me and includes me, and in a very real way translates for me — without words — what it means to be in the mountains.
My friend Michael’s life in Spencer, West Virginia, is dull by my standards. No phone. No TV. No car. He doesn’t get out much. He tends potted plants, bakes bread, smokes his pipe, writes poems and letters.
So I drove there and brought him back to the big city—that’s Charleston—for a weekend. I arrived mid-morning to whisk him away from his small, boring life. But he wasn’t quite ready to go. He had to say goodbye to Virgil and Mary, his neighbors, an elderly couple in a tiny house with a red flower garden in front. He took them a loaf of homemade bread.
They welcomed us, standing close together at the front door, looking timid and a little scared. Moved some magazines to clear a place for us on a couch. Offered us iced tea. I noticed a string of colored Christmas lights over the kitchen door. We chatted about the weather. I was impatient to get on the road.
Spread over another couch, across the room, was an American flag. “We ordered this,” Virgil said. “and I meant to put it up for Independence Day.” I wondered how long it had been there, and if it would get put up anytime soon. Then I realized it would. We would do it. Now.
Virgil rooted around for his drill and the right kind of screwdriver, then for an extension cord. We had a discussion about the best place to attach the flagpole holder, and another about the angle at which the flag should fly. We dropped some screws in the hedges and eventually found them. We all took turns twisting them in with what turned out to be not exactly the right size screwdriver. Then we stood around admiring the way the red-white-and-blue complemented the salvia in the garden. I knew already that this would be the best moment of my day.
When we turned to go, Virgil said to Michael, “How long will you be gone?” “Two days,” my friend told him. “I’ll see you Sunday evening.”
Virgil nodded sadly. “We’ll miss you,” he said. And as we drove the twisty roads away from the little town, it seemed to me that we were going very far indeed.
West Virginia’s late poet laureate, Louise McNeill, grew up in Pocahontas County on land where her ancestors had farmed, explored, and buried their dead for a century and a half. She came of age near the end of a logging boom that, literally, shaved West Virginia bare of virgin hardwoods and destroyed the wilderness so thoroughly that her father, near the end of his life, refused to speak of the great forest over the mountain — as if denying that it ever had been might somehow ease his grief over its loss.
McNeill herself never saw the great virgin forest. In her family, hunting and exploring were privileges for men. But she felt the loss deeply, in her father’s silence, and she saw the effects of the logging frenzy: the scarred hillsides, the fish gasping for air, their gills so clogged with sawdust they could no longer live in the wasted streams. And she raged against the destruction of the earth for the rest of a long, eloquent life.
I cannot help but wonder what the poet, only five years dead now, would make of mountaintop removal. She didn’t like euphemisms, and I’m pretty sure she would despise that clinical term for an industry that kills and shoves aside everything in its way — May apples and trillium, creeks and brook trout, salamanders and thrushes, and the very shape of the earth — to make money for someone.
Or perhaps she would not say anything. Perhaps she would finally understand depth of the sorrow her father must have felt, and speak of the mountains no more. Perhaps, like the hills themselves, she would simply fall silent.
("Mountain Music," "Virgil and Mary," and "Mountaintop Removal" were all broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio)
Several years ago, my husband and I were given a pear tree. We planted it in our backyard. The next spring, the tree was loaded with so many blossoms it seemed bowed with a heavy snow. Then hard little green pears appeared by the dozens.
The next year, the tree was again loaded with blossoms, and the pears came so thick we had to pick hundreds and throw the green knotty things away. Many remained and the pears grew huge. We waited too late to do anything with them. Most were thrown away or fell to the ground and rotted.
The pears next year were even larger. Their weight broke limbs and the whole tree leaned. We propped it up and picked a couple hundred. Determined not to waste all the bounty this time, I searched for a pear butter recipe and bought the jars and other ingredients. Each pear was larger than my hand. It took only 6 or so to make a dozen small jars of butter.
In the fall of 2003, I anticipated another couple dozen jars. My husband and I were in the kitchen on a bright, fall afternoon, scalding the jars and assembling the ingredients. The pear butter would make fine Christmas presents. The phone rang. It was a state policeman calling to tell me my father had been killed in a vehicle accident.
In my generation, our fathers didn’t always connect with their children. It was a cultural habit that fathers worked, came home, ate dinner, watched television, went to bed. When my mother died in 2000, my father suddenly found himself with an only child with whom he’d not forged a relationship. But I recall the day when his attempt to communicate became clear: we were in his kitchen and he handed me a fork full of pumpkin cheesecake. I said it was delicious, but I was reeling at his effort for connection.
At first, I was resentful: why hadn’t he bothered to talk to me while I was growing up? Finally, I realized all the soul-searching may not ever net me a satisfying answer. And maybe it didn’t matter. I just needed to relax and enjoy the unexpected bounty of mon père.
Time passed, we shared recipes; he cooked like Emeril whenever we came to visit. He told me his Korean War experiences; he discussed the virtues of one detergent over another. I sat with him and watched the weather channel for as long as I could stand it. He talked about finances and where everything was in the event he passed away.
We moved from the house with the pear tree a year after my father died. I sent the new owners a Welcome to Your New Home card and included my pear butter recipe. I hope they learn to harvest what falls their way and realize life may send you a bounty at an unexpected moment. One never knows when a harvest may stop, when the tree no longer bears.
(You may listen to this radio essay at http://www.catpleska.com/)
Beyond the Apple Orchard
Up and dressed by seven on a warm summer morning, I was cheered by the golden sunlight already sweeping the heavily forested hills around our home. After eating breakfast and packing a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I waited impatiently for Barbara, Rosie, Phoebe, and Erma to stop by the house. They made up most of our childhood gang, although sometimes older sisters joined us. We were each around ten years old, more or less, and being that age is to know something of enchantment. We were always eager to talk and dream about our future. The apple orchard was one of our special places, offering a beautiful bower, secluded and private.
By mid-morning on that summer day, my friends and I began our climb up the steep, twisting path that led from our back porch to a plateau where four apple trees stood like sentinels on the corners of a small square of sloping land. The limbs overhead, lush with foliage, provided a domed roof through which sunlight and shadow danced in constant movement on the moss-covered ground. As we sat in a circle on nature’s green carpet and time passed lazily by, we ate our sandwiches and talked about movie stars and magical places farther up yet other hills behind us, places filled with mystery and adventure. Such is the world of a ten-year-old. And we talked about boys and our future and about whoever failed to be with us at any given time. We laid bare our dreams, our fears, and our hopes as we confided in one another.
Sitting in our circle, Phoebe suddenly pointed toward her right and yelled, “Look! Look over there.”
As our heads whipped around in the direction she indicated, we saw a dead sparrow lying in the dark shade. The lifeless bird gave us a purpose for that day. We would give the creature a proper funeral, for it deserved no less.
Later, back in the kitchen of my home, we found a large matchbox. After lining the box with cotton fabric, printed with faded bluebells, we ascended the hill once more. Using a sharp rock, we took turns digging a shallow grave at the foot of the tree where we had found the sparrow.
Placing the corpse in its special coffin, we softly repeated strange words we had heard but with which we had little real acquaintance.
“From ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” we muttered.
Since that day many years ago, we have each climbed most of the steep, twisted paths that life offers to all humans. We have now learned the meaning of those words we uttered in the innocent space of childhood when we had more future than past, those now being reversed. We have learned that some paths we can choose for ourselves. No matter what our choices might be, though, we have learned that other paths—perhaps steeper and rougher—are nonetheless paths chosen for us.
The five of us have survived, those of us who sat years ago in that apple orchard where sun and shadow danced at our feet. One friend has lost her husband to death. Two friends have lost their husbands to divorce, and still another friend has lost both her husband and a son to death. Most of us have remained in the beautiful green hills of West Virginia. One, though, lives in Michigan and has lost her Southern accent, but we still speak the same language. I remember those days when we dreamed of a future so distant we thought it would never arrive, a future that has now mostly passed.
(Demonstrative Pronouns was published by Mountainechoes.com in 2006. To read poems by Barbara Smith in this issue, click here.)
West Virginia’s Barbara Smith is Emerita Professor of Literature and Writing and former Chair of the Division of Humanities at Alderson-Broaddus College, Philippi, WV, collection of poetry Demonstrative Pronouns caps a staggering body of work–hundreds of poems gracing the pages of magazines, anthologies, and journals -- and gives home to some of her most frequently performed poems, as well as new poems.
Demonstrative Pronouns is one more mile marker in a busy life interwoven with Smith’s love of nature, sports, and all things Appalachian, plus her involvement in humanitarian activities, and her devotion to serving others as a community volunteer, writing mentor, editor, and teacher.
True to form, Smith displays her relish for language and her skills as a poet through her use of words and her ability to hone them to their essence. The collection’s poems range from the religious to the serious to the humorous. As might be expected by a former chair of a Humanities Divisions, Smith’s collection is divided into four sections, each named for a demonstrative pronoun: this, that, these, those.
Section I, or That, includes thirteen poems. In the first, “The Language of Poetry,” the poet speaks of “The words of waterfalls, /The singing stanzas of stones.” The poet talks about the twang of poems and the hum of words.
In the next poem, “Dimensions,” the speaker creates a perfect image of idleness shuffling “flat-soled feet.” As a reader, I could see idleness standing there, hat in hand, doing absolutely nothing.
Section II, or Those, offers twelve poems, several in the form of “found” poems or overheard conversation. For example, in “Everything’s Relative” a disgruntled wife talks about her husband’s latest extramarital affair with a woman, “so ugly she’d have to climb to make plain.” As the wife ventilates, she considers bringing in the “Misery Mafia” to straighten him out.
Section III, or These, includes eleven poems calling up a vision of Appalachia as well as its people. The first poem, “Coming Home” reveals, “fingers brown with walnut stains.” Many of us from Appalachia can recall the embarrassing effect of picking walnuts without gloves and then going to school with brown hands.
The section contains one of my favorite people poems, “Telephone Call to a Loyal Fan.” In the poem an irate basketball coach telephones a loyal fan who happens to be the school’s English teacher. Unfortunately for the coach, the teacher is just as serious about teaching English as the coach is about a winning season. After expressing his opinion on the importance of “litature” for “athaletes” he informs the teacher, “I don’t want you coming to no more of my ballgames.” After all, how could a true fan flunk his seven foot center?
Section IV, or This, includes fourteen eclectic poems saluting family, relationships, the past, the future, and the stages of life. The final poem, “Folksongs in the Cemetery,” is a poignant tribute to memory, love, and loss. It could well be termed a “signature poem” as it reflects the poet’s commitment to community.
Smith uses language like the consummate professional she is. The collection sings the tune of life in all its seasons, and sings it with a twang.
( Proceeds from the sale of Demonstrative Pronouns will support the nonprofit Internet arts group moutaninechos.com.)
Ann Pancake: Keeper of Stories
Ann Pancake [see her piece in this issue of HSR] is the author of two books: Given Ground (2001), a short story collection which won the 2000 Katharine Bakeless Nason Fiction Prize; and Strange As This Weather Has Been (2007), a novel about the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining. Set in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, Ann’s novel was inspired by the destruction she witnessed in her home state and by the interviews she did for her sister, Catherine Pancake, for Catherine’s documentary film Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice. Ann Pancake has received numerous awards and fellowships including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Award, and the Weatherford Award. She currently lives in the Seattle area and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. In late April 2008, I talked with Ann on the front porch of her parents’ home outside the town of Romney, West Virginia where she was visiting.
The following is an excerpt of our conversation:
Dory Adams: So did you grow up in this very house?
Ann Pancake: When I was eight we moved in here, but my grandparents got it in ’47 so my dad kind of grew up here. When I was little, we were always coming back and forth – I lived in Summersville until I was eight, which is actually where I learned more about mining because that’s the first place where I saw strip mining. So, we moved back up here when I was eight, but we were coming in and out of here from the time I was born. My family has a farm about six miles up the river, which they’ve had since the late 1700s, so they’ve been here for a really long time.
DA: You’ve lived a lot of places besides West Virginia. Can you talk a bit about other places you’ve lived and whether that has had an influence on your writing? Have you ever lived in a landscape where there were no mountains? In the flat?
AP: The only places I’ve lived that were flat were Korat, Thailand and Erie, PA. Overseas I taught English as a second language in Japan and American Samoa which were very mountainous. Where I lived in Thailand was very, very flat. I’ve lived in Albuquerque, Chapel Hill, and Seattle. To live in flat land – I wouldn’t want to live there permanently. It makes me feel exposed. I know a lot of people come to West Virginia and feel claustrophobic. But for me, to be in that flat land – I remember when I was little I was always afraid a tornado was going to come and get us if we were on flat land. We almost never went out except to go to Nags Head, and you go through a very flat part of Virginia to get to North Carolina, and it felt like a tornado could get you. Flat land doesn’t move me very deeply. Desert doesn’t either, although I can see the desert as beautiful and understand that. But it doesn’t get into my heart, my insides, the way mountains and green does. That’s one reason the Northwest can’t replace Appalachia for me, but in many ways I can love it, and it’s sort of the same kind of love I can have for here, just not as great a quantity of love, I guess.
DA: Tell me about your education. I’ve read that you have a BA, MA, and PhD. But I also saw a mention of something about Appalachian Studies.
AP: The Appalachian Studies was part of my dissertation work, when I was at the University of Washington, and I realized I wanted to incorporate that partly because a lot of my PhD work was on social class issues and post-Marxist and neo-Marxist theories about class, and my interest in class came from growing up here. I realized I wanted to bring in Appalachia in a couple of chapters of the dissertation. But I was in Seattle, so I talked to my advisor and she was a little skeptical but she let me do kind of what I wanted to do. So, it was pretty much self-taught, inter-library loan kind of work. I read a lot of Appalachian literature, most of it written by people from outside, local colorists outside from about the1840s through the early 1900s, and I learned a lot about the history of the exploitation of the region. I didn’t know at that time that I was going to write this novel, but that work on the dissertation definitely helped me have a context and a background for the novel. With the “Avery” Chapter, I had to find a way to bring in the history without it being inorganic. So, when Avery is in the library finding out the worth of the body, that’s what happened to me – he’s in the University of Washington library, and that’s where I was when I read a book on the Buffalo Creek disaster that gave statistics on the dollar value of bodies in other parts of the US and how much higher they were compared to the dollar value of bodies in West Virginia. That’s where I was – the library at the University of Washington – when I learned so much about Appalachia, three thousand miles away, because we were taught so little real history as students in West Virginia. We are taught a romanticized version of West Virginia history. So Avery’s teaching himself about Appalachia, that’s very autobiographical.
DA: That was my favorite chapter, by the way.
AP: Was it? There are a number of people who say that’s their favorite chapter.
DA: I was really struck by the shoes Avery wore, and the description that they were made for walking on carpet and pavement. They were city shoes. And how he shows the duality of the language. He was described as having “two Englishes. He could talk like he was away from here, or he could talk like one of us.” Besides the important story he had to tell about the Buffalo Creek flood disaster in his chapter, I think that’s what fascinated me about him – he was someone who had left and he was trying to get his mom to leave too, but he was still connected in some ways to the place and he still carried that nightmare with him of what had happened.
AP: Yeah, he represents the split person who comes out of that culture and has to leave for survival, not just economic for him, but for his psyche too. I think no one really leaves this place. You have such a deep residue in you that you take it with you. And he can’t shake it. Of course he has it even deeper because he went through that disaster, so he’s even more split than your average person like me who feels ambivalent. Because his body was directly affected by the exploitation by the coal company in his near death, and the horror and the trauma of going through that. So through him, yeah, I wanted to show how so many of us have to leave. And there are a lot of people who leave and want to come back, but there are others who leave and they don’t ever want to come back. They turn their back on it. And then there are people who pretend like they’re not from here, they kind of erase it, but he’s not one of those. But Avery helps show the range of the ways people feel about coming from West Virginia. He’s like the part of me who feels more negatively about the place versus the part of me who is more represented by Lace and Bant who love the place. And again, I talk about this like I planned it, and I didn’t plan any of it and I don’t know at what point in the process I started seeing it like this. But Lace could not tell the story of the history of Appalachia. She couldn’t tell the story of the mines and the kind of disasters and things that had happened. So, I had this character, Avery, who leaves and gets educated, and that’s the only way – because we’re not taught here about the real history of West Virginia and I needed to bring that in. He’s a way to organically bring that in through showing his process of education about it. It gave me the opportunity to bring in a lot of facts that would’ve sounded forced and didactic if I’d just tried to plant them in there.
DA: One of the things that struck me when you read at the University of Pittsburgh last fall was your comment that because you were primarily a short story writer up to this point, the way you approached writing the novel was through short multiple points of view that worked as chapters. Would you talk more about that?
AP: I didn’t have much confidence about writing a novel because my short stories are very language-driven, and the way I would start the short story would be from an image or from a sound. And usually it develops just through sound, or rhythm and image, and in later drafts I figure out what kind of narrative is going on or what kind of plot it contains. So, I figured to write a novel you had to get pretty good at plot – and I knew I wasn’t. And I also knew that to have the entire novel as dense as Given Ground, it would be difficult for a lot of readers to get through. So I was worried that I couldn’t do plot, and I was worried it would be too language-driven and people wouldn’t stick with it. With Given Ground, I didn’t really care as much about a wide audience. I wanted people to read it, but I didn’t care as much about reaching a wide audience as I did with Strange As This Weather has Been, probably because of the politics of the novel. I wanted it to be more accessible, which is one reason Corey’s really easy to read. Bant’s a little harder to read. And I tried to use those multiple points of view to give people a break from reading the really lyrical parts. The reader can move from a more dense chapter, like Bant’s, and go into the sections like Corey’s which are more conventional, more linear and plot-driven. Also, Corey is even comical in parts, and I wanted that to lighten the darkness of the rest of it.
When I first started this novel, I didn’t plan to write it. My sister Catherine and I were doing interviews [for Catherine’s film Black Diamonds]and about four months into that I sort of spontaneously started writing in my journal, taking on the point of view of a teenager we talked to who was in pretty dire straits in his home below a mountaintop mine. At that point it was a boy in this little piece I was writing. And I think I heard Corey next, and I wrote part of a Corey chapter. And then I heard Dane, and I wrote part of a Dane chapter. Eventually the 14-year-old boy turned into Bant, who’s a 15-year-old girl. By the time I got that material, I realized it wasn’t going to work as a short story because the topic was too enormous, and I needed multiple perspectives to handle everything that was going on. So at that point I started piecing it together. Avery came next, then Lace, and then Mogey. Lace was originally only one chapter. In the manuscript that my agent originally tried to sell, Lace had a single thirty-page chapter. I had a hard time getting the manuscript accepted, for a variety of reasons, and I asked a few friends to give me feedback. One friend, the poet Phil Terman, told me, “You really have to tell Lace’s whole story here.” Now, this was five years into the writing of the novel, and I felt like I was done. I was very burned out. I didn’t want to expand Lace. So I asked Phil, “Do you really think it’s necessary?” And Phil said, “Yes. It’s necessary.” So I spent all of 2005 enlarging Lace’s story to about a hundred pages. I do think the revision made the novel much, much stronger.
As I went along I realized that because I knew how to make a 15-20 page piece, a story-length piece, that’s kind of how most of the chapters worked. In retrospect, I know that I spent too much time polishing early chapters, like short stories, because ultimately, once I knew what the ending was, once I knew how the whole novel ran, I had to go back and some of those early chapters had to be thrown out, and some of them had to be refurbished because they didn’t match the ending.
So having six little narrative arcs, instead of having to figure out how to write one big complex one for 400 pages, made it easier for me to write the novel. And the other thing it helped me with was burnout. I would write one character for three weeks and have no perspective left, and instead of having to stop the project, I could move from say Corey’s section back to Bant. And I would feel replenished or come to it fresher because it was so different. So, I played them off each other to get back-up. In retrospect, what was hard about writing the novel wasn’t plot, it was psychologically keeping the faith through the whole process – not getting burned out, not losing perspective, and believing it was worth it for me. It took me seven years to write it. There were a lot of times when I thought: What am I doing? I’m spending seven years on a project I might never get published. So, I think ultimately what was hardest about writing the novel was the mind game that I had to play with myself to stick it out more than any kind of craft issue.
DA: I wish you’d been able to tell that to me seven years ago because I’ve been wrestling with a novel. I only have time to write in fits and starts instead of a sustained block of time, and that’s really hard to do with a novel to keep all those threads and characters alive. But there have also been periods when I did have the writing time, but wasn’t able to go into the story right then because of the emotional and mental space it involved to tap into the characters and story. So maybe if I’d done different points of view, I’d have been able to approach that risky area from a different slant. Anyway, I thought it was brilliant the way you approached the novel.
AP: Well, the structure is partly based on As I Lay Dying. That influenced me. It’s not like I came up with it, you know. It was more about working within my limitations, than anything.
DA: How difficult was it to put yourself in a position of having to imagine – and in a sense live what the characters did – in order to make the scenes real? I was struck by what it might take for you to enter that space. Can you tell me a little about your experience?
AP: That’s a good question. I haven’t ever answered that before. Talking from a kid’s point of view about things being bad came pretty naturally. I grew up with some tragedies in the family, and to be blunt, a lot of tension between my parents. For example, my grandfather committed suicide here, and I knew that. I was five years old. It was a scandal. He was pretty prominent in the community and he’d gotten mentally ill. This is a really small town, so there’s that part to it, and also the grief of it and the shame around it, and the way it affected my father. So, I think that I grew up pretty accustomed to darkness and distress.
To be honest with you, I think it’s more natural for me to inhabit that kind of character or mentality or perspective than it might be for some writers. And the other thing is, growing up in West Virginia, it’s a dark place. There’s a climate of poverty here, there just is. I didn’t recognize it until I left and realized how it was in places more wealthy, but now I recognize it. There’s a sense of pessimism, and that pessimism is justified. I don’t buy that Appalachians are fatalistic because they’re Scotch-Irish, and all that. I think there’s good reason to be fatalistic as an Appalachian. All we have to do is look at our history, past and present. So there’s that kind of darkness cloaking around us.
But writing about mountaintop removal was hard. In the middle of writing the novel I got divorced, and that whole year I couldn’t work on the book. It was just too much loss. To go look at mountaintop removal, to go talk about it, to live it, and then to live the divorce was too much. So, that pushed me over the edge and I didn’t work on the book for that year. At the same time, going through the divorce and the kind of grief that caused me, the growing up I had to do around it – all that definitely informed the novel in really useful ways.
When I go back now and read the novel, sometimes it’s actually harder for me to read it than it was to write it, which makes me wonder how much being inside a particular character made me compartmentalize the horror or somehow draw on survival strategies they themselves used to get through the pain of their lives. I think when you look on it from outside, when you don’t have to survive it directly, you have a greater luxury to feel simply sad.
DA: You won the 2000 Katharine Bakeless Nason Publication Prize in Fiction for Given Ground. Tell me how Given Ground came together. Some of the stories in it were published in literary journals, but I noticed “Dog Song,” which won a Pushcart Prize, isn’t in the collection. Did it come later?
AP: “Dog Song” was written in the middle of doing the novel. It was written during the year I couldn’t work on the novel because I was getting divorced, so I wrote a couple of short things instead. So that was 2002-2003, I think.
I didn’t get an MFA, so all the work I was doing in grad school was literature and theory. I didn’t take any workshops in grad school. So, on the side I would write short stories when I had time – which wasn’t a lot. I’d usually finish about one a year, so it took me about thirteen years to get those stories together. The oldest one is “Getting Wood” and I wrote that when I was 24. The newest one is “Redneck Boys” and I wrote that after they’d already accepted it [the story collection] and it was added at the very last minute, so I was probably 37 then. So, five or six of those twelve stories were published before the book came out. In the meantime, I got an NEA grant, which made me feel confident and made me be a little more focused on being a short story writer. When I went on the job market in 1998, I had my literature and theory degree, but there were far more creative writing jobs than lit jobs on the market, so I applied for creative writing jobs in addition to literature jobs because I had more publications in creative writing – and a creative writing job was the job I got. Then I had to figure out how to teach creative writing. And the other thing that it meant was that I needed to get a book out. At Penn State Erie, if you don’t have a book by year six, you’re gone. They don’t give you tenure. And actually, the person before me got fired at year four. The pressure was on to get a book published. So, my second year there, I thought I’d better start trying to get this book out or I’m going to lose my job. And so I just pulled together the stories I had. I didn’t feel very confident about them at all, but really did it as an act of desperation. I approached agents. No agents would take it. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but they always say they can’t sell short stories. And some said they were too dark, they were too bleak. So I gave up on that and started sending to contests. Within less than a year I won the Bakeless Prize in the Breadloaf contest, and the prize was publication. So that’s how it came out. They weren’t written with me thinking this is going to be a book. They just came piece by piece, and I pulled them together and arranged them.
DA: I’m fascinated that you don’t have the MFA. Did you workshop? Or did you totally do it on your own?
AP: Yeah. And I still work like that. I took two workshops. When I was an undergraduate, I had a workshop at WVU. We mostly read and we did a little bit of workshopping. And then I had a workshop as a non-degree student at the University of New Mexico while I was just killing time substitute teaching when I was about 23. And so that was the only real workshop I had. It wasn’t a very good workshop because the professor didn’t give us any feedback. So, yeah, those workshops didn’t have much influence on my work. I just worked privately. When I was married, my husband was a poet, and so he was my second reader. I didn’t show anything to him until I would get things as good as I could get them, so they were 8-12 drafts in before I showed anybody. That’s just the way I’ve always worked. And part of it was because when I was younger I was too threatened by feedback. I didn’t want to hear what other people thought about it. And now, to be honest, I think a lot of people seek feedback too fast, and get too many cooks messing in the soup, and that can dilute their vision. I worry about this a lot with my very young students. But it depends upon the individual. With some people, workshopping is what they need, and what really helps them. But for me, I still don’t show anything until I’ve got it as good as I can get it. And then I start showing it and re-work it from there. But it’s always been really private. I started writing here [gestures toward house] when I was 8, and I never showed it to anybody.
DA: You have a very strong narrative voice in your stories. As I was reading and admiring your use of language, the syntax and the regional phrases, one of the things that I couldn’t help thinking was: Wow, I bet this took a beating in workshop.
AP: Oh, I think you’re right (laughs). When I look back, I’m really glad I wasn’t in workshop because it would’ve taken a beating, for sure. And not being in workshop gave me the opportunity over a decade to hone my own voice without much outside input. Especially if I’d gone into workshop when I was 24 and had no confidence, I would’ve listened. I would’ve done what they said, which would probably have homogenized my voice. So, that’s one reason I worry about some of the younger students in workshop. That’s funny that you thought that.
DA: How did Black Diamonds, the film project with your sister Catherine, come about?
AP: When I first heard about mountaintop removal, I was living in Pennsylvania. I didn’t really hear about it until 1998 or 1997. But I subscribe to a listserve about Appalachian issues called Appalnet. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that? But a lot of news started coming out on Appalnet about mountaintop removal in the late 1990s. I told Catherine about it and she said she’d like to go down to southern West Virginia and shoot some film. She asked if I’d come down and help do interviews, partly because I had so much background in Appalachian history that she didn’t have. So, in March of 2000, we went down and started talking to people. It was pretty easy to find people to talk to. We started with an environmental organization and then we had dozens of people pretty quickly who would talk to us – all against mountaintop removal. The people who are for mountaintop removal wouldn’t talk to us. So, I was driving back and forth from Erie to meet her down there for a couple of years when we interviewed. Then when I quit my job, I moved to Charleston, and by that time I’d started my novel. During that year I helped Catherine, but I also did interviews on my own, and I helped other activists from outside who were coming in who needed help driving around. I helped them with interviews. Catherine went on and finished her interviewing and finished the film. She did all the editing by herself and the film was finished in 2006. It’s been very successful. She did it almost entirely by herself, self-taught – she doesn’t have any training in filmmaking. And she pretty much financed it herself. It’s been shown a lot of places. It hasn’t been really well-distributed, but she’s taken it to colleges and conferences and it was shown at MoMA in February, so she’s gotten some pretty good exposure for it.
DA: Was the interview that sparked the idea for your novel done as part of the film?
AP: Yes, it’s part of the film. Although the cumulative effect of the interviews certainly inspired me, the triggering interview was one we did for the film in July of 2000. I started writing the novel about three weeks after that.
DA: In the novel you truly showed the tactic of hiding mountaintop removal in plain sight, and that if any attention can be drawn to what’s happening, it’s very fleeting and it’s not sustained. There were also references to a couple of very important real events that happened in West Virginia and in Kentucky, and how sometimes these disasters don’t really get a lot of news coverage. That was a big and important thing that the novel conveyed. When I read the part about the real life past incident of the slurry impoundment break in Kentucky, I realized I had completely forgotten about that ever happening.
AP: But you had heard about it?
DA: I had heard about it, but I really had to struggle to pull that up in my memory and it was very dim. And the other event was the Buffalo Creek disaster, which is better known because of the books about it. Did you see Buffalo Creek when it happened?
AP: No. I was 9, so no, I didn’t see it. But I did a lot of research in the West Virginia state archives – photographs and film. And I also visited Buffalo Creek, in 2002. So I did go up there. I can’t remember when I heard about the disaster. I’m not sure that I heard about it when I was 9. I think it was a few years later. At the time it happened I was so little, and at that time we were living here [Romney]. When we lived in Summersville I can remember hearing about mine disasters. The Hominy Creek disaster happened when I was 6 or so, and I can remember that, can even remember the sirens. But I can’t remember Buffalo Creek.
DA: The decision to leave or stay is one of the conflicts in the novel. Can you talk about leaving, about what it’s like to come back, and what you carry with you?
AP: The leaving-staying thing has really haunted me, probably since the time I was about 10 or 11. It’s really huge. By the time I was in Junior High, I had the idea that to succeed or to be what I wanted to be – and I wanted to be a writer – I needed to leave. In Lace’s chapter, I said that’s partly because we get the message from outside the region that we’re lower than other places, and more backwards than other places, and that you need to leave to have real life. And that’s kind of how I felt. But I also was at a disadvantage because I got homesick really easily. So, I was always torn as a teenager. I’d think I’m gonna get out of here. I would get really frustrated with small-town life, everybody knowing everything about you, and I felt very trapped. And also I felt there was nothing to write about in this boring place, and I needed to go somewhere where there would be interesting things to write about. So, I went to West Virginia University, partly because I had five brothers and sisters and we couldn’t afford to go to school out of state, so we went to WVU. And I was homesick there, too. I was always wanting to leave, but I was always homesick when I did. And again, wanting the outside material to write about. When the opportunity to go to Japan came up, I was terrified but also very curious. I’d never even thought about Japan before. It wasn’t like I had some special interest in Asia, but right after I graduated from WVU, a friend told me this guy from Japan was going to come and interview for a job teaching English and asked if I wanted to interview for it. I was working a Wendy’s management program at the time, so I said, “Oh yeah, anything’s better than this.” So, at 22 I left and went to Japan, and at that time I’d never been on an airplane except for charter planes with the WVU marching band. I flew from Dulles, from National all the way to Narita, in Tokyo, in one day. The years I spent traveling, a lot of my motivation was to gather material for writing. I did try to write about those experiences. And I still am, actually. But at the same time I was trying to write about my overseas experiences, I was homesick, and so I was writing in journals about West Virginia. And I knew enough that the stuff I was writing about Appalachia was much more real as literature than the stuff that I was writing about overseas, which was more detached and voyeuristic and superficial. Since I was 22, and I’m 45 now, I’ve been in and out of West Virginia. I’ve been mostly out. I try to come back. I’m always drawn to come back to visit. I’ve lived back here a couple of times. Since I turned 40, in the last five years, I’ve come to a kind of balance between being here and being away. I can come back and kind of acclimate more quickly than I used to be able to. You know, we have an inferiority complex, and I would feel that when I first left. And also at WVU they made fun of how we talked all the time, and so I’d try to erase the accent.
DA: At WVU? In state?
AP: Even at WVU, yeah, because there are so many kids there from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and New York. And the interesting thing is, I realized later those kids are not from a great class position either, or they wouldn’t have come to WVU. They had this one thing on us, which was they didn’t talk like we did, so they would make fun of us. Then when I went to Japan – I was teaching all ages of people – at a kindergarten, I was teaching about 40 little kids, and I came in one day after I’d been teaching them for a couple of months and said “Good morning, how are you today?” and they all said “Faaahhnn, thank ya” [exaggerates the melodic West Virginia drawl]. I thought, oh my God, I’ve got to do something about my accent (laughs), these kids are talking like they’re from West Virginia! So anyway, at WVU there was that tension. There was a sense of inferiority. Then there was going to graduate school and feeling ‘oh I’m from West Virginia, we’re not intellectual, we don’t know anything, I’m dumber than the rest of these people.’ Plus I was shy, and there was all this stuff around that. So I’d want to be home. Then I’d come home and I’d feel trapped or I’d feel there was nobody here to talk to about writing. I feel very ambivalent. I love the land here. I love the people. I hate what they’re doing to the land. I get really angry at some of the people that they let it happen. There’s a kind of quiescence I understand on one hand, but on the other it’s very frustrating. I miss the warmth and the generosity and the kindness and the down-to-earthness of people here when I go back to Seattle, but I don’t miss the conservatism. I feel very ambivalent about it. I’d like to move back here eventually. I loved living in Charleston for that year. But, we’ll see. I don’t know where my writing’s going next. I do worry about not hearing the language here on a regular basis.
DA: In the novel, Dane was set up early as the keeper of the stories. He has the responsibility of carrying the stories. He’s the one who hears Mrs. Taylor’s story and also sees Avery/Bucky – by the way that was brilliant, too, showing the duality of how when people go away they sort of become someone else, to call him Bucky in the scenes when he was a child, and to call him Avery as the adult returning home to visit his mother when he’s trying to get her to leave there. That’s sort of our role as writers, to be the keepers of the stories.
AP: There’s big part of me in Dane and Bant and Avery, in Mogey to some extent, and Lace. Everybody except Corey pretty much has a big part of me. So, yeah, I was a child who wasn’t of course assigned to keep the stories, but listened and felt weighted with the stories or haunted by the stories that I heard around me, the family stories. I think Dane’s role in the novel is that he’s the watcher. He can’t act; he can only watch. He’s visionary in a sense, but he has no agency, and that doesn’t change really until he decides to leave. He’s also the one, besides Mogey, who is the most sensitive to spirituality or religion, and in his case the early religion that he’s been raised in becomes really kind of perverted by the horrors of the breakdown of his family and the threat of the flooding and the destruction of the mountains. So, one of the threads that goes through the novel are different perspectives on contemporary Christianity because I don’t think you can write about southern West Virginia without addressing it. So he has a very different experience of that than, say, Mogey does, or the grandmother does, or even Lace does.
Dane was really hard for me. I couldn’t figure out if he was mentally disabled or not. He’s very sensitive and fearful and superstitious. And I finally decided that he wasn’t mentally disabled, although he may be learning disabled – he can’t read very well, although he’s 12. A lot of people who’ve read it think he is. Did you think he was mentally disabled?
DA: No. I took him as very sensitive, and that his sensitivity was coming out in physical ailments.
AP: I also wanted to show the gender issues, the hyper-masculinity of West Virginia, and the erosion of that through the loss of physical work and what that does to men’s identities as they’ve lost physical work and the women have become more of the breadwinners. There’s an emasculation through the closure of the underground mines in that particular region. In the novel there’s Corey’s hyper-masculinity versus Dane’s more effeminate sensitivity, and what it’s like for him to grow up in a culture that masculine with those kinds of traits, but also what the culture’s doing to Jimmy Make as the masculine figure. The way the work physically destroys him, but his identity is destroyed by lack of work – lack of the kind of work that he will do. You know, he’s not going to deliver pizzas. His identity is bound up in the physical labor which he doesn’t have access to now. So Dane is kind of a foil for that.
DA: The Uncle Mogey chapter is another of my favorites because of the dream of the rock room and the “deer gone wrong” and the dream about the mountain collapsing. They’re very realistic as nightmares and fit with the real-life nightmares of the disasters. In my research, I found an old interview with Catherine where she talked about having nightmares after she saw the results of the mountaintop removal mining for the first time. Do you dream about it too?
AP: Yeah, a lot of the Mogey dreams are dreams I actually had. The “deer gone wrong” and dream about the mountain collapsing are ones I’ve had. You know, it’s often about this area more than down there [in the southern part of WV]. This county has doubled in population since I was a kid. All the orchards have turned into second homes for people from Washington, D.C. so a lot of my dreams are set right here. And I think the mountain collapsing might have been that mountain right there (points to the west). I have a lot of dreams that there’s a strip mall down in the creek (points at the creek that runs through a field below the house) or there’s some kind of construction in the creek. And I dream a lot that there are second homes right there (points to land beside the house). So the Mogey dream about the deer coming out of the mountain and the mountain collapsing, and the one about the deer in the yard with wolves he thought he was going to be attacked by, that was set right here in the yard. I can’t remember when I had it, it might have even been before I saw mountaintop removal. The end of the world dreams are dreams I’ve had, where he just hears that siren and he feels the world tilt. I’ve actually had about half the dreams in the Mogey chapter, including the dream where the deer’s head opens up. The other ones I just made up. So, yeah, I dream a lot about the land and about the destruction of the land, and about the decimation or end of the species.
DA: Who were the writers that influenced you the most?
AP: Faulkner, for sure. O’Connor. Jayne Anne Phillips and Breece Pancake – those two are very important to me because I grew up not knowing we really had writers in West Virginia. I knew about Pearl Buck, but she wrote about China. I found out about Jayne Anne Phillips and Breece Pancake, probably when I was in college. They’re ten years older than I am and they’d gone through public schools here and they’d even gone to public universities. And again, we grow up with this sense of inferiority that our schools aren’t particularly good, so I thought you’d have to get a real education outside to be a writer. That it would make it easier. And to know they had done it all here, and they’re so great and so recognized by the literary establishment, that gave me more confidence. Black Tickets and Breece’s collection – I used to read them over and over again, and I still do. So they were very influential. Denise Giardina I read later. I probably didn’t read Denise until about ten years ago. James Still’s River of Earth definitely was an influence. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Marguerite Duras. Duras and Rhys and those language-driven writers I was introduced to when I was about 24 or 25, and they really sunk in. I really loved their work.
Then there’s this sort of cadre of people I studied in graduate school. The other thing I did for my dissertation, which was so prescient but I didn’t know it at the time, was a whole chapter on 1930s socialist novels. The chapter ended up addressing only Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur, but before I narrowed it down to them, I did a lot of research on why political novels fail. So, when I came to my novel I had some idea of what to watch out for so it would work as a piece of art and not get too didactic or forced. So then there are people like Tillie Olsen and Le Sueur and Steinbeck. And Denise Giardina and other political writers who treat class issues.
Then there are the dialect people: again, Still and Giardina, but also Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and Jean Toomer have been really helpful with dialect, looking at ways some African American writers have used dialect has been helpful.
I’ve always read voraciously, so I feel like there have been a lot of influences, but those are probably the biggest. Faulkner is probably the biggest one of all.
The nation’s largest coal slurry spill occurred at the Martin County Coal Company in Inez, Kentucky on Oct. 11, 2000. Coal slurry, a thick liquid waste from coal processing, is held in earthen reservoirs known as slurry impoundments. In the Kentucky spill, 300 million gallons of thick sludge flooded into two tributaries of the Big Sandy River on the KY-WV border before emptying into the Ohio River. This disaster was nearly 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
For further reading on these issues, see: Salon. “Dirty Business” by Phillip Babich. Nov 13, 2003 issue at http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2003/11/13/slurry_coverup/; Mother Jones. “The 300-Million-Gallon Warning” by David Kohn. March/April 2002 issue at http://www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/2002/03/coal_slurry.html ; and Appalachian Voices. “What Are The Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Removal” at http://www.appvoices.org/index.php?/mtr/environmental_impacts/
Quinnimont Yard Office, Quinnimont, WV by Kevin Scanlon