Silas House Silas House: The History of Every Country

2009 schedule of events

monday, september 28:

Screening of Award-Winning Appalachian Environmental Film Documentary Sludge, 7:00 p.m. at Reynolds Hall, sponsored by the Shepherdstown Film Society. Following the screening will be a discussion of this important environmental issue and its impact on West Virginia, led by Dr. Ed Snyder, Chair of Institute for Environmental Studies.

tuesday, september 29:

A Celebration of Appalachian Storytellers: A Kentucky Muse and The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, 7:00 p.m., at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, sponsored by the Friends of the Shepherdstown Library. This program will begin with a short KET documentary on Kentucky writer Silas House and his novel A Parchment of Leaves, followed by introduction of the new Anthology of Appalachian Writers and selected readings by the authors. Reception and book signing for The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Volume I, will follow.

wednesday, september 30:

Silas House visits with Martinsburg, Jefferson, Musselman, and Berkeley Springs High School students at Martinsburg High School, 9:00 a.m. in Martingsburg, WV;

House Reading House, Martinsburg Public Library and Reception, 10:30 a.m.;

Lunch at the Bavarian Inn with AHWIR Project Director, etal;

Writers Master Class with Silas House, 3:00-4:30 p.m., at Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies;

"The Writing Life, with Silas House," 7:00 p.m. at Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. Silas House will discusses his work, the writing process, his personal journey toward authorship, public reception will follow.

thursday, october 1:

Scarborough Society Lecture and Awards Ceremony, "The History of Every Country”: Place in the Poetry and Fiction of Silas House,” 8:00 p.m., at Erma Byrd Hall. Silas House will receive the Appalachian Heritage Writer's Award and present the keynote address, WV Fiction Competition Awards presented by Silas House.

friday, october 2:

“The Appalachians: Writers and Renegades, with George Brosi and Silas House,” 5:00 p.m., at Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies;

The Appalachian Heritage Festival Concert, 8:00 p.m., at Frank Theater, Music with John Lily and Silas House, a reading of the award-winning West Virginia Fiction Competition selection.

saturday, october 3:

Appalachian Heritage Festival activities, demonstrations, events all day.

Festival Concert, 8:00 p.m., at Frank Theater. See Festival website here.

silas house in his own words

The following is the transcription from Silas House's speech "A Conscious Heart" which was given at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Huntington, West Virginia on March 29, 2008. To view the video, click here.

I cannot, in good conscience, speak at a conference of Appalachian Studies with a theme of “the road ahead” and not talk about mountaintop removal and how it threatens our future, although it’s a topic that we’ve all been hearing discussed over and over again lately. In glancing over the conference program, I see mountaintop removal listed many times. But it is something that so threatens the heart of who we are as a people and a place that it really cannot be talked about enough. And I hope that tonight I can talk about it in a new way. We all know about mountaintop removal and what a threat it is to the future of Appalachia. So I’m not going to stand up here and talk about that. But I do want to talk about some reasons why I believe mountaintop removal exists.

The big misconception about mountaintop removal is that it’s an environmental issue. Well, of course it is, but more importantly, it’s a cultural issue. So let’s take into account that we already know about the environmental devastation caused by mountaintop removal and not talk about that. Instead, let’s talk about the way it threatens this place we all know and love. I want to look at the way mountaintop removal threatens our storytelling tradition, and our pride. We talk a lot these days about “a sustainable economy.” But what about being a sustainable people, a sustainable culture? Those things are just as important. And I think the real thing we ought to be exploring is why something as horrific as mountaintop removal can happen in the United States of America.

When 1,200 protestors against mountaintop removal marched on the state capitol of Kentucky this past Valentine’s Day it wasn’t mentioned on one single television news station in the state and was only referenced in a two line Associated Press photo caption in the largest paper serving the region. When, less than a month later, about 1,300 coal miners marched on the state capitol to protest a ban on polluting streams, every news station and newspaper gave them coverage.

Something is rotten in the state of Appalachia.

Mountaintop removal isn’t going to end anytime soon. We’re an energy-hungry nation, a selfish country that won’t even look into ways to reduce the use of gas and electricity. Our government won’t explore things like mass transit or wind and solar technology because they say Americans don’t want that. And frankly I’m not one of those people who call for the end of the coal industry. That’s just not realistic to me. But I do believe that we can fight for coal mining to be done in a more responsible and respectful way. We can fight for this and win, too. There is the possibility of making that happen. People in other parts of the country don’t allow things like this to happen, and we can stand up and make it stop, too. We can make sure that our streams are protected, that our people are protected.

There is just no excuse in this world for a sludge impoundment holding billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge to be located just above the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Where else in America could this happen but Appalachia? Would people in Massachusetts or California or Montana allow this? No. So why do we? Things like that make me want to just give up. When I think of those children in that school, being put in danger like that everyday…well, it’s almost too much. It’s enough to make you lose faith in your country. But then, the next second, something else kicks in and knowledge like that makes me want to fight harder.

One thing I love in particular about Jean Ritchie’s song “Black Waters” is her line “If I had ten million or thereabouts/I’d buy Perry County/and run them all out.” I’d love to be able to do that, too, and I know many of you agree with that sentiment, but in the meantime we have to find a way to protect what we have. So we have to find out where the problem starts and begin there.

I believe I know the most terrible thing we are facing today in this region, and it’s something that many of you witness each day. Apathy. Apathy is killing Appalachia, and as thinking, conscious people who are gathered here to discuss the road ahead for Appalachia, it’s up to us to stop it. To get at mountaintop removal we first have to stamp out apathy. With that said, I believe this is a nationwide problem, but it’s more dangerous to us in these mountains than to most people. Now I’m about to say something that I don’t like to say, something that I don’t like to know, but it must be said: mountaintop removal is able to exist because not enough Appalachians are speaking out against it. More of us have to take action or accept that we’re being inactive.

One of my heroes is Eleanor Roosevelt, so I’ll quote her twice tonight. Something she said long ago seems to apply so well here that I’d be remiss to not mention it. She once said, “So much attention is paid to the aggressive sins, such as violence and cruelty and greed…that too little attention is paid to the passive sins, such as apathy and laziness, which in the long run can have a more devastating effect.”

Apathy is a sin. And I believe that the politicians and the lobbyists and all those people working against the regular, working people of the world rely on apathy. If the people just sit by and let anything happen, that leaves someone else in control.

I could be the curmudgeonly English professor and stand up here and tell you that it’s the young people’s fault, that students don’t work hard enough these days, that they don’t care enough. But I’m going to stand here and tell you that Americans on the whole don’t care enough and don’t work hard enough. Yes, people are busy today. Yes, people are just doing the best they can to get by. They’re just trying to take care of themselves and their kids and their parents and do the best they can. Most of all, though, people feel powerless. While I think those excuses are not good enough reasons to just sit down and do nothing, I also think they are valid and real, and tonight I want to talk just a little bit about the reasons why.

A reporter recently put me on the spot by asking me why Appalachians continued to elect politicians who didn’t represent their interests properly, politicians who sold them out to King Coal, who didn’t create sustainable economic plans, who didn’t make the region better. That was a hard question to answer because the answer is so complex and I believe the reporter had a point. I think that Appalachians, once such a proud, strong people, are still strong, but as a whole group of people we are not as defiant as we once were because we’ve been told for so long that we’re no good that we’ve started to believe it.

The 100 years of brainwashing has started to take hold.

For decades now, for more than a century, actually, we’ve been told that we should be good patriots and accept that we’re the sacrificial ground for the rest of the nation’s energy resources. We’ve been told that if we were good Appalachians we’d be quiet and not say anything when our land is destroyed. “Don’t complain,” the environmental industries have said. I’m not just talking about coal. I’m talking about the gas companies and the timber business and the TVA and the government and every damn one of them who chose profit over morality, wealth over integrity. “Don’t complain,” they’ve said, “Or you’re not a good Appalachian, not a good American.”

This is not too different from the current state of being in America, where one’s patriotism is questioned if he or she speaks out against the war or against the president.

I don’t know about you, but this is not what I want to teach my children. I want them to know that a true patriot always speaks out, asks questions, thinks for herself. And a true Appalachian always fights back, asks questions, doesn’t back down. But when you are told over and over to not ask questions, that it’s “the Lord’s will”, that we have to destroy the place we love in order to keep the lights on, and you couple that with the fact that so many of us are struggling just to put food on the table and keep our children dressed and out of trouble. When you add that kind of thinking to the fact that people are just doing the best they can to survive, well, they start to believe it’s true. They start to believe that they shouldn’t speak up. That they shouldn’t fight back.

And that leads to not caring, to apathy, to being the living dead, because when you walk around not thinking, just accepting everything the way it is, you’re not completely alive. We have a responsibility in this life to have conscious hearts, to be aware, to be thinking beings. Otherwise it’ll all go to hell in a handbasket.

I don’t have statistics and facts to prove my point. All I have is insights that I have gained from talking to people all over this region. Over the last seven years, since my first book was published, I’ve been all over these mountains, to every little town library and university and independent bookstore that I know of. I’ve talked to book clubs and interviewed activists and gone to community meetings and met people all over this country. When I say “country” I’m saying it in the Appalachian way, meaning this region. The greatest blessing of my career as a writer is having the opportunity to meet so many people and hear their stories, to realize that every single person I’ve ever met has a story that deserves to be told, to be heard. In meeting all those people, I can tell you that they provide the best statistics of all when they bemoan the lack of willingness to fight back, the lessening amounts of people who are will to speak up for what they believe in, when they tell me that people would rather they be quiet.

On her latest album, one of our greatest songwriters, Lucinda Williams, wrote, and sings: “My words choose knowledge over politics/You can’t kill my words, they know no bounds.”

We have to believe this. We have to realize the power of words and harness them to fight things like injustice and apathy. I have had students before who just did not want to learn, who were in college simply to get their degree so they could get a good-paying job. While on the road once, I visited a teaching college and asked a classroom full of elementary education majors why they wanted to be teachers. Out of the fifteen of them, ten said they wanted to be a teacher because they’d have the summer off. Only five, a third of them, said some variation on the fact that they wanted to put something positive out into the world, wanted to help educate children, wanted to make a difference. Leaving that classroom, I felt like throwing up.

If we let people leave our classrooms or our homes or wherever we encounter them with that attitude, then we have failed them. As a professor, I believe that my responsibility is not only to share knowledge with others, but also to make them care about learning, to make them understand that there is nothing that will give them more power than knowledge: words, science, art. As a father and a son and an Appalachian and an American, I have that same responsibility.

In one of my favorite poems, “Open Fire Poster,” Hindi poet (the self-proclaimed "poet of the peasantry") Alokdhanwa writes: “This is not a poem/this is a call to open fire/that all those who use the pen/are getting from all those who work the plow.” I believe we have to make our daily lives an open fire poster, a call to arm ourselves with knowledge, a call to arms for other Appalachians to stand up and speak out for what they believe in.

One way we can do this is to better promote regional pride. I believe that the only way we can make Appalachia a better place and to fight something as big as mountaintop removal and the reasons it exists is to do two things. 1. To fight apathy. and 2. to make our children proud to be where they’re from.

I am a writer because I grew up in a family of storytellers, of working people and I bet many of you did, as well. I lived on a one-mile stretch of road where I was either kin to everyone or knew them so well that we might as well have been kin. My family always ate together. On Mondays everyone came to our house. On Tuesday we went to my aunt Sis’s, on Wednesday to my uncle Sam’s, and so on. Mine was a boisterous family who talked loud, lived loud. This was how we spoke to each other: in a big way. We did everything in a big, hard way. My people danced hard, sang hard, fought hard, loved harder. Many of them lived hard; others worshipped hard. At each meal there were rolls of laughter that fell out onto the yard, drifted to our neighbors. They told stories with all their might. Stories, stories, stories told around the table. Singing. We always sang when we cleaned up the kitchen. My mother and sister at the sink, washing dishes and swaying back and forth to whatever was on the little plastic radio that stood on the counter. They’d sing Loretta Lynn or Tanya Tucker or, more likely, gospel songs by the Singing Cook Family or the McKameys. And then, later, out on the porch and the yard where everyone sat or played, there were more tales. When someone was asked how things were at work, they were never answered with “Just fine,” or “Alright.” They were always answered with an epic, a big long story full of exaggerations and well-timed pauses and bouts of laughter. Stories, sentences, words.

We talked as if our lives depended on it.

Now I see that our lives have always depended on stories, on telling stories, on hearing the stories of others. On words. For the longest time, that was all that mountain people had. Now we have satellite dishes and the internet and Gameboys and interstates and we’ve traded our stories for those things. In the process we’ve also traded our families, our friends, our heritage, our history, our mountains, our way of life.

I thought about my family’s storytelling abilities a lot when I went away to college and encountered my first really aggressive attacks because of the way I talked. I thought about it even more when I went on book tour and people felt free to make fun of my speech patterns right to my face. The more “liberal” these people proclaimed themselves, the more apt they were to put down my people. Those who were on the constant defense about ethnic slurs and such were perfectly happy to negate my own ethnic identity, that of an Appalachian. When being judged based on my dialect, I thought about the way my family had all loved words so much, and now we were being accused of not using them properly, not because we were grammatically incorrect, but just because we had an accent. It didn’t matter how good my grammar was—and I assure you it was far better than that of the people who talked “proper”—I was still the hick, the hillbilly, the brier, the dummy, the ignorant one. I was country come to town and apparently I was there to entertain people.

Only two months ago I was in Florida, at one of the country’s most prestigious literary conferences, and I was seated at a table with people from all over the country. As soon as I opened my mouth, it started. “Can you please pass the butter?” I asked, perfectly innocent. The whole table fell silent, forks and knives frozen in mid-air, mouths slightly ajar, eyes bulging a little. Then, the laughter began: uneasy, unsure, delighted, as if I was a surprise, someone supplied by the festival to be seated at their table to provide entertainment. And then, the bravest, stupidest one at the table said, “Can you say that again?” and collapsed in laughter. Not sure what was happening—although it had happened dozens of times before—I did repeat myself. But as soon as they all laughed again, I knew.

I had been culturally profiled.

And because of the way I pronounced “butter” I was deemed not as smart as them. These people were from Off. You all know where Off is. Anywhere that is not Appalachia. But I am here to tell you that it’s not just people from Off who do this. I have encountered just as much of this within the region, by people who were born and raised here. And these most likely were not bad people. They were just ignorant and entitled, raised to believe that it was okay to question someone’s intelligence because of their dialect or their geography or social standing. Because it all comes down to the fact that everyone thinks that everyone in Appalachia is poor. And poor people never, ever matter.

I am here to say this, above all else: things like mountaintop removal exist because we allow people to negate us.

How can we question why mountaintop removal is able to occur in this place if we also stand by and allow people to put us down this way? I always respond to encounters like I’ve just told you about by being as polite as possible, but also by being firm and letting the perpetrators know that they’re showing their own ignorance, that they’re being insulting.

Language is political.

In elementary school I had teachers who told us we not only had to speak proper grammar but we had to pronounce things properly. I remember one teacher telling us to watch the evening news and try to talk the way the newscasters did, because they talked “right.” But I loved language and individuality too much for that. Somehow, even as a child, I knew that to consciously change the way I talked would be to give up a little bit of myself. And I refused to do it. It felt like being ethnically cleansed.

“I talk this way for a reason,” Lee Smith once said. “It’s a political decision.”

Now I want to point out that I’m NOT saying you have to talk a particular way to be a real Appalachian. But I do believe that you can’t put down others for talking that way or sit by while this happens. I believe we should promote good grammar and not try to decide how things are supposed to be pronounced within a culture that is partly defined by its speech patterns. Our dialect is part of our culture and if we let that be taken away from us, we’ve given up a chunk of our souls.

But even people who do change their speech patterns—consciously or unconsciously—are still judged based on where they’re from. Unless you go around hiding your entire identity, careful to not let anyone know where you’re from, people are going to know you’re Appalachian. And whether they admit it or not, people are going to judge you based on that.

Since becoming a professor, I’ve been judged many times simply because I’m from the mountains. Not realizing what a close friend of mine she was talking to, a former colleague of mine said: “Be careful of Silas House. He’s from Appa-lay-chee-uh. They’re all fundamentalist Christians down there.” By the way, I don’t mean to make fun of the way SHE talks, but that’s how she pronounced Appalachia, which, and somehow that’s important to point out. Because of where I was from I was—in her and many other people’s eyes—a homophobe, a racist, a religious fanatic, a misogynist. I was that thing she had always feared: a redneck. A hillbilly. There are people all over the world who truly believe that we are all rapists with banjoes. This woman knew where I was from based only on the way I talked and for that reason she believed she knew who I was, not understanding that every single person in Appalachia is an individual, and that most of the stereotypes she had been fed all her life were incorrect or at least grossly exaggerated.

Someone who once heard me speak at a conference wrote on a blog about me: “I bet he’s never picked up a Thomas Hardy book in his life.”

Since I was a country boy turned teacher this person did not think it possible that I knew plenty about Hardy. She did not know—nor would she have believed—that I had been obsessed with Hardy for the past two years and had been reading everything by him I could find. And she did not even realize the irony of her mentioning Hardy since he suffered the same sort of prejudice when his books became a success and he was invited into the “Polite Society” of Victorian England. According to the new biography on Hardy written by Claire Tomalin: “Hardy could not help seeing that his most deeply rooted attachments were to people who were hardly taken seriously in the world he aspired to enter. At best (his family members) were seen as quaint and picturesque (by the upper class), at worst as simpletons or clowns. True, his parents were a cut above the shepherds and laborers, and were urging him on proud of his progress; it did not make it any less awkward for him as he (was encouraged to) advance away from them in speech and habits.”

Hardy eventually overcame these problems because he believed in himself and his heritage. He went onto write novels that actually not only dared to feature rural main characters but also to make these rural characters intelligent—sometimes even more intelligent than the elite upper crust living in London. It is widely known that Hardy’s books were controversial because of his attacks of hypocrisy and religion, but I believe that they were also controversial because they allowed rural people of the lower class to be smarter than those of the upper class. Often in his novels the lower class—take Tess Durbeyfield, for instance—are more noble, moral, and intelligent than those of the upper class—say her rich cousin, Alec D’Urberville, who mistreats her. It was one thing of outrage for a female character to have sexual feelings, yes. But it was quite another, bigger thing of outrage for that same sexual, dignified female being to also be rural. Hardy’s people were England’s equivalents of Appalachians. It’s not unlike today’s publishing world, where a literary character isn’t worth a damn if he’s not from New York. Regionalism is just another caste system, and when dealing with Appalachia, a perfectly acceptable and politically correct one.

Now I am not saying that we ought not be able to laugh at ourselves—how else does a culture survive?—but I refuse to let others laugh at us. I won’t have it.

Over and over again in the academic world I see self-hate occurring. I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve seen people at Appalachian schools want to rub out the Appalachianess of the school. They don’t want to talk about being Appalachian. I’ve had many Appalachian schools ask me to come speak at convocation and commencement and usually they want me to talk about this place and our heritage. But twice I’ve been told to not talk about Appalachia. “We want this school to have international significance,” one administrator told me. I thought to myself, “Well bull.” Since I had not been told this in advance and been giving the chance to refuse speaking at all, I went ahead and said my piece about the region anyway, adding in a few lines about how Appalachia is just an internationally important as any place else in the world, since we are all part of a global community, no matter where we are from. And believe me, the administrator looked like he had just sucked a lemon. I didn’t care.

As Appalachians, this is of the utmost importance. We ask ourselves why Appalachia remains poverty-stricken, why people keep electing politicians who allow the coal companies to run rampant, acting like spoiled little boys who have to have their way. We ask why our children leave the mountains, why once thriving communities are turning into ghost towns. We ask why the nation continues to look at us as lower, lesser, as invisible people.

Because we allow ourselves to be treated as such.

Which leads me to my second Eleanor Roosevelt quote of the night. She said: “No one can make you inferior without your consent.”

We have to stop feeling inferior. We have to instill regional pride in our children.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t conscious, thinking people who care about this place. But it’s always good to be reminded.

That’s why, if you travel the winding mountain roads of Appalachia come summer, when the blackberries hang heavy on the vines, you’ll find tent revivals here and there on the side of the road. Because people need reminding of all things, whether it’s religion or politics or passion. Anytime thinking people can come together to trade ideas about being better teachers, it’s a tent revival in its own right.

I believe that while teaching, or singing, or writing, or being a scientist or a mining engineer or whatever we may be, we can simultaneously teach social responsibility, which is something that many of our students are in dire need of learning about. So many of our students today have been raised with things so good that they simply can’t believe this good life had to be fought for with tooth and nail by generations before them.

In one class a group of young women told me that The Color Purple wasn’t believable because a woman could never be as trapped by a man as Celie is by Mister, that women had never had it that bad. This was a group of young women who didn’t even understand the struggle that women had gone through, that they still go through. They didn’t even know about suffrage. To them, this was something that had happened ages ago, something that didn’t concern them at all. I had assigned this book in a Southern Lit class to talk about the beauty of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but ended up not only discussing that, but also the history of women’s rights, about the women who came before them who fought for equal rights. It was unbelievable that these grown women hadn’t heard about this in-depth until they came to college. Why hadn’t they learned this in high school? Elementary school? And even worse, why hadn’t their parents taught them as much instead of relying on teachers to do it for them? We have to stop relying on teachers and television to raise our children for us.

In one of my writing classes, we were talking about empathy in writing and talk somehow turned to the Iraq War. Several students expressed their disbelief that Iraqi children were suffering during the then daily bombings of Baghdad. To them, the war was not much more real than a videogame. It was, after all, happening “a million miles away.” The next week I arranged for my class met in Student Services, where we helped to make up care packages for Iraqi children attending school. One student was livid, telling me this had nothing to do with writing. I told him that he couldn’t possibly be a good writer if he didn’t understand that there were other human beings in the world besides himself.

Let’s look at a poem by the great James Still that can help illustrate this point.

Death of a Fox

Last night I ran a fox over A sudden brilliant flash of gold, a setting sun of gilded fur appeared in my car’s beam and then the fatal thump. I asked the fox to forgive me. He spat as he died.I asked God to forgive me. I don’t believe He will. Is there no pardon anywhere?

In an interview conducted forty years after this poem was written, Mr. Still said “What happens in Afghanistan, happens to me.” That’s really what he’s saying in this poem, too—that what happens to the fox, happens to me, to you, that we’re all connected, that if we continue to ignore the beauty of the fox, we ignore the beauty of our own humanity.

I have only been actively involved in the fight against Mountaintop Removal since 2005. People ask me why I care so much. They tell me that I’m wasting my time, that big industry cannot be fought, that King Coal will always rule in the mountains. I reply by saying that yes, big industry cannot be fought with an attitude like that, that King Coal will always rule so long as we allow it to. And while I have never tried to talk my own students or children into marching in protest with me, I hope to give them an example of social responsibility by the way I look at literature and by the way I treat them, by standing up for what I believe in. When I say this, I am not so much talking about the large scale acts of protest like singing at the capitol or carrying a sign. I’m talking about being proud of where I’m from. I’m talking about practicing what I preach by reusing and recycling and conserving energy as much as I possibly can. I’m by no means perfect, and don’t claim to be. I still drive a truck that uses too much gas, but I’m unable, for various reasons, to switch vehicles right now. This isn’t a good enough excuse. But I’m trying my best, I’m doing all I can to live an environmentally-conscious life. That’s all we can do. The biggest thing of all is having a conscious heart, being aware of how our actions affect others and our place.

I’ve been to community meetings, to rallies, to the state capitol. I’ve written editorials and tried to find every way I can to be more active in this fight. But ultimately I’ve found that the best way is to let people tell their own stories. So, with my coeditor Jason Howard, I’ve been working on a book for the last year. The book is called Something’s Rising, and it’s a collection of oral histories of Appalachians who are fighting mountaintop removal. It also includes features about the people who are doing the oral histories. Included are people like Judy Bonds, Jean Ritchie, Jack Spadaro, Denise Giardina, Kathy Mattea, and five others, including a former deep miner, a council-member of a coal town where his views against mountaintop removal are not popular, a preacher who is teaching that all Christians should be against mountaintop removal, a nurse practitioner who is bravely organizing her whole creek to fight back. Over and over again, these people told us that they believed mountaintop removal was happening for two reasons: because people in Appalachia feel powerless and because of apathy. These two things are connected.

Before I close, I’d like to read you an excerpt from Jean Ritchie’s oral history. Now I think that Jean Ritchie is just about as close to a saint as anyone I’ve ever been in the same room with, and everything she says is golden to me, but she gets it exactly right in this excerpt: “Well, I’m against not saying anything. I think we have to make people more aware of what’s happening. The reason more people are not doing anything, I imagine, is because they think they can’t win. They think, ‘well, that’s the way the world’s changing.’ And that’s the way the coal companies want them to think. They say ‘Ah, we’re bringing you stores and commerce and such; what do you want with this old country way?’ And people believe that. And it’s easier for them to not say anything. I think people just think it’s a monumental thing, that they won’t make any difference. They think they’re small and this is large and they think they’re not going to get anywhere, that they’ll just be beating their heads against a stone wall.” I love the simplicity of her first sentence there: “I’m against not saying anything.” That’s a really powerful sentence. Like her songwriting, it’s subtle and blunt at the same time, completely succinctly.

We must be against not saying anything. We must have conscious hearts, be aware of every action, be proud of the tough stock from which we come. To win this battle against mountaintop removal we must first win the battle against ourselves and our own urges to thinking we are powerless. We are not.

We come from people like the Widow Combs, a 64 year old woman who laid down in front of bulldozers to stop the strip mining by broadform deed on her Knott County farm in 1965. She was carried off to jail, but she made her point. We come from people like Nellie Woolum, a retired postmaster who went to her local officials over and over again, telling them that the coal company would end up destroying Ages Holler by building shoddy sludge dams. She was right; the resulting slurry spill wrecked dozens of homes and killed Woolum in her own home. She’ll be remembered for fighting back, for speaking up. We come from people like my grandfather, Johnny Shepherd, who lost his leg in a roof fall in the Leslie County mines but after only six months of recuperation, decided to go back underground and mine coal for 20 more years. Because he believed in his job, he believed in working hard, in never giving up. We come from the hundreds of men and women who fought at the Battle of Blair Mountain, despite being bombed by United States Army planes armed with bombs, the only time in history our nation dropped bombs on its own people. They fought because they believed in something and were willing to stand up for it.

We come from people who people who were the first people in these mountains, the Cherokees, Shawnees, the Crow, the Mingo. We come from the tough Scots-Irish who came to settle it next, and the Italians and Germans who worked like dogs to make their way in the world and the black men and women who were brought here on ships to be slaves and later sent here on trains to work for half-scale down in the mines. We are from the more than 38 nationalities that worked at one single coal mine in Lynch, Kentucky. We are a true melting pot of strong peoples, a culture of immigrants, all joining strengths to become Appalachians, and in the past we haven’t backed down, so this time we can’t back down either.

This is what we have to teach our children. That they can’t afford to be apathetic. That they have to have conscious hearts so they can carry on our culture, so that there is actually a culture left for them to carry on.