Appalachia is not the place we thought it would be. It is not the mountain man tropes, the southern sensibility, the confederate lag that outsiders laugh at, or at best consume as tourists searching for a capsule of a “simpler time.” Appalachia, however you want to define it, is a region of extreme hospitality and extreme indignation. The former is freely given, out of nothing but an unassuming earnestness. In every gas station, rest stop, and parking lot, each person we encountered went out of their way to ask where we were from, educate us on their histories, and make us feel welcome. But behind the well-meaning smile is frustration.
There is a sense that this region is a colony. America’s electricity depends on the coal that the entire nation has ruthlessly demanded out of this tiny region. A few people, often outsiders sitting on various corporate boards, own almost everything a footstep past the few roads that are actually public. As a nation we have seized everything and now there is little left. The buildings are shut in, the houses are empty, and the coal is gone. Today, we drove to the top of a mountain. We saw the majesty of ancient forests and the ugliness of neutered mountains and scarred land, representative of the future of a region which has given everything and received nothing.
We met an old veteran at the gas station today. He was laughing and joking with us until he heard Deborah was from DC. He suddenly stuck out his tongue, hissed, and explained, “You know what the government does? They’re like a dog that shits and walks away. They blame it on you because they don’t wanna clean up their mess.” The same afternoon, I met a man in a parking lot. We had just run into a car next to his and rushed off to report the event. Though we may have seemed like bumbling outsiders, as I waited for the others, he offered me a cigarette and we got to talking. He spoke about the slow drain of his town: the shut-down mines, his grandfather’s black lung, his run-ins with the cops, his desperation to leave. He had to forage in the mountains for ginseng roots everyday just to save up enough to get out. Later in the day, we spoke to members of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Though they were very insightful about many of the social problems these people had raised, it was unclear if anything could be done. Every plan proposed was in reaction to the coal industry, a few dedicated volunteers trying to slow down an industry that pollutes every school, church, and office in the region. But what could they demand as an alternative vision? What can be said, when the only revitalization policies proposed are further coal industry deregulation and prison expansion?
And what is our place in this systematic degradation? We cannot pick up enough garbage or replace enough signs or measure enough samples to make any difference here—everyone, even the organizers, know that. We cannot fix what we do not understand. When we came here we had no conception of Appalachia. Now with a few days left, we are riddled with questions and it’s frustrating. But as Ivan Illich once said, all we can do is voluntarily renounce our power and listen. Unless we really take the time to listen, we will just hear what we want to hear. We will rationalize and evade and refuse to understand this region in relation to the bigger picture. Our question cannot be, “What can we do to help?” It must be, “Where is our place as complicit outsiders in this struggle?”