Speak Your Piece: My People, My Mountains
I’m addicted to Appalachia! I can’t get enough of it. I live it. I love it. I write it. I pray for it.
My addiction goes beyond my love for the natural, rugged, visual effects of tall jagged mountains, deep hollers, and winding streams. I’m drawn to the people—their easy, simple lifestyle, strong religious convictions, and unique dialect.
My strongest addiction is the coal culture. I’m part of this culture that produces enough coal to generate half the electricity used in this country. My friends, neighbors, and family are miners not afraid of hard work.
Miners who board the mantrip and ride for miles underground into darkness toward the face of the mine to operate complex cutting machines, roof bolting machines, and manage deadly gases to stay alive, and keep their buddies alive.
Miners, who emerge from underground with blackened hands, a coating of coal dust, and raccoon eyes.
Miners whose love of their jobs and place in the mountains is so strong, they’re willing to risk choking to death thirty years later from black lung knowing the odds are stacked against them.
Even in the bleakness of mountaintop removal, I feel the rush from my connection with activists such as Judy Bonds (now deceased) and Larry Gibson. They are people so passionate about saving their mountains, the fish in the streams, and the people living below the sludge ponds, they risk everything, including personal safety.
I’m swept up in the waves of colors and shapes pieced together from scraps of cloth translating into a Trip Around World or a Log Cabin. The fine art of quilting practiced by the women of Appalachia is not an act of immensely creativity, it is a thread bonding generations of women.
I’ve learned through friends, neighbors and my own family that the single-wide, 12×60 trailer on the leveled out space on the side of the hill, across the creek, is not really home. This metal contraption affords the family a bed, stove, bathroom, and gathering spot. Home, however, is the entire holler beginning at the forks of the road. The big beech tree offers shelter, shade and the perfect launching pad for a boy and his hunting dog. The creek gives fish to eat, and water to splash on their faces after a day in the sun planting seed potatoes or pulling weeds to keep the young corn stalks from choking.
I’m hooked on mountain music. I’ve known Ralph Roberts, who can barely read and write but is so disciplined he memorized more than 80 fiddle tunes he can play, some written before the Civil War.
Rural schools are a one way ticket to paradise for parents, students, and teachers. Students are not just numbers but people the teacher has known since they were in the womb. Teachers know their students families, their communities and their culture. All three play important roles in each child’s development.
There are ups and downs here. But I can’t get enough of either. These are my mountains, my people, my culture.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is a native of Nicholas County, West Virginia.