Re-Discovering Appalachia

This place called Appalachia is like no other region of the United States.  Ever since I discovered the Foxfire books, around age twelve, I have been fascinated by, and interested in, Appalachia.   I wanted to learn how to play the fiddle, make an oak basket, smoke a ham, and whittle a wooden chain.  I wanted to somehow “become Appalachian”.   When I would look at a road atlas and daydream about where I would like to live, West Virginia usually emerged as a leading spot… because it was in the center of Appalachia; home of the most diverse and lush temperate forestland in the world.

I daydreamed about the culture and landscape of Appalachia for a long time before I knew anything about its problems.  First, coal mining and its effects on the environment and the people got my attention. Then, I heard about church groups going to Appalachia to deliver clothes, and realized Appalachia maybe shouldn’t be on my short lists of places to move to.

Many years went by, and I grew up and became a forester in my home state of Illinois.  I married a girl from Western Kentucky, and we settled down amid the flat cornfields of the “Prairie State”; intending to raise our children there.  But, each time we drove down I-75; to go to the Smoky Mountains or Florida, we both thought about what it would be like to live in Appalachia.  Berea, really on the edge of Appalachia, caught our eye as the preserver, or protector of Appalachia and what it stands for.

So, I suppose we re-discovered Appalachia.  Yes, Appalachia does have problems, but that is no reason to stay away… to the contrary, it gives an even greater reason to be here, to be a part of the solution.

Now that my family and I are here, at the edge of Appalachia, I am trying to do my part to care for this unique area’s landscape and resources through managing the Berea College Forest.   It’s great to be able to be a part of something worthwhile with the College, and with the region as a whole.  It’s great to have a chance to “become Appalachian”, if not by birth, but by a common interest and solidarity with the region.  It’s more than just a job; it’s being part of something greater than that.

Southern Illinois, where I grew up, wasn’t a bad place to live.  But, it didn’t have an identity.  How many songs, books, or poems have you heard about Illinois, or even the Midwest?  For someone who cared about the environment, traditional culture, and creativity, it was a pretty bleak and sterile place to live, with nothing to get involved with. Work and entertainment was about it.

There were still a few “old timers” who butchered their own hogs, made quilts, did woodworking, played the fiddle, etc, when I was a child, but hardly anyone in the younger generations was picking it up or had an interest to… except for me when I was too young to help much.  By the time I returned from college, almost all of these folks were gone, and nobody seemed to care about the loss of those traditions.  Most of the “old timers’” homes, along with their knowledge, just got bulldozed down to make a few more rows of corn.

Berea, on the other hand, seems to really attract people who want to make a difference, learn new things, preserve traditional culture, and be creative.  There are so many things to get involved with here, that finding the time to do it is now the challenge.

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