Have you ever heard the broad, tender accent of an Appalachian-American? (Instead of pie, hear pah; instead of tired, hear tarred; instead of hollow, holler). Have you ever heard the ominous yet rather clinical term, "mountaintop removal?" What about the notion that the people who live in the mountain hollers of Eastern Kentucky don't live in the good ol' U.S.A., but the "United States of Appalachia," where King Coal is the ruthless leader?
--I'm writing to you from Louisville, KY, where last night 700,000 people gathered on the banks of the Ohio for "Thunder Over Louisville," an annual megaton fireworks-and-military-jets extravaganza that means the Kentucky Derby is only two weeks away. But rather than write about "Derby," as it's known here, or the attendant events (charitable or salacious), or the extreme hats that will adorn many a (predominately) blonde head, I am moved to share with you some other information (which will wend its way toward poetry eventually I swear).
On Friday evening I stood in a crowd at a mini-street festival (bluegrass, beer, tattooed arms and plenty of adorable children and dogs) -- called "Louisville Loves Mountains," and dedicated to arousing urban interest in an issue that feels extremely remote (despite being rooted in a part of the state only a five-hour's drive away). That issue is a method of coal mining currently practiced in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia that involves literally dynamiting away the tops of mountains. As you might imagine, there are a slew of environmental problems associated with the ensuing wreckage, but in addition, the residents of mountain hollers are threatened--physically, economically, and culturally--by the loss of their beloved mountains . I have lived in Kentucky for longer than I care to think (well, OK, almost nine years), in a strange diaspora, even here in Louisville--surrounded by friendly natives who are also some of the most cliquish people I've ever met, in a city that is a stubborn mix of small-town ("what high school did you go to?" is a common greeting) and worldly (think: Actors Theatre, Wendy Whelan, My Morning Jacket... ) Friday evening was the first time, possibly ever, that I felt an emotional connection to the state. (And I have only been to eastern Kentucky once!) --I felt it because, as I said, I stood in the crowd -- listening to the novelist Silas House read from his new (nonfiction) book, on mountaintop removal. He is an Appalachian native and in a voice that was sorghum-sweet, he described the efforts of a humble woman resident of Maysville, KY, whose heritage in the mountains goes deep, and who is determined to keep the coal company out of her holler.
It struck me that we in the crowd were taking part in an antique experience: we were getting the news, not from twitter, not from a blog, not from TV's 24-hour jabber, not even from newspapers (which are practically prehistoric, now): but from the mouth of someone who had witnessed some vital things, written them down and now delivered them to us, in language. His words (and his voice, his accent, the knowledge of his own cultural heritage) moved me.