Dark and Dusty, Painted on the Sky
The old timers swore that when the old steam locomotives still labored through the Kanawha Valley of West Virignia, the residual coal dust emanating from the mighty Union Carbide plant at Alloy, the loading docks of Marmet and Chelyan, and the mountains of coal at the Mammoth processing plants would light the sky on fire. I thought grandad was pulling my leg. Modern technology and the world-wide web has proven him and them right from the other side of the world both culturally and in distance. The proof came in the modern form of viral video of one of the last steam locomotives igniting the Chinese sky as it trundled out of the Sandaoling open pit coal mine in Northwest China. As the images flashed across the globe to the amazement of the world, the workers who had spent their lives working on “this dirty and broken iron stuff” seemed rather perplexed by how their daily reality had become a keyhole into what was thought to be the long-lost past. Soon the last of the steam locomotives will join that past, and folks who worked in a coal mine few can pronounce and fewer still could find on a map will wonder and worry about the universal problem of what a very different future will hold, now that the novelty has worn off and the work they have spent a lifetime doing is no longer required.
How do you say “we feel you, y’all take care over there” in Chinese?
The fascination of outsiders, from curious to sympathetic to morbid to exploitive, is something West Virginians know all too well. West Virginia both in history and it’s present is full of dirty and broken stuff, to the bemusement of outsiders. Most of its history is one of extraction and remnant. First timber, then coal, and now the people themselves are commodities various folks come from the outside to get at, use up, ship out, and make their fortune off of. The problem is, by definition extracting something leaves a hole where the removal takes place.
Thanks to years of misperception and stereotyping, West Virginians along with their Appalachian cousins in 10 other states are never allowed to explain, let alone fill in, that hole. At least our Chinese friends in the Uyghur Autonomous Region don’t have to explain to people their hole, since the massive open pit mining complex full of soot, smoke, dust and flame is pretty self-explanatory. The blanket of beauty nature laid across the hills and hollars of the Mountain State does a much better job of hiding the ugly, dirty, and wrong. Too good a job, in most cases.
The state that was born seceding from the confederacy during the in the Civil War has plenty of history, some hidden and some not so much, of the dirty, the violent, the awful. The pushing of the first railroad lines through the heart of coal country in the 1870s with barely-better-than slave labor of freshly “freed” black men. The explosion of need for coal in the 1880s that sent the hills crawling with mining companies, geologists, and desperate people needing work. The company towns where the store owning your soul wasn’t even in the top 5 things to worry about. The Hawk’s Nest tunnel which killed a thousand and maybe more so the New River could cut a corner and give hydroelectric power to feed the furnaces of Union Carbide, and the dead who were compensated, unless you were black in which case your family might get half what the white families got, but more probably simply wound up in an unmarked grave. The deadly industrial disasters from the hundreds of dead at Monongah to Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Upper Big Branch, and many others.
But it’s the living in the mountains that always draws the most attention. Culturally different in so many respects but so close to the rest of the east coast centers of influence and power (the eastern panhandle is considered part of metro DC census area), if you need to find some “others” without traveling too far, West Virginia has you covered.
Thus the crusaders and do-gooders started to come in force to not only help those poor people but to show everyone how utterly in need of help they were. Print media and the written word are fine things, but when those new-fangled TV cameras broadcast the famous, infamous to those who were the subject of it, “Christmas in Appalachia” CBS news special into people’s homes across the fruited plane, the 1000 words and more needed to explain the unique region were replaced by images that brought to mind only one: Poverty.
Though shot in Kentucky all of Appalachia was immediately saddled with the stereotype. It was shocking to the viewing public. It was also in no small part government approved advertising, dovetailing conveniently with LBJ’s “War on Poverty” that, nearly 60 years on, for most impoverished West Virginian means little except a more consistent government check. But Poverty porn sells well and makes quite the profit. There has been a legion of writers and filmmakers who have come and gone through West Virginia since “Christmas in Appalachia” ranging from MTV’s eye-rollingly manufactured Buckwild which mercifully only lasted 30 days, to those who surprised mountaineers by endearing themselves through listening and approaching them as equals such as the late Anthony Bourdain.
Then there are the thinly veiled profiteers who show up under the guise of assistance, like the Chicago-based “Mined Minds” oufit who promised to teach out of work coal miners to code and dangled jobs which never materialized. Not content to simply document the misery, they decided to compound it, and then publicly pat themselves on the back for doing so. They came, and they left, leaving the people worse off than they found them. And so it goes.
This constant cycle of outsiders trying to come in then go out and explain what they’ve seen as if everything between Bluefield and Morgantown was a lunar colony has been constant in the last few decades. Like those old steam locomotives, they manage to inflame the residue of issues already in the air, but the spectacular sparks fade quickly when the catalyst moves on. Writer Elizabeth Catte, author of ‘What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.’ explains it well:
There’s a famous Appalachian educator named Don West who co-founded the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s and he often wrote that there’s a rediscovery of Appalachia that happens each generation, sometimes more so, where people discover or rediscover poverty and social problems in Appalachia and go to war with themselves above our heads about whether or not we deserve their solutions. And then interest will fade out until the next time that poverty or the problems of Appalachia are discovered. From that perspective there’s a lot of similarities between the War on Poverty and what’s happening now. The sense that, ‘Oh we’ve discovered a problem, it’s a new problem. These are very very unique social issues and cultural issues and Appalachian economic issues,’ when really they are the same issues that are found in many other places in America.
The latest two incarnations of this cycle have been JD Vance and Donald Trump. Trump’s eye-popping domination of West Virginia, which until recently spent a century as a cobalt blue Democratic state, brought scores of political and cultural commentaries and discussions. It was his largest margin of victory in any state and such a failure for Hillary Clinton that she dedicated an entire chapter of her “What Happened” book to it. Vance’s contrivance was cultural and political discussion as a guise for marketing, multi-platforming, and self ambition. While his “Hillbilly Elegy” sold well and was taken as the latest translation of the poor lazy Appalachian Gospel that is settled fact for many, the actual people of West Virginia were less than impressed. If they wanted the opinion on how they too could become an Ivy League educated tech millionaire if only they had grown up in an upper-middle class home an hour north of Cincinnati, they would have asked. As it is, and since Middletown, Ohio might as well be on another planet from Mingo, Welch, Huff Creek, Marlinton, Weirton, or Glenville, for those that actually live in the mountains it’s just another sparking train passing through. Like the coal companies, the government, and writers before him, Vance extracted what he needed and moved on, unconcerned with the actual living remnant of the people, the actual real life hillbillies.
That remnant of people could use some actual attention. An ever-dwindling number still come home from working coal mines covered in black dust so thick all you see is the eyes until the man beneath is revealed by intense showers. More likely though they work in a government job, in the medical field, or are pension and benefits recipients of some kind — the largest three voting groups in the state today. There is an epidemic of opioid abuse, by some measure the worst in the nation, leaving thousands of victims and 10s of thousands of helpless loved ones longing for them to get clean in a very literal sense. The state is demographically bleeding to death, while at the same time trying to cleanse itself of decades of bottom place rankings of the states in almost every category you can think of. The people would love to be clean of the politicians of both parties who celebrate like they are the second coming for bumping them from 49th to 48th on whatever list their campaign ads pronounce, only to fall back again. The Remnant still suffer, still linger, still persevere. The air in Alloy is now cleaner, environmental changes being such that anything other than water vapor escaping the plant means something is not working right. But the perception of the people is as dirty as ever.
And yet, and yet…
What makes West Virginia special, what makes it unique, what inspires so much pride and loyalty of its people both there and in the diaspora that is puzzling to those who don’t understand it, cannot be extracted. It can only be instilled. While outsiders debate the merits and hindrances of the culture they cannot define let alone understand most West Virginians just know it. Like the old saying, if you have to have jazz explained, you will never understand it, those mountains and those people and the centuries of tempered hopes, shattered dreams, and determination that next time will be better are just a part of you or it isn’t. Like the long strands of unbroken hills that wall it off from the wider world, the culture is just there and just is.
The residue of poverty, labor strife, inequality, wars foreign and domestic, cross-purposes politics, and folks coming and going to make a buck off it all hang in the air and history, lit up every so often by some new train of wider interest roiling through West Virginia. For a brief moment the sides of the mountains will be alight and grab the attention of the world, only to fade again until the next time.
People are fickle like that. The mountains aren’t. The mountains don’t care. It’s as close to a sure thing as West Virginia has.
Monati Semper Liberi: Long live the people of West Virginia, who whether they or the world know it or not, should always be free.
This is beautifully written.
It has occurred to me, how new and unfamiliar this sort of change is for us Americans. I recall reading essays similar in spirit to this about California, where someone laments the passing of the age, maybe like when Los Angeles was the sunny smoggy home of movie stars and the Beach Boys.
Where once everything was new- the coal mines were new, the movie studios were new, freeways new, suburbs and cities all bursting with promise and newness.
That sort of spirit where people could say things like the “House of Tomorrow” without irony.
Unlike say, the Europeans who have the ancestral memories of empires rising and falling, the passing away of ages is something I don’t think we really have a firm grasp on.
In retrospect, is shouldn’t have surprised us how places West Virginia and Youngstown became a flash point in the discussion of the evolving nature of the American economy.
Your essay has a refreshing lack of anger or bitterness, even as it has sadness and melancholy.
I think about this also, the passing of things, as I grow older. Maybe the most difficult thing to do in older age is finding delight in newness and surprise. Letting go of things that seemed so comforting and accepting the pain of change.
Maybe the next great age in America will be a national maturity that accepts the passing of the American Century and gracefully finds new ways to define our national self.Report
Thank you Chip that means a lot, appreciate it.
You mention California, and oddly enough Cali has helped me view WV. I have family all over, but a branch that has been on the west coast since the 50s. My great uncle was a marine and was KIA in Korea, his family remained there. His children and my parents were same generation and very close but obviously grew up in different worlds from 60s “old” California and 60s WV. My folks and them have visited each other every few years. As a kid the “California cousins” coming was a big deal, and going out there even more so. But the bay area where they settled (South San Francisco in Stonegate to be specific) I’ve seen change only visit sporadically so very much in my lifetime, and my home changes so little. It’s a prism worth considering, and how different things could be.Report
Unlike say, the Europeans who have the ancestral memories of empires rising and falling, the passing away of ages is something I don’t think we really have a firm grasp on.
Though you are absolutely right, I have the very anecdotal feeling that this regret about the passing of an age is also a relatively new thing. XIX Century America was an era of permanent change, with as many losers as there were winners, but impermanence was accepted as normal.
I think it all changed after WW2, when America was the only prosperous place on earth. (Most) People became used to being on top of whatever hierarchy you could think of. Change, of any kind, threatens the established order and jeopardizes those who are on top, even if plus ça change, plus ça est la même chose.Report
Andrew, thank you for this very interesting post. As you are probably fed up of seeing, @jaybird and I frequently argue about what, besides empathy, is the best answer we outsiders should stand behind.
I ask because I really don’t know. I understand the emotional drain the collapse of the economy represents. I think that the U-haul Option libertarians push is mostly nonsense. Whatever little social and family capital and support networks people have are in their communities. Leaving those support structures behind is a massive cost that few people can pay. Cultural change, too, is a matter of generations.
My preferred solution, early retirement with full SS payments to those who have lost not just their jobs but their way of life, put some money in the families and communities, which is not nothing, but it’s also not giving people their dignity back.
And that’s were I get stuck. I can’t think of things that can actually help materially that do not have a negative spiritual impact. And I think the inner city back communities were destroyed by destroying their dignity. How do we avoid the same mistake again?Report
Dignity, like honor, is intrinsic to a person. It’s not something you can give or take from a person, it’s something they have to find or lose.
We can’t give them their dignity back, but we can do things such that perhaps they don’t lose it, even as the world shifts under their feet. And failing that, perhaps we can set things up so that they have an opportunity to find it again, through some other avenue.Report
Very good writing.
I wouldn’t say dignity is a factor, as we have that in spades. But we also have a lot of condescending outsiders who show up, pander or pass judgement, and leave. Always have.
Yet I also can’t think of many particular industries suited for Appalachia that wouldn’t be better located somewhere else, based on either available land, transportation, or other factors. I spent quite a few years puzzling it over and didn’t have any great ideas.
Hills would make for a pretty good distribution center by using all gravity conveyors and sorters. Put the unloading docs (the input) at the top of the hill and the loading docks at the bottom, so as to shift the normal cost of running hundreds of electric motors over to the trucking companies’ diesel bill. But then you have the problem of a multi-tiered floor and stairs running everywhere, and no way to freely run fork trucks.
As for other pursuits, farming is much more difficult (at least in the deeper Appalachians), major facilities are hemmed in down in the valleys, and hills often put hard limits on expansions. The road network has to wind through the mountains, and unlike flatland forests, large areas are really only accessible by foot due to the steep terrain.
All that works against forming a critical mass of business and industry that would cross some size or economic threshold and become a self-driving force as found in so many other parts of the US. Much of Appalachia, stretching from north Georgia through western Maine, is somewhat like the mountains around Los Angeles that will still be relatively undeveloped a century from now, simply due to terrain.
Where you have stretches of flatland abutting the Appalachians, often just a few miles to one side of a major mountain range, there’s plenty of industry and economic activity, and people from the adjacent mountainous area commute there to work.
The same is found in almost any heavily forested mountainous area, such as the central highlands of Vietnam. The Hmong weren’t “backwards” because they were Hmong, but because they lived deep in the hills, which is very different from living along the plains and coastal areas.Report
Thank you GeorgeReport
So then what is the answer economically? The current administration pay slip service to “bringing back coal” but with China dropping its imports something like 40% over night the market has tanked and isn’t likely to recover. Even with the numerous rideglines, you have told me elsewhere that wind farms aren’t a solution, and with the limits to agriculture you describe, it seems farming or other agri-business is not likely to succeed.Report
Good post Andrew. Don’t let anyone bust your chops over your writing, you are doing fine.Report
This is a beautifully written post. It reminds me of home (Nova Scotia).Report
Thank you NorthReport
West Virginia is still waiting on a game-changing $84 billion investment from China that was promised in 2017
I certainly don’t have the answer for all of WV’s economic woes, but I know that there is some opportunity through outdoor recreation. You all are coming a bit late to the elk-reintroduction game but it’s happening now. At the same time, you have amazing white water opportunities and I have some friends that make regular pilgrimages east to spend the weekend riding four-wheelers on West Virginia trails. I am told by them that many of the towns have really embraced the four-wheelers and allow them to drive right down Main Street on their way to a pizza joint or other establishment. There is also skiing and mountain biking and I suspect a wide-range of other opportunities if pursued. Again, none of these are silver bullets and there is a danger that they will only drive a service economy, but that can be leveraged in a lot of other ways.Report