Monday, June 27, 2011

The Appalachian Service Project Offers a Great Way to Make a Difference in Appalachia

The older we get, the more we tend to look back--even on a life well lived--and think to ourselves: I should have done more. Ironically, the best times in our lives to give back are when we are young, full of vim and vigor, and still firmly sure that we will change the world.

Whatever your age, if you'd still like to give back to an area that has been less prosperous than the rest of the country and to a people who are thankful but often too proud to ask for anything, a great way is by volunteering with the Appalachian Service Project.

Here is some information about it:

"Appalachia Service Project (ASP) provides one of the most rewarding structured service opportunities in the nation -- bringing thousands of volunteers from around the country to rural Central Appalachia to repair homes for low-income families. But ASP is more than just a building program. Yes, Appalachia's poorest families urgently need your help, but they can help change your life, too. Because when you change the lives of others, they have a way of changing you.

After a few days of hard work repairing homes with ASP, your hands will grow a little tougher, your arms a little stronger, and your relationship with God a whole lot deeper. You'll return home to your community with a passion for service, a renewed compassion for other people, and a fresh appreciation for your place and purpose in this world. Best of all, you'll discover first-hand that regardless of geography, education, or economic class, we are all equal members of the family of God.

We like to say that our goal is to make homes "warmer, safer and drier" for needy families. And for more than 40 years, we've done exactly that for thousands of families. Yet for all that, we are only able to serve one in ten families who apply to us for help. We need many, many more volunteers to make a lasting dent in Appalachian poverty.

In other words, we need you.

So come on and join us. Sure, you'll install insulation. Repair porches. Reinforce foundations. But even more importantly, you'll build a whole new you."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Our Polluted Appalachian Mountain Home

Mountaintop removal is a technique used by coal-mining companies that involves blasting away the tops of mountains and hills to get to the coal seams beneath.

Back when I was a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier in the mid 1980s, I toured some of the largest (and ugliest) strip mining and mountaintop removal mining sites from a small plane with an environmental group. Back then, I realized that what the environmentalists were saying about the future consequences of such mining on the environment might be true to a certain extent, but the money from coal has long been the lifeblood of those who live there. Even today, as beautiful as the Appalachian mountains are, they offer few ways to earn a decent wage beyond tourism, timber and coal.

If you love the Appalachian region, I recommend reading a very interesting op-ed piece titled "My Polluted Kentucky Home" from The New York Times to learn more about how this type of mining has affected the heart of Appalachia and the people who call it home.

And here's another article, EPA Study Confirms Damage From Strip Mining, that offers even more sobering evidence of the toll it has and is taking.

And here is an example of what mountaintop removal mining looks like:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

All I Wanted for Christmas Was a Big Red Bike

The first Christmas that I can remember well was the Christmas of 1965. I would turn four just a month later, and I had asked Santa for a bicycle. A red bicycle.

After a growth spurt in the summer of 1965, my tricycle had lost all appeal. Besides, I was certain that I could climb on a bike and just ride--without any instruction. It was my destiny.

I was far less certain that I would get a bike at all. My parents didn't have a lot of money left over from my dad's hard-earned paycheck as a carpenter. And what was left over always seemed to be spent on our small farm in order to make more money from the tobacco and other crops to pay the bills and the taxes. I'm sure I didn't understand all that in 1965, but I was somewhat aware that Santa might not come through.

Christmas Eve in 1965 was a cold one. Our house at the time was a few steps above a "shack," but it wasn't well insulated and heat was provided by a big, metal Warm Morning stove that my parent kept full of burning coal during the day and evening to heat the house to a tolerable temperature. But during the night, after the coal had burned down to glowing cinders, you needed plenty of warm blankets or quilts to keep warm.

That night, all snuggled in my bed and dre
aming of a red bicycle instead of sugar plums, there arose such a clatter that I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter! Well, "sprang" is a bit generous. I remember lying there for a few minutes, getting my bearings, then realizing that Dad's voice was raised and that it sounded like he was mad at someone.

Oh, no! He's yelling at Santa, I thought! And that can't be good!

So I peeled back the warm covers, tiptoed to my bedroom door and slowly pushed it open.

I could hear better now. Yes, Dad was having a heated discussion and it was with my mom. I distinctly heard "Faye, that's not where it goes."

And no, my four-year-old brain did not have the thought that you just did. But I was very curious.

I remember inching my way down the hall on silent, stealthy little girl feet. I surely realized that I wasn't supposed to be up yet. And as I peeped around the door-facing, what did my wondering eyes behold but a red bicycle--half put together!

Parts were strewn all around the box the bike had come in. Mom had the instructions and was attempting to guide my dad who, for the duration of their 54-year marriage, proved to be virtually impossible to guide. (Thus, my mom became the master at convincing him that everything was his idea.)

I stood there for a handful of seconds, absorbing the fact that my bicycle had not come put together, that it might not be put together in time for Christmas morning and that parts might be left over...because Dad was saying something about extra parts and Mom was insisting that there shouldn't be any.

To this day my mom doesn't believe that I silently witnessed them putting my bicycle together; however, she acknowledges that they did so on Christmas Eve and that it did not go smoothly.

Then how do I remember it all so vividly, including laying there in the dark wondering what role Santa had played in this debacle? (Okay, I probably didn't know the word "debacle" at age four, but I bet it was listed in another of my favorite Christmas gifts from my parents at age seven or eight: a dictionary and a set of illustrated encyclopedias.)

The next morning, I remember running down the hall to the living room and seeing my shiny, red bicycle sitting proudly on its kickstand in front of the Christmas tree. There were a few other gifts, I think, but they ultimately proved to be unmemorable since I have no memory of them.

I was still a little fuzzy on the role Santa had played. Didn't the elves put everything together in Santa's workshop just like in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"? But I knew as soon as my mom said Santa had left the bike parked beside the tree that somebody was lying. Mom!

And a few minutes later, I also concluded that Santa wasn't real, but I decided not to say so aloud, on the off chance that just uttering it would make it true...if it wasn't. You have to believe, right?

There wasn't a lot of bike-riding-w
orthy weather during the winter of 1965-66 in the Appalachian Mountains (pre-global warming, folks!). I'm pretty sure I didn't take my first few rides on "big red" until early spring. By April I was riding pretty well with training wheels on the gravel road in front of our house. (See the photo of me on my new bike in April 1966.)

I was confident and ready to show off the skills I had almost certainly gained. I begged Dad to take off the training wheels and he did--against my mom's objections that I wasn't ready. Soon I was riding up and down the driveway, standing and peddling furiously because the seat was just a little too high for me, even at its lowest position. But I wasn't exactly riding by myself. Dad was holding onto the back of the seat and running along just behind me. I'm not sure I realized that then, but I would learn a valuable lesson on a spring Saturday not long after this photo was taken.

My dad's youngest brother, Uncle Elmer, came by our house most Saturdays on his way to help Dad out on the farm. The two were close despite having their share of the usual sibling arguments and fights through the years. Uncle Elmer was probably my favorite uncle on my dad's side of the family because he was almost always fun. (He still is alive and kicking--and fun.)

That particular Saturday, I was determined to show off my newfound riding skills. When Uncle Elmer arrived, I promptly shouted "Watch this!" then pushed the bicycle up a steep bank that went from the level of the gravel road to the level spot where our house stood. That wasn't enough. I pushed it further up hill between our house and the Fords' house next door--all the way to where the bank behind the houses rose steeply again and the yard effectively ended.

I turned the bike and pointed it at a nice wide spot between two trees in our yard and the Fords' yard, straddled the pedals, grabbed the handlebars firmly, then stepped on a pedal and pushed off.

For a few seconds, all went well. But suddenly, a tree stepped in front of my bike and I couldn't cut or lean fast enough to miss it. There was a loud crash, and I remember sailing over the handlebars, somehow missing the tree and hitting the ground...hard.

"Oh, Lord, oh Lord!" Uncle Elmer repeated as he ran toward me. Then, "Faye, come quick!"

By the time mom reached me, I'd finally taken in a deep lungful of air, decided I wasn't dead and was ready to do it all over again...another day.

And that is the story of the first Christmas that I really remember...back home in Appalachia with my red bicycle on a gravel road.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It Was Good

I had the pleasure and privilege to grow up on a farm in Southwest Virginia. In point of fact, I was pretty much just 'across the ridge' from the creator of this blog for all my formative years and didn't even realize it. Neither did I fully realize at the time how privileged I truly was, nor how intense the pleasures were while growing up.

Certainly, there was a vast amount of hard work that had to be done. One thing about living on a working farm, you seldom have the opportunity to get bored. There's simply too much to do. Between feeding livestock, milking cows, mending fences, tending to the garden and whatever other 'cash crop' you happen to be relying on at the time, your time is very seldom ever your own. At least not for very long.

I have often described myself as an 'only among four'. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. On the upper side, the gap spans 12 years. On the lower end of the spectrum, the gap spans seven years and a different gender. Just as I was getting old enough to begin to explore the world, my brothers were already moving off into their own worlds. There would be occasional concentric orbits, but never the complete merging of habits and hobbies a closer birth order would have created.

So, as I grew up, a great deal of my time was spent alone ranging over the pastures of our farm toting a sprayer full of weed killer, or battling cedar sprouts with a pair of by-pass pruners, or hoeing endless rows of tobacco. The days were long and hot. The work wasn't always difficult, but it certainly seemed endless. The harder work came about when the brothers and my father were around. That's when the heavy lifting of building barns, working cattle, putting up hay, or dozens of other chores had to be done.

Through it all, I didn't feel overly privileged. I still remember the satisfaction and accomplishment I felt when the last stick of tobacco was hung, or the last hay bale was stacked, or the last steeple was driven into a fence post, or the last stick of firewood was plopped into the woodbox. At the time, I didn't realize that was a privilege. But it was. In so many ways.

We were privileged that we lived on our own land and could make what we would of it. The limits were, primarily, our will, ingenuity, and the land's inherent nature. Some parts of the farm grew better tobacco than others. Some strips of the pasture grew thicker hay. We could manipulate and work around those things.

I was privileged that I had excellent role models in learning how to work and how to live. Work worth doing was worth doing well. There were times when you could work smart, but not hard. Other times, there was no other solution than to just 'grab it and growl' as my dad often said.

I was privileged to grow up in a place and time when good friends could be counted on to help you work and struggle and suffer just as surely as they could be counted on to play, laugh, and joke around.

At some point near the end of high school my friends and I began to catch on. Perhaps it was two-a-day football practice when we noticed that the 'town kids' were exhausted near the end of the morning practice, and while we were tired, we weren't spent. We understood, with at least a small degree of pride, that when practice was over, we were going home to work for a few hours before we came back for the evening practice. Our town buddies were going to crash under their air conditioners.

We were privileged and we slowly realized what a great privilege it was to be from a place and time were it was good to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, and, if necessary, self-contained. I'm from the little community in Lee County, VA called Stickleyville. When people once used to ask if I was from 'the sticks', I could very proudly say 'Yes'.

Perhaps one of the proudest moments I had came when I took a job with a cruise line not long after graduating from college. In one of the lounges on the ship, there was a large display case filled with photos of the staff. The photos listed the person's name and their 'hometown'. I noticed that virtually everyone had listed their state capital as their 'hometown'. I knew this wasn't true. It seemed to be more important to list a recognizable city than their actual place of origin.

Not me.

On my picture which has many long years ago been tossed by some ship's photographer, I listed Stickleyville, VA as my hometown. How could I not? It was a place of privilege.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Is this Why Celtic Music Makes My Heart Sing?

For as long as I can remember, Celtic music has made my heart "sing." I feel every note from the tips of my toes to the top of my head...and deep inside my heart. When it's a slow tune, my emotions ebb and flow with the emotional story the ballad tells. When it's a fast tune, my feet don't want to be still.

Celtic music calls to me because it's part of my heritage, and something deep down inside recognizes the connections.

For those not privileged to be from the Appalachian region, here's an article, published a couple of years ago in the New River Voice and titled "The Celtic Influence on Appalachian Music," that explains the connections.

According to the article: "Depending upon the source, 40 to 60 percent of the settlers who nested into the Appalachian region were of Ulster-Scots descent, by far the largest ethnic group to call Appalachia home save for the Native Americans who had been here for quite some time. These settlers brought with them their cultural baggage, which included the many ballads, stories, and instrumental tunes from their Irish and Scottish heritage, much influenced by the Celtic tradition before their departure. Some of these tunes and lyrics go back to the bardic period of Celtic and British assimilation, thus culturally connecting Appalachia with its Celtic ancestry."

To learn more, read the rest of the article.

The Scots-Irish Influence in Appalachian English

I ran across a PDF--probably a college or graduate school paper--entitled "The Scotch-Irish Element in Appalachian English: How Broad? How Deep?" For those of us who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, are indeed of Scots-Irish heritage and have (or at least once had) the accent made famous by Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, this paper is quite interesting. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Appalachia Defined

A West Coast friend who just read my blog asked: So...what exactly is Appalachia?

You know the old adage about "assuming," right?

Obviously, this is a question that I should have answered in my first I Heart Appalachia blog. To help with the explanation, I surfed to the Web site for an important commission that was formed in 1963 to advise President John F. Kennedy and was established as a federal agency
by Congress in 1965.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that works for sustainable community and economic development in Appalachia, provides this definition:

Appalachia, as defined in the legislation from which the Appalachian Regional Commission derives its authority, is a 205,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

About 24.8 million people live in the 420 counties of the Appalachian Region; 42 percent of the region's population is rural, compared with 20 percent of the national population. The region's economic fortunes were based in the past mostly on extraction of natural resources and manufacturing. The modern economy of the region is gradually diversifying, with a heavier emphasis on services and widespread development of tourism, especially in more remote areas where there is no other viable industry. Coal remains an important resource, but it is not a major provider of jobs. Manufacturing is still an economic mainstay but is no longer concentrated in a few major industries.

In 1965, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty. By 1990, the poverty rate had been cut in half. These gains have transformed the region from one of almost uniform poverty to one of contrasts: some communities have successfully diversified their economies; some are still adjusting to structural changes in declining sectors; and some severely distressed areas still require basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems.

Below is the ARC's map of Appalachia, and here is a link to all of the states and counties that are included. While reading through the list, I just learned that I still live in Appalachia, even though I live in a metro Atlanta county. (This knowledge gives me the warm fuzzies.)

The ARC has done a great deal for Appalachia and the people who live there during its 45-year history. And the good that it has done continues....