Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best Music of 2008

I never understand people who say “There’s just no good music these days.” Obviously they’re not looking in the right place, because there is a wealth of great music. The thing is that the vast majority of it is not being played on the radio, and certainly not on any of the cable music channels like MTV, VH1, or CMT.

My college roommate, with whom I have stayed in touch although we hardly ever see each other any more, was telling me the other day that he still listens to Nirvana, U2, and Pearl Jam all the time mainly because he hasn’t grown—musically, at least—since we left college way back in the Gulf War era. Now there’s not a thing wrong with any of those groups, but I quickly went about the business of educating him that there was another way, that there was too much great music out there, just waiting for a listen.

In my job as a writer, I travel all over the country, and everywhere I go people ask me things like who my favorite author is (too many to pick, but right now I’d have to say Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Lee Smith, Larry Brown, and Louise Erdrich) and what is my favorite song (I have to narrow this down to “Keep On the Sunnyside,” for its complexity and history, for the way it has always been a balm). Since I work for No Depression magazine as a contributing editor, it so happens that every December I get asked about my favorite albums of the year (or “records” as I like to call them, as do people “in the business,” since that’s what they are: recordings) by lots of different publications and groups and people on the street. And if there’s anything I love to talk about, it’s music. But picking a “best of” is hard, man. So instead of doing a top ten or top twenty, I’m just going to talk about my favorite records of the year without ranking them, except for my two favorite ones.

I tried and tried. I really did. But I just could not pick a top favorite record because two of them that were released this year served as constant companions to my ears. If there was any justice in this world (and I’ve pretty much accepted that there just isn’t, at least where art is concerned), then Caroline Herring and Ben Sollee would be among the best-known musicians in the country. I’ll talk at length only about those two artists, and then give the rest of my favorites with only brief comments. Links to performances and interviews are scattered throughout, so I hope you’ll click on those and learn more about these incredible acts.

Caroline Herring’s album Lantana, is an amazing piece of musical work in its songwriting, arrangements, production, and singing. It’s a complete pleasure. On Lantana, Herring is like Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Gentry, Larry Brown, Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch, and Lee Smith all rolled into one. The songs on the album all stand on their own as little gems but are also of a bigger whole that creates a landscape of sound and imagery so vivid that playing the album creates much the same effect as opening a great novel: we disappear into that world. Every single song on the album is a beauty, but the true masterpiece is “Paper Gown,” the story of South Carolina’s Susan Smith, who in 1994 drowned both her children by strapping them into their car seats and letting her car roll into John D. Long Lake. She blamed the crime on a black man but finally confessed to the local sheriff. Herring relates the crime in a startling, matter-of-fact manner, interspersing it with insights into Smith’s life (“Long ago I used to be a little girl on my daddy’s knee/dreams lie like diamond rings, babies, and pretty things”) that actually make us see her as a human being despite her monstrous crime. A lesser songwriter would have gone too far and tried to make us feel pity for Smith, or vilified her too much. Herring strikes the perfect balance by simply presenting a story about a person who did “a terrible thing,” as Smith says to the sheriff. Ultimately Smith winds up with “Jesus looking down/at me in this paper gown.” This modern murder ballad is a complete tour-de-force given to us by a driving banjo and Herring’s smooth-yet-never-sweet voice.

The rest of the album is nearly as phenomenal. There’s “Song for Fay,” based on the novel Fay by Larry Brown (one of his best, but also maybe the hardest to live through, especially if you have daughters) wherein an unloved girl travels across the South and warns “Don’t you try and stop me/’til I get where I’m going.” After listening to “Midnight on the Water” you’ll be hard-pressed to ever get that beautiful melody out of your head, or forget that subtle, mournful fiddle solo. “When I Lay My Burden Down” is definitely going on my list of songs to be played at my funeral with its refrain of “I’ll be flying in the darkness/I’ll ride the wind without a sound.” And many of you know that it takes a great song to show up on your funeral song list, now doesn’t it? I could go on and on about this artist, but I’ll sum it up by saying that this one album catapulted her to the top of my favorite musicians list, and I expect she’ll stay there from now on, especially now that I’ve discovered her other two fine albums Wellspring and Twilight. But Lantana is the true keeper, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

How to See by Ben Sollee

Tied for first place is Learning to Bend by Ben Sollee. It’s not just that he’s also a proud Kentuckian, like myself. It’s not that he’s also involved in the fight against mountaintop removal, as am I. It’s just that this album is truly beautiful. Sollee starts it all off with “A Few Honest Words,” a blistering address to George W. Bush (watch the Obama remix here). Despite his blatant stabs at the troubles of the last few years (which also show up in songs like the sarcastic “Bury Me With My Car” and a perfect cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”), the album never becomes a polemic and each song feels like a character study in a book of tight short stories. I recently wrote a review of a live show Sollee did in which I expressed my amazement at his ability to make the cello a part of folk music. To my mind he single-handedly takes it out of the realm of the classical world and brings it to the people (and I know people are going to write in and say Yo Yo Ma already did that, but he popularized the cello by staying within the classical world; Nancy Blake is an amazing "folk cellist," too, but I don't know of anything of hers as "modern" as Sollee's). He can pluck the cello with tenderness, smooth the bow across the strings to pull out a mournful cry, or saw away at the instrument to release the screams that lie within. One day a friend of mine said about Sollee: “He can flat-out make that thang talk.” And that pretty much sums up Sollee’s efforts on the cello.

His singing is just as good. His voice’s tenderness is put on display in songs like "It's Not Impossible", “I Can’t”, “Bend” (one of my favorite tracks on the album, where he’s briefly joined by Abigail Washburn’s soaring vocals), “I Can’t”, and my favorite song on the record, “Built for This,” a song that absolutely tears me down with its lyrics, Sollee’s passionate delivery, and the cello’s harmonizing with its player. It’s an amazing song on all fronts and if you haven’t heard it, you’ve missed out on one of the best love songs to come down the road in a long while.

Learning to Bend may not show up on a lot of top ten lists this year, but that’s only because Sollee is just beginning to get the attention he deserves. He’s travelled all over the world with his music, but mostly as part of the Sparrow Quartet (with Washburn, Casey Driessen, and Bela Fleck). As great as those performers are, they can’t hold a candle to Sollee’s whole-package status as singer-songwriter-cellist-storyteller.

This is perhaps the thing that most joins Herring and Sollee, their abilities to tell a story. They don’t ever sing at you, they sing to you, for you, and they want to give something to you: a song, a story. I don’t know of two better gifts.

The rest of my list was too hard to rank, so I’m just going to offer them in no particular order:
19-Adele. A pop album wouldn’t normally go on my top fifty, much less my top ten, but this is pop music as it should be, with a whole slew of crowd-pleasing, excellently-produced and perfectly-sung songs. Adele is my new favorite singer, and she’s as fun to watch as she is to listen to. Don’t tell anyone, but I dance in the basement with my daughters to this album all the time. They love it as much as I do. Well, almost.

Coal-Kathy Mattea. I had the privilege of writing the press kit for Mattea’s Grammy-nominated album so I can tell you that not only is Mattea one of the best of the remaining traditional country singers, she’s also one of the best people I know, with a heart the size of her native West Virginia. Every song on here is a thing of rare beauty. When she sings songs like Billy Edd Wheeler's “The Coming of the Roads” you’ll feel like the song has been reborn anew. Other highlights include her covers of Jean Ritchie’s “Blue Diamond Mines” and Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung.” Anyone who loves Appalachian music has to add this album to their collection.

A Piece of What You Need-Teddy Thompson. Thompson is one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time, hands down. If you don’t know him, then go out and buy every single album he ever made (the best one being Separate Ways, in my opinion). A Piece of What You Need is not on par with his past two albums, but it’s still a great effort, especially with songs like “Can’t Sing Straight” and “In My Arms.”

Rattlin' Bones-Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson. There’s not a bad song on this album by one of my favorite couples. In Australia, Kasey Chambers is one of the most famous and beloved singers in the country. It’s a shame Americans don’t have taste as good as theirs. And her partner (musically and romantically) Shane Nicholson is pretty great, too. They harmonize together perfectly; listening to them sing is like listening to love made into a visceral thing.

Little Wild One-Joan Osborne. Another great Kentuckian, Joan Osborne never fails to sing every song with all of her might. In this paean to her adopted hometown of New York City, she gets all the emotions about that city out in the songs and makes one of her best albums.

Sleepless Nights-Patty Loveless. Another Kentuckian (is this a coincidence, or is it just that people from Kentucky know how to make a good record?). Patty Loveless is the most underrated singer in country music and she delivers some of the best classic country songs here. The standout is the title track, which she sings so perfectly with Vince Gill that you’ll have to shake your head in satisfaction.

Consolers of the Lonley-The Raconteurs. There is no doubt in my mind that Jack White is a damn genius. I said it. And the rest of this band is pretty damn smart, too, if you ask me. Some of the best songs of the year are on here: “Top Yourself,” “Many Shades of Black” (beautifully covered by Adele on a live track you can buy on iTunes), and “Old Enough” (a great new version with Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe has just been released), among others.

Volume One-She and Him. I admit to having a thing for Zooey Deschanel ever since first seeing her in All The Real Girls, and even moreso after she stole the show from Will Ferrell in Elf. Once I heard her singing and songwriting on this album I was even more smitten. Often she sounds like Ronnie Spector (those drums on “I Was Made for You” will definitely remind you of “Be My Baby”) but occasionally she sounds like Rosemary Clooney (another Kentuckian), which makes me like her even more. She's joined by musician M. Ward who does a great job on production and arrangement. This album is pure fun and especially good for road trips and sing-alongs with your daughters.

Mockingbird-Allison Moorer. I do love the ever-classy Miss Moorer, too, and on this album she covers female songwriters, including June Carter ("Ring of Fire"),Gillian Welch (“Revelator”), Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), and her own sister, Shelby Lynne (“She Knows Where She Goes”). My favorite cut is the title track.

Tennessee Pusher-Old Crow Medicine Show. The highlight here is “Lift Him Up,” a cover of a Blind Alfred Reed song, but I also love the rest of the rowdy set like “Alabama High Test” and “Humdinger” ( which includes one of the best lines of the year: “if you’re not a right-winger then we’ll all have a humdinger”)

Real Animal-Alejandro Escovedo. Great all-around album, especially “Sensitive Boys,” which I’d count as one of Escovedo’s best.

All I Intended to Be-Emmylou Harris. You just can’t ever go wrong buying an album by Emmylou.

Hope for the Hopeless-Brett Drennen. My favorites are “Heaven” and “Ain’t Gonna Lose You.”

Simply Grand-Irma Thomas. Irma Thomas singing with some of the best modern pianists. Can’t beat it.

Life, Death, Love, and Freedom-John Mellencamp. I love that he keeps on keeping on. Mellencamp is underrated and has always stood up for what he believes in. That’s something to respect all in itself.

Gossip in the Grain-Ray Lamontagne. “You Are the Best Thing” is one of my favorite songs of the year for sure. I’m also loving “Meg White,” his ode to Meg of the White Stripes. When he sings “Meg White, you’re alright,” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always defended her drum-playing skills against all of her critics. Others standouts on here are “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and “Let It Be Me.”

Vampire Weekend-Vampire Weekend. Two or three great little pop songs on here. I first saw them on Saturday Night Live and have liked them ever since, especially the way they join up horns and big strings with their electric guitars.

Little Honey-Lucinda Williams. Williams is starting to get on my nerves, so this wouldn’t go near the top of my favorites list. Whatever happened to great story-songs, Lu? Seems like on her last two or three albums she’s tried to be as sparse as possible with her lyrics and her lyricism has suffered in the wake of that. I’m still hoping she’ll go back to the songwriting perfection of albums like Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but I’m not holding my breath. Fame has an ill effect on some people. Still, it was nice to see her being in love on this album. Best track: “Real Love.”

Just a Little Lovin'-Shelby Lynne. It seemed like a great idea: have Shelby Lynne cover Dusty Springfield. But it just went to prove that is awesome a talent as Lynne is, she's no match for Springfield. It might have helped if the songs had been arranged in such a way to shake the classics up a little bit, but for the most part they felt like note-for-note reinditions to me. The production is pretty great, though, so this one definitely makes my list although it hovers around at the bottom.

Mudcrutch-Mudcrutch-If Tom Petty’s on it then I’m going to like it. Especially “A Good Street”.

The Sparrow Quartet-The aforementioned Abigail Washburn, Ben Sollee, Bela Fleck, and Casey Driessen. My favorite: “Strange Things.”

Cardinology-Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. More of the same old thing for the most part, but I do love the song "Born Into A Light."

Still Crooked-Crooked Still. There are a couple of standout tracks on this album by the Massachusetts-based traditionalists.

So there you go. A whole big list of music to look for, to listen to. So if you’ve read this and you’ve checked them out you won’t have to say “there’s no good music out” for a long, long time. At least I hope so.

I'd like to hear what your favorites of the year are, too, so leave a comment and let me know.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Poem for the New Day

5 November 2008

Remember when we were little how we would lie up there
on that ridge and watch the clouds? We had been raised to feel guilty
about everything. Had been brought up to fear the Rapture.
We worried all the time about the possibility
of blasphemy, or that we would be possessed by the devil.

They did not tell us that we didn’t know anyone
who wasn’t just like us. They did not tell us that there
was a whole other world out there, and other kinds
of gods and fears and joys and songs to sing. We knew not what we
did. We could have never imagined a day like this, a day

a giant awakes from an eight year slumber, fists unclenched.
Bones popping as legs stretch. The giant says aloud, to no one,
to everyone: “Alright, it’s time to get out of this bed.
It’s time to get up and get started.” We could not have ever
thought the thrill of hope such an attainable thing, right

at our fingertips, a little bird that has lighted on our knee,
waiting and ready to be cupped up by our scarred hands.

--Silas House

Thursday, October 23, 2008

State of Grace

A note: I've named this essay "State of Grace," but these might be its alternate titles: Or, A New Kind of Book Review, Or, I ramble aimlessly for a few pages to try and articulate why I love the work of Marilynne Robinson so much.

I finished Home by Marilynne Robinson a couple weeks ago and I'm just now able to talk about it because I've been grieving the fact that I turned the last page. A bit dramatic, I suppose, but then again, how can anyone overstate the way it feels when a book moves you and changes you? There isn't enough hyperbole to do justice to that sensation. And the most amazing thing is that I've felt the same way about each of Robinson's three novels.

I was introduced to Robinson's writing late: I was in my early thirties before I ever read Housekeeping. It remains among my favorite books. I've never read another book that captured so accurately what it feels like to be different, to be weird, to be a writer. The book is not about being a writer, of course, but it is about being different. Even more than that, though, I think Housekeeping is about being yourself, and--most importantly--accepting yourself. Reading Housekeeping helped me to accept myself for who I am. It helped me to know that it's okay to be different, to stand apart, even to stand alone sometimes. I would have had a much easier life if I had read this book twenty years ago, but things come to us when they're meant to, I suppose. Suffice it to say that the book changed my life. And nothing better can be said of a book. Here's one of my favorite passages from Housekeeping, to give you an idea of her writing:

"To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing -- the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries."

I don't know about you, but I always sigh a little bit after reading that. For the beauty of it. But maybe out of a bit of envy, too.

I read Gilead as soon as it came out and fell in love with it, too. I never was able to decide which I loved most: Housekeeping or Gilead. And I still don't know. They're very different books, although they're very similar in that they celebrate individuality, compassion, kindness, aloneness. Gilead is like a long, wonderful prayer. I've always had a fondness for epistolary novels (among my other favorite ones: Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith and The Color Purple by Alice Walker) but Gilead is different in that it is one single letter being written over a long period of time, from an aged preacher to his seven year-old son, whom he has fathered late in life. The preacher, John Ames, fears that he won't live long enough to tell the son everything he wants to, so he starts the letter in the hopes of doing that. Real life intervenes, however, and Ames ends up telling the boy more about what is happening during the writing of the letters than memories or lessons learned. But Ames is always imparting wisdom to his son, and to the reader.

It's hard to say exactly why we love a book. It's one thing to enjoy a book, or to like it, but every once in a while we love books. I tend to think that we cross over into loving a book because we feel we know its characters, and John Ames remains very real to me today, years after I read that novel. He feels like an old friend who taught me many lessons. His voice was so authoritative, so vivid, that I will never forget it. Witness my favorite passage:

"For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there's an intimacy in it. That's the truth."

John Ames is sort of like Atticus Finch in that he becomes everyone's ideal father while you're reading Gilead. But what makes him more interesting than being perfect is that he reveals his doubts and fears and faults to us. He becomes a human being there on the page, one with a beating heart. We grieve for him when he's sad and we feel happy when we're reading about him experiencing joy. Also what Robinson has done above is so efficiently capture that basic, fundamental thing that every parent wishes for their child (well, not every parent, but every parent should): that they never suffer, that they are happy. The most important thing, of course, is that every single line of the book is infused with emotion. This is what every writer--and every reader--should know: that a book is only as good as its emotion. This is a rule of thumb that has gotten lost in a lot of modern literature.

This is what I love most about Robinson's work, that she allows emotion to stand in every sentence. That's something that a lot of modern writers--especially the acclaimed ones--refuse to do. They think that everything has to be cynical, dark, desolate, gritty, graphic. Editors nowadays will say "It's too soft," or "it's not hard enough," or "it doesn't have enough edge." Well, not everyone has edge. My characters rarely do. They're not out being fierce and wild in the faddish way. They're being fierce and wild in their strength, in their hard work, in their love for one another, in their honesty. I think that's what most readers want: characters they can relate to, characters who experience the joys and fears that they do. That's why it's even more amazing that Robinson's novels have been so universally acclaimed. Not only are they quiet and poetic and weird and emotional, they're also about country people (gasp)!!! So the rules of modern literature would normally dictate that this kind of book not be taken seriously.

Add to the list of reasons why it's shocking Robinson gets read that the books--especially Gilead--are very much about Christianity, and religion, and theology, and faith, and doubt. Not exactly subjects that the literati likes to read or write about, unless they're making fun of them. That is not to say that it is a Christian novel, or that it is something that only Christians will be interested in. I'm not sure Robinson intended it this way, but reading that book helped me to understand better how to be the Christian that I wanted and needed to be. Not the Christian that some preacher or my parents or some politician told me I had to be. I am someone who has struggled for twenty-some years with understanding my own faith, my own beliefs. Most of my own writing has been an effort in trying to figure out what I believe and how I believe it. And reading Gilead helped me to understand that better. It helped to show me that true Christianity isn't about judgement and exclusion. It's about compassion and inclusion. Other books and people have helped to show me that, too. But no other book besides The Color Purple and Jude the Obscure has more shaped who I am from a religious or spiritual standpoint. I was raised to think that holiness was not smoking, not cussing, not going to the movie theatre, wearing the right clothes. But then I began to think, and see, differently, and here is a passage in Gilead that helped me to see more clearly what real holiness is:

"I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful. I'll pray, and then I’ll sleep."

It may be simple-minded of me to have to read something like that to fully grasp my own definition of holiness, but that's the power of great books. Often our favorite books are shaped by what is happening in our lives. This one came at the right moment, when I needed it the most, when I was on the edge of losing any kind of faith at all. And this passage, somehow, saved me.

Arguably, one of the major themes in Gilead is racism. But I believe Robinson was using racism as a representative for all kinds of injustice and intolerance and evil. Although racism is still a subtle theme in Home, I believe the main theme is kindness, which naturally goes hand in hand with Christianity (the right kind of Christianity, at least) and racism (that being the opposite of kindness). Racism, then, is the impetus for the main theme, which is holiness.

That theme tumbles over into Home, Robinson's third and most recent novel, which has just been named as a finalist for the National Book Award.

And a lesson was learned in Home, too. Home reminded me that the only way we can better ourselves is by being kind to others, no matter how low we are ourselves. It is important that we not only recognize our own suffering, but see that of others and recognize it as being of more importance than our own. Again and again throughout Home we see characters being kind to each other, often at great expense or sacrifice to themselves. Home is told through the point of view of Glory Boughton, the daughter of Reverend Robert Boughton, who is in his last years, and the sister of Jack Boughton, the black sheep of the family. It is a sort of companion novel to Gilead (it takes place in roughly the same time as that novel and the characters show up in each book, but the focus is on different people and you don't have to read one to get the other) illuminating a minor character from that novel. That character is Glory, and she feels like a sinner, a failure, a disappointment, to herself and others. And she knows about being alone. And about being lonely. No other book I've ever read captures this more tenderly, or more accurately. To combat her lonesome existence she decides to be kind to others instead of striking out at them. You've heard people say that true courage is being afraid, but going forward anyway. Then it must be that true kindness is when you feel so bad you want to be mean, but you're kind anyway.

I love Glory for many reasons. Because she has that true kindness. Because she is reading The Dollmaker (one of my favorite books) during the novel. Because she appreciates sitting on the porch and watching the evening come in. But most of all because of the way she deals with aloneness and loneliness. As a writer, I am used to loneliness. Sometimes we writers are lonely when surrounded by others, even others that we cherish. It is our nature, and we couldn't be good writers otherwise. So that may be another reason I loved Home so much. These are characters who understand aloneness and loneliness (two very different things, the first sometimes desirable, the latter never wanted). My favorite passage in Home is a strange one, but I think it's so perfect it aches:

"She toasted two pieces of bread and ate them dry because she dreaded the sound she might make spreading butter on them. Then she went up to her room. Never had it entered her mind that their household could contain so desolate a silence."

I've been there. I've imagined the sound of that scraping knife. But I don't believe I could have ever articulated it so perfectly. Anyone who wants to learn more about writing would be well-advised to study that simple little paragraph. Look at the perfectly chosen nouns and verbs, the simple words strung together in such a way that they become elegant. The rhythm, so present and alive you could tap your foot to it. Most of all, the mood of the sentences, the way they establish an atmosphere and draw you in and make you a part of the novel and the characters and the scenario.

There's lots more where that passage comes from, too. I wish I could tell you the last three paragraphs because they're among the best passages I've read in literature, ever. But I won't spoil the book for you by doing so, although it's tempting.

I haven't gotten too specific about any of these novels because I don't want to give any of the plots away. Some people say that Robinson's novels are slow and boring. I admit that it took me a few tries to get into Housekeeping. And that Gilead occasionally dragged just a little bit. But I was never bored; there was always too much beauty just around the corner, and I knew it was waiting for me. To my mind, Robinson's novels are meditations, prayers, praises. A dear friend of mine said that reading Home was "like being in a state of grace." This is true, and I believe the same can be said of all three of Robinson's novels. If you haven't read them, prepare yourself for a revelation.
Check out this beautifully-written review of Home by my friend Aimee Zaring
Some good interviews with Marilynne Robinson:
NPR Interview

Thursday, September 18, 2008

First, Rethink

I’m by no means a perfect environmentalist. I’m still driving a vehicle that uses too much gas. I still automatically reach for the light switch even when I don’t absolutely need it. I still love to load up and go for road trips even when I don’t have to. I’m an American, and we Americans love our independence, even if that means driving a big old truck all by ourselves to the post office one mile away instead of walking or riding our bicycle.

But I’m trying my best to become better on all these counts, and to me that’s the main thing all of us should do if we want to be part of the movement to be conservationists and to be better stewards of the land.

One thing that I am really proud of is that I’ve become an avid recycler. The biggest factor in this process has been that a regional recycling center was recently opened at my county seat. Lots of people just don’t have a recycler close by. But if you do, I encourage you to start recycling. It’ll make you feel better.

Our recycling center doesn’t do pick up, so once a week I load all of our cardboard, plastic, glass, and paper up and take it to the recycling center that sits just outside the town of London, Kentucky. London is a small town that would like to think of itself as a big town, and for the most part I’m often disappointed in the town’s lack of attention to the arts and backward attitude about anything that doesn’t involve sports or beauty pageants. I’ve been openly critical of the town’s practices in the past and have taken the heat for my views. A terrible city vs. county attitude exists here, as it does in most small towns across the nation, and it’s a constant thorn for me, an avowed ruralist. But when I go to the recycling center I’m always proud of the inhabitants of my county.

Some people grumbled that there was no sense in putting a major recycling center in a place that is not more populated than ours (our county is one of the fastest growing in Eastern Kentucky, with almost 53,000 people) and where more than 21% live below the poverty line (since elitists always assume that poor people would never be conscientious enough to care about the environment).

But our recycling center is a great example of how people will do the right thing when given a chance. Every time I’m there, cars are lined up to bring in their milk jugs, Mountain Dew boxes and pickle jars. The recycling center stays so busy that the crew can hardly keep up.

People ask me why I bother to recycle. Some of them seem outright offended by the notion of recycling, as if it’s a slap in the face to their way of life. I tell them, simply enough, that I recycle because it’s one of the best ways to be a good steward. They have two responses to this: 1. recycling really doesn’t help the environment and 2. Why should we be stewards of the land, anyway? Both these notion bear examination:

First of all, that whole “recycling doesn’t help the environment” idea is nonsensical. This line of thought is legitimized by a famous and controversial New York Times article published more than 12 years ago called “Recycling is Garbage” . Although author John Tierney’s assertions—which were overwhelmingly based on his opinion, and not facts—were quickly refuted by two noted scholars, Richard A. Denison, Ph. D. and John F. Ruston , the damage had already been done. The anti-recyclers now had the ammunition of a New York Times piece to back them up. I’ll leave it to Denison and Ruston to disprove Tierney’s misguided theories with solid statistics and will instead fall back on the same thing Tierney used: my opinion. And in my opinion, it’s just crazy to think recycling doesn’t work.

And what works even better is reusing, which I always try to do before recycling. Everyone always makes fun of me because at my daughters’ birthday parties, I often reuse the plates. It never fails that I will find several of the decorative paper plates that have been barely used. One has held a few potato chips. Another has just been the holder for the discarded cake candles. When I find these lying about, I wipe them out and put them up for reuse instead of just throwing them away. I don’t see a thing in the world wrong with that, but lots of people in my family have a good laugh out of it, calling me a tree hugger or, more often, a tightwad. I reuse food containers, jars, bubble wrap, newspaper (they make for the best window-cleaning, serve as great wrapping paper, are great packing material when I run out of bubble wrap to reuse) and even manuscript paper that has already been used. All typing paper can be used twice. There’s absolutely no reason to throw it away or even to send it to the recycler unless you’ve used both sides of it. People have now gotten used to getting letters from me that are typed on paper that has already been used on one side. I simply add a P.S. that says something like “Excuse my stationary and ignore the writing on the other side. Just reusing before you recycle it so it can be used as many times as possible.” If anyone is offended by that, then tough.

So there’s just no way that recycling isn’t good for the environment. Yes, it may take some water and energy to recycle, but not as much as it does to create something from scratch. Recent studies have proven that it’s even better for the environment to buy a used fuel efficient vehicle than it is to buy a new hybrid. Although the hybrid will save a lot of gas, it takes many years for it to catch up when you factor in how much energy will be used to create a new hybrid when there is already a perfectly good used and fuel-efficient car that has already been created. That’s another example of recycling. I’ve gone so far as to go on the record with Publisher’s Weekly that I don’t object to used book stores, mainly because re-reading of books saves trees (in fairness, most publishers use paper that come straight from tree farms where trees are grown for the express purpose of providing paper for books, but recycling books still relaxes the burden of pressure on our forests) and also because I love a good buy as much as anybody else and used book stores are my favorite stores of all (Robie and Robie in Berea, Kentucky being the best one, with McKay’s in Knoxville a close second (except that McKay’s employees are sorely lacking in customer service).

The second question (Why should we be stewards of the land, anyway?) is even more interesting and disturbing, not to mention ridiculous and frustrating. This is also the most important thing I’ll say herein. We should be stewards of the land because there’s just no way around the fact that as human beings we should live by the Golden Rule, the rule of reciprocity that shows up in every major religion and value system. I identify as a Christian, although my beliefs wouldn’t jibe with a lot of Christians whose views are seen as the “norm” (Sarah Palin, for example, who I’ve come to truly fear…when you start banning books and killing polar bears…well, I’m just done with you). As a Christian—nay, just as a human being—I feel a responsibility to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I don’t see how a person can believe that and not also be a steward of the land. How can we abuse the earth and not harm ourselves—and, more importantly, others—in some way? We have a responsibility to be good to one another, and to the earth. That’s all there is to it, and no one will ever change my mind about that. It’s one of my fundamental beliefs, if not the fundamental belief I have that drives everything else.

This is not to say that you can’t be a good person—or a good Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or whatever—unless you recycle. It just means that I can’t in good faith not try my best to be a steward for the land, since I believe that God lives in everything. While believing that, I also believe that God is most apparent in trees, and mountains, and children, and birds, and, well, in everything. God is not just some spirit in the sky. He lives in it all. So when I do harm, I lash out against Him.

I don’t mean for this to turn into a religious discussion but I suppose the thing that eats at me more than anything else is that so many people who criticize the way I choose to be a Christian are the same people who claim that their Christianity is one that chooses to believe that global warming is a myth (Palin, again), that there’s no use in recycling or reusing or being a steward of the land because the Rapture is coming any day now anyway. I’ve even had some of these Christians tell me that to suggest we should take care of each other (universal health care) is a socialist idea and that all socialism is Communism. When we say “Communism” we’re usually thinking of the Soviet and Chinese school of Communism, so that’s what I’m referring to here. (An aside: As a child raised in the 80s, when we were all terrified the nuclear bomb would drop any day (the movie The Day After sure didn’t make me sleep any better at night), one of the major insults we could hurl at someone else was to call them a Communist.) But socialism and Communism are two completely different things, with socialism paying much more attention to human rights (and taxes). If Socialism means that we take care of each other, then I’m all for it. Why shouldn’t we? Maybe that’s why we were put here to begin with, to see if we’d succeed in taking care of one another, of if we’d fail miserably and just end up killing one another. With nuclear bombs. Or self-imposed global warming.

My point is that recycling is part of the process of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about being a true conservative in that you actually want to conserve something, not that you want to be a conservative in the modern definition, which would mean that you want to teach abstinence-only sex ed, deny people equal rights, and put lipstick on pit bulls. Or something.

When I go to the recycling center, I feel like I’m doing something to help. And I love seeing others who are doing something to help, too. All these people silently making their small sacrifices. They take the time and make the effort to recycle. Not because they’re being paid to do so. Not because anyone will appreciate it (as a matter of fact, lots of people will outright accuse them of being—gasp—“liberals,” an insult that carries almost the same weight as being called a “Communist” in the Age of Palin). They do it simply because they believe in the Golden Rule. Because they don’t like to waste. Because they believe in true conservation.

And for the record, people of all classes show up at the recycling center, all of them with the common goal of doing something to help in mind. When my cousin, a self-proclaimed “true Christian” (i.e., one who doesn’t smoke, drink, or curse but judges everyone) tells me how much he’s doing for Jesus, I ask him why he doesn’t recycle for him, then.

I’m still working on becoming a better environmentalist. Slowly, I’m simplifying. I’m not using as much energy as I used to. I’m not using as much gas as I once did. I’m reusing and recycling even more. I’ve even started riding my bicycle to the post office. Most of all, I’m trying to be more aware of how every single thing I do affects others, and the earth. That’s the first step to making a change for the positive, I think, and so if we can all just do that—be conscious—then we’ve made the first, biggest step of all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This Is Not Nowhere

When I was a child, I thought the ridge above my house was the center of the universe, the middle of everything. It might as well have been, as I had all that I needed there: trees, a creek, the sky, a pasture. Here I could run as fast as I wanted, or holler at the top of my lungs, go to sleep with my good dog Fala as a pillow, even pee outside. Basically, I could do all the things I could not do at home.

As far as that goes, my little town had everything I needed, too. People who loved me, my school, the Laurel River, which supplied us with endless enjoyment (swimming, skipping rocks, ice-skating), my Aunt Dot's store, which was well-supplied with plenty of candy and pop, and so on. Occasionally we needed to go to Knoxville or Lexington, but usually only when someone was nigh death and had to be shipped off to one of the hospitals there. We cared nothing for malls or fancy restaurants or things of that nature. As far as I was concerned the only reason to go to the city at all was because they had a better bookstore. I could take it or leave it.

Going into the city was a major thing when I was little. Always in early November my mother and aunts would plan an excursion to the city for Christmas shopping. This was a trip that was planned with the discussion and maneuvers that might befall a major expedition into some uncharted land. Directions had to be given over and over, coolers had to be packed full of Pepsi so they wouldn't have to spend extra money while on the road, oil had to be changed, tires rotated. Aunt Sis had to have a proper supply of Winstons and her pistol had to be cleaned and filled with new bullets in case they broke down on the side of the road. My sister had to have a new outfit for going into the city. My mother had to have her hair done before leaving. You get the picture.

As I got older, going to the city became only slightly more important, but only when Tom Petty or Dwight Yoakam were playing a concert there, or when a forbidden trip to the liquor store (our county--and most of the region--is dry) seemed necessary. The interstate had been improved so the city wasn't as far away now. When we wanted to go, the city was only ninety minutes away and if it had been farther we would have been alright, too.

All these thoughts ran through my mind when I was visiting a university (which I won't name) not too long ago. At this school, I talked a lot about my own writing and naturally, since I am from Appalachia, the issue of stereotypes came up. I spent a long time talking about the way we all have stereotypes, how we country people have preconceived notions about city dwellers just as badly as they do about us, and so on. I told the audience that I've encountered every kind of insult because of my roots, and especially because of my accent, which apparently gives people the right to treat me like I'm a dullard. I told them I had heard all the lame jokes about being barefoot, illiterate, having an out-house, making moonshine, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah. My God, I get tired of talking about it.

Despite going on about this for at least an hour, during the time I spent signing books afterward, two separate people referred to the place I was from as being "the middle of nowhere." Not my town specifically, but places in Appalachia. My immediate thought was to agree that some towns in the mountains were pretty far off the beaten path. But then I thought about how it had taken me such a long time to get to this university because it was off the beaten path, too, not near any major interstates or any other major towns. Because this city had a fairly large population, however, its residents never thought of it as being in the middle of nowhere. Because they were a city. They had Red Lobsters and Borders and a Panera. Whoopty-doo.

I'm being facetious now.

The thing is, Appalachia is not nowhere. Wherever you go, there you are, goes the old saying. When I am in New York City, I am in the place that people apparently think of as the Center of Everything, the opposite of the Middle of Nowhere. True, there is wonderful art and music and parks and food and all sorts of things in New York City. It must be said that it’s a real place, too, not just the stereotype we think of, but a place full of people with lives of their own. But not all of the people I love most are there. Isn't that really what makes a place the Middle of the World, the Center of Everything, the most important place?

Still, it has to be more than even that. It has to be, because even though the great majority of people I love happen to be concentrated in Appalachia, it is also a fact that many of my very heartstrings live outside the region. If my children grow up and leave this place, does it make the place any less special? Of course not. So it must be even more than just the people that makes Appalachia so special to me. It has to be the spirit that informs this place, this land. Without the land I love, the place that is a part of me, I am nowhere. If I am not in the woods that I know like the back of my hand, am I not truly lost?

The Middle of Nowhere is the opposite of wherever you think the Center of Everything is. And for all those people who like to refer to Appalachia as "the Middle of Nowhere," I give you this: for millions of people, this is the place we grew up, the place where we have had struggles and hardships, joys and triumphs. It's the place where our people are buried, where our children were born, where we've sweated and bled and have loved and loved and loved. This is not Nowhere. This is home.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Conscious Heart

The following is the text 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. There have been so many requests for the speech that we've decided to post it here. The speech will be published in the next issue of The Journal of Appalachian Studies. For permission to use the speech please email TgMedia Publicity at tgmedia@bellsouth.net .

A Conscious Heart
Appalachian Studies Association Conference
Keynote Address

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.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On God's Creek

The older I get, the more I want to stay in my little writer’s shack beside God’s Creek. Down there I can see nothing but woods on one side and the steep field on the other, where the only sounds in winter are those of the woodpecker who, early of the morning, drills and prods the huge, dead oak which stands like a gray monument across the creek, and the sound of the hickory branches that tap against my tin roof when an icy breeze moves through. If I stop typing and moving and shut down completely, tuning myself into the world, there are more sounds, of course. Far back in the woods, the crunch of leaves (a squirrel, most likely; a fox, I hope). The longing bark of a lonesome dog, way over the ridge. The bubble of the spring-fed God’s Creek, quiet in wintertime, especially the winter after our worst drought, but living now at least: moving, whispering. The barely discernable—but there, yes, there—creak of the floorboards under my weight, the almost-lost complaints of the walls, which tire of standing night and day, on and on. The soft rub of wood as two redbirds play among the tree branches, flitting hither and yon, pausing occasionally to call out to one another. These are winter birds, survivors, tough customers. I only see males back here along God’s Creek, a red you can only find in nature. Beneath all of this, the hum of beetles and crickets and worms that make up the most important machinery of the world.

I want to stay here in this cocoon of books (cue “I Am A Rock”: I have my books and my poetry to protect me) and not have to face the real world, the modern world, a world where people admire wealth over dignity, where talking nonstop about nothing is considered more admirable than studied silence, where your allegiance to your country is questioned if you ask too many questions about certain things, like the war or the coal industry or even the Ten Commandments, for God’s sake.

In my writing shack I don’t have to think about the latest school shooting (and by the way, how many shootings will it take before we impose some kind of stricter waiting periods on weapons and ammunition?) or that I have literally hundreds of emails that need a reply or that my beautiful but completely insane dog Riley has just pulled at least two dozen muddy sticks out of the creek and is right now in the process of leaving them all scattered about the back yard in varying states of gnawed, slimy decomposition. Instead, I can listen to the silence, peer out at the trees and the hint of low, gray sky behind them. I can soak up the vibes of those crowding in around me—Arnow, Cather, Erdrich, Hardy, Maxwell, Millay, Oliver, Stegner, Still, Walker—so close I can almost feel their literary breath on my neck. That breath smells like the inside of a book, of course, one of the best smells ever, right up there with woodsmoke, a pot of new coffee, pinto beans bubbling on the stove, a ripe strawberry, a baby’s head.

But to disappear into this book-created bliss, to drift off into this ecstasy of good words completely, abandoning all interaction with the outside world would be a mistake. As a writer—nay, as a human being—I need to have this place of solitude that I’ve created for myself in my writer’s shack. I need stillness and quietude in my life. But my responsibility as a writer is to also think about those school shootings, because part of my job is to try to understand—and articulate—the way human beings operate. And my responsibility is to study the movements of my crazy, beloved dog, because part of my job is to describe those things in a cinematic, interesting way. And yes, the modern responsibility is to even answer those emails. Because I’m a full-time writer. And part of that means I also have to be a businessperson some of the time. It’s a necessary part of the job. Some writers hesitate to refer to their writing as work, or as a job. But just because it’s something I love and crave doesn’t also mean that it’s not my job. It’s my work. People often say about their jobs, “It’s what I do for a living.” I’ve always found that to be a beautiful phrase.

What I do for a living.

And it certainly applies to being a writer, because writing not only pays my bills but it’s also something that I would die without. If I didn’t have some way to get all my thoughts and fears and joys out onto the page, I’d implode.

Although we are people of solitude, writers cannot be hermits. We have to steel ourselves and go out into the world whether we like it or not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a thing to write about. There are only so many essays and books one person can write about the woods and the sounds of all the little live things. Those things deserve to have as much written about them as possible, but we also have to write about the problems of humanity, not just the joys of the forest. And to understand one we have to touch the other.

So we must be responsible and face the world even though, as writers, we usually don’t want to. We would rather be with a select group of trusted friends and family who understand us (those few, beloved souls), or those only other things that we feel understand us: music, books, the act of writing. And that is why I wanted to build this writer’s shack here by God’s Creek last year.

It has made all the difference.

I built the shack with my father. Actually, he built it. I just helped, just did what he told me to. I had to learn how to handle a hammer (The lower down the more swing. This is the most important rule of hammering. Ever.) when my family and friends all gathered together and built my house nine years ago. But I’ve never really mastered it, and I certainly don’t know how to make things square or how to get things in plum or any other number of carpentry terms that I don’t even know. Still, I enjoyed every swing as I drove those nails into the wood. Each pound of the hammer was one second closer to words being pounded out here on the banks of this creek, too.

The writer’s shack is twelve feet by twelve feet. Not even as big as most people’s bedrooms. But plenty big enough for my needs. I wanted the whole structure to be made completely of wood and light, so where there is not wood paneling and planks there are windows and glass doors, letting in the sky, the woods. Sitting here feels like being inside a hollow tree where I can spy outside.

My glass patio doors—on the eastern wall—face the woods, where I have an evergreen view since there is a small grove of hemlocks just across the creek. In the mornings, for a long while after sunrise, the sky behind them is lit with every good variation of pink and yellow. These doors open onto my small porch, which holds two rockers. This is where I enter and exit. It is also where my dogs Rufus (noble, fierce) and Riley (the aforementioned insane and beautiful) lie the entire time I am writing. They stretch out, keep guard, sometimes nod off, look at me quizzically when I holler out at some great realization about my current novel, or curse at the laptop for doing something inexplicable and spiteful.

On the northern wall is my picture window, which looks directly out onto a dogwood that is like magic in the springtime. To the west is the front door (never used), wood with a glass center. Beyond it is the first real slope of Slate Ridge, this piece of land I’ve known since childhood, this good rise of earth. Down this hill I have ridden sleds on both snow and deep leaves, rolled with arms crossed, smoked my first and last entire cigarettes (17 years apart—savoring the last one much more than the first), had my first kiss (if every kiss was as full of hope as that first one, I imagine we’d all flit about like those redbirds), thought through many a problem. And so on. In the evenings there is only the hint of red above this rise as it is too high up for me to see the sunset on the other side. Since the shack sets down in a little hollow, the gloaming starts there first. Down by the creek the night seeps in, a quilt of gray being eased up over the land. In wintertime this is the quietest part of the day, but in warm weather it will be the noisiest. However, that noise will be the best kind there is: cicadas, crickets, frogs, whippoorwills, katydids, peepers. Their songs usher in the darkness with prayer, and these exaltations are at their loudest (most joyous) down by the creek, on all sides of my little writing shack.

I have neglected to mention the southern wall of the building. I have intentionally not put a window on this side because I want my desk to face that way. The trees and sky and hillside are all too good to look at while I’m writing. I don’t want them to catch my eye behind the laptop screen. But I do want them within such easy reach that they can be seen by a slight turn of my head, by a shift of my eyes. Instead, there is nothing but this wall of wood. Upon it I have three treasured paintings (on the left, a redbird by Ray Harm; in the middle an old print of Cumberland Gap; on the right, the Spider Bridge over Troublesome Creek in Hindman, Kentucky, one of my favorite places on earth, painted by my friend Ruth Antle). Below them are collages of my own strange making, and they change nearly everyday. There are postcards, scraps of paper with notes for the new novel on them, a picture of Cate Blanchett ripped out of a magazine, a copy of the poem “Trees” by Merwin, several drawings by my daughters, who are, at 12 and 9, drawing all the time.

These are views I can control. I can remove them if they become distracting. I put things there that are not as likely to have action going on (as often happens with trees, for instance, with things like changing colors and breezes and birds and squirrels) but that are comforting to me.

I should say, for my father’s sake if not mine, that this little building is not really a shack in the way we normally think. When people say shack, most often the first thought is of a small house in disrepair, perhaps adorned by a hound dog on the front porch (or a granny-woman with a pipe in her mouth). This goes all the way back to where the work comes from, which is the rural English colloquialism “shackly,” which meant “rickety.”

But actually, Webster’s defines shack this way: “A room or similar enclosed structure for a particular person or use.”

This seems the perfect definition for a little house that was built particularly for me, and for my work. And I also call it my shack in tribute to my late friend Larry Brown, who built his own little writer’s shack on the banks of the pond he had known and loved and fished in all of his life. Nearing the end of his building that shack, Larry encouraged me to build one for myself. “A writer needs a place he can go to,” he said. “It’ll make ye a better writer, bro.”

I know how blessed I am to have this writer’s shack, this room of one’s own. I worked for a long while, setting some money here and there aside to have it. But in hindsight, I see that I have always created a room of my own, no matter my circumstances. At first, when I was a child and teenager, it was in my incredibly messy room, hunched over my little blue and red Royal typewriter. Later, when rooming with two messy boys in college, it was the small couch in the corner of our living room, whose d├ęcor was mostly empty Natural Light and Papa John’s pizza boxes. As a young newlywed with a new baby, living in a 14 x 70 trailer, I wrote in my daughter’s unused nursery (unused because we moved her cradle in right beside our bed and then didn’t even use it, planting her as close to us as possible) on a huge computer whose CPU sat on a diaper changing table and whose screen sat propped atop boxes of Huggies. Later, the screen porch of my house in warm weather, a table by the gas-log-fireplace in the wintertime. And finally, my own little shack there in the woods, by God’s Creek.

As writers, we have to find this place for ourselves. It will present itself. It doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s writing space, so don’t look to me or other writers for advice on that. Like writing, it has to be your own creation. Finding it will help you to find your voice, will help you to escape when the realities are so heavy and so much that the best thing you can do is to write about them, to understand them better, to find light in all the darkness.