A friend visiting my childhood home once remarked, “There are so many bugs here, Emily.” I explained to her that it is safest to assume that everything you touch in the mountains is alive. Or was at some point. Or will be in the future. Which means that, in this place, there is always more to learn. Nothing here is ever just one thing. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, “the Southern Appalachian Mountains and their characteristic plant communities are among the most varied in the United States.” The Highlands Biological Station at Western Carolina University calls it “one of the most biologically diverse regions in the temperate world.” An AP biology class at my high school once discovered a new species of salamander on a hiking trip entirely by accident.4
I often feel like an inadequate native of the region because I cannot name birds by song or identify flowers and trees on sight. I cannot tell you the name of those slugs covering my hands and arms. But, if everything in and of this place is bound in an endlessly complicated cycle of life, death, and decay, then I cannot be expected to intuit the name of every leaf or buzzing thing like a mythic mamaw in a rocking chair. Instead, just as I understand that I cannot fully know the place that will not let me leave, I have the responsibility to take heed. So long as I am attached to this place teeming with life, I am not permitted to remain stagnant. I am obliged to participate. To be fully alive.
I sat in a wood-paneled ballroom in New York City, chock full of perfectly seasoned bagels and fresh fruit trays. There was an open bar and the room was full of lawyers, business-types, doctors, and clergy, all alumni of a self-important ethics fellowship. I hold this diagnosis of collective arrogance in tension with the fact that I was surrounded by friends—people with vastly different careers than mine, headed toward vastly different income brackets, who I know are deeply good and smart and endlessly curious. The coordinators of the conference we were attending sat us down to watch Dark Waters, a 2019 film, starring Mark Ruffalo, that details the chemical company Dupont’s decades-long poisoning of Parkersburg, West Virginia. The movie checks nearly every box required by a piece of media intended to elicit sympathy and vicarious rage on behalf of an underdog community. There is a nobly ill and dying miner, his steadfast wife, a town full of scrawny white kids with bad teeth on bikes, and more Hollywood actors with bad Appalachian accents than you can shake a stick at. All that said, in a room full of professional types trying to make the world a little more habitable, the movie was a hit.
The discussion that followed with the wealthy, white lawyers featured in the film provoked appropriate outrage, horror, and curiosity from a group of people unfamiliar with chemical spills and the complicated legacy of coal. I did a quick search on my phone as discreetly as I could, pulling up some details of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia, then handed my phone to a friend and invited him to skim it.
My friends at that conference were rightfully shocked by the story they watched, floored by the injustice and ignorance embedded in the systems it laid bare. While I was grateful for their righteous indignation, I encouraged them to realize that the story they had just watched was not unique. Its conclusion did not resolve the endless complexities and tensions that come with a region rich in resources and in histories of resistance and exploitation. (In hindsight, I should have told them to look up the Battle of Blair Mountain and let the conversation go from there.) And, even while I stumbled over an effort to encourage my friends to dig deeper, Jones’s question rang in my ears: What is a mountain man?
My people come from tobacco, not coal. We’re history teachers with a farming habit, not miners. Some of us have sat in corner offices and signed important papers and could have (and probably should have) wound up on the receiving end of some very legitimate collective action. While living in the mountains, we have done our best to be more than one thing—even if some of those things make me worried and ashamed. If the mountain’s peaks and valleys are buzzing with an abundance of species, that inevitably means that some of that life will seek the demise of its neighbors. Appalachia encompasses the people in Parkersburg who knew Teflon was deadly. It includes coal executives who skip tank inspections, and it cannot ignore Klansmen and the communities who protect them.