Who are the Voices of the Mountains?

9780300142198Throughout “Appalachia,” a vast mountain region stretching from northern Alabama to Quebec, it is easy to betray one’s outsider status.  In many Southern parts, one might simply pronounce the third syllable in Appalachia with a long A, as in “name,” and it will be obvious to anyone that you are not from there.  Instead, it is pronounced with a short A, as in “apple.” The opposite is true in some Northern parts.  That syllable is one of a thousand indicators separating locals from even the most well-intentioned outsiders.

Outsiders have a long history of trying to change Appalachia, for better or for worse.  In the second decade of the twentieth century, after the passage of the 1911 Weeks Act, the federal government began to reacquire private land throughout the region, with a view toward implementing Progressive-era ideas about best practices, efficiency, and resource conservation.  Over time, federal legislation protected or regulated use of considerable stretches of land, including parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Green Mountains.  New Deal enthusiasts of the 1930s took this further with conservation, recreation, and social programs.  And yet the people who engineered these changes often did so from Washington, D.C., or elsewhere, creating federal landscapes with enormous impacts on local people while opening up long-standing disputes about local autonomy.

In Managing the Mountains, Sara M. Gregg takes us through this tumultuous and complicated history, demonstrating how these areas changed under new land use regimes.  Many of them today wear the false appearance of being untouched by humans.  In telling the story, Gregg showcases the goals of federal planners and the abilities of locals to influence the outcomes of policy.  She focuses in particular on the mountains of Virginia and Vermont, two regions with distinct traditions and histories but with a number of geological and economic similarities.  The differences in locals’ abilities to control outcomes were astonishingly sharp.  How could it be that some major federal projects were halted by local resistance, as happened in Vermont, while elsewhere the people were virtually ignored, as when Virginians had to move against their will to make way for Shenandoah National Park?

Rather than focus on cultural differences, Gregg explores structural ones that determined how well local people were able to control outcomes.  She sees the outstanding factor as the organization of political systems.  The small township system of Vermont allowed locals routinely to influence outcomes in regional planning decisions, whereas the large, dispersed areas governed by counties in Virginia gave individuals only a tenuous connection to decision-making.

I invited Geoffrey L. Buckley to contribute to this roundtable because of his expertise in the history of mining in several Appalachian states.  A professor of geography at Ohio University, he shares with Sara Gregg a sense of how local communities were either heeded or, more often, circumvented to favor the goals of outsiders. In Extracting Appalachia, Buckley explores the industrial and cultural history of coal mining through the use of photographs originally printed in a company publication.  He suggests that the company in question, Consolidation Coal, used the images to suggest consent in coal mining communities.  By analyzing the photos, Buckley was able not only to show the company’s intent but also to document environmental change over time.[1]

Another commentator, independent scholar Donald Edward Davis, has explored the environmental dimensions of Southern Appalachia from a cultural perspective.  Davis’s sweeping approach includes not only widespread impacts of industrial logging and dam building in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also earlier profound events such as the introduction of diseases in the sixteenth century, alterations to Cherokee culture due to declines in fur animals in the eighteenth century, and the impacts of major plant diseases such as chestnut blight.[2]

Cheryl Morse, an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Vermont, writes about rural communities.  I was particularly interested in her perspectives given her expertise on the region in Sara Gregg’s book not typically associated with Appalachian studies, namely Vermont.  Morse teaches Vermont Studies, and one of her projects is on therapeutic landscapes, which links perceptions of wilderness to the construction of identity in young people.[3]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-3-7.pdf


[1] Geoffrey L. Buckley, Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company, 1910 – 1945 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004)

[2] Donald Edward Davis, Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000)

[3] Morse previously published under the surname Dunkley.  C. M. Dunkley, “A Therapeutic Taskscape: Theorizing Place-Making, Discipline, and Care at a Camp for Troubled Youth,” Health & Place 15:1 (2009), 88-96.

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