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Appalachia and On Heroes


If you're interested in Appalachia - and there are lots of reasons to be interested - here's some good books about ~the place. These books don't exhaust the bibliography, but they're a good place to begin. From pre-settlement to modern times, the important chapters in the Appalachian story are represented in these books. And each book will lead you into ten others, if you want to go that far. Why go mat far? Why is this particular mountain region of special interest? It's a mysterious place, for one thing. Some geologists say the Appalachians are the oldest mountains in the world, that possibly they were once connected to the African continent, before vast geologic upheavals divided them with oceans. The Appalachians were the wall of mountains that pinned American settlement -to the coastal regions for more than a century. The breakthrough that occurred in the 1770's represented the first giant step of what became the transcontinental westward movement. The Appalachians were "the west" at one time, the first frontier; and ironically, in many ways they are becoming frontier again in the 1970's. Although the westward movement passed through there nearly two hundred years ago, it is in Appalachia that we find one of America's strongest, most viable folk cultures. Folk culture has survived in Appalachia because targe parts of it remained cut off from the progress the rest of the country enjoyed the first half of this century. There was a railroad across the plains and deserts to California by 1869; the railroad didn't get to Hazard till 1912, The last twenty years have seen major changes in Appalachia, of course; you have to look hard for the folk culture now; there are new highways through the hills you have to get off of to find it. And looking for it you may get distracted by stock-car racing, or a stretch of strip-mined hillside. Appalachian worth studying, too, as a model of the awfulness that can happen to a place when the effective power over the land rests in the hands of absentee owners like coal and steel companies, or when most of the capacity for initiative is sat upon by an ass as fat as the federal bureaucracy. Appalachia was the first region to get undone in a wholesale way by automation. The worst consequences of thoughtless automation are in those hills, in the form of unemployed coal miners, and, again, of strip mining. But the main reason, and I think the best reason, to know about Appalachia, is happier than what I've said so far. As a place that's been wiped out, the slate is clean there; at least the terms are very clear: aint no way to go but up. And there are some upward energies stirring, some new stuff trying to happen, an abundance of possibility, if not of probability. What there is mainly is a lot of blasted land, a kind of garbage heap of wasted land, that exists today as open space; it's muddy space, but still it's space; kind of the left-overs of a century of violent industrial practice. I haven't seen any domes on strip-mined hillsides yet, but I can imagine them. I can imagine one sitting very neatly on the little place where my great-grandfather had a farm once upon a time; where a major deep mine operated for 50 years; where strip-miners drove their bulldozers when' the deep-mining was through; and where today there's nothing but a wierd vine creeping like a fungus over the exposed sub-soil of his old farm, and thousands of surrounding acres. I can imagine that. And a good deal more. Oh man, can I imagine a good deal more.

On Heroes

Daniel Boone had a land fantasy. He wanted to cut loose from the straight life of the settlements and go live someplace that made a greater demand on his talents and creative energies. He didn't like the economics of the settlements. Too much usury, too easy to get in debt, too hard to get out. His style and temperament were thwarted by people dealing only in the safe and known. The people in the settlements, the good burghers, were so bent on insulating themselves from the dangers of the unknown, they wound up insulating themselves from the pleasurable possibilities as well. In an esasy the poet William Carlos Williams describes Boone as "a great voluptuary born to the American settlements against the niggardliness of the damming puritanical tradition." Boone was a sensualist, desperate to engage the raw, natural world directly. As a man of his own time, Bdone performed the classic act of the truely modern person: he embraced the new world of possibility that lay before him, and didn't look back.

People who are truely of their own time are the result of a process, children of an evolutionary working that cannot much be hastened by artificial means. It took 150 years to produce Boone and the Long Hunters, men capable of looking at the wilderness face to face without flinching, without glancing back to the settlements, and to Europe, for assurance. They were the products of what Harriette Simpson Arnow, in her book Seedtime On The Cumberland, calls "the long learning." The long learning was a period of several generations in which descendants of the original coastal settlers gradually learned to get along away from the sea, farther and still farther inland. Gradually the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of an ocean-oriented people came to acquire the skills and attitudes a mountain man had to have. It was a slow and reluctant process, but by degrees individuals r were formed whose growing expertise in the woods matched the waning of their interest in the old world of their fathers.

There were many factors that accounted for this early "generation gap," but the crucial one was the willingness of the woodsmen to learn from the Indians. People before Boone's time went on expeditions in the woods, of course. But always with Indians as their guides. They hired Indians to hunt and track; it was nearly a hundred years before it began to occur to the coast-dwellers that they might learn the Indian skills themselves.

Williams says of Boone, "To Boone the Indian was his greatest master. Not for himself surely to be an' Indian, though they eagerly sought to adopt him into their tribes, but the reverse: to be himself in a new world, Indianlike., If the land were to be possessed it must be as the Indian possessed it."

And so the metaphor is inescapable: today's middle-class consumer culture as a Mother Country to cut loose from; then a period of long-learning, in which modern frontiersmen gain the individual competence that allows them to do the necessary, practical tilings. Indians were the original teachers. They are with us still, their ways and attitudes remain as models, to emu/ate and learn from. But today they are joined by others who qualify as "Indians" of a sort, by virtue of their skills which allow them to function as teachers, as shamen, as knowers of The Way. Certain thinkers, certain mystics, certain far-out entrepreneurs, qualify, but so do certain small farmers and artisans, aborigines of a kind, native to their places, there on the land to be learned from by modern Long Hunters willing to range beyond the settled places in search of education and adventure.

The Long Hunter is the hero of his time, in any age. He is himself in a new world) Indianlike; sensuous in his relationship with the natural world around; one who has left the Mother Country intent upon being of as well as in whatever wilderness he encounters. I'm sure that's an oversimplification, but at least it's a handle on the definition. And definitions are important. As the new world unfolds around us, so a new mythology comes into being, peopled with new heroes, and new styles of heroic behavior. In trying to arrive at a new heroic definition, it's helpful to read up on heroes who have gone before. Seedtime On The Cumberland is filled with tales of heroes. The thing you begin to realize as you read about them is that in most cases they were in actuality complex, mortal people like you and I who simply rose to the occasion that was before them, and did what they were called upon to do. - GN