Growing up in West Virginia (or anywhere in this country) - you really don't get a sense that Appalachia is a good place to live. The media, our teachers, and society in general has a tendency to try and force us to conform, to lose our accents, and give up our traditions as if they were bad habits.
I have to admit that I was once in that same frame of mind. For a brief moment of my life, I was confused and searching for my identity. I was able to glean bits and pieces from other places, but it wasn't until I returned to West Virginia and starting reading about Appalachian history and literature that I gained my true sense of place.
It had been there all along, just below the surface. Of course looking back now, it makes sense that my identity was there. Where else would it be? Certainly not in the halls of a preppy private college in Virginia. I suppose for a while I ignored it, running away from what I thought was a bad thing (as I was influenced to believe) - I was running away from what I was looking for.
But I'm finally in a good place with my heritage, thought it took me a many good year to get there. I suppose you could still find fault with this place, just as you can with any place. However I happen to like my home in the mountains.
One of my favorite poems about Appalachia is by Muriel Miller Dressler, a woman from St. Albans, WV. She originally published this in 1977, and I have an original copy signed by the author. It's one of my prized possessions. The imagery in the poem is hypnotic and intoxicating - as well as brutally honest.
By Muriel Miller Dressler
I am Appalachia. In my veins
Runs fierce mountain pride; the hill-fed streams
Of passion; and, stranger, you don’t know me!
You’ve analyzed my every move–you still
Go away shaking your head. I remain
Enigmatic. How can you find rapport with me–
You, who never stood in the bowels of hell,
Never felt a mountain shake and open its jaws
To partake of human sacrifice?
You, who never stood on a high mountain
Watching the sun unwind its spiral rays:
Who never searched the glens for wild flowers,
Never picked mayapples or black walnuts; never ran
Wildly through the woods in pure delight,
Nor dangled your feet in a lazy creek?
You, who never danced to wild sweet notes,
Outpouring of nimble-fingered fiddlers;
Who never just “sat a spell,” on a porch,
Chewing and whittling; or hearing in pastime
The deep-throated bay of chasing hounds
And hunters shouting with joy, “He’s treed!”
You, who never once carried a coffin
To a family plot high up on a ridge
Because mountain folk know it’s best to lie
Where breezes from the hills whisper, “You’re home”;
You, who never saw from the valley that graves on a hill
Bring easement of pain to those below?
I tell you, stranger, hill folk know
What life is all about; they don’t need pills
To tranquilize the sorrow and joy of living.
I am Appalachia: and, stranger,
Though you’ve studied me, you still don’t know.
This poem is still in print in the collection: Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999 published by Publishers Place, Inc., 2000.