In this urban outpost set among the western foothills of the Southern Appalachians, the land still twists and folds, buckles and rolls up beneath us. There are shopping malls that stretch for miles, but when you get yourself away from the main roads, there are still some hollers you can climb up into where it’s just you and the trees—the forgotten nooks and crannies in a region too rapidly industrialized.
I am always looking for a cranny where I can hear the whisper of our old ballad singers and storytellers, see the green glimmer of our wildly varied, prolific plant life.
Some people sit and eat sushi without knowing that 50 miles away mountaintop removal coal mining is burying and poisoning our streams, home to the greatest diversity of freshwater fish seen anywhere in the nation. They walk on Broadway Street and Central Avenue without knowing that this region has more place names than any in the country, which speaks to a deep land lore: Dead Heifer Gap, Boogerman Trail, Licklog Branch, Burnt Cabin Gap, Devils Elbow, Dismal Falls, Hardtimes Road, Fryingpan Mountain, Coward Knob, Breakneck Ridge, Hell’s Hollow, Rough Butt Bald.
What child would not be thrilled to learn the names and stories of these places in school? Instead, they are disengaged with standard curriculums. They dress like people on television and sing the pop songs played on the radio without knowing Southern Appalachia is a goldmine for the most well-preserved Old English ballads now alive on the planet today.
As a people, we suffer from low self-esteem. The nation has always told us that we don’t measure up. Many people have been convinced that we should let our uniqueness go and buy ourselves to “normal.” We are scattered and without direction. We have been tossed upon the winds of modernity.
Many of us don’t know what to cling to, while some are still clinging to our true riches: ancient ballads, clear mountain headwaters, our deep store of music, knowledge of medicinal and edible plants, a love for the land and its creatures, and a longing to endure.