Thursday, April 12, 2007

Voices From the Moutains

Let me preface. Today, after I'd put in several hours of work, I decided to hit up some used book stores. Knoxville has two great ones that I know of - the Book Eddy and McKay's - and I stopped by both. Ah, the smell of yellowed pages. Well, I cleaned up on some books on Appalachia - usually there are not that many available used (folks tend to hold on to them) but this time the bounty was glorious - I came away smiling like a pirate waste-deep in literary swag.

One of the books I found stands out in particular to me. It is entitled Voices From the Mountains and is a collection of photographs, songs, and quotes of Appalachian people, specifically focusing on their economic struggles and environmental concerns, all assembled by Guy and Candie Carawan. My edition, from 1982, was published by the University of Illinois Press, but from what I can tell the latest version (I believe from 1996) was published by the University of Georgia Press.

Okay - before I can go on, I will tell you there is an obvious political agenda, or rather set of agendas, to this book. . . I don't consider that a bad thing, but I feel like a fair review needs to mention it. The agenda? Specifically (1) to press for economic aid to and reform in Appalachia (specific apparent goals - end TVA-style forced migrations and preserve traditional economic activities), (2) to support miners' rights, and (3) to support environmentalist efforts in the region, specifically to limit clear-cutting and end surface mining. None of these are particularly radical, but I know several folks whose ire would be raised in some way with regards to some or all of these goals - usually rooted in their particular understandings of liberal democracy's and capitalism's imperatives. All that said, some pretty fascinating work has been collected in this book. I thought I'd share a couple of the words that really impressed me with ya'll. The ones that get me, it should be said, tend to be those that point out the fact that, in essence, Appalachia has served as a colony to feed the political-economy of the rest of the nation throughout most of the 20th and early 21st Century - probably just appeals the the developmental politics nerd in me.

Regardless, the first part I want to share (from page 25 of my edition) is part of a quote by Warren Wright:

I have seen it in print and I have heard it directly from strip operators that the mountains must be ruined for the benefit of what they call "the rest of the nation." A Letcher County operator told me personally that West Virginia and eastern Kentucky had to be sacrificed, written off. I am certain that from Washington to Frankfort to Charleston to Richmond and Columbus they will not find the Appalachian sacrifice to great a tragedy; the tragedy is ours; the profits belong to them.
I know - its a heavy-hitter, isn't it. Wait, there is more. On the next page is a long quote from John Tiller. . . . again, the tone is negative, and again, the logic is troubling:
These people, I call 'em establishment bullies - the robber barons, the coal barons - came into the colony of Appalachia. Appalachia is a colony in the truest sense of the word. It has all the earmarks - the absentee landlords; nothing built of permanence. You can look at the whole area - the poor roads, the poor schools, the lack of facilities - and realize there's no solutions, and no planning for any solutions for the poor colony of Appalachia.
I think what has happened in other areas can show you what will happen to us when the profit from the coal is gone. These entire valleys will be flooded for tourism and cheap power. They've been so impatient with us for their profits all along, it's just like they've been engaged in a war with us. It looks like we've been in an atomic war, and losing badly.
Again, moving stuff. But it isn't all bitter medicine - consider this quote from Jean Ritchie (77):
I celebrate the fact that this Appalachia has a hold on me. Wherever I go, I'm of these hills. That little cabin at the head of the holler has been in the back of my mind, like an anchor with a long rope, all the time I've been having to make a home for my family elsewhere - and someday soon I mean to build that cabin, because here is where I belong. No one has to tell me that - I know.
I love that. And I don't want to quote the whole book, but I do have one more from Tom Gish (216) I want to drop on you. . . . specifically, it is an explanation of why Appalachia has developed from what might call the "Southern baseline" of suspiciousness into hillbilly neuroticism. I really love this one:
We need to be skeptical, to be suspicious, to ask a million questions, and to demand answers of all who would come to save us, no matter what cloak they wear. Had we asked the right questions and insisted upon the right answers at the right time, we might have been saved from a TVA that devastates an entire area for its strip coal; from a Corps of Engineers that builds dams simply to build dams; from a Forest Service that serves only the lumber industry; from an Appalachian Regional Commission that seeks not to assist, but to eliminate an entire culture rich in its own heritage. We might even have been saved from our own folly in turning over the greatest wealth in the nation to a few moneymen from the outside who wanted our minerals.
We don't need any new ideology forced upon us. We just need help in seeing and understanding all the alternatives. Give us all the facts - and I mean all of them - and we will make the right decisions.
Intriguing, and again the colonialism theme comes up - if you substituted appropriate bureaucracies this statement could have been made in virtually any former colony on earth, from Ireland to Peru to the Congo to India to Korea.

Now, let me review what you haven't see. You haven't seen a single one of the musical pieces (lyrics and musical notation included) and you haven't seen any of photographs in this book (which is particularly sad because honestly they are probably going to end up being the most enduring part). But, hopefully, you've seen what this book is - it is about the multitude of reactions Appalachians have had to their place in the dominant political-economy of the region, one of natural resource exploitation, and the costs both personal and long-term.

Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with every sentiment in this book, though I sympathize with almost all of them. I recognize that had the Feds not intervened to radically upset the economy and geography in the way they did in the Tennessee Valley it wouldn't have one of the most dynamic economies in the country today. I believe that mining and timbering are both valid and necessary endeavors. I do not rue modernity, nor do I think that the survival of traditional ways of life in the absence of cosmopolitanism is particularly great. But what I do believe is that better cooperation with local citizens can minimize the impacts and maximize the benefits of government planning. I believe that we should not sacrifice our future for todays profit, but rather should work out ways to extract natural goods without destroying the land they occupy - which we can do if we but have the will. And I believe that we must preserve as much of our heritage as possible as mountaineers, regardless of our subculture within that that subculture, not letting it die with our adoption of cultural goods from other places.

Why do I insist on this? Because dammit, I won't let my children live in another human's colony - I won't have their inheritance robbed to pay for someone else's lifestyle. Get rich, but don't do it by robbing us (or anyone else).


All that said, check out Voices From the Mountains. It is fascinating, beautiful, and moving, and it serves as a snapshot of those Appalachian attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s among a substantial segment of the population. I hope you like it.

1 comment:

Teri Lussier said...

It's lovely to see the words that you are thinking but can't express. Thank you.