Seems chilly in here. I suppose the fire has been unintended for rather a long time.
I’m not sure if it is so much that I have been waiting for something “worthy” to write about or have just mired in some sort of Scriptorium Doldrums. Or perhaps it’s been the time spent chasing ‘round the Halls of Justice. No matter – wherever I go, there I am. (I don’t know who I’m stealing that line from.)
I’ve spent a good bit of time with outlanders & flatlanders lately. So I’ve been thinking about Mother West Virginia. Anyone who’s read a bit of these Dispatches knows that blue and gold are among the colors I bleed. Maybe, for the first time, I get just a hint of the anguish in the heart of Col. R. E. Lee when he had to choose between the Union and the Old Dominion.
And when I hear denigration of these hills, I react with indignation and fury and the wide, booming bombast reminiscent of my friend the late A. James Manchin. As Secretary of State, A. James was the self-appointed guardian of the good name of West Virginia. He was the first person who would sally forth in her defense. And he would always do so in colorful ways, such as inviting an official of some other state to settle the argument while soaking with A. James in a West Virginia-made hot tub.
But all the bombast aside, we Mountaineers have let our vision dim and ears stop up as we became blind and deaf to the creaks of anguish of our Mother West Virginia.
One of our very first, most effective, and most self-deluding mechanisms to explain away our coming in 48th or 49th in nearly every measure of vibrant and healthy living among the states is reflected in that line above about “outlanders & flatlanders.”
We pretend that there is some sort of “Mountain mystery,” or “Hill people ethic” that one has to LIVE before one can be admitted into the secrets of life as a West Virginian. “Oh, you just can’t understand, what with coming from New Jersey/ California/ Florida/ wherever.” There is, we pretend, some kind of innate wisdom in the mountains which is passed to us by some inarticulable process as we grow up.
And the oddest thing of all is that even as I see the ridiculousness of such a thing, I have been steeped in that culture so much, I still believe in it. To an extent, it has a bit of validity and usefulness. When one can walk into the forest and know that whether it’s an hour later or a week later they will walk out happy and healthy, I think there’s quite a joy and a power in that. We seem to pretend that if you ain’t got that joy, you can’t have any joy.
Why not? I remember my friend Dick Sonnenshein who taught literature at Fairmont State College. He was, I believe, from New York City, and one of his greatest fears was being someplace out of view of the works of man. I used to tease him about that just as he used to tease me about the profound lack of culture in Fairmont and I guess we were both right.
Culture. Sure, we have satellite dishes and internet. But there is so little live non-regional music. So little live theater. Virtually no dance (not that I understand the tiniest bit about that.)
One of the cable channel/networks ran a brief “reality” series, the name of which I don’t recall and really don’t care enough to look up, but for identification sake let’s just call it what it was, “Shithead Moron Drug Addicts of West Virginia.” These folks touted their little simplified utopia of mud bogging, weed puffing, random copulating and dreadful speech. And even some moderately intelligent folks hereabouts were amused by the whole thing and amused by the idea that the “city folks” would have a hard time understanding.
Oh, I’m hardly immune from using the good ol’ boy culture and patois. How often did you see the words “ain’t” or “hereabouts” used in ordinary speech or writing?
And perhaps it would all be in good fun if we were not ignoring so much and hiding so much with the rural schtick. We should not be leaning on our bloody flintlocks and toting an actual or metaphorical jug of corn liquor, not giving a tinker’s damn that we are every bit as much cookie-cutter conformists as anybody in the much-maligned People’s Republic of New York. We have a lot more guns. We’re a lot less likely accidentally to shoot bystanders. Beyond that, we’re every bit as pitiful.
The economy of West Virginia is not the hopeful, bright, up-swinging joy that every Rah-Rah Booster pretends to. As interstate highways cross every County line, on the same signpost as the name of the new County is another sign: “A Certified Business Location.” Certified by who? (Whom?) Certified for what? And if it’s certified, where in the pluperfect hell is the business?
Historically, the economy of West Virginia was built upon natural resources. As a practical matter, these were nonrenewable. Yeah, I know, timber, just plant more trees. Bulllllll-shit.
The timber part of the economy of West Virginia was built upon the magnificent stands of hardwoods which were part of the great Eastern Forest. Supposedly, a squirrel could climb a tree near the beach in Virginia and not touch the earth until it came to the Mississippi.
Some of us like a place called the Canaan Valley in Tucker County. I like its very open golf course. (The only real problem with the course is that the Navy still uses it as a waypoint for aircraft training out of Norfolk. You always wonder if an F-18 engine is going to eat one of your chip shots.) The Canaan Valley is wide and open, and it is an unparalleled upland & wetland with unique species of flora and such a natural wonderland.
One of the first Europeans into the Canaan Valley was a young surveyor, one George Washington of Eastern Virginia. He described the Valley as having the most dense stand of hardwoods that the mind could ever imagine, a forest teeming with bear and deer and species of big cats, a genuine natural paradise.
And then came the timber companies, controlled by non-local ownership, usually from the financial centers of New York. This magnificent forest as well as all of the other magnificent forests were clear-cut and turned into the fine Victorian houses and the expensive furniture you see on Antique Roadshow. Without vegetation to hold the top soil in place, it washed away leaving a swamp. Only the wetland flora species brought in by birds flourished and, presto, instant upland wetland.
And now? Oh, there is a little bit of timbering of sixth generation growth, but only enough for a little economic sideshow. Was it Joyce Kilmer who wrote that only God can make a tree? She forgot to add that it takes even Him several centuries to construct a decent forest.
The other major natural resource was coal. We have a lot to recognize in the history of coal. The bottom line is, our industrial society was built with it. Industry was running out of wood to burn and wood did not reach truly high temperatures anyway. The digging of coal enabled the release of terribly concentrated energy, millions of years of sunlight set free in a few decades. Coal made electrical production feasible, steel production possible, aluminum production possible and provided the energy to grow the American economic colossus and the American population as well as those of many other nations. West Virginia always has been a leader in the production of coal.
Pres. Obama is conducting a war on coal and is driving a stake through its heart. No matter. Coal reserves are faltering, the economic costs and the environmental costs of production soar, and shale gas is filling in the fossil burning needs. The future of coal is dim and restricted. Like it. Don’t like it. Ignore it. It doesn’t matter, reality really is a bitch. And yet we have specialty coal license plates, coal bumper stickers, coal tax breaks, coal taxes, coal festivals and official ass kissing parties for coal companies. None of that’s going to make a bit of difference. We are focusing our future economic plans on a dying technology.
So what do we have? We have people with generally a good work ethic. At least that’s what we say. But research doesn’t really bear that out. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t support that very strongly. We have a people who are used to a low standard of living, many of whom do not feel some deep yearning in their hearts to reach for the American dream.
“But there are no jobs.” In some parts of West Virginia, jobs for young people are going begging. This week I was talking to some folks who do the hiring for a gas drilling outfit. These are large, involved jobs because they are drilling very deep and complicated wells. The jobs are going begging because they can’t find enough healthy people who can pass the damn drug test. We can’t do anything about the drug ravages on the streets of the Democratic People’s Republic of Chicago, but we’re not even trying to do a whole hell of a lot here in our own Mother West Virginia. We say that we are the bold Mountaineers, but we are too lazy and too scared to hit drugs.
And we say we’re proud of that?
I have no grand plan tonight to rejuvenate this place that I love so much. In fact, I know that there is no single grand plan, no single right answer, no simple fix. Anybody that believes in simple fixes is simply a dumb ass. What we face is something much more difficult. That is the need for cooperative and thoughtful effort, done without thought of personal reward or personal office, but with human concern and human respect and human affection for the real people of West Virginia.
This is going to take a long time.