What is the definition of Appalachia? What does it signify to be from Appalachia?
When I think about this—these mountains and the sense of place they give me I have found myself trying to define or explain it in a way that gives a verbal explanation I could then share. My family and I have been privileged to live and travel to many other places, and experience other people and cultures in our marriage and life in the military. But I am having a difficult time attempting to put into words just what is different and special about Appalachia and the people and daily life here.
It is like trying to describe snow falling to someone who has never seen it. Have you ever thought about that before? Someone from the deserts of Africa who has not experienced cold, or wet weather who hears the words ‘white, soft flakes falling from the skies’ would not necessarily be able to truly imagine or picture the reality of snow as it falls on your face or the ability of those flakes to become so numerous that they eventually accumulate several feet in depth and yet we can walk, sled and ski on them.
I feel much the same sense of inadequacy in trying to share my feeling of what it is to be Appalachian and explain the beauty that is the mountains and the culture of those who live here.
I read other authors writings on Appalachian and their descriptions. Horace Kephart for example—while Kephart’s work was penned in the 1900s about his experiences while living in the mountains for a time, there are similarities between his description and that of my own thoughts of Appalachia today. I see it here daily when hiking. If I should “step aside at the first brook crossing—turn up the branch and follow the rough by-road that steeply ascends the glen (I) would come presently to a log cabin where time still lingers a century belated”. (Kephart 1922) Though honestly speaking Kephart himself was not a native and so he wrote of Appalachia as an outsider looking in. Too many works on Appalachia are written as if studying a people, society or culture in some sort of anthropology exploration.
Several themes appear in descriptions of Appalachia as you read them. In multiple texts the people are said to have a fierce independence some attribute to having been passed down from their German, Scottish, and Irish ancestors. John Campbell for example writes that Appalachian people have “independence raised to the fourth power” (Campbell 1921) Entailed with that comes a self-reliance from the times of early settlement born of the isolation, terrain and wilderness that once was the Blue Ridge in its entirety. The place—the thousands of miles of mountain terrain—some of the oldest on earth created an incredible hidden land of opportunity and beauty while also creating isolation, the impact of which is still felt today.
As Mary-Lynn Evans stated, “It’s easy to romanticize Appalachia—perhaps as easy as it is to marginalize it, to laugh about it. But to grow up there is to know its uniqueness and what makes it precious.” (Evans 2004)
It has changed over the centuries—there are small pockets of urban growth on these mountains today and yet there remain many other pockets of such rural mountain nature and realities of Appalachian poverty that one could say little has changed indeed from the days of the early 1900s or the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War on Poverty. Wooden homes some may call shacks sit long road sides. The porches full of old washers or refrigerators; farm implements with pieces of automobiles in varying states of disrepair adorn the worn yards give substance to the caricatures of “hillbilly and redneck” know to some as Appalachian lifestyle. Older still wood frame farm houses and barns lie vacant and slowly fading away in wide open fields while the pastures surrounding them continue to be farmed and maintained.
What I would like to ask my readers is if you would share what you think it means to be Appalachian? Are the people of Appalachian different in some way? Is it the mountains that create the culture and shape those who live there? Or is it a combination of heritage and place? Or is there no Appalachian distinction of people and place today?
I may consider compiling and publishing your responses or replies someday so I would ask you to provide your first name and state where you live or are from. I hope to hear what Appalachia is from Appalachia people. (Please no crude or offensive replies)
I offer my sincere thanks to each of you who read this blog and share my pages from time to time. And I thank each of you who respond to this! I can’t wait to hear from you!
Campbell, John. 1921. In The Southern Highlander and His Homeland, by John Campbell. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Evans, Mari-Lynn. 2004. “Preface.” In The Appalachians: America’s First and Last Fronteir, by M., Santelli, R., George-Warren, H. Evans, xii. New York: Random House.
Kephart, Horace. 1922. “Preface to the Revised Edition.” In Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart. The Macmillan Company.