The God of Bird's Nests

"If you happen to come upon a bird's nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young."--Deuteronomy 22:6

This verse kept going through my head yesterday when we were at the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, protesting against mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining that is devastating the mountains of America. There were about 800 of us there, united by a common goal: to save the mountains, and our waterways, which are being forever affected by the ravages of this irresponsible form of coal mining.

I don't know where the Bible verse came from...I don't even remember ever being taught this verse. But there it was, and it was a comfort throughout the day. While out there protesting it was empowering to see all those people standing up for what they believed in. Walking up the capitol steps holding that sign of protest (NOT ONE MORE MILE) while chanting with everyone else ("Whose mountains? Our mountains! Whose streams? Our streams! Whose future? Our future!") was a really moving thing.

Even more moving to me were the faces of all the people there who were fighting against Big Business and standing up for what is right.

Yes, Ashley Judd was there, and that's been widely publicized. But she was not there as the movie star Ashley Judd. She was there as a concerned citizen, a proud Appalachian, someone who always cares for the bird's nest. People like to criticize celebrities when they speak out. They say they don't want someone famous "telling them what to believe." But Judd was simply there voicing what she believes. And she believes in what she's saying. She gave her time to be there, paid her own way, asked for nothing in return. I introduced her as "a great light," as someone who "loves and loves and loves." She was there because she believes in protecting the environment and she believes in everyone being good to one another. This is a lesson the coal companies and the government and big business would be well-served to learn as well.

There were dozens of children (the youngest was so little she was strapped to her mother's chest), chanting into the bullhorn, holding their signs high above their heads. One teacher, Blossom Brosi, brought over a hundred students from Boyle County High School. That's the kind of teacher who becomes a hero to kids. There were college students, emboldened by the possibility of change. The oldest marcher, Marie Cassidy, is 96 years old.  And I saw so many people who have fought tirelessly and bravely for years and years, now. They are not about to give up. Among them were people like Teri Blanton, Carl Shoupe, Jim Webb, Bev Futtrell, Sue Massek, George Brosi, Connie Brosi, and so many more.

But the person I want to pause to point out particularly is Patty Wallace, a woman from Louisa, Kentucky who has been fighting the coal industry for years. She once told me that she "ran down" a coal truck driver to thank him for driving safely when the companies so often force them to speed to keep up with production. A couple years ago, Patty was interviewed and said: "We may talk funny but our brains work. The coal company says we need more flatland, we need more Wal-Marts ... We're not stupid, but they keep telling us what we need. When they haul the coal out of Black Mountain, it's just like tearing out my heart."

Ironically, Wallace (pictured here, on the right) had a heart stint put in just a few days ago. But she was out there on the march yesterday. According to her friends, Wallace's heart rhythm was struggling. As we came up Capitol Avenue she grew tired, but she refused to stop. Police officers, stationed along the route, offered to drive her on up to the Capitol steps, but she refused. "I can rest while I walk," she said. She was determined to make her voice heard, to stand up for what she believed in, to give of herself to protect the water and the mountains.

Patty Wallace is a protector of bird's nests. And one of my heroes.

But it was a frustrating day, too. It was frustrating to see little children holding jars of polluted well water, polluted by coal companies who claim to be making our land a better place. It was frustrating to see people having to march to save their water, our most precious commodity. It's mind-boggling, like something out of a science fiction novel, that people would actually have to fight for that. It was even more frustrating to know that our governor refused to come out and hear our pleas, even though he did come out to greet coal mining officials on the front steps of the capitol less than a year ago.

What's even more frustrating is that Governor Beshear is a good man who has stood up to the industry in the past. His refusal to come greet us worries me that the industry has gotten through to him, too.

I think what Deut. 22:6 is saying is that we have to be kind to even the smallest creatures. I believe it means that we should be compassionate, and thoughtful, and responsible. And I believe that it means we should not be short-sighted or mean-hearted or greedy. To be good people, the verse says, we must all be protectors of bird's nests.

However, I believe that the Bible is a living thing and that its wisdom is only as good and thick as its readers allow it to be. People have been misconstruing the Bible for ages for their own benefit, and have done a great job of it, using it to hold up slavery, anti-suffrage, and intolerance.

I choose to seek the positive in the Bible. The light. The God I believe in is one of love and compassion, not wrath and jealousy. I believe in a God of Bird's Nests.

The God I believe in is not the one I grew up knowing, though. That was one group of people's God, a group that had molded and shaped the words of the Bible to mean what they wanted them to mean. That's not what I'm trying to do here. But I am turning to the Bible to seek knowledge and wisdom, to help me understand the ways of people and the world. And this is what I have taken from it. To me, finding something of light, something positive, is just as amazing as coming upon a perfect little bird's nest in a low branch. Like my friend and great poet Lisa Parker says of such nests: "It's all in how you carry 'em, brother."

Now that's the truth.

Years and years ago, the coal companies stumbled upon a rich, beautiful bird's nest called Appalachia. But instead of acting with responsibility and taking only what they needed, they took everything: the babies and the mother. The mishandled the nest. They plundered and robbed. They were short-sighted, not looking ahead to the future. Because if you take the mother and the babies, what do you do with the future, when you need more songbirds? You have nothing but an empty nest, tumbling away in the wind.



Alice said…
...and all the little live things.
Well said Silas. I'm a protector of bird's nests too. And as Ashley said in your person can make a difference. Will you be that person?
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this lovely piece. I see you and I have met the same God-the God of light, not darkness; of justice, not judgment; of hope, not despair. I wish I could have attended I Love Mountains Day this year and experienced the energy. I thank our God for the many heroes you mentioned in your blog and also for people like you who so eloquently tell the stories from the coalfields. I would be happy to be one tenth of your gift for words!
Hi, I agree with you totally.
I am from the West Virginia coalfields. Mountaintop removal is one of the most hurtful things I have ever seen in my life.

The coal companies are so powerful the mountains keep coming down.
B. L. Dotson-Lewis (WV author)
Forest Lady said…
I love your books. Will you ever consider making them available for Amazon Kindle readers?
[Thank you, Silas House and Ashley Judd, for your spectacular protests. See below for my latest efforts in Western North Carolina.]

Hillbilly stereotypes: picking up pine knots and going to war
By Betty Cloer Wallace

Bill O’Reilly’s recent contemptible rant against Appalachian Americans is only the latest example of the widespread and multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes. Quite simply, O’Reilly reminded the world once again that people of the Appalachian Mountains are still the only cultural group in America that many people have the audacity to ridicule publicly as being of low intelligence, and worse. 

Can you imagine if O'Reilly had made the same despicable statements about ________ in _________, or ________ in ________, or _______ in ________. (Fill in the blanks with any racial or ethnic or cultural slurs you can imagine, the more insensitive the better.)

How can we as a people ever overcome this pervasive hillbilly stereotype? Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend we don't care and that we will survive regardless of the outside world? Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don't believe that we are surviving very well or will survive in the future as a culture with a shred of honor and dignity if we do not rise up, en masse, and protest at every opportunity this kind of insensitive abuse.

We continue to loll about in our insular Snuffy Smith, Lil Abner, Mammy Yokum, Jed Clampett, grits-and-possum stereotype as if the opinion of the rest of the world does not matter, even while we are being brutalized every time someone laughs at our dialect or accent, or asks WHERE are you from, or rejects us for a job, or does not publish our writing because how could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say.

A professor at the University of Colorado once said to our own Charles Frazier, "Imagine that! A hillbilly with a Ph.D.!" Even worse than the professor thinking such a misbegotten thought was that she felt entitled to publicly say it right to his face. Can you imagine her making that statement to a person of any other racial or ethnic or cultural group? "Imagine that! A ______ with a Ph.D.!"

As much as I love COLD MOUNTAIN, both book and movie, I hated the "Young Mammy Yokum" portrayal of Ruby by Renee Zellweger who won an Academy Award for it. (Frazier’s Ruby in the book had a quiet strength and wisdom, as do most native Appalachian people.) As much as I love our bluegrass music, I hated the stereotypical portrayal of ignorance in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

And, when I worked in the Alaskan Arctic, an Eskimo woman who had seen a "Songcatcher" DVD asked me why hillbillies don't fix up their houses. She thought the stage-set ramshackle buildings in that movie were really the kind in which we actually live—rather like us stereotyping Eskimos as living in ice-block igloos, the difference being that we are stereotyped as being too dumb or lazy to fix up our houses while Eskimos are stereotyped as being intelligent enough to survive in an extreme place. 

In the age of global communication, this debilitating hillbilly stereotype is pervasive even internationally, and it affects us negatively on so many levels.

For the past century, companies that have considered our region for placing new enterprises have looked for local "hands" to do their low-level jobs, while bringing in management and executives (the “brains”) from outside; and now no one even considers Appalachia as a place where management would want to bring their own families to live or where intelligent local people might be available for employment. 

Further compounding the problem, too many of our local governments are now made up of second-tier pseudo-leaders who are interested primarily in promoting tourism; but who, we should ask ourselves, will own the new hotels and mountaintop second-homes and assorted eateries the appointed tourist boards and self-serving chambers of commerce say we need—and who will be paying increased taxes for infrastructure to support them, and cleaning their rooms and waiting their tables and manicuring their lawns?

The local "hands," of course, are expected to do those low-level jobs. This servant mentality is deeply embedded in our history and culture and language, and all of us have perpetuated it simply by not rising up and fighting it. “He/she is a good hand to_____," we say.

Zell Miller of Georgia is the only well-known person who has ever stood up publicly to try to end this crippling multigenerational Appalachian stereotype. He single-handedly created enough flak several years ago to prevent television producers from creating a Beverly Hillbillies Reality Show that would have placed an Appalachian family in a Beverly Hills mansion and ridiculed them for a year. Can you imagine if the producers had even suggested doing the same with a Beverly _____ Reality Show? (You fill in the blank with the most insensitive racial or ethnic or cultural slur you can think of.)

The reality show producers even advertised in our local newspapers for an ignorant mountain family, all expenses paid. Can you imagine the justifiable outrage if they had placed such advertisements in the Atlanta or Birmingham or New York papers for an ignorant _____ family to send out to Beverly Hills and ridicule for a year.

While some racial and ethnic and cultural groups recently tried to get a newspaper cartoonist fired, and rightfully so, for depicting the shooting of a "stimulus plan gorilla,” O'Reilly was shooting down the future of an entire culture by perpetuating a century-old stereotype in the most egregious and offensive manner—and we ought to be outraged. We ought to care, and care deeply, because the issue is infinitely larger and more far-reaching than simply our own personal irritation with O’Reilly.

Actually, O'Reilly is small potatoes when one considers what we as a culture are up against. This negative stereotyping of our culture is becoming more focused and pronounced than ever before, simply because it has become politically incorrect to target other groups. Think of all the other minorities in this country who are discriminated against. Are any of them summarily and publicly declared to be ignorant and of low IQ? Can you name any other such group?

Other minorities may be insidiously stereotyped and discriminated against for assorted other reasons, but they are not blatantly and openly ridiculed as ignorant. And now, O'Reilly has added "immoral" and "drug-addicted" to our litany of Appalachian stereotypes, as well as our being unworthy to live in our own mountain homeland. Our children should move to Miami, he says. Oh, my.

Even "rednecks," who are everywhere and are a social class rather than a culture, are not dismissed as ignorant and inferior to other people because of intelligence. In fact, rednecks are often praised for their many independent and self-sufficient attributes, except for those rednecks who also happen to be classified as ignorant hillbillies in one-gallused overalls sleeping with their sisters and the farm animals.

Fortunately some "outlanders" do "get it" and are embarrassed by the likes of O’Reilly, but the fact remains that no one outside of an abused group can truly "feel" it without having "felt" it. No one without minority physical characteristics or other personal differences can truly "feel" that discrimination. No one outside someone with a mountain accent (or any other accent or dialect outside the prevailing norm) can "feel" a job interviewer lose interest when you open your mouth to answer a question.

O'Reilly is hate-filled, but he is not a fool. He has built an empire by spouting the poisonous hatred that millions of people want to hear. They do listen to him and are influenced by him. While he himself is not fully the issue, he is a flash point for bigotry and intolerance, and that is why he is dangerous.

Yes, O’Reilly is a catalyst, but he is not the source of our problem. We are. We are to blame for not doing everything we can to root out such ignorant O’Reilly-type bigotry, to expose it for what it is, and then to replace it by honoring who we really are—by honoring our centuries-old heritage of persistence, perseverance, courage, loyalty, and love of freedom nourished for generations by our Scottish, English, Irish, German, Welsh, and Cherokee ancestors.

Why can we not pick up our pine knots and go to war against this blatant, insidious destruction of our culture? It will not take care of itself, and no one else is going to do it for us. 

For the past 125 years, especially during wars and periods of economic depression, people have come into our mountains to exploit us as easy targets as they irreversibly destroy our forests, scalp our mountaintops, pollute our rivers, turn our community schools into mega-institutions, raise our taxes, rape our land with roads and airports and cookie-cutter shopping malls, and ultimately pollute our DNA. 

It becomes increasingly harder to identify real native mountaineers, and within a few more generations our real culture, like that of the Melungeons, may fade into oblivion long before the stereotypes disappear. Our centuries-old physical characteristics will be gone, along with our language, values, customs, ethics, and morals; and that is why it is important for writers and storytellers and videographers to work overtime now to record our rapidly vanishing culture, to record who we are.

Children in the future may be asking, "Who exactly were the hillbillies? Where did they live? Where did they come from? Where did they go?" And their mothers will respond, “You must not say that ‘H’ word. It is politically incorrect.”

Let us now pick up our pine knots and go to war—to save ourselves.


Betty Cloer Wallace resides in Western North Carolina and is a direct descendant of Roderick Shelton, first English settler in Madison County, NC. She teaches writing and literature at a local community college.

Bobbi said…
What a beautiful piece. You certainly have the gift, Silas. I've been trying to write something about the holiness of mountains based on the Bible (the sermon on the mount, having the faith to move mountains, the prophets and Jesus going to the mountains to speak to God, etc). Maybe we can talk about that some time.
Marcianne said…
I'm testing to see how this works.
Fatimah said…
Thank you. Beautifully written and powerful.
Hi Silas, this is the first time I've visited your blog, thanks to our Netwest folks. First question--how is Lisa? I haven't heard from her in so long. This is a moving post. I feel guilty for not being more involved in saving our mountains; right now I just want to finish my laureate job and hope to have more time to be myself. I'm not sure I'll ever find that God of Light---not in church, anyway. Maybe outside in the sunlight, in the mountains. I've many arguments with the Judeo-Christian tradition. And being raised Presbyterian, you can bet I've had arguments with the Doctrine of the Elect.
But my great-grandmother was a Pentecostalist. In S. Dakota.
I have two blogs. Boy, am I busy. Give me a visit now and then. I send my best to you, Silas.
Glenda C. Beall said…
What a powerful post. I am proud of all of you who participated in this march and the effort to block the huge corporations that trample over the people and the places of such beauty.
I am way down in south western NC, but if I can do anything from here to help this effort, I'll do it. It is a sin and a shame to destroy the environment, the streams and rivers, when it is not necessary.
Sandra Eileen said…
What a lovely and heart-felt piece, Silas.

Thank you and all those who continue to support such efforts and I agree with your poet friend -

it is all in how you carry 'em...

Maria said…
Thank you for all your activism to protect our mountains. I just came across a powerful video on mountaintop removal from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:

One thing homeowners can easily do to help decrease the demand for coal is switch to green power. It only takes a few mouse clicks and maybe a phone call. Here is a green power locator for the US: .

Oh and of course I love your writing. Just started Clay's Quilt a few days ago and have not been able to put it down. I found out about it from a 2008 Books A Million book-of-the-day calendar. Can't wait to read the rest of your books. All the best from our family to yours.

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