Thursday, June 15, 2006

Far Appalachia

First I want to apologize for posting so many book reviews lately - frankly you're probably wishing for a little more web-based content. Don't worry, I have a feeling this is gonna' be the last one for awhile. But jimminy, is it a good'un.

If you have listened NPR for awhile, you've probably heard of Noah Adams. He's been a well-respected radio news personality for years upon years and frankly he is one of those gentlemen who its not only a pleasure to hear speak, but who actually knows what he's talking about. Well, come to find out, this particular gentleman is from Ashland, Kentucky, up on the Oh-Hi-Oh. Well, apparently all the years of jumping from here to there to here all across these glorious United States made him long for the Mountains. So he did: Mr. Adams followed the New River from its roots in North Carolina up through the Commonwealth of Virginia to where it conjoins with the Gauley to form the Kanawha. And the product of this riverborne Odyssey? Far Appalachia.

I am going to pause here for a second to point out that if you are from the Appalachian regions of any of these three states and you had parents or friends who weren't totally afraid of the outdoors (or, relevantly perchance, the animals in the outdoors) the odds are you have bathed, in part or in full, in the New. If you're not from the swath of land associated with the second oldest river (and therefore most ironically named body of water) in the world, I want to assure you - it is an enormous element in the lives of the people who are near it, whether they realize it or not. I've fished the New, camped on the New, boated the New, run electrical products of the power generated by the New, drank water harvested from the new, and yes, drank beer while swimming in the New. For about eight hours.

That said, I just want to list some of the places Mr. Adams writes about to make a point to anyone who might be incredulous as to Mr. Adams knowledge: Three Forks, Snake Mountain, Todd, Jefferson Peak, Weavers Ford, Shatley Springs, Mouth of Wilson, Fries, Galax, Draper, Ingles, Radford, Plum Creek, Eggleston, Pembroke, Narrows, Rainelle, Thurmond, Fayetteville and the place where God rested after the Making (6 billion years ago), the New River Gorge . Now, if you're from the area, you know these towns and you know that most of them don't make the usual tourist listing and, if they do, its for a weekend or two a year. The fact that they would be brought together and described in such a light and endearing way all in one volume, well, yeah.

Okay, I'm giddy. So what? I'm gonna' keep going.

I'm not going to describe everything in this book - I want you to have the experience of reading it as fast as you can, then immediately going and rereading substantial portions just like I did. I do want to tell you a couple things, however. First, he defends Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular better than virtually anyone I've ever read or heard, tracing the shift from a stereotype of backward but harmless into one of backward and dangerous to the infamous and repugnant rape scene in Deliverance and shoddily written, researched, and executed "reporting" and "documentaries" (what I routinely refer to in my political science lectures as, "talking head, if-it-bleeds-it-leads, Jerry Springer-esque, tripe). He describes Shatley Springs, in such magnificent detail that I will be letting Sean "Papaw" Taylor take me there as soon as possible, costs be damned. He weaves an utterly masterful metaphor for country hill folk, driving tool-laden pick-ups with dogs in the back, comparing them to Scottish highlanders (from whom many of those folks are at least partly descended) with their hounds and longswords (and, I almost scribbled into my own copy, their shin dirks). Adams gives an excellent, if brief, telling of the Mary Draper Ingles story which, better than any brief account I've ever come across, makes the geography of her harrowing tale comprehensible and he describes Radford, Virginia (and the surrounding locale) in a way that should prompt the local Better Business Bureau to send him a check. His work is full of tidbits on local wildlife - hell, he mentions pawpaws, which wins him the genuine vote from me - and he takes great delight in merely identifying life. . . for some reason this strikes me as a very American sort of activitiy, like memorizing baseball statistics. It carries with it a sort of Zen-factor, an indulgence in self-satisfying (and slow) observation. Hmm.

So, you get the picture, right? Its all this plus a compelling plot - a man finding himself and exploring a people and their history via a river. He hikes, he rides bikes, he canoes, he rafts, the whole nine yards. Its beautiful, its compelling, and it is by no means dumb literature. Heck, its the kind of book Appalachian parents might want to give their kids when they're going through that stage of self-hatred that develops around puberty when they realize people are constantly making fun of their homes, their culture, their accents, and so forth, but before they've realized that people stereotype and discriminate against anyone and anything that is different, allowing them to shove such nonsense and bigotry aside.

I'd like to conclude a little philosophically in a vein that this book described. My Dad is from Newport News, Virginia - a Tidewater city - and talking to him and visiting our ancestoral grounds has made me come to a realization that the culture in this area is utterly caught up in the water that defines it. Rivers bigger than anything western Virginians can possibly conceive of, creeks bigger than what those same western Virginians call rivers, salt water, brackish water, tidepools, swamps, on and on - in many ways the land in the Tidewater seems to be a concession to humanity and a few quadrapeds at best, a pleace to dry off between trips onto big water or into dense, tree-filled ponds mascarading as forests. On the other hand Appalachia, while by no means a dry place (and in the eyes of some scientists a temperate rainforest) has traditionally been defined in an opposite sense - by earth and stone and land and all the things that grow on them. We, after all, have no sharks or stingrays or bluefish or oysters - a bluegill or pumpkinseed is hardly a match -heck, our most dangerous watery denizens are snakes (which would rather crawl an extra mile than interact with us) and wolf spiders. At least that is how I used to think. On reflection, having finished Mr. Adams' book, I have had some other thoughts. For the Appalachian, water is nearly equally defining. Look at our maps - settlement is clustered around the trade routes through the mountains, trade routes defined by rivers or lakes for the most part, the occasional exception being the great "gaps" that allowed easy movement from great valley to great valley. Indeed, most other settlement was linked to springs (be it White Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, Green Sulphur Springs, Hot Springs, Warm Springs, Shatley Springs, Berkley Springs, Sweet Springs, Salty Springs, or any other springs). Indeed, the key defining differences between several of the subregions' economies has been the way in which they have chosen to harness their water resources (tourism "versus" the TVA).

Well, I'm certain I've rambled enough. Mr. Adams, I hope I meet you someday. You write as I wish I could write about the places I love. Next time you're in the region, give us a holler. We'll be there in spades.

1 comment:

J. Michael Mason said...

One thing that I really enjoyed about this book is that it barely touched on the area I live in, especially in a historical sense. I wanted to read about life up and downstream from where I go swimming and that is exactly Mr Adams gave me.