For Kris and me, a ten-year age gap meantradically different experiences as queer youth in our rural county.
The town of Alderson, West Virginia, is split by a smooth brown river that straddles the county line and winds between Muddy Creek and Flat Mountain to create the Greenbrier Valley. On an unseasonably warm afternoon in the middle of November 2015, I drove over the bridge and into the Monroe County half of town. Take the first left over the railroad tracks,the directions said, then something about the third house down on the right. I hadn’t read the message very carefully—this was, after all, my hometown, a community of around a thousand people, the place where my parents met, the place where I spent nearly every day of my life until I was seventeen. I knew this town inside and out, I thought, but then again I hadn’t lived here for twelve years.
I drove past the filigreed façades of empty buildings, relics from the timber boom a hundred years ago, and up over the railroad tracks, but there were no houses here, just an abandoned hardware store and laundromat. I got out of my car and peeked around the back of the four-story brick building; nothing there but a cluster of skinny black cats. I felt the foolishness of this moment settle sickly in my stomach. Lost in Alderson—a completely improbable situation. What am I doing here anyhow? I watched one of the black cats bat at its reflection in a gasoline-rainbowed puddle. It was a question I’d been asking myself more often than I liked since moving back to West Virginia.
“Aviva and Roy.” Used with permission from Lisa Elmaleh.
Lisa Elmaleh traded her Brooklyn apartment in 2012 for a wood cabin with no running water — but a “quite lovely” outhouse — on the outskirts of Paw Paw, West Virginia. Urban anonymity was soon replaced by small-town intimacy as she pursued her project of photographing traditional string musicians in Appalachia using, appropriately enough, traditional photographic processes.
She had decided to move there the very day she had done tintypes of Sam Herrmann and her husband, Joe, a couple dedicated to keeping old-time music alive. Paw Paw may not have Brooklyn’s hipster cachet, but it also “has everything that Brooklyn doesn’t” she added.
After a long winter, settlers in West Virginia hungrily welcomed the appearance of the wild leek or ramp, one of the first edible plants to ripen in the Appalachian forests in spring. The ramp became the focus for a tradition of community feasts — a tradition that lingers in rural Appalachia.
Beginning in April and continuing through May, scores of community ramp dinners and full-scae festivals are hosted throughout the state. Many are small affairs that welcome fewer than a hundred guests. Others feed more than 1,000 in the course of an afternoon.
For fourteen years, Ben Bramley has been on the run from his hometown of Abundance, North Carolina. A self-imposed exile has taken him from Duke University's stone-walled campus to a secluded mountaintop outside Boone, where Ben lives as a hermit, his sole companion a coon cat named Smoky.
In his new novel Ripples, author Evan Williams doesn't leave Ben on that mountain long. A family emergency forces the protagonist back to Abundance, the last place he wants to be and the only place he can face his fears. In the below excerpt, Ben's reacts to going home. What do you think of this passage? If you've ever left home for a long period, what was it like when you returned?
And if you're near Asheville's Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, you might swing by for the novel's launch party. It's Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at 6:00pm.
As he exited the SUV, Ben’s soles skidded on fine gravel atop the asphalt lot. Staring at his past, he killed the radio to wrestle with the family crisis, minutes down the road.
The October sun’s last light stretched long shadows across the terrain.
“No progress in fourteen years,” he observed, the landscape idling in neutral.
Abundance School—decrepit when he attended—didn’t have the capacity to look any older. Potato-chip–sized paint flakes peeled from the prominent Federal-style trim encircling the two stories that housed grades one through twelve. The innovation of kindergarten had been blocked. “Budgetary reasons,” they said.
Generations of Bramleys, and Etters—his mom’s side—claimed alumni status from that cyclical institution, where graduating classes bore identical surnames from one year to the next in perpetuity.
Between the school and post office stood Uncle Stan’s gas station with its two-bay garage. Three vintage pumps stood sentinel in front. None accepted credit cards—an in-convenience store.
Beyond the school, the Abundance Growers’ Packing House spilled soft, yellow light onto the highway. A silhouette of flatbed trucks laden with apples awaited their turns to unload. Forklifts buzzed around the perimeter to disappear inside the building, where dozens of worker bees graded and packed fruit. In a few weeks the packing house would lapse into a coma, until resurrected by the influx of next summer’s produce.
And in the center of the crossroads cluster loomed Redeemer Baptist Church, absolute authority oozing out of the mortar joints, which forever locked the clotted-blood-colored bricks in their place of prominence.
A church sign identified Redeemer—a low-rent, changeable-letters kind of sign, the kind often found occupying any roadside strip of crabgrass. Underneath the church’s name, a solemn message: “Visitors Welcome. Members Expected.”
Noticeably lacking were any of the standard warnings—“Turn or Burn,” “If You Died Tonight, Where Would You Go?” Rather, it quoted scripture: “Behold you have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out. Numbers 32:23.”
Ben shuddered at the divine guarantee of exposure, though he daily assured himself that his faith had eroded to nothingness.
Craning his neck, he looked up at the righteous-white steeple, illuminated by a column of light reaching to the heavens. Monday night. No church service. Safe enough to avoid being spotted by the locals. He reminisced, stalling.
“You cannot escape the steeple! The Great Eye sees all!” he bellowed, double-checking for listeners before adding, “Agnostics rule! Baptists drool!”
Though Ben was delighted with his jab, the hollow noise fooled neither himself nor the God from his youth.
Unsettled by his human’s strange behavior, Smoky jumped from his curled position on the front seat to the safety of the farthest corner of the cargo area.
“That’s not true,” Ben recanted. “The Great Eye can’t penetrate closed doors or dark nights where husbands beat wives, or wives screw somebody else’s husbands. It doesn’t stop the teenager breaking into a widow’s home, or the teen’s little brother getting his ass kicked at school.” He hesitated. “No witnesses. Didn’t happen. A lie agreed upon.”
With each word, his fury grew.
“You steeple people, you couldn’t leave Mama alone!”
Feet wide apart, as if preparing for a slugfest, he went silent when his better senses caught up, acknowledging he had been screaming while a frustrated fist beat the innocent air.
“Damn! Less than two minutes here and I’m losing it.”
Author Mesha Maren wants to give you a snake spine. It's one of many gifts and prizes she's offering anyone who pre-orders her forthcoming Appalachian novel Sugar Run.Here's how Mesha explains it:
I know it can be kinda weird to pay for a book a few months before you are going to receive it, so I’ve cooked up a few thank-you gifts. If you preorder Sugar Run now and then message me a screenshot of your purchase and your address, I will mail you a very special gift (while supplies last)! You will receive either a penny that was flattened by a CSX train in Alderson, WV or a piece of pure all-natural Appalachian glitter, i.e. mica! Additionally, if you share a post about the book and let me know that you shared it, I will send you BOTH gifts! You will also be entered to win a very special letterpressed broadside with text and illustrations from Sugar Run made by hand by the extremely talented Leslie Smith. And if you are super duper lucky you might also win a snake spine or a cow’s tooth from Muddy Creek Mountain, West Virginia.
Freebies aside, this book is worth pre-ordering...in hardback... and maybe buying extra copies for all your friends. I was lucky enough to workshop parts of Sugar Runfive years ago. When I first read it, I was stunned by how effortlessly Mesha brought both grace and grit to the page. Now, the rest of the world is discovering her remarkable talents. Everyone from Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, to Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone, have lauded the book.
Below you can see why. In this passage, the book's protagonist Jodi McCarty returns home to Render, West Virginia after eighteen years in prison. Her first stop is her grandmother's long neglected cabin, where she finds the three objects that mattered most to her grandmother. Her second stop is the South Central Regional Parole office, where she's reminded that life as a parolee comes with strings.
What do you think of the excerpt? And what would you do with a snake's spine if you won one?
“Miss Jodi,” Ricky’s voice licked up out of the darkness of the back seat. “I gotta to take a leak.”
Jodi glanced in the rearview mirror. The boys were piled on top of Ricky, Kaleb’s head resting on his shoulder while Donnie and Ross lay stretched across his lap. It was impossible to tell where one brother ended and the other began. The World’s Strangest Family.
“Okay,” Jodi said. “I’ll stop here in just a minute.”
The sky was beginning to lighten, a slate-gray fade across the mountain peaks, and the headlights sketched a weak trail through the greenery. Vines and tree branches crowded thick on both banks of the road, and just ahead, half hidden amongst the bushes, a sign flashed by.
Monongah County, West Virginia
Render 12 mi
Painter Creek 16 mi
Salt Sulphur 23 mi
The words repeated themselves in a flash of reflective paint, over and over behind Jodi’s eyelids as she blinked. Render 12 Miles. This was it. This here, and there and there. The turnaround where the school bus always stopped and looped back towards Painter Creek, the junkyard there where the Weinshotzer kids lived, all of them wearing knit hats, even in the summer heat, hiding the shame of lice-shaved heads. The little brick house that belonged to that princess, Mallory Estep, the doctor’s daughter, her ankle socks adorned with white lace all through elementary, and in high school, her hair attended to, in the back of the bus, by no less than three handmaids, a cloud of Aquanet hairspray perpetually frosting the air around them.
Render was still sleeping, just a few bare bulbs glowing above front porch swings and strings of Christmas lights in the windows. Jodi sped through town, ignoring the Exxon station and Ricky’s need, headed instead for Bethlehem Mountain Road, a one-lane track that jutted up between limestone boulders as pale and exposed as sun-bleached bones, and then wound on into the green immensity of oak and hickory. But just before the turnoff for Bethlehem, a neon sign caught her eye, the yellow letters arched above an arrow pointing downriver. Slattery’s Girl, it read, Open 24 Hours. Beer. Music. Booze.
Jodi slowed the car and stared at the sign. Through most of her childhood Monongah County had been dry. It was only in ‘86 that they began to sell gas station beer and even then there were no bars. If you wanted to drink you did it at home or on back roads in half-wrecked cars.
The mountain showed other changes too: a new gravel road, cut hastily through the old Jessup apple orchard, spread out across a shale cliff, giving way to a perfect bird’s-eye view of the town below. A tower rose there now, a tall metal grid looming over the trees, and as she slowed for the steep turn, Jodi caught sight of a huge mud-splattered truck moving like some giant dinosauric creature down the ruts of the new-made road and on a tree, there beside the entrance, a hand-painted sign that read: Fracking = Permanent Threat and Danger = Our Water is Our Life!
“Miss Jodi,” Ricky called from the back seat. “I can’t hold it much longer.”
“Shit, sorry.” Jodi stopped the car. “You can just piss in the ditch here.”
The boys whined as Ricky unearthed himself from under them, and Miranda stirred too, blinking awake. Jodi reached over and brushed away the blonde hair matted against her sweaty cheek. “We’re almost there,” she said, and then as Ricky climbed back in she turned and she smiled at him too and said, “Just call me Jodi, okay? I don’t need the Miss.”
Effie’s land was ripe with disuse. The Chevette could barely fit into the mouth of the lane, clogged as it was with multi-flora rose and goldenrod.
“We’ll walk from here,” Jodi said, opening the car door to the smell of honeysuckle and a darker fungus scent.
Up ahead the contours of the road were visible in a ghostly way under the swells of jimsonweed—it was a little like looking back and forth between a much younger photograph of a woman and her now aging face; the bone structure was still there but the surface had all but completely changed.
“Watch out for snakes.” Ricky’s voice boomed at Jodi’s back.
“I wanna see a snake,” Donnie said.
Jodi quickened her pace, her head buzzing with worry as she came around the bend.
And then there it was: the little off-kilter cabin with the metal roof curling up from the frame. Jodi didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until she let it out and took off running, greenbrier vines snatching at her jeans as she rushed forward, expecting every moment for it to all ghost off into a dream.
Time did not separate here. The past ran parallel and you could catch a glimpse if you turned quick enough. Nineteen years ago she left the cabin, in the paling light of gray-green storm clouds, receding through the dirt-smudged glass of a rear windshield. For eighteen years the hologram danced. But now it was real: the porch creaking under her feet, the front door open and a slice of light pointing across the pine floorboards straight to the cast iron woodstove. The window above the sink was shattered, triangles of glass still clinging to the frame, and on the back wall a rack of copper pots hung untouched.
Jodi stepped inside, dry leaves and acorns crunching underfoot. She moved slowly towards the kitchen table, that unforgettable oak slab with the heart of the tree running down the center in a single stripe. Three chairs were set on each side, pushed back at an angle, as if a card party had just ended.
She opened the china cabinet and pale moths lifted up from amongst the cups and flapped blindly against her face. A calendar hung on the wall. December 2002— Jodi’s thirteenth year in Jaxton— it featured a blonde girl with boobs bursting out of a camo hunting shirt. This was the only sign that anyone had been inside since Effie died back in ’88.
Jodi moved over to the sealed-off fireplace where there sat, on the mantle, a Mason jar of tiny bones and fingernail clippings.
These, Effie had explained to ten-year-old Jodi, these are the three important things.
The first was her Smith & Wesson .38 with a smooth wooden handle and the words Lady Smith engraved in cursive on the side, the second a Remington 721, and the third, the Mason jar with the remains of Granddaddy McCarty’s right hand.
The Ladysmith .38 had been a wedding gift from Granddaddy to his bride, and the best thing, Effie said, she ever got out of that marriage. The Remington was an inheritance from the uncle who took Effie in, and the bits of bone and fingernail were the result of Granddaddy’s affair with a lady, or two, from town. When Effie had heard about it she’d turned her wedding gift on him and he lost the hand before he got out of their cabin. Their oldest son, Phillip, went with his father, following the blood trail down the rutted lane, leaving Effie and Andy, Jodi’s daddy, with the land to themselves.
“He’s telling you to be careful.” Kaleb’s voice carried up the porch steps.
Jodi turned to see Donnie burst into the cabin, carrying a tall stick, jabbing it out in front of himself and pulling his way across the room.
The others crowded in the doorway, Ricky eyeing the log walls, Miranda on tiptoe, peering over his shoulder, and Kaleb pressed in behind her.
“It really is like Little House on the Prairie,” Miranda said.
Jodi laughed and shook her head but she was relieved to see Miranda smiling.
The trip to Beckley took an hour and Jodi drove it alone, leaving Miranda, Ricky and the boys at the cabin. Half a block from the South Central Regional Parole office she realized she didn’t quite have a license yet and probably shouldn’t be seen driving and so she stashed the Chevette in the shade of a white pine and approached the redbrick building on foot, preparing on her face a look of earnest compliance.
Officer Ballard hardly glanced at her though. He was sleeping at his desk when the young receptionist cleared her throat and called out Benny twice before he finally stirred and looked up at Jodi.
“You’ve got a new supervised release here,” the receptionist said and left quickly.
Benny Ballard’s head was too big for his neck and his face was stamped with an expression of deep annoyance. He ran his hand through his graying hair and then turned in his swivel chair and reached for the coffeepot that sat, burning, on the hotplate behind him, filling the office with a dry bittersweet smell.
“Now I suppose you expect me to shake your little hand and do the whole how-gee-do-gee bit,” he said, pouring the dregs of the coffee into a mug that read Sarcasm: My Generous Gift to the Universe. “But let’s cut that crap and see if we can’t get this over with and get me out of here a little early today.”
Jodi sat down quietly in the folding chair. This wouldn’t be hard, she thought, she knew the type. There were the ones who took their jobs too seriously, believing they were personally responsible for helping reform criminals, and then there were the ones like this who only counted the hours until they were back home in front of the T.V. As long as you gave them the proper respect, they ignored you ninety-nine percent of the time.
Ballard sat his coffee mug on a stack of papers and pulled out a manila folder. “You must be Jodi McCarty, 611 Murdock Street, Render?”
“Alright, then, here we go.” He let his eyes slide halfway closed and stared over Jodi’s shoulder, rattling off a litany of regulations, fast and breathless, his rote voice reminding Jodi of Ricky’s tour guide shtick. “You shall notleave the geographic limits fixed by the certificate of release without written permission from your Supervision Officer. You shallmake a complete and truthful written report to your Supervision Officer between the first and third day of each month, and on the final day of parole. You shall alsoreport to your Supervision Officer at other times as your Supervision Officer directs, providing complete and truthful information. You shall notviolate any law. You shall notassociate with persons engaged in criminal activity. You shallwork regularly unless excused by your Supervision Officer and support your legal dependents, if any, to the best of your ability.” Ballard looked up at Jodi. “In other words get a job and keep it.”
Jodi nodded and looked away towards the pea green bookshelf with a dead plant on top. In prison you were never really allowed to be an individual human being, responsible for your own life decisions, but once they’d released you it was like you were suddenly supposed to know how to do it all effortlessly.
“There ain’t much in the way of jobs in Render,” Jodi said.
Ballard cracked the knuckles of his left hand.
Jodi took a deep breath and glanced back at him. He raised his eyebrows.
“I was thinking,” she said, looking not at Ballard but at a fly that had landed and was now cleaning its wings on the rim of his coffee cup. “I’d like to raise some yearlings, build up to a little cow-calf operation eventually.”
Ballard lifted his cup and the fly moved to his hand. He did not seem to notice. “Gotta be legitimately employed.” He put the cup down and the fly returned to it. “Where you planning on raising ‘em anyhow? In the back yard in Render?”
“Oh, no.” Jodi squeezed here eyes shut. Shit, fuck. How could she have come so close to admitting to this man that she didn’t plan to live at her official given address, that she would instead be squatting on land she owed who knows how much taxes on? Shit, fuck. “No, I guess I didn’t think that one through.”
Ballard barked out a laugh. “You gotta be employedand paidby somebody.”
Jodi looked up at him. “Who’s gonna hire me when they see the Class B felony?”
“Some of the girls inside said even McDonald’s won’t take felons.”
“Mmm-hmm, well, yeah.” Ballard cracked the knuckles of his right hand. “What do your parents do for work?”
“Disability.” Jodi looked down at her lap. “Before that Daddy was a guard over at the prison. Federal prison camp’s about the only place in Render that’s got steady jobs.”
Ballard laughed again. “Well, shit,” he said. “Alright, well, you prove to me that you’re looking. You don’t find nothing after awhile and you might consider getting a CDL. Long haul trucking companies’ll sometimes hire on felons.”
Jodi stared at him. He raised his eyebrows and then the corners of his mouth turned up into a small mocking smile. “You submit to me a written report between the first and third of each month. If I’m not here, you leave it with the secretary. You report punctual and factual and we should have no problems but you cause troubles for me and I will make your life hell.”
He blinked at Jodi.
“Is that clear?”
Jodi met his eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Alright, that’s it, that’s my side of the responsibility.” He tossed her folder onto the desk amongst the other papers, all those other typed reports of crumpled, bruised-up lives. “You are officially a supervised release parolee. Now get the fuck outa my sight.”
Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. By TVA Web Team via Wikimedia Commons.
I woke up last Friday to find a poem in my inbox. It came from Casey LaFrance, who was raised in North Georgia and now teaches in Illinois. On a recent drive, he passed the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, and something about the sight of the facility's massive cooling towers lit up his brain.
"Saw the reactors and thought of Oak Ridge in WWII," he told me, "And then little boy...and then..."
And then the words came tumbling out. Casey actually pulled over on the side of I-24 to pen this powerhouse of a poem—proof that inspiration can strike anywhere.
Little Boy - For Ocoee
by Casey LaFrance
The bridge over Watts Bar Reminded me of the Bombs You reigned down And that little boy’s Sonogram. I wanted him to listen to the Dragging screech of fiddles And watch the mountain tops Hug the Cumberland Gap. I wanted to show him how Poor kids play baseball With sticks and gravel chunks Left from some mining disaster. I wanted momma on her lithium And not the Tinder Pharmacist’s Seedy cocktail. And I wanted A family. And I wanted a home. And I wanted to push a buggy And buy too many toys. Diane Fischer told us turpentine and Sugar water would suffice, You chose to take the vacuum And let him listen to me pray And play Allison Krauss, Baby Mine, On the drive to Fayetteville. Only other time I heard of That part of North Carolina Is when the Iron Sheik Got popped for dope. Hell ain’t so much a place As a feeling. But, God himself knows the power Of the blood and creek water And momma’s cornbread Dressing. And he sent me to see Her to shake off this shiner. It hit harder than the lean boy Behind the Waffle House and Faster than the dam letting out. Sarah was beside me, at least On the phone . Blair Dahlonega or Coy, I thought for sure it was a boy, Watched daddy reconstruct Find beauty again, Revisit old friends. Jane and Stephen Never changed. Lona is a lion. And by-god Amy Daniel told me to wash my face, Catch trout, and get my ass back Home.
Ed DeWitt. May 17, 2015. During a backyard birthday party celebrating her sister Esther's 1st birthday, Judah takes a crack at what proved to be a very stubborn piñata. Cumberland, Allegany County, Maryland.
They say a picture is worth 1000 words. The folks at Looking at Appalachia, a region-wide photo project, have put that theory to the test.
You can now pick your favorite shot from the project's collection and submit a 1000 word caption. Your short piece can be just about anything—from a fictional story built around the image to original poetry inspired by it.
"Like good pictures, good writing stands on its own," said Roger May who founded Looking at Appalachia, "but I’ve always been interested in exploring how the two can work together."
Named Call and Response, this clever activity has already drawn some remarkable submissions, like the one below. Written by Andrea Null of Charleston, West Virginia, this poem was inspired by the accompanying photo, which was shot about seventy miles away in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Textile art by Alexander Hernandez, published in the zine.
“One of the first things I think about when I meet up with friends and we are going to walk somewhere,” writes one queer, disabled person, “is if they are going to leave me behind.”
This worry makes me pause. I qualify as queer too, but I’ve rarely considered the dread disabled people must feel over a simple walk.
Flipping through the zine’s pages, I also stop on a photo of a bearded person wearing eye shadow and cradling an autoharp, seemingly enrapt with the instrument, the performance, or maybe both.
A few pages later, I’m chuckling at the “Trillbilly Crossword,” which includes the words “Antifa,” “Elegy,” “Mothman,” “Neoliberal,” and “Smut” and, then, I’m wincing at words from a queer, Southern, Muslim who was raped at age 19. “This is what happens to us,” she says, “Everyone I know has been through this or another kind of violence.”
It’s disorienting to encounter so many perspectives this way, smushed together in the tight, seemingly haphazard layout common to zines. Imagine sticking your face right up against the contrasting fabrics of a crazy quilt. It’s overwhelming, but that’s kind of the point, according to Gina Mamone, founder of Queer Appalachia, the project behind the publication. Mamone (who goes by a last name) says the group intentionally published work from professional writers “right next to a trans Muslim of color who has a GED and has never seen their name in print.”
Photograph by @ErinOly, published in the zine.
Even for me, a gay guy from the region, it’s a powerful reminder that there are thousands of ways to be queer in Appalachia, and this “everybody under the tent” approach is reaching a lot of people. The first run of Electric Dirt’s premiere issue has sold out, and Queer Appalachia has nearly 50,000 followers across Instagram and Facebook.
But the project isn’t just about giving voice to the voiceless. It also follows the lead of young activists—the heart of its readership—by tackling some of Appalachia’s most pressing issues. “Queers in their 20s,” says Mamone, “they're fighting bathroom laws that police their bodies and gender presentation in real time...They're starting needle exchanges and narcan workshops in their backyards.”
Hazel Dickens Rubiks Cube from Global Inheritance Installation, published in the zine.
Though this generation draws from Appalachia’s progressive history, which encompasses early 20th century mine wars and the 1960’s back to the earth movement, Mamone sees important differences.
“Passing along a recipe for a stack cake is not something they're interested in, [but] creating a space for dialogue about why more black trans women are murdered in the South than any other place in this country—we’re going to show up to that.”
There are actually a few recipes in Electric Dirt, but the point stands. Most of the zine’s pages focus on overlooked Appalachian people and big Appalachian problems. For Mamone and the other leaders of this burgeoning movement, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“No one can enjoy that stack cake if they are dead.”
Born Of It
A poem by Xander Stewart, published in "Electric Dirt"
I rose from low tide and weak tabernacle oors I rose from brine-preserved beliefs and hymnals hoisted up like sails I rose from oyster bed raw, shucked, and fucked no pearl to be found I rose from a gulf gospel echoed by gulls overhead I rose from parched tongue proverbs and a pilgrim’s perseverance I rose from swollen stern swells strong shouting of saints I rose, already sinking I rose not knowing the way navigating only by the and knots in our navels by guess and by god I rose from driftwood deliverance between the devil and the deep i’ll cut the corn off the cob for you because you swear it taste sweeter that way and that’s how your grandma did it for you in the kitchen on sundays barefoot boy in a dress honey thick for a biscuit thicker than the blood that proved bitter when you decided no more dresses honey sweet, honey slow like the hymns you hum still while the collards reduce we break biscuits like they tried to break you tried to bridle their boy with satin and “she” tried to pray away pieces of you on this particular morning your smile like leaven is making it easy to rise and continue through the heat of the summer last night, I came to you with an alabaster tin grew my hair long for anointed your feet so next time you have to go home you can remember me when you remove your shoes as if on holy ground yesterday afternoon, you entered your old home you sat in the living room and took inventory of the changes made since you left, seven years ago a photo above the replace serves to preserve the image of you they prefer to the version that sits before them now in the photo, you wear femininity like a veil that is worn for mourning you come home exhausted today, in the unblinking eye of the sun I want to take you out on the sidewalk eyes squinted from the bright press you against the ivied wall of my house and kiss you until the cicadas sing of us and the frogs croak out their vespers I want to kiss you until the yard is swallowed in reed and rush until the kudzu weaves blankets over the door until no one can deny the holiness of our love or determine any gender as divine as if the hand of god wrote your dead name on the wall they hang your shame over the hearth contain you to a gilded frame remember you as you are not cherish only the earliest memories, that are mostly gone already like a tattered covered hymn book, dog-eared, worn but tomorrow I’ll remind you that my banner over you is love it is love budding like aaron’s rod it is love for the laceless, graceless barefoot boy
You may have noticed a glut of two-demensional media about Appalachia lately. From the bestselling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" to news stories that bill the region as "Trump country," a lot of ink is being spilt over persistent poverty in our mountains. Unfortunately, little sinks deep.
That's why "Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia" is remarkable. It doesn't settle for half-baked explanations—the dying coal industry is making people poor or, even worse, their own laziness. Instead, as guest blogger Chelyen Davis explains, this new book digs at Appalachian poverty's historic roots.
Early in Steve Stoll’s “Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia,” he tells of an anthropologist who studied the Siriono people of eastern Bolivia. The anthropologist found their culture simple, lacking in mythology and rituals, using almost no tools, games, or music. He declared them to be primitive, culturally backward. Yet he never asked why the Siriono lacked these things. It turns out they were nearly exterminated by smallpox two decades before, losing the ability to transmit ritual and culture and lacking the manpower to expand their food base. By missing this, Stoll writes, the anthropologist “mistook condition for culture.” And like him, “…we will fail to ask the right questions if we are deceived into thinking that some people have no history, that their poverty is inherent, its causes evident.” Case study writing services help to clarify the details.
Those wearied by the glut of Appalachian poverty articles in the news over the last couple of years—pieces which usually assume the region's poverty is inherent, its causes evident—might see a connection.
Many of these stories use tired stereotypes of the region (primarily its coalfields) as downtrodden and its people as despairing. To the extent that any of these pieces look deeper, they explain that Appalachia is desperate because coal is a dying industry.
But that’s as far as they go. They write about our reliance on coal without asking how the region’s economy got so extraction-centered in the first place, and they write about poverty without questioning its deeper causes. Mistaking condition for culture, as Stoll says, they miss key questions.
Why would the demise of the coal industry undermine the economy of states like West Virginia and the job outlook of the miner? Because, according to Stoll, corporations seeking profit from timber and coal destroyed or enclosed land that had been used as a commons—where citizens could hunt, gather, fish, and pasture livestock—and they did so with the collusion of the state. Ever since, both state and people have paid the price.
The author argues is that dispossessing people from Appalachian land (chiefly whites, though he also touches on African-Americans and Native Americans) caused poverty.
To place this in historic context, Stoll—a Fordham University history professor—connects Appalachia’s land grab to enclosures in England that began in the 16th century. In both cases, the elimination of common land forced people into wage-based work, which, in turn, made them poorer.
Dispossessing people of land, Stoll says, also involves creating a false narrative—that those people were backward, degenerate, and unable to put land to its most profitable use. He traces that narrative and, the effort to make Appalachian land and people part of a capitalist economy, back to post-Revolutionary War times, as leaders like Alexander Hamilton sought to bring the frontier into compliance with the government. Dispossession is a government policy with social consequences—a choice, not an inevitability—says the author.
“Any Scots-Irish, Cherokee, or African-American with a cabin and garden knew that dispossession served someone else’s purpose,” Stoll writes, “It was an instrument of control, not a sign of progress.”
Stoll does propose a solution—a multi-point plan in which commons are restored. Much of West Virginia’s land is owned by corporations. He proposes that some of it be used to build “commons communities,” with affordable housing; an ecological base for hunting, gathering and gardening; social services and education paid for in part by an Industrial Abandonment Tax; and a reprieve from federal income tax for residents with low incomes. As idealistic as this seems, he also acknowledges that this vision has its problems, and isn’t likely to happen when capitalism continues to define progress. Still, it’s nice to see a proposed solution for poverty that doesn’t urge Appalachians to hit the hillbilly highway to big cities, instead encouraging them to stay in the mountains and thrive in a way that doesn’t rely on extraction industries.
I would be remiss in not noting an error: Stoll says he personally observed Bluefield, my hometown, as having sparse grocery shelves and no locally-owned restaurants. Bluefield is one of those places that's bisected by a state line with a city and a town on either side, but it functions as a single place for commerce and shopping. While both Bluefields have lost population and businesses due to coal's slow decline, there are indeed locally-owned restaurants (and have been my whole life) and more than one well-stocked grocery store.
But otherwise, the author documents sources and facts extensively, with 51 pages of endnotes and 44 of bibliography. With a long and winding narrative, this academic book may tax some readers. But it also puts Appalachia's history in a global context, drawing connections from West Virginia to the world as it evaluates notions of “progress” and what that means for agrarian societies...as Appalachia once was.
It also struck a personal chord. Reading it, I thought of my grandfather, who grew up on a Southwest Virginia tenant farm, land his family worked but didn’t own. Eventually the farm became part of Jefferson National Forest—another kind of land-taking, albeit one that prevents some forms of exploitation. Stoll writes of broad changes, which can range from the creation of large parks to the invention of mineral rights. For many of us, those shifts reflect very directly in our personal family histories. In that way, this book doesn’t put just Appalachia in context. For me, it also puts my forebears in context, and for anyone trying to understand the vast, complex Appalachian region, “Ramp Hollow” is a valuable read.
A former Virginia state house reporter, Chelyen Davis hails from Bluefield (the Virginia side) and writes about her Appalachian heritage for a variety of publications. She now lives in Richmond, Virginia. Follow her at @chelyendavis on Twitter.
Combing everything from an old blues tune to Appalachian folklore, today's guest blogger—Luke Bauserman—finds inspiration in ghostly dogs. Here, he explains the common thread between old stories about canines and shares one that has spooked mountain people for more than a century.
In 1937, Robert Johnson recorded one of the most haunting blues songs of all time, “Hellhound on My Trail.” While experts debate the exact meaning of Johnson’s lyrics, the imagery is chilling. The first time I heard the song, I immediately imagined a beast like the Hound of the Baskervilles chasing a blues singer through the backwoods of Mississippi.
The association between dogs and the underworld is very widespread in ancient folklore and has continued into modern times. In ancient Egypt and Rome, fearsome dogs guarded the gates to the underworld. The British Isles have a rich tradition of “black dog” lore. Such critters are associated with death, bad omens, the Devil, and crossroads.
It’s then no surprise that when Europeans settled in the mountains of Appalachia, they brought their folk tales with them. In "Virginia Folk Legends," Thomas E. Barden writes that during the New Deal, researchers employed by the Virginia Writers’ Project gathered twenty-one narratives of supernatural and/or “devil” dogs in their collecting, most of them from Appalachia and all of them from mountainous regions of the state. One striking aspect of the stories is how similar their descriptions of ghostly dogs are. “The dogs are always large and black, and they have remarkable eyes, which are variously described as being red, ‘as big a saucers,’ and ‘shining like balls of fire.’”
In writing my novel "Some Dark Holler," I spent a lot of time hunting down and reading these “devil dog” stories. My favorite one was “The Black Dog of the Blue Ridge,” recorded by Mrs. R.F. Herrick in 1907. In it, we meet a supernatural black dog who is both a terrifying creature and a character worthy of sympathy. This story inspired me to take a similar approach with Sampson, the hellhound in "Some Dark Holler."
In Botetourt County, Virginia, there is a pass that was much traveled by people going to Bedford County and by visitors to mineral springs in the vicinity. In the year 1683, the report was spread that at the wildest part of the trail in this pass there appeared at sunset a great black dog, who, with majestic tread, walked in a listening attitude about two hundred feet and then turned and walked back. Thus he passed back and forth like a sentinel on guard, always appearing at sunset to keep his nightly vigil and disappearing again at dawn. And so the whispering went with bated breath from one to another, until it had traveled from one end of the state to the other.
Parties of young cavaliers were made up to watch for the black dog. Many saw him. Some believed him to be a veritable dog sent by some master to watch; others believed him to be a witch dog. A party decided to go through the pass at night, well armed, to see if the dog would molest them. Choosing a night when the moon was full they mounted good horses and sallied forth. Each saw a great dog larger than any dog they had ever seen, and, clapping spurs to their horses, they rode forward. But they had not calculated on the fear of their steeds. When they approached the dog, the horses snorted with fear, and in spite of whip, spur, and rein gave him a wide berth, while he marched on as serenely as if no one were near. The party was unable to force their horses to take the pass again until after daylight. Then they were laughed at by their comrades to whom they told their experiences. Thereupon they decided to lie in ambush, kill the dog, and bring in his hide.
The next night found the young men well hidden behind rocks and bushes with guns in hand. As the last ray of sunlight kissed the highest peak of the Blue Ridge, the black dog appeared at the lower end of his walk and came majestically toward them. When he came opposite, every gun cracked. When the smoke cleared away, the great dog was turning at the end of his walk, seemingly unconscious of the presence of the hunters. Again and again they fired, and still, the dog walked his beat, and fear caught the hearts of the hunters, and they fled wildly away to their companions, and the black dog held the pass at night unmolested.
Time passed, and year after year went by, until seven years had come and gone, when a beautiful woman came over from the old country, trying to find her husband who eight years before had come to make a home for her in the new land. She traced him to Bedford County, and from there all trace of him was lost. Many remembered the tall, handsome man and his dog. Then there came to her ear the tale of the vigil of the great dog of the mountain pass, and she pleaded with the people to take her to see him, saying that if he was her husband’s dog, he would know her.
A party was made up, and before night they arrived at the gap. The lady dismounted and walked to the place where the nightly watch was kept. As the shadows grew long, the party fell back on the trail, leaving the lady alone, and as the sun sank into his purple bed of splendor the great dog appeared. Walking to the lady, he laid his great head in her lap for a moment, then turning he walked a short way from the trail, looking back to see that she was following. He led her until he paused by a large rock, where he gently scratched the ground, gave a long, low wail, and disappeared. The lady called the party to her and asked them to dig. As they had no implements, and she refused to leave, one of them rode back for help. When they dug below the surface, they found the skeleton of a man and the hair and bones of a great dog. They found a seal ring on the hand of the man and a heraldic embroidery in silk that the wife recognized. She removed the bones for proper burial and returned to her old home. It was never known who had killed the man. But from that time to this the great dog, having finished his faithful work has never appeared again.
Source: Herrick, Mrs. R. F. “The Black Dog of the Blue Ridge.” Journal of American Folklore 20 (1907): 151-52.
A 1929 Ringling Brothers & Barnum-Bailey sideshow photo showed the Muse brothers (front row, slightly to the right) along with other performers who found both refuge and exploitation in the circus. (Edward J. Kelty photograph courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Collection)
In Roanoke, the Muse brothers were legends. For about half their lives, they were traded between circuses. Their genetic disorder—albinism—left their skin unusually pale and their eyes pink-tinged plus they wore their hair in dreadlocks. Today, they may not sound too exotic, but during the first decades of the 20th century, their appearances made them one of the era's most popular and enduring sideshow acts. Billed as everything from cannibals to martians, the brothers toured the U.S. and Europe, sometimes getting paid, sometimes being swindled by their managers, white men who, for years, told them that their African-American mother was dead.
A young journalist named Beth Macy moved to Roanoke in 1989. By then, the Muse brothers had long since returned to the area. George, the older and more outgoing of the two, had actually passed away some years before. Willie, who was approaching 100-years-old, rarely left the attic of his house in Roanoke's Rugby neighborhood, just a few dozen miles from Truevine, the hamlet where he was born.
Theirs was the best story in town, Beth was told, but also the least accessible. "No one's been able to get it," one photographer said, and she soon learned why.
Nancy Saunders, great-niece to the Muse brothers, ran her soul food restaurant like a drill sergeant. "The first time I asked if I could interview Willie Muse," Beth wrote in her bestselling book "Truevine," "...she pointed to a homemade sign on the Goody Shop wall. A customer had stenciled the words in black block letters...SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP."
Most anyone else would have given up there and then, but Beth is the rarest kind of journalist. Rather than bouncing from a small paper to a mid-sized one, trying to work her way to one of the big boys, she stayed at The Roanoke Times for more than twenty years and told stories of local underdogs—a gay man whose name had been removed from his partner's obituary, a wife struggling to care for her husband as dementia stole his mind. Between researching and writing what must have been hundreds of pieces, Beth kept visiting the Goody Shop.
In time, she learned why Nancy was so protective. From the day George and Willie returned to the area, they were treated like oddities. Strangers, both black and white, came to their house, insisting that relatives bring them outside so they could have a look. Children in the family were subjected to taunts. "Your uncles eat raw meat!" classmates would shout, having learned about the brothers as a cautionary tale. Don't end up like those Muse boys, black parents told their children, a stranger nabbed them from a tobacco field when they were little and turned them into circus slaves.
Sometimes it was easy to sort fact from fiction. The brothers, of course, did not eat raw meat. But their origin story, how they ended up in the circus, was more nuanced. Beth found it hard to believe that their mother, an illiterate but savvy sharecropper who was both alive during their circus years and ready to fight for her sons, could have been so easily duped.
Nancy disagreed. Even as she warmed to the idea of sharing her uncles' story, she held to the version she'd always heard, one Willie himself had told her, "a man luring him and his brother into the back of his wagon with a piece of candy."
As much as anything, "Truevine" is about this unlikely partnership—two women sorting through a provocative and often brutal history. Beth combed archives. Nancy talked to relatives. They both uncovered clues about the brothers' difficult lives, many in the form of photos.
"George's chin is raised, almost defiantly, while Willie looks straight into the camera," Beth wrote about one image. "His right hand is held in the playing style known as clawhammer, thumb out from the body of the banjo and fingers tucked."
Clawhammer is, of course, a technique popular with mountain musicians, but it's unlikely Willie learned it in Truevine. When he left, he was only six-years-old. He probably picked it up from minstrels, who also favored this style and, perhaps unwittingly, provided the younger Muse with a connection to his homeland.
Beth called this photo her "favorite from the stack," and that stack was large. Time and again, she described images of the brothers and people they knew—literal giants and pygmies, sword swallowers, and pinheads, outsiders who embraced the word "freak" because it carved a place for them in society, who worked the sideshows because it was the only living they could make.
Without these shots, it would have been tough to reconstruct the Muse brothers' story and harder still to glean who they were as boys and later men, how they changed over time. A downward glance or a tattered sleeve sometimes conveyed more than all their old circus posters combined.
Time caught up with Willie. He passed some fifteen years before Beth wrote "Truevine." As the book neared completion, she and a photographer visited Nancy's house, where they took new pictures, including shots of Willie's attic room. Before they left, Nancy slipped Beth a quote she'd found in the newspaper, one by the philosopher Voltaire.
"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth."
When you look at the below photos, what kind of truth do you see? What stands out as you peer back through time and study the faces of George, Willie, and their mother Harriett Muse?
Edward J. Kelty took this picture of the brothers for Ringling Brothers & Barnum-Bailey Circus in 1926 with the handwritten caption 'Are They Ambassadors from Mars.' The brothers hadn't seen their mother in at least twelve years at that point. (Courtesy of Circus World Museum)
Even though he was blind late in life, Willie Muse always kept this framed photo of his mother, Harriett Muse, next to his bed. (Courtesy of Nancy Saunders)
"The Muse brothers were widely considered 'good examples of contented freaks,'" wrote The New Yorker magazine, which snidely reported that the brothers returned to the circus [after a stint back home] because 'the fried chicken had soon given out at Roanoke.' (Collection of Robert Stauffer)
All photos used with permission from Little, Brown and Company.