By Brennan Henning, Farm Fellow
Ever since moving to Southwest Virginia for college, Appalachia has held a part of my heart.
That hold has only continued these first few weeks at AMI as we learn more about the region we are in. Its ever-present rolling ridges dominate the landscape with a sense of power and strength, but also comfort and invitation that only these mountains could provide. As you put your feet on the ground and explore all this landscape has to offer, you find hidden grassy meadows that remind you of The Sound of Music and crystal clear mountain streams that provide life not only to the valleys below but to its many inhabitants, from brook trout to blue crayfish.
While Appalachia is known to some for “Mountain Dew Mouth,” moonshine, and poverty, the region is so much more than stereotypes such as these. Tyler Childers, a native Kentuckian nicknamed “the 21st Century Voice of Appalachia,” shares the deep-seated issues of the region but also the beauty of its people and hope through his music - hope for a region that has been cast aside and forgotten even as it remains tough and resilient.
Keep your nose on the grindstone and out of the pills”
- Nose on the Grindstone
Due to railroad construction in the late 1800s, Appalachia experienced an economic boom through the exploitation of its natural resources, namely coal and timber. Large coal and timber corporations employed much of the region's inhabitants and brought temporary economic prosperity. The mechanization of coal mining starting in the 1950s brought a sweep of unemployment to the region and severe poverty followed shortly after (Encyclopedia.com). Unemployment still plagues the region today and the resulting poverty has long-reaching effects.
While almost all of America is currently fighting the opioid epidemic, Appalachia has been hit especially hard. Appalachian counties face an opioid overdose death rate that is about 72% higher than non-Appalachian counties (Office of Inspector General). Many of the young and bright see leaving the region as the only way to get a job and stay out of drugs, contributing to what is known as “the brain drain.” Nonetheless, the people of Appalachia have persisted and continue to fight, just as their ancestors did against the coal mining industry.
“Ray Dixon didn’t take no lip
He’d kick you right off the bus
Stop by your house on the way out of the holler
And tell your momma where you was”
- Bus Route
“Back when all us boys were tryin’
To make sense of all these strings
I can see her in the corner
Singing along to all our crazy dreams”
- Follow You to Virgie
Another important aspect of Appalachia that Childers refers to is the closeness of communities. The remoteness and isolation of many people in Appalachia have encouraged tight community bonds where everyone looks after one another. Kinship and familial ties are cornerstones of the culture, and kindness and generosity flow from that. Despite tough financial situations, many are more than willing to give from what little they have to support friends or family in need (Appalachian State University).
In my own experience, the kindness and personability of people here in Highland County are unlike anywhere else I have been. People love to talk with us and are eager to learn more about what’s happening just up the mountain from them. People want to get to know us Fellows on a personal level and invite us to community events or dinners in almost every conversation that lasts longer than five minutes.
“Now the mountains all are blushin'
And they don't know what to say
'Cept a good long line of praises
For my lovely Lady May”
- Lady May
“And I love you like the mountains
Love’s the way the mornin’ opens
To a soft and bright greetin’ from the sun”
- Shake the Frost
While issues of drug abuse and poverty continue to take the national spotlight when talking about Appalachia, it’s also just a normal place with normal people. A place where families stick together when things get tough, a place where people fall in love, and a place with immense natural beauty. While those issues certainly need to be addressed, Childers also sees it as important to remind his listeners of the good, hopeful, and just plain old normal things that happen every day. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place with spectacularly beautiful people. I can’t wait to continue learning about Appalachia, exploring the area, and meeting the people of Highland County!
“The only two things in life that are free are true love and homegrown tomatoes”- Tyler Childers