I GREW UP IN APPALACHIA, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Tennessee. The mountains I knew as a child had been recognized as holy and protected in perpetuity for future generations. We fell hushed when we entered them, breathed deeply. People came from afar to see their beauty.
I had only a vague notion that there were other Appalachias. My stepfather, from Kentucky, sat on the porch in the evenings and played a John Prine song on his guitar:
And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away
Some in the mountains have seen their homelands crumble around them. They are homesick though they have stayed home. They’ve been trapped by a mono-economy, and then its decline, and they’ve been left to pay the costs—monetary, environmental, psychological, and spiritual—of the destruction left by the coal industry. We know that story. And yet, so often in the telling of it, those who don’t know what it’s like to live in those places either blame the residents for their problems or romanticize their plight.
Last winter, I went to the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky to collect some small pieces of a different story. In the coal fields, there is a strong creative spirit, despite the devastation. Like mining, that story requires digging, requires the will to unearth it, but unlike the coal that was shipped elsewhere for a temporary surge of energy, it can be both sent away and kept at home. It grows with the telling rather than diminishes with use, as only art does. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes, “So long as the gift [of art] is not withheld, the creative spirit will remain a stranger to the economics of scarcity.”
What are the invisible economies of the spirit that art feeds incalculably over time? How can economies feed not only mouths but also the hearts of people and the places they live in? How can creative traditions well cared for continue to care for the next generation and provide new opportunity? How can people used to being owned by coal companies come to feel that they own their own creative power, that they can make a difference?
I went with these questions into the coal fields.
WHITESBURG, KENTUCKY is on the Cumberland Plateau, which stretches down into Tennessee and Alabama, and where bituminous coal seams were laid down by ferns and trees some 300 million years ago. Surrounded by old coal towns and ravaged mountains, it’s a city of about two thousand in Letcher County. It was the home of a writer named Harry Caudill, born in 1922. Caudill returned home after World War II and saw images on television of a prosperous America, while all around him he saw something different: the faces of poverty that the coal barons had left in their wake; the lack of work as the industry became more mechanized; the gored mountains. With the encouragement of his wife, Anne, who first dictated his thoughts in her shorthand notebook, Caudill decided to tell a story that the media had been ignoring.
In Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, published in 1963, Caudill shattered the narrative of the American Dream and exposed what fueled it. He outlined the grim wreckage of the place from which coal was taken and the hearts of the people who called that place home. Depressed is an economic term, but it can also refer to a psychological state, or to a sunken part of the earth, such as the holes left from mining.
The book was widely reviewed and found its way into the hands of Washington politicians. It’s now credited as the eventual catalyst for Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Caudill’s story, a creative act born of depression, is what brings me to Whitesburg, to another story that grew from that one.
YOU HEAR THE WHISTLE of a distant train. You’re looking down the railroad tracks. The train comes into view, and you see that the cars are loaded with coal. The film cuts to a neighborhood swimming pool, where three teenage boys have come to cool off. One of them—handsome, dark-haired, quiet—talks to a cute girl, a lifeguard who climbs down from her stand and takes a break to talk to him. They’re innocent. He holds her hand, says he guesses it’s time for her to go back to work. The boys leave. They drive down mountain roads, past coal preparation plants, past active coal mines. Randy, the boy who met the girl, sits in the middle, his friends on either side of him. He doesn’t have a car to take her to a dance that weekend, he says. He can’t get his daddy’s, since his dad’s working night shifts at the mine. He wants to go camping. His friends, both working in the mines that summer, can’t go. The boy to Randy’s right says he’ll be making twenty dollars a day. “That’s good money,” Randy muses. “You can make a good livin’ like that.” The roads spool out through the mountains.
The young man was just eighteen when the film, called In Ya Blood, was released in 1971. In addition to starring in it, he wrote and directed it. He wasn’t the son of Hollywood insiders. He was the son of a coal miner and a coal miner’s wife, one of eight children. He lived in the Eastern Kentucky coal fields.
His name is Herb Smith. I’m riding around with him, through the same coal fields that were in the film, almost fifty years after he took the footage. He has been a filmmaker here ever since he made In Ya Blood, which reckons with the struggles of a young person in the region. He stayed.
Herb shot the film in the summer of 1970 after he went to a workshop that taught him to operate 16 mm film equipment. That workshop was a jobs initiative that was part of the War on Poverty that Harry Caudill had catalyzed, and which focused largely on Appalachia. Because of his book, the jobs-training program was started in Caudill’s hometown. Its mission was to teach young people to use video cameras to document and tell stories of their region—a region that had been bombarded, after the coal companies had pulled out, by news journalists who came to extract images of poverty and to reap the profit. “Nobody’d actually done that, you know, put the cameras in the hands of the sons of miners and have them make films about their lives,” Herb tells me. In other words, those same people who were in poverty were also creative, and could tell their own stories.
Later in the film, Randy’s friend, the one who was driving them around, says he’ll be able to get a new car with the money he’ll earn in the mines, and asks Randy if he’d like to buy his old one when he sells it.
Cut to Randy roaming the luminous woods. He wanders through a thick understory of leafy and blooming plants, visits a place where a creek runs into a little round pool, and washes his face. This is a different kind of bathing than in the swimming pool the day before. The light streams down.
Later, Randy test-drives the car. The camera shows his face in the windshield, pensive, the windshield reflecting the passing trees. “I’d sort of like to have it,” he says. He asks his friend about the job in the mines. “I’ll buy it,” he says. The film ends.
The film-training workshop invested in the artistic talents of local people, with the wild little notion that it would be a way to boost the economy. And it worked. In eighteen-year-old Herb’s film, his alter ego Randy, with little alternative, decided to go into the mines. But the real eighteen-year-old Herb found his first paying gig as an artist coming right out of the workshop, a thirty-second television segment for a university that paid $300—“which I felt great about,” he says.
Herb continued on to college—Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, where he received a full scholarship and would earn a double major in math and sociology. In breaks from studying, he edited his film. It was released when he was only a freshman. He’d finish college, but he already knew what he wanted to do. “I hoped to do what I did: make films about mountain people,” he says now, at sixty-six.
Herb has white hair to his shoulders, round glasses, and a thick handlebar mustache. He’s wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. We are winding through the mountains, Herb at the wheel.
“To go into the coal fields of Appalachia and train young people to use this motion picture equipment—it was just a stab, nobody knew what was gonna happen,” he says. “And then the films were well received right off the bat. There were years of the thin cows and years of the fat cows, though. Not all the films do well. I don’t think it’s easy. In fact, I would say makin’ films in a place like this is a weird idea!”
The land we are driving through looks much the same as it did on Herb’s first film, except there are more hillsides scraped off and dug out, more mountaintops leveled. It’s February. The woods are laid bare. The scars are everywhere visible. We pull off, and Herb points to a mountain. “That’s where my daddy went into the portal,” he says. A portal is an entrance to an underground mine, a doorway leading inside a mountain, where coal lies in seams in the cool dark; where tens of thousands of men have stooped and hunched to pick and blast chunks of it out. More than 8 billion tons of coal have been mined from the state of Kentucky in the last two centuries.
When the railroads came in the late nineteenth century, Herb tells me, coal mining took off. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into Central Appalachia to find work in the mines. The houses were built clustered together by the hundreds, close to the portals, so that the men could walk to work in all hours. After cars arrived, the towns dissolved. Herb’s father drove to the mine from their family’s home in Whitesburg, about ten miles away. “My dad worked the hoot owl shift,” Herb recalls. “He went underground at midnight and worked till eight in the morning and then came out. The mine where he worked had a bathhouse, and he’d shower and change into his street clothes, then drive home and sleep during the day.”
There’s a defunct coal preparation plant here today. The portal’s been covered over. “Everywhere you go you see the trail of the coal industry,” he says. A gush of water, like a tumbling stream, spurts from the mountain. Not like a stream: it hasn’t worn a streambed or carved out a hollow from the mountain over millions of years. It dumps straight out the side of the mountain and free-falls down. It’s pouring from the mine, from the empty coal seams where rainwater now gathers and then drains out. It’s poison. Coal companies are required to treat the acidic water that flows out of abandoned mines; at another old portal we climb up to, there’s a vat labeled CAUSTIC next to the stream, a tube going from the vat to the stream. The stream runs bright orange. The caustic substance is a base that will treat the acid and balance the pH. But it’s still poison. You wouldn’t want to drink it. These are what are called the “legacy costs” of coal. The acidic water draining from a mine can devastate aquatic life for hundreds or even thousands of years. On the community radio station, we hear a public service announcement warning residents to call a number if their water smells funny or looks discolored.
After Herb points out where his father went underground, we drive on. More old coal towns, with names like Whitco (where his father was born), Jenkins, Premium, Ermine. There were thirty company towns in Letcher County alone. The houses sag. The porches have fallen in under the weight of time. We don’t talk. The towns roll by.
LATER I CALL Bill Richardson, who was twenty-six and fresh out of Yale’s graduate school in architecture when he was sent to Whitesburg on a grant from the American Film Institute to implement the first workshop that Herb attended. Bill had just finished a thesis on the portable video machine as “an amazing recorder of community.” When he got to Whitesburg, he found “all these really smart kids.” Herb made seven or eight films under Bill’s guidance, then wrote his own, and shot the footage.
“Herb did such a beautiful film,” says Bill. “It’s still played year-round on the local educational TV station.” After the success of the initial film workshops, he says, there was excitement around a local economy that might include something beyond coal. “We rented a storefront space for the workshops, and everybody lined up outside every year from that point on,” he remembers.
How can economies feed not only mouths but also the hearts of people and the places they live in?
While Herb was off at college, others who had completed the workshop were storming up ideas of how to turn art forms like film into a permanent operation. “It was a phenomenon unto itself,” says Bill. “After five or six years, they were really booming along: they had about twenty-five people full-time.” When Herb graduated college a semester early, he made a beeline back home to join them. “They got major grants—from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lilly Endowment, the MacArthur Foundation,” Bill tells me. “Talented people came from all over the Central Appalachian area.” These people wanted to do other things, not just film. A theater company sprang up, and a radio station, weekly music jams, a journal, a recording label. Herb and Bill came up with the name Appalshop—the shortened form of “Appalachian workshop”—to contain all of it.
Coal jobs continued to dwindle. Today there are even fewer. Some twelve thousand more disappeared in Kentucky between 2011 and 2016. It’s not a mono-economy that people are up against now but the hole left in the wake of one. The covered-up portals, the empty mine shafts, the abandoned preparation plants. Many people in Eastern Kentucky’s mountains are still dreaming of how they might live here, build lives, find meaningful work. In the heart of the old coal towns, Appalshop has shown that such a feat is possible through the arts.
The workshop—“a many-headed hydra,” as Appalshop archivist Caroline Rubens puts it to me—now has around twenty full-time employees, with an annual payroll of about $1 million. The studio, designed by Bill and located in a renovated old food warehouse, is light-filled, spacious, buzzy inside with energy, with people coming and going. It’s nothing short of a wonder here, where nearly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty. To have had work for fifty years as an artist in his hometown is something the young Herb might not have ever imagined possible before the film-training workshop. “At first, we were just curious about the equipment,” he says. “But after the summer of 1970, when we put cameras on our shoulders and asked people about living in the mountains, we saw that we had a role to play in correcting false images and showing our world as we saw it.”
Not only has his work been a source of economic vitality, it has also provided people of the region with new stories of themselves, new ways of seeing, new possibility. This is something that art is particularly well equipped for—especially filmmaking, which serves as a vessel to carry stories and images. While plenty of stories and images had been produced about Appalachians by the 1970s, not enough had been produced by them.
“Why are the twenty-some people at Appalshop?” Herb asks me at the end of our drive. “It’s because they found meaningful work. As hard-pressed and difficult as our communities are, they aren’t without resources, and they aren’t without bright young kids coming into our school system every day. Our only question is, are we teaching them what they need to know? What they need to know is: you are an actor, not someone to be acted upon.”
The film workshops, part of Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute (AMI), still operate much the same as they did when Herb attended in 1970. Now, though, they offer a stipend to students who attend, and housing in Whitesburg during the training. “Every summer, there’s a new cadre of young people who come,” says Herb.
Oakley Fugate came to the workshop in 2012, right out of high school. “I had no plans of going to college or anything like that,” he tells me over the phone. He had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and says that he was “horribly discriminated against by the school system.” He has a severe stutter. At sixteen, he was making home videos that he says were very poorly shot and edited. “At the high school, they told me that it was basically coal, electricity, or nothing. They told me there was no chance that I would ever make a career as a media producer.” At the institute, they told him something different. “I know ‘life-changing’ is overused, but it was literally life-changing,” says Oakley. “That was the first time somebody had really believed in my media-making skills. And they talked me into applying for college.”
His teachers at Appalshop helped him fill out financial aid applications and get scholarships so that he could attend the local technical college, where he later graduated with an associate degree in the arts. As he earned his degree, he went back to AMI each summer as a peer trainer and continued to hone his skills. His final project at the institute was a documentary about sexual identity in the mountains. Based on that work, he received a fellowship of $60,000 from the Open Society. He has been able to pay himself a salary and produce three films about LGBTQ members in his community. “Because I myself have struggled with Asperger’s, and I know what it’s like to have a voice that’s constantly being silenced, I want to speak up for others.
“I love the place where I grew up, and I am so proud to be here,” he continues. “The most important thing about loving your region is being able to acknowledge its shortcomings. And the treatment of LGBTQ people is definitely one of those shortcomings.” His films will also feature scenic shots overlaid with the stories—because, he says, “the outside media doesn’t show the beauty of the region.”
TO FIND HINDMAN, a smaller town of around seven hundred in adjacent Knott County, to the north of Whitesburg, I pull up the route on a digital map. It’s in this satellite image that I really take in the scope of the coal industry’s mark. To either side of the thin road I’ll travel, everywhere the green ridges are interrupted with long brown patches, fraying out amorphously. These marks signify both the presence of coal and its absence—once the coal is extracted, it’s gone forever. The companies leave. The people remain.
Many of them, in one way or another, have found themselves struggling with drug addiction. “Oxycontin hit like a ton of bricks when it came in here,” Herb had told me. Oakley plans to make his next film about the opioid crisis in Appalachia. Along the road, I see billboards offering numbers to call for help with addiction. The rate of opioid overdose in Kentucky is nearly double the national rate, and Knott County has been identified as an overdose “hot spot,” with more than four times the overdose-related deaths than the national rate.
IN THE TIGHT little valley of Troublesome Creek that drains the scarred ridges, Rick Taylor sits in a workshop at a scroll saw, a tool used to carve thin, intricate curves. An African-American man in his late forties, his glasses are placed low on his nose, and he peers through them. He carefully turns a door harp in his hands, focused on the fine turns of the blade as it cuts a pattern in the face of the walnut instrument he has made. Rick is one of eight patients in recovery from addiction who is learning to make instruments from master luthier Doug Naselroad at the Appalachian School of Luthiery. (Luthier is an old French word, Doug told me, meaning “lute-maker,” but now refers to makers of all stringed instruments.)
The class is part of the Culture of Recovery program envisioned and implemented by the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman. Executive director Jessica Evans tells me that the program addresses two of the most vexing issues in the region: joblessness and substance abuse. Jessica is teaching a pottery class today at the Artisan Center just down the street, while a blacksmithing class is going on in another building. The classes are offered to patients of the local Hickory Hill Recovery Center and are aimed at teaching job skills.
Doug, in a brown shirt and suspenders, a pile of curly white hair on his head, leans against a workbench. He encourages his students to forge ahead on their own, and they are engaged with tinkering, gluing, piecing, sawing, sanding. “Coming into the class, the apprentices honestly do not believe that they’re capable of doing any good thing,” he says. “So my first job as a teacher is to reassure them that they’ll do fine and to get their hands busy. There’s a really drastic and quick transformation when they start settling into the idea that they’re going to make something worthwhile that will have their name on it.” One of his first apprentices, Earl Moore, came to him out of a rehabilitation program with a drug-related felony on his record that Doug overlooked. He could see he had an eager student. “Since then, he’s made sixty instruments and gotten a degree in cybersecurity,” he says.
Doug grew up in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. At sixteen, he found himself making his first guitar, under the guidance of Homer Ledford. Ledford, who lived near him in Winchester, Kentucky, has been called the principal craftsman of the folk revival. “Homer was always there to help and encourage me,” Doug says. Though he passed away thirteen years ago, I’d seen Ledford when I first arrived in Hindman, in a store window. He sat on a stool, relaxed, carving a piece of wood. He was thin, in a flannel shirt and jeans, sitting at his workbench.
He was a cardboard cutout in a re-creation of his workshop at the Museum of the Mountain Dulcimer, housed in the Appalachian Artisan Center. There, I read that he is said to have made more than six thousand dulcimers.
Seeing a life-size Ledford at work made me think of the legacy that people like him have left in the region. Just as coal has left legacy costs, artists like Homer have left legacy benefits. Just as coal keeps causing damage long after it’s extracted, the work of artists and craftspeople keeps giving to—and healing—the region long after they’re gone. Who can say what life they will sustain? There is no analysis that could account for it. But because of Homer Ledford, Doug now passes on the craft of luthiery to his students.
AT THE LUTHIERY SCHOOL, Rick is still working intently at his scroll saw, and I watch him. When he finally looks up, he smiles, almost surprised, as if coming out of a trance, and says, “I never did know I could enjoy somethin’ like this! I really do, I love it.” He goes back to his work, his face turning serious again.
As his skill advances, he will have the opportunity to apply for a position at the factory that Doug is opening, Knott County’s first. Doug received $1.2 million in grants to open the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company. The factory will produce artisanal instruments—from Appalachian hardwoods rather than the threatened tropical woods that are typically used, which will give work to loggers who harvest selectively in the region—for a global market. “I want my luthiers to learn how valuable the work they do really is,” he says. “To say something is Appalachian is not disparagement.”
Mark Moore, from Beauty, Kentucky, is working on a backpacker guitar. He says that the class has been therapeutic. It is the first time since he was injured on the job in a coal mine several years ago that he is feeling good about himself. “I always wanted to build an instrument from scratch, and I never knew how to do it,” he says. At his job in the coal mine, he rode an elevator 2,900 feet into the ground, then along railroad tracks for another 25 minutes to where he worked, 16 miles underground. He ran a roof bolter. “They call it a pinner,” he says. He describes it with the utmost precision, like a craftsperson: “You take a drill and you take that steel and get it spinnin’ and raise it and then you go up and drill a hole into the rock. You stick a tape measure up in there and then you pull it, and it’ll tell you where cracks are.”
Operating the pinner one day, Mark looked up to see some small pieces of rock falling. Next, a boulder fell from the ceiling and pinned him to the ground. His hard hat and headlamp fell off his head. He lay in the pitch dark for forty-five minutes with both legs and his back broken.
His doctor prescribed him OxyContin. “I couldn’t get off the painkillers,” he says. “The doctor didn’t tell me that when I ran out I was going to be sick as hell and not able to do anything.” He went to a methadone clinic to be treated for his opiate addiction, then found that he couldn’t quit that, and ended up trying meth, as he’d heard it could help him kick the methadone. After someone taught him how to make his own meth, Mark ended up in jail on serious drug charges. He served his sentence for several years, then agreed to complete the rehabilitation program, cutting short his time in jail. He is ready to get his life back on track. “You can’t get time back,” he says. “Time’s priceless. It’s something you can’t buy back.”
In the luthiery class, he is learning new skills and gaining confidence. “I have seen my students in recovery take encouragement from the completion of tasks not everyone can do,” Doug tells me. “They have a real restoration of their self-esteem and self-image.”
Tasks not everyone can do: like running a roof bolter. Many men took pride in their work in the coal mines and are left feeling they cannot do other jobs when they get injured or are laid off. Mark says he likes being around music, which he has played since he was fourteen. He loves to play on stage, he says. In the background of our conversation, Doug’s assistant Chris Patrick plays an orchestra guitar of black locust and red spruce that he’s just completed. It will easily sell for more than $500, should he decide to give it up. But he probably won’t. He thinks he’ll keep it, for it plays beautifully.
The next evening, at six o’clock, I tune into WMMT 88.7, Appalshop’s community radio station. I hear Doug welcoming listeners to the Knott Downtown Radio Hour, a live show that he hosts, featuring his own Troublesome Boys as the house band along with regional songwriters and original songs played by students of the Culture of Recovery program. “The show is the other piece of the luthiery class,” Doug had told me. On the radio, he talks to the live audience: “Our program is dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic via training in the professional development in the arts. We’ve already seen some great results: you guys are living proof. Coming out of the absolute worst time of your lives, you’re producin’ really great stuff.” I hear yelling and footstomping. Mark Moore, the former coal miner who had endured a broken back and legs sixteen miles underground, addiction, and prison, plays a song called “Take This Devil Out of Me.” There is bombastic applause at the end.
I CROSS THE ROAD from the luthiery and walk the thin trail up Orchard Branch, up the steep mountainside above Troublesome Creek, up to a cabin perched in the gentle air above the valley, in the shade of trees. Here is Oak Ledge, the house that writer Lucy Furman built in 1924—at the height of the coal era—from the proceeds of a novel. The house looks out over the Hindman Settlement School, tucked in far below at the forks of the creek. It was at the school that Lucy wrote the novel, and four others, while tending the gardens and grounds; her words sprang from the soil. Lucy’s friends May Stone and Katherine Pettit established the school in 1902. Four years later, they invited Lucy, a school friend from Henderson, Kentucky, to join them and offered her a place to write in exchange for her caretaking.
“Lucy Furman was our first de facto writer in residence,” the poet Rebecca Gayle Howell, who is the writer in residence now at the Settlement School, tells me. Rebecca is the author of Render / An Apocalypse and American Purgatory, both published to wide acclaim. “My history of the Settlement School begins with her—a tradition has bloomed in this small, small place.”
This tradition—of providing writers the place and support to work in return for their contribution to the school—demonstrates a long history of an arts economy based on gift exchange. Lucy’s position was based not on extraction of the land but on nurturing it: she managed a working farm that provided food to the school’s children.
The novel that built Oak Ledge was called The Quare Women. The word is a phonetic spelling of “queer,” which people sometimes called the school’s founders. It’s a word that meant “different” in their day. May Stone and Katherine Pettit first came from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, to the west of the mountains, pitched tents, strung paper lanterns, and hosted a summer camp on a cedar knoll just above town. A local man named Uncle Solomon Everidge is said to have walked barefoot a long way to petition the women to stay and establish a school for his “grands” and “greats.” Residents donated land and buildings, and the school came into being in 1902. One hundred sixty-two students filled the classroom on the first day of school. The teachers promoted regional handicrafts and “fireside industries” as ways to make an income, as an alternative to, or perhaps to guard against, encroaching extractive industries. The school nurtured the “indigenous” talents of the region, arts like storytelling, music, and dance.
As railroads and coal came into the region, it remained. The school was its own economy; students there, steeped in the riches of their own cultural gifts, thrived. When the coal towns were booming, as people flooded the region and clustered into the company houses, the women taught the fireside industries. Lucy wrote her novels and sold them to a wide audience.
When did the queer label take hold? Were the women called queer because they were not associated with the coal industry, because they were unmarried, or because they were from outside the mountains? The coal company bosses and overseers of the mines were also outsiders, but they came to extract energy and send it away. May Stone, Katherine Pettit, and Lucy Furman came to nurture the treasures, in the form of skills, arts, and culture, that were held there, to recognize those who were already valuable contributors to society as makers. In this way, the women were different.
At the school, Lucy absorbed the stories of the people around her, their speech and music, and the landscape. Her novels became celebrated and loved all over the nation. “Her imagination took seat here,” says Rebecca. “All of her novels are written about Hindman. She worked in the literary tradition that became the Appalachian literary tradition. Her influence is deep and wide.”
In the kitchen next to the stone mantel hangs a photograph of Lucy and six young boys in overalls; the youngest of them, next to her, holds a teddy bear. At Oak Ledge, she housed young boys who came to the school. One of those was Albert Stewart, who arrived at five years old, motherless. As he grew, he tended the farm with Lucy, cleaned the school buildings, cooked meals, and made crafts to sell. (By that time, the school grounds had grown to 225 acres and 20 buildings; 100 students boarded there.) It’s easy to think that if Stewart had stayed with his father on Yellow Mountain, some five miles away, he may have gone on to work in the mines. But under Lucy’s guidance, he went on to become a poet, with books like The Holy Season: Walking in the Wild and A Man of Circumstance. On the wall near the photograph hangs one of his poems in a black frame:
Taste lightly, child, of the mountain berry
that thrives in the thicket wild
The ways men go are various
the ways they can bear are mild.
IN 1973, Stewart founded Appalachian Heritage, a vibrant quarterly that still serves as the print community for the tradition. And he began the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at the Settlement School, which is still running today. It is this annual workshop that many writers of the region credit for their growth. Among them is Robert Gipe, whose first novel Trampoline, published in 2015, was called by reviewers “a new American masterpiece” and “deeply lovable.” Robert began the book at the workshop in 2006 and has returned nearly every summer since to continue honing his craft. “It’s a whole week to be around other people who do this lonesome thing,” he tells me.
Robert lives in nearby Harlan, where for many years he has worked for a community college. In that capacity, his primary focus has been the creation of an oral history–based community theater called Higher Ground. He has worked with more than seven hundred residents of Harlan County to dramatize the issues that face the area, such as the degradation caused by mining, the lack of jobs, and the opioid crisis. Because of his deep involvement with oral history, the narrators in Robert’s books—he now has two novels, with a third one in progress—are all storytellers. “Through my work with Higher Ground, I got real interested in the way people do and don’t talk about what’s going on in their lives,” he tells me.
The work of artists and craftspeople keeps giving to—and healing—the region long after they’re gone.
At Hindman, Robert had the chance to read his work in public. When he was unsure about Trampoline, he experimented with selling chapters of it in serial, as small chapbooks, to workshop participants at Hindman. It was in this way that he was asked to publish it in serial form online, after which it was picked up by a book publisher. “All of that happened as a result of the community that the Hindman Settlement School and the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop enables. The workshop was critical in making my literary career happen.” This year, Robert is returning to the workshop for the first time as a teacher. “I will probably always be doing something with Hindman because it’s done a lot for me.”
THE SCHOOL’S MISSION is to be “a vibrant beacon for progressive learning, community enrichment, and cultural exploration.” A large part of its programming is dedicated to tutoring children with dyslexia. It offers a music education program in the public schools called Pick & Bow, and has begun a foodways program, with a working farm. “All of it works together to help people learn how to thrive in place,” says Brent Hutchinson, the executive director.
“Hindman is now its own imaginary. It is a place where people can come, and learn, and be themselves,” says Rebecca. “It’s powerful.”
I WALK INTO the dim back rooms of Oak Ledge, the midday sun seeping in the windows. Bookshelves built into the walls stretch from corner to corner, floor to ceiling. Clutter fills a desk. After Lucy Furman retired, this was the house of the writer James Still for the last twenty-five years of his life. While maintaining the school’s library, he wrote River of Earth, a book that depicts the dilemma of one family as they move between the mining camps. There’s a single bed lining one wall, pushed right up against the shelves of books. “In his later years, he used to lay in bed and read all day,” Randy Wilson tells me.
It was Randy, the cabin caretaker, who brought me up to see the house. He wears a derby hat and has a thick mustache and smiling eyes. I had heard him on the radio program the night before, playing a song of his called “Take These Blues a-Walkin’,” and had called him up for a walk around Hindman. Randy was a good friend of James Still’s and lives in the house now, maintaining it as an open library and unofficial museum. He worked for the Settlement School for thirty years, teaching music and dance to children. He has retired, but he remains a presence.
He reaches onto a high shelf and pulls down a broadside, which he offers me as a gift. It’s Still’s poem “Heritage,” one I have read and admired for its language. I thought before that I knew the Appalachia it spoke of, and that its words were metaphorical. But reading the poem here, in this nurturing refuge where Still wrote and tended the school’s library while the coal industry ravaged the mountains, creeks, and waterways around him—around me, now—the lines have new meaning.
I shall not leave these prisoning hills
Though they topple their barren heads to level earth
And the forests slide uprooted out of the sky.
Though the waters of Troublesome, of Trace Fork,
Of Sand Lick rise in a single body to glean the valleys,
To drown lush pennyroyal, to unravel rail fences;
Though the sun-ball breaks the ridges into dust
And burns its strength into the blistered rock
I cannot leave. I cannot go away.
I sit on the porch with Randy and we listen to the wind in the trees. In this place that the coal industry has devastated, many have not gone away. I myself have been called to the coal fields by a certain spirit of the people, by a story I needed to hear, of people trying, in spite of.
When finite energy resources like coal are extracted, they leave a hole behind. I begin to imagine the creative centers I’ve visited and the people who nourish creativity as resources of a different kind. Rather than being diminished when someone gets energy from them, these reserves grow. Those who take give back.
With proper care and nurture, it seems, the creative spirit, like life, may be inexhaustible, cycling, growing as it is given. Next to the poison stream that Herb had shown me, a stream pouring out of a mine where so many became ill with black lung disease, I saw coltsfoot, one of the earliest flowers to blossom in spring, and pointed it out to Herb. The plant, whose scientific name comes from the Latin word for “cough,” is used to heal the lungs. It was blooming there, bright yellow. O
This article is the first in a series examining how artists work and what life is like in communities that include working artists. It is published with support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. To promote a holistic dialogue about the value of artists, the Tremaine Foundation supports a collective online space called Artists Thrive. Resources and tools within Artists Thrive help artists, arts organizations, and other groups that work with artists collaborate and craft meaningful stories about why art-making matters. Artists Thrive aims to identify the things that help artists pursue their vision and to enable communities to benefit from the arts in all aspects of life. More information can be found at www.artiststhrive.org.
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A moving article! The despair is deeply felt but it’s only
a shadow to the indomitable spirit of all of these people.
It shines brightly in their creation of Art, Music and Literature and even more in the way they work together
to build each other up is so inspirational!
Hopefully in time there will be ways to help nature heal from effects of coal mining.
The way that the people are working together it may well be one of them that finds a way to do just that.
What a terrific article showcasing people of Appalac creahian coal country astors rather than victims!
Beautiful. I have not directly experienced these locales and know of coal and its peoples only because of researches in history, economics, and technology of coal production and use. I wandered into this link while looking for material on opioid use in Virginia and West Virginia, and it reminded me of how the coal industry had gone through another decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Appalachia dominated .
For a Washiongtonian wonk, it is soothing to read ” I myself have been called to the coal fields by a certain spirit of the people, by a story I needed to hear, of people trying, in spite of.”
I’m from a small coal community called Krypton Kentucky outside of Hazard, Kentucky. I live away now. The article is inspiring but barely scratches the surface of people in our community. I went to Buckhorn High School and graduated in 1971. I was always lucky to find a job but I also had two children to support without child support. I have written a book but never let anyone read it. I’m to shy of a writer.
Inspiring article. Appalshop is about 50 years in- a testament to thinking and working over the long term.
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