Beyond These Hills: Leaving Appalachia

After decades of working in and for Appalachia, a community development specialist decided it was time to move on. Timothy Collins examines his relationship to the mountains that continue to occupy his mind.

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Appalachia has been part of my heart and mind for almost as long as I can remember. As I’ve grown older, I now know that it is part of my blood, bones and flesh.

Until eight years ago, when I moved to the Upper Mississippi Valley, I had lived near or in these hills, valleys, and mountains all of my life. I love this land and most of the people I met in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. The history is important, too. My family has roots in central Pennsylvania dating back to the early 1800s.

My Appalachian experiences are deeply personal and professional, events that enriched my life, whether the perceived successes that brought me happiness or the numerous failures that drained my energy. I doubt my years in the region had any impact, but they fulfilled lifelong dreams and helped me realize that Appalachia is woven with positives and negatives, complexities that are its own and part of a larger, infinitely more complex world.

Remnants of 1960s liberalism certainly shaped my professional decision to work in Appalachia. These were formative years for my values and beliefs. Racial and economic justice was at the forefront of our national discussions. Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in January 1964, and the media were saturated with stories about poverty. Charles Kuralt’s 1964 CBS documentary “Christmas in Appalachia” shaped my perceptions of the region for better or for worse. Social injustice was a regular topic of classroom discussions in the Catholic schools I attended; they sometimes focused on the work of the Glenmary Home Missioners, a Catholic order expressly founded in 1939 to work in rural Appalachia and the South.

The call to work in a rural area did not subside while I was in college. During my five-year stint with The Journal Herald, then Dayton’s morning newspaper, it became clear that I wasn’t all that suited for city life or newspapering. I spent part of my time there planning to move to a smaller town in a rural area. In late 1979, the opportunity arrived: I could move to a place I came to call “West Pennsylginia” and I jumped at the chance. I ended up in the historic village of New Geneva, Pennsylvania, with a plan to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in nearby Morgantown. 

Timothy Collins
Cedar Falls at Hocking Hills State Park in southeastern Ohio plunges from a sunlit cliff side into a deeply shadowed pool.
For a tiny, poor village, New Geneva was rich with friends: laborers, contractors, miners and retired educators. I began to move into rural community development as a librarian in a nearby coal town and founder of a friends group for a National Historic Site. Life at West Virginia University only added to my social wealth and supported me through tough personal times. I was lead author for a coal-mining electrical safety textbook, volunteer at a shelter for homeless men, part of a socially active church, involved in flood relief and recipient of a master’s in agricultural economics that focused on rural tourism. I encountered grinding poverty, cultural diversity and wondrous people while developing a more refined ecological ethic. I would not trade memories of my travels across West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania and western Virginia for anything. I hope I gave something back.  

My decision to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky took me away from the hills to Lexington, a city near Appalachia that benefited from coal mining and became a regional trade center for the state’s eastern counties. I missed the mountains and figured out ways to get back fairly often, including doing contract work for Appalachia – Science in the Public Interest. My first project there led to a dissertation that examined the history of uneven development and the state’s policies to attract industries. Soon, I hope, a book based on my research will finally be published, but that’s a different story.

Part of my disillusionment with Appalachia came with my growing abundance of practical and academic education. This was not only a matter of building knowledge for professional life. It developed from a growing self-knowledge that maybe I wasn’t in the right place after all. After serving for a few years as director of research at the UK Appalachian Center, I moved on to do education research in Charleston, West Virginia. In both cases, I found my frustrations growing both personally and professionally because I wasn’t being as effective as I wanted to be. It was discomfiting but trivial, compared with the daily problems so many people of Appalachia face.

Several years later, during my life as an extension agent for Penn State in Gettysburg on the other side of the mountains, I finally came to the decision that this land was not truly my land. I left the places I love and some of my hopes and dreams.

The why of leaving is easy on one level. A career and economic opportunity outside the region were compelling. But, at another level, I remain unsettled about leaving. Maybe it was time for a life change. Then again, I was tired of feeling powerless in my life’s work, and it was depressing. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how or if I fit in with the region’s community and economic development networks of the 1990s, shortly after I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky. There were others who were far better suited for the long-term and sometimes disappointing life’s work in the region. I admire their tenacity and efforts to mitigate some of the worst abuses heaped on the people and land. It wasn’t for me.

Timothy Collins
A bag of yarn and a woven wreath washed from a home during the November 1985 flood in Parsons, West Virginia.

If you were to label me guilt-ridden, I wouldn’t totally disagree. But, with passing time, the guilt eases a bit. I am highly critical of the culture I live in. I truly wanted to do something positive but lacked the energy, personality and possibly skills to do what I (and perhaps others) felt was “enough.” In this sense, my personal and professional inadequacies may not constitute failures, as such, but they are part of larger systemic failures that grind people down. I don’t really see myself as a victim. After all, I had choices. I was not trapped.

But the system (now there’s a ’60s term) is rigged from top to bottom against a region that has troubles enough at the level of individuals, families and communities. The larger travesties of failed markets and policies that mercilessly exploit people and the environment make for vicious, repetitive patterns, debilitating for people, their communities, the region and the country. 

Perhaps I am not so much guilt-ridden. But my ideals of fairness, equity, and democracy that emerged alongside my growing consciousness of Appalachia as a place to live and work have been tarnished. Maybe it was partly propaganda, but in the 1960s, we fostered a belief in the ability of government to do good works and strove for more than a modicum of social consciousness in business. My faith in progressive government is, for the most part, tattered. And my views of businesses, especially those in the energy sector, don’t even approach the positive. Dreams, hopes, professional skills and realities were out of sync. 

Reflection can too easily devolve into a selfish exercise without the larger, tempering context of one life’s intersections with other people, the land and the larger crosscurrents of the times. I hope this essay is not too self-centered. Appalachia – as a dream and a reality – is something I take personally in the larger professional context of deeper sociocultural maladies that are of so much concern to people who want to and can do good things for the region.

My ancestors lived in these mountains. Many of them chose to move west to Ohio and beyond. Whatever my mixed emotions, I fulfilled my life’s dream by living and working in Appalachia for a while. Maybe I helped do something positive. Maybe not.

In any event, I found myself, when an opportunity appeared, ready to move someplace else. It was the right choice.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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