Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

People and the environment: Ohio Appalachia

Folks from out-of-state often thing of Ohio as endless flat cornfields with few trees.  Yet this does not even come close to describing perhaps 3/4 of the state.  In the Southeastern and South-central part of the state lies the foot hills of the Appalachians (Photo A) which is filled with rich woodlands and stunning gorges and rivers (like the one shown in Photo B).

Photo A: Appalachian Foothills of Southern Ohio. Photo by Andrii Cherniak. .

Photo B: Morgan Fork stream and gorge, one of many scenic rivers in Southern Ohio.

But perhaps what is more interesting than the natural resources of  Ohio Appalachia are its people.  Time seems to coalesces  in this place.  I spoke with a middle-aged guy, who calls himself “Beaver.”  Beaver operates a tree removal service business.  “I’m tell’n yuh…dozens of them kids are gunna get killed if them tree limbs don’t com’n dawn!” voices the concerned business owner, wearing extra sized saftey gear over his rotund and ungroomed torso.   Despite the fact that we are barely an hour away from Columbus, the state capital, people around the region talk with a southern accent.

As we were talking, the conversation between myself and Beaver became more informal.  Beaver kept mentioning a bar he liked over on Eastern Avenue where he plays in a band and gets free beer while he ‘watches all dem sluts grind’n all on each other suckin each other’s titties.”  I laughed at his remarks somewhat sheepishly.  Thankfully, our conversation eventually become more meaningful.   As Beaver talked about the need for people to adopt tree safety practices, Beaver expressed concerns about urban youth.  “What we need to do is bring them city boys dawn here and get ’em to learn howda take care of horses and work out in them fields – give em some rough work to do.  They don’t need to to it all the time, but once in a while…ya know so many kids these days dunno how to do noth’n.  Them kids in the city, they ain’t got not’tn to do…

Beaver may not be a very stately man, especially with all of the sexist remarks, profanity, and utter lack of hygiene (I had to mention that, sorry!).  Yet his concerns represent deep problems in Appalachia.  The region has a several-decade history of rugged poverty and volatile politics.  Racism, mountain top mining (where they blow up the tops of hills to extract minerals), inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of social services create problems for the communities across the region (see Photo C).

Photo C: People in Appalachia are often quite poor and must make due with whatever shelter hey can create. Photo by Kim MacDonald, retrieved 06/12/2011 from http://www.wright.edu/academics/honors/institute/2007/poverty/us_poverty.html

The problems – and their solutions, are perhaps loosely categorized into two parts:  (1) External perception problems, and (2) Volatile internal social politics.  I’ll explain what I mean first.

(1)  I believe people from outside of the Appalachian region, the type of people Beaver is concerned about, have poor perception of the lifestyle and people of the area.  When something happens down here – say a freak accident or insanely troubled youth expressing anti-government views – the people involved are often viewed as conservative, Bible-Belt rednecks, who, because of their lack of education and dogmatic religion, cause their own problems.  Appalachians are viewed as unsophisticated and ignorant, or perhaps more lightly put, ‘unlucky.”    In some cases this is true, but blaming the people exclusivity over extended periods of time often leads to a situation known as blaming the victim.   As people outside of, or external to the Appalachian culture ignore the socioeconomic problems of this region, the people in the region who need the support of others find that assistance is hard to come by.

Yet one cannot necessarily blame external ‘audiences’ for gawking at the lifestyles of Ohio Appalachia.   Just when you thought the word “nigger” was no longer used or that the earth was no longer viewed as being only about a couple thousand years old , think again.  This fact can perplex even the best minded visitors to the region.
(2) That’s why I believe there are also some harsh and volatile internal social politics.  What I mean by this is that the conservative social and political views strongly held by many residents of Ohio Appalachia perpetuate the very problems that they are expressing concern about.  For example, many feel that their job security and family life is threatening by a declining economy.  Therefore, their thinking appears quite simple:  we must stop environmentalists from over regulating the industry so that their jobs don’t become moved overseas, and that joining a watchful conservative church or a white supremacy group (an ethnocentric group) will ensure that their youth won’t have premarital sex or perform some other heretical deviance.

I realize that above example is well loaded with political incorrectness, but my point is that a society or culture that is not able to discard their long-held yet no longer functional values will ultimately decline or perhaps even fail (Diamond, 2005).  Decades upon decades of poverty and poor lifestyles are passed on to younger generations.  The mindset of this lifestyle is passed on to children, as well, with a high rate of drug use, social conservatism, harsh views on government, and a general longing to become empowered and controlling.

I see so many people drive these large pickup trucks or SUVs with retrofitted wheels.  It seems as if they are almost giving the ‘middle finger’ to environmental considerations.  In the town of Portsmouth, Ohio, prescription drug abuse has claimed the lives of hundreds of people, and it could affect  possibly more in the near future.  Farms are sprayed and plowed to the maximum extent in a struggled effort to produce the maximum yield of crops for just one season, with little (if any) consideration for the decades ahead.  People refuse to pay taxes, yet cannot understand why so many social services are being cut.  Private landowners refuse to comply with any proposed or voluntarily environmental standards, perhaps because they see them as too expensive or a threat to their Judeo-Christian sense of individuality.

Yet on the other hand, Beaver’s comments regarding the need for youth to work the land indicates and interesting contradiction:  People in Ohio Appalachia have a deep connection with the land, be it streams, woods, or farmland.  Yet, due to circumstances both within their control (internal politics such as religion, concepts of individuality, etc.) and not within their control (e.g. a struggling economy, poverty, debt, etc.), folks are having to make desperate and treacherous lifestyle choices in order to attempt to save themselves…even if it comes at the cost of others and of the environment.

What will become of the Ohio Appalachia region in the years to come?  At this point, time will tell.  In either case, we as Americans need to acknowledge that we have a responsibility to help these people.  Also, the folks living in these regions need to let up on some of their own destructive views, and be open to new ideas and new ways of living that are more beneficial to themselves and to this country in the long run.  When should we start?  When are we ready to move forward?  I would hope that it can be sooner rather than later.

References  

Diamond, J. (2005). how societies choose to fail or succeed. USA: Viking Press.

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One response to “People and the environment: Ohio Appalachia

  1. Anonymous July 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    In your essay you have captured the paradox of the people of Appalachia. On one hand understanding of the value of work and the land, on the other resistant to changes in society or of deviant behavior. One hopes that these people will still be seen and listened to in the future so that maybe they can achieve a greater quality of living. We are all Americans.

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