The Song of the Brier.


I’ve been thinking a lot about Appalachia lately, probably more than I have since I graduated ETSU with my minor in Appalachian Studies over a decade ago now, probably more than I have since I left my mountain hollers of Greene County for the “big city” of Knoxville, Tennessee. I follow a Facebook group called Appalachian Americans, and a few individuals have been posting a lot of pictures to the group lately — everything from historical photos from all around the area, to snapshots of restored log cabins and antique wood stoves heating a cast iron skillet full of beans. These photographs made me remember things, made me think about home, inspired me to pick up a collection of poetry from my bookshelf by Jim Wayne Miller called The Brier Poems. From an introductory note on the term brier: “North of the Ohio River, migrants from the southern Appalachians are known as Briers. Any of several prickly plants, the Brier is in another sense the quintessential Appalachian.” The book essentially focuses on the diaspora associated with the Appalachian who leaves the mountains — how the mountains never really leave you, and yet, when you come back, how you can never really come home again.

I’ve been thinking about Appalachia because it’s been in the news. With the chemical leak in West Virginia’s water supply, I’ve watched my own emotional reaction with a great deal of curiosity. I generally try to gather as much information as I can about newsworthy items before commenting on them or forming a vocal opinion. As I’ve grown older, I’ve resisted engaging in conversations about issues that I feel I know very little about. This issue, however, reawakened dormant angry Appalachian reactions from deep in my soul — angry about the coal industry’s continuing exploitation of the land and the people in the region, angry about the complete lack of emphasis on the issue in the news and mainstream media. Who cares about a bunch of poor mountain folk, after all? Understanding that these reactions are not the most logical and well-thought out responses, I’ve tried to maintain a certain degree of radio silence on social media about the issue, but I would keep up, read articles, watch videos, and listen to that nagging voice in the back of my head saying, just the way it always is.

I’ve been thinking about Appalachia because I’ve been watching a lot of Justified episodes with my husband, who absolutely loves the show and has been trying to get me to add the television series to my queue for ages now. I’m enjoying the show overall. I can’t say from a literary or critical standpoint that it’s the best piece of television out there, but the acting is good, there are some decently strong female characters in the show, and it deals with issues of gender, race, and class in such a manner that really illustrate the shades of gray inherent in everyday life. The most striking thing for me, however, is the rather harrowing picture the show paints of life in Appalachia — or, at least, specifically, economically-depressed towns in the region. We’d been watching season 2, and had just finished the episode “The Spoil” which deals with the subject of mountaintop removal and the relationship of Appalachian people and the coal companies. In that episode, Mags Bennett — a local crime matriarch — delivers the following speech at a town meeting:

“Well, my people pioneered this valley when George Washington was President of the United States, and as long as we’ve been here, the story’s always been the same. Big money men come in, take the timber, and the coal, and the strength of our people. And what do they leave behind? Poundments full of poison slurry and valleys full of toxic trash. You know what happens when 500 million gallons of slurry breaks loose? The gate of hell open… and all that waste rolls down through the hollers, and poisons the water, and the land, and everything it touches. Mining company has a word for those leavings, dunnit? The Spoil. … To an outsider it’s probably hard to understand why we’re all not just lining up and saying ‘where do we sign’? But we got our own kind of food, our own music, our own liquor, we got our own way of courting, and raising children, and our own way of living and dying.”

After watching this episode, I turned to my husband and said, “I have a complicated relationship with this show. I really feel like they’re presenting an accurate depiction of Appalachia, but I wish it wasn’t always such a negative depiction.” I think, specifically, I was reacting to the fact that the people I most identified with in the show were murderers and drug dealers and all sorts of unsavory folk who, at the end of the day, were just trying to make ends meet, take care of their own kinfolk, and hold on to their traditions against all the odds and setbacks of modern life. But I thought about my own experience growing up in Appalachia — I knew many people who were either directly or loosely connected to similar happenings in my own county. I thought of my own family history — stories of pimps, prostitutes, and moonshine when times were hard, stories of distant relatives in gunfights and brawls in bars. In truth, I’m not far removed from that sort of history, myself.

And I thought of my own novel about Appalachia, the novel I finished last year during NaNoWriMo, the one I’ve currently sent to a couple of friends to review for editing purposes. These same themes are pervasive in that novel — the absolute destitution of poverty, the hopelessness of a family trapped by addiction, the vital importance of controlling one’s own land and stake in the world. It makes a certain amount of sense — the novel itself is a modern retelling of an Appalachian Jack tale. It’s just amazing how often I tend to romanticize the mountains, how easy it is to long for home, for simple times, and how easy it is to forget the darker shadows of those beautiful hollers.

“He had to admit it: he
didn’t live here any longer. He was
settled in a suburb, north of himself.”
~ Jim Wayne Miller, “Down Home”

That’s the story of us briers, though. We leave the mountains, because what can we do? There are no jobs in those small mountain towns. When I left Greene County over a decade ago, my grandmother was selling the family farm — the 15+ acres of foothills that I spent my childhood exploring, where I had brought my own daughter to spend her first few years of life. I had my Bachelor’s, but there were no jobs to be had that would help me support my family. There were other reasons too, certainly, but those are the same ones that many briers face — we want to stay, but we know we can’t, and we grudgingly head to flatter land, to bigger cities, to try to seek our fortunes. We struggle to wear the right clothes, to style our hair the right way, to talk good. We always feel a little out of step — our priorities seem a lot different from many of the others around us. Because of that, it’s easy for us briers to get homesick, to hold fast to fond memories of our childhood, to take a deep breath of mountain air any time we hit an elevation over 15,000 feet.

We briers return home often, hoping to feel at ease, to fall back into step, for nothing to have changed. And, often, very little has — at least in the landscape and the daily lives of the small, sleepy towns we escaped from. But we’ve changed. We have to live with that.

“Some left for college, some could only dream
Hanging around town, still wearing their high school rings
I avoid their faces when I come to town
Man, I still don’t know which one of us
has let the other down.”
~ Pierce Pettis, “Little River Canyon”

Still, that doesn’t keep us from speeding down the winding country roads with our windows rolled down, taking in a deep whiff of the dogwood and redbud and cow dung scent, and singing at the top of our lungs as forests, farmhouses, dilapidated trailers, and fields of corn flank us on both sides.