On No Unsacred Place, Sara Amis has a beautiful and thought-provoking piece on Appalachia.
Do you think the beauty of the mountains is somehow in ironic contrast to the ugliness and squalor of its human inhabitants, that they just somehow wound up there by happenstance and are as insensible to the complex living world around them as so many bumps on a log from a old-growth tree? Or are you willing to contemplate the idea that they are the descendents of people who chose to live in all that beauty despite the difficulty of making a living there, and that that could say something about who they are? that their enthusiastic preservation of oral storytelling and old ballads and music and arts of all kinds indicates a love of such things for their own sake? that their ingenuity and ability (not yet entirely lost) to make anything out of two sticks, a rock, and a piece of home-made string, or to cure sickness with weeds out of the yard, are due to an intimate knowledge of the environment which might be useful somehow? that you have been sold a bill of goods, about the region, about the people, about us?
It’s a truly haunting and elegant piece of writing, and it brings up for me some deeply personal questions.
I grew up in south-east Ohio, near the border of West Virginia. And the land is truly maybe the most beautiful in America that I’ve seen thus far, more beautiful in my mind than even the Northwest. This is subjective, of course, but really–the forested hills, the creeks, the caves, the sudden vistas all have such an ancient, story-book feel that they’re not easily forgotten.
And then there’s the coal mining, and the paper mills, and the really high rates of cancer (my uncle and step-grandfather both died of brain cancer, and there’s a severe amount of birth defects in the area I grew up in). And also…the trash. It’s near impossible to walk for too long along a road and see a vast dumping ground of household appliances, trashbags, old cars.
And, well, there’s the racism and homophobia. While she’s right–the rest of America is fed a steady stream of propaganda about the backwardness of Appalachia, and much of it is classist, it’s not all untrue. My mamaw (“grandmother”…interestingly, it appears to be derived from the French “maman,” or mother) casually spoke of “votin’ for that ‘n-gger’, AIDS jokes are a matter of course when speaking of homosexuals, and the very notion of being anything other than Christian (not Catholic, mind you) was to everyone I knew there the most hate-able offense. Also, I could count on one hand the number of families I knew which hadn’t suffered domestic abuse, and I can count one on finger the amount of childhood friends who are still alive.
The typical “liberal” or “progressive” response to such societal issues is to point to education and sometimes poverty (more a Marxist critique than a Progressive one) as the root of much of the bigotry. But having worked with chronically homeless adults in Seattle, poverty isn’t the sole answer (as a matter of fact, my clients were often times more accepting of alternative modes of existence than many self-avowed liberals in Seattle).
Appalachia isn’t alone in such bigotry. I spoke with a friend the other day about the Hoh rainforest, as he intends to visit it in a few weeks. Another hauntingly beautiful place, full of magic and spirits and also, unfortunately, surrounded by some awfully hateful people. Every gay man I know who grew up that area escaped the first chance he got, often long before finishing high school. And even where I’ve been living, the more into nature you go, the more unsafe it is to be homosexual or pagan.
There’s an unfortunate reality any queer person who is also a Pagan encounters. The safest place for a sexual “deviant” is in the cities, where others of our sort congregate, where people are more likely to have learned to accept difference through the sheer number of other opinions and backgrounds inhabiting a city. At the same time, the city is often seen as the height of evil by many ecological folks. Even the Archdruid of the AODA, John Michael Greer, evinces a great dislike for the urban in his blogs.
I don’t have an answer for this problem, nor do I have any good sense of why it is places of untouched nature also tend to be the most unsafe for people like myself (and, to be clear, I don’t “present” as apparently deviant, and most people don’t know I’m gay unless I tell them). It’s just this huge question I have that doesn’t seem to be addressed by many people, and I hope it will be one day. I don’t think the rural has to be hateful, anymore than the urban has to be tolerant (and to be fair, Seattle was becoming a surprisingly intolerant place before I left, with several gay-bashings occurring in the remnants of what had once been the gay enclave in the few months up to my departure).
I’d really, really love to hear your opinions on this matter, because, again, I don’t know the answer to this problem.