Becoming Appalachian

first published (in slightly edited form and without illustrations)
Appalachian Journal Vol. 38: 2-3 (Winter/Spring 2011)

© by Chris Bolgiano

The Fall, 2010 issue of Appalachian Journal, which focused on regional identity, hit me where it hurts: in my self-proclaimed, hardly-won, and wholly un-censused identity as Appalachian. Because nowhere in seventy pages of scholarly surveys, speculations, and definitions could I find myself.

Chris Bolgiano's view from the deck
Looking at Little North Mountain from the author’s deck in autumn.

Researchers reach out to fourth generation descendants born in industrial cities far from the mountains and deem them Appalachian, and I totally get that. I’ve come to understand, and not just from Loyal Jones, that you can get an Appalachian into Heaven but she’ll still insist on going home to the mountains every other weekend.

I understand, because even though I wasn’t born here, I couldn’t live anywhere else but here on Cross Mountain, with Little North Mountain in front of me. And the trailer court down the road.

In all the confusion over what it means to be Appalachian, the simple fact of mountains is clearly bedrock. As Herrin said, “We definitely considered ourselves mountain people … as Tennessee mountaineers.” Ludke et. al. cite “a strong sense of cultural identity as mountain people” in western North Carolina. Mountains define the region and regional identity.

Careers have been built on the notion that a distinctive Appalachian regional identity emerged from the (only recently acknowledged) human diversity in the mountains. Yet the unique biodiversity of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, with its generous support of small-scale agriculture and home industries, is rarely recognized as the source of what is distinctly Appalachian in American rural culture.

Hundreds of plant species provided foods, medicines and building materials from cradle to coffin. Bear, deer, wild turkey, squirrels, grouse, rabbits and other game abounded, as well as fish that my friend and local author Peggy Shifflett could catch by hand along the creeks. Knowledge of the forests was a fundamental dimension of being Appalachian.

“When I was a kid we did a lot of things related to the forest. We did hunting, ginsenging, swimming, fishing, outdoor activities, mostly,” recalled Larry Stratton of Lincoln County, WV, in the July, 2009 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

Knowledge of the forest is fading now, along with some of its most valuable species, like ginseng, which have been overharvested or lost habitat or both. Modern ways have replaced many traditional lifestyle habits, although firewood and wood stoves continue as an age-old form of energy independence.

But the mountains are still there, except, of course, for the ones being blown up for coal. Even when they’re gone, mountains define every aspect of Appalachian life, from the location of valley fills to school bus routes. I cheered each time the term “mountain people” was used as a synonym for being Appalachian.

After forty years of trying, I like to think that I have become an Appalachian mountain woman. “We must challenge the idea that there is only one legitimate Appalachian experience,” wrote Steve Fisher. “One way of doing that is by telling our stories.”

Addie Simmons in 1973
Addie Simmons in 1973

So here’s my story, and if it doesn’t lead to the stereotypical Appalachian mountain woman, whose problem is that?

Addie Simmons, who really was a stereotypical old mountain woman and my mentor in West Virginia in the 1970s, would say of opponents that she’d “like to make ‘em swaller my fist.” Honestly, I don’t feel that strongly, but I want to honor her spirit. I’ve learned that Appalachian women are the ones who hold all of what editor Sandra Ballard called “the paradoxes of Appalachian identity” together.

One paradoxical experience that most legitimizes being Appalachian, suggested several scholars, is not living a rural lifestyle, not being part of a close-knit community, not even being dispossessed or murdered by King Coal. The one truly Appalachian experience is said to be leaving the mountains. Appalachian outmigration was brilliantly articulated by Harriette Arnow in The Dollmaker, surely the most overlooked Great American Novel in literature.

Outmigration may have defined the word “hillbilly,” but not “redneck.” When I learned that “redneck” once referred to the red bandanas around the necks of striking West Virginia coal miners in 1920, my image of the word changed. If you stood like David to King Coal’s Goliath, taking machine gun bullets in your tent city because you dared to demand decent treatment, you just might be a redneck.

Leaving where you are to learn who you are is not just Appalachian, though, but a universal human experience. My story turns the Appalachian outmigration trope upside down. Immigrants — people who choose to live in Appalachia — aren’t much considered in Appalachian identity studies, except Hispanics, who form a highly visible Other.

I migrated into Appalachia out of the mainstream, middle-class, flatlander life my parents had just barely achieved. The closest that AJ’s identity investigators came to tracking me was Kansas.

“I see some divides drawn by birthplace,” interviewer Chad Berry said, after posing the question to Roberta Herrin: Can someone born in Kansas be Appalachian?

I am not from Kansas. I was born in the rubble of Munich after World War II, to an American Jewish soldier and a German Catholic, bombed-out single mother whose own mother had worked for Hitler. Growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. gave me an American accent but left an enduring European fear of nationalism. In 1970, during the spring of the Kent State student killings and the first Earth Day, I graduated from the University of Maryland with a husband and a consciousness barely raised above average consumer flood level.

Bolgiano butterfly costume
Aging hippie butterfly in costume.

We lived in a small commune in an African-American neighborhood. From there, on weekends and leave days from our jobs, we camped in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina looking for land where we could settle down to some post-industrial pioneering. We were part of the generation that made “Peace and Love” its slogan, “Going Back to the Land” its agenda, and “Eat Low on the Food Chain” its diet. Real estate agents in the small towns we visited had some fun field days with us.

According to the experts, personal identity is not a single face but multi-faceted, like the quartzite crystals in rocks on Cross Mountain. When I turn a rock a certain way, I can light up my “Aging hippie butterfly” vision of myself, which also happens to be my favorite Halloween costume.

Turn the rock other ways, and other identities flash past — liberal librarian, wife and not-a-mother, sustainability freak, and, in a spoonerism kindly supplied by a friend, bird watcher and word botcher. Maybe some of these fit in the categories of “resistance” and “project” identities mentioned in the issue. It was clear from the roundtable discussion that Appalachian regional identity has been a useful tool to hammer the political/economic structure into a more equitable distribution. Rightly so, and right on!

Seeing tar-paper shacks with cords of firewood stacked nearby, tar paper outhouses with no firewood, rusting machines of all species in the yards, and root cellars that had better be stocked up for winter, shocked some of the idealism out of me early on. I hadn’t known America could be like that. Eating the seeds for next summer’s garden in order to avoid starving today is the scene that most haunts me from James Stills’ River of Earth.

And despite decades of vinyl siding, satellite TV dishes in the yards and plumbing in the houses, pockets of Appalachian poverty persist. There are hungry children attending my local elementary school, and lines at the food pantry where we volunteer. It looks like one of my neighbors in the trailer court has lost his job as a truck driver, because the rig has been sitting there for weeks.

If someone is truly in need, sooner or later it’s likely to come up at our Ruritan club. Part of a national organization oriented toward rural areas, the club’s purpose is “fellowship, goodwill and community service.” Our club dates back more than half a century. When we first joined it nearly a decade ago, the husband and I were the only members who didn’t have seven generations invested in the land.

Winona LaDuke once wrote that to belong to a community, you must give up a part of your own identity. The club gives me the opportunity to learn how to do this. I watch my identities chase each other like cloud shadows racing across Little North Mountain.

Some scholars want to define identity through heritage, while others hold that heritage does not necessarily equate to identity. I’m in the latter camp, hardly wanting to identify with my Nazi heritage. It’s like being white: something I can’t help. Obermiller put it this way: “Being from Appalachia does not necessarily make people Appalachian.”

Addie Simmons' house
Addie Simmons' house

Then what does? If it’s a matter of values rather than birth or heritage, I’d still mostly lose out, because I can lay claim to few of Jones’ ten Appalachian Values. Having tried all my life to outgrow early Catholic schooling, I’m not religious, being more drawn to Buddhism’s lack of deity than to any Christian sect. And while I admire the humility and self-deprecating humor of mountain people, with this being a memoir that is by definition self-centered, I can hardly claim modesty for myself.

But by becoming Appalachian, I’ve learned that I don’t need Buddha or the Bible to keep myself in line. I just put a raisin on my head and tell myself, Now don’t you get above your raisin’.

I have no people, so cannot partake of the extended family values, sometimes called clannishness, that characterize Appalachia and many other rural societies. Even self-reliance is a value by choice for me, not the necessity that born Appalachians grew up with.

Nor do I fit the socio-economic characteristics of low educational and occupational status that Alexander and Berry identified, although, like many Appalachian students still yet, I was the first in my family to attend college.

Love of place is the common ground where values, heritage, and identity meet, an odd cove built by the deposits of three major creeks. Trying to understand that cove I’ve chosen for home, I have gone bear hunting, panther tracking, horse logging, sorghum pressing and ginsenging. I’ve reported on mountain top removal in Kentucky, a successfully aborted Earth First chip mill protest in North Carolina, and the Hatfield family cemetery in West Virginia. I have interviewed Dolly Parton’s uncle and fended off a pass from my old mentor Addie’s husband.

Does that authenticate me?

My Appalachian identity is built from the dirt in my garden and the firewood in my forest, from gaunt faces of coal miners I’ve met and laughter of Ruritan club colleagues during our annual Lawn Party fundraisers. We fry ham and chicken in the hottest part of July, producing a sweat equity investment in our community as well as good-tasting, bad-for-you food. Then, over the winter, the club divides the income among many competing demands for charity donations, scholarships, and the occasional heating-oil fill-up for a cold, broke neighbor.

Chris Bolgiano with cake wheel
The author running the handmade cake wheel at the 2010 Fulks Run Ruritan Lawn Party, the club’s largest annual fundraiser. Prizes are home-baked cakes.

In the same way that coming from Appalachia does not make one Appalachian, so does not coming from Appalachia not mean that one cannot become Appalachian. Not that it’s easy. Like Silas House’ character Clay Sizemore, who fits pieces of family stories into a memory quilt of his murdered mother, I am piecing experiences together in an Appalachian identity quilt.

I’ll be the first to admit it’s a crazy quilt.

Steve Fisher asks, “What are the conditions that lead people to identify themselves as “Appalachians?” Yearning for the comfort of a home-made quilt is a pre-disposing condition, a longing to belong not just to the nature of Cross Mountain but also to this human community, as it tries to hold on to its best traditions in a flood of change.

Maybe there should be a census category for “Wannabe Appalachians,” because there are a lot of us: people who moved into Appalachia in the late twentieth century with the intent of spending the rest of our lives here. Just as one person can have many identities, there can be many communities in one geographical area. The Been-heres and Move-Ins operated on parallel planes for the first few decades, but the lines converge over time.

Being an outsider does have advantages, offering some neutrality from the particular historical process of any given place. That is a polite way of saying that an outsider has never been involved in any feuds. But there lies the great divide: an outside perspective that can never be undone, like a gorge that the Cherokees believed was a gateway to another world.

Satterwhite writes that Insider/Outsider dynamics obscure “crucial lessons about power relations within the region, class dynamics … racial dynamics, gender dynamics.” Several contributors to the issue declare that the Insiders vs. Outsiders division is false and useless. Yet it persists, at least in the academy. To the original question posed by Berry, whether “divides drawn by birthplace” bar outsiders from becoming Appalachian, Herrin’s reply was that an outsider’s relationship would be a kinship, rather than an identity.

Garnett Turner
Garnett Turner

Whatever. My kinship with Appalachia is not of blood but of bloodroot, bear, and the universal human needs of families in that trailer court down the road. Appalachia has given me everything I ever wanted from a place to call home, and more than I ever bargained for.

Having worked my way through the issue, I decided it doesn’t matter anymore how scholars and the census define me. I know I am home because of something Garnett Turner said recently. He’s the founder of our Ruritan club and one of our most respected elders. A local newspaper reporter was interviewing him about the fiftieth anniversary of the Ruritan club, and Garnett asked me to be there to talk about the club history I had written. The reporter asked me if I had grown up here, but before I could answer, Garnett said, “She’s not from here, but we’ll claim her.”


Chris’s next book is due out in September, a collaboration with photographer James Valentine from University of North Carolina Press titled Southern Appalachian Celebration: In Praise of Ancient Mountains, Old-Growth Forests, and Wilderness.

Chris was featured on the Woodrat Podcast back in early 2010 in a two-part conversation with Marcia Bonta: Episode 7, “Tales From the Nature-Writing Trenches,” and 8, “Greening the Appalachians.”

10 Replies to “Becoming Appalachian”

  1. Chris, thank you for this lucid and illuminating exploration of the nature of identity and community. It has so many resonances for me in all sorts of areas.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comment. It’s heartening to hear that someone else understands the complexity and ambiguity of trying to fit into a culture into which one was not born.

  2. Chris, I LOVED it!!! I am one of the ‘love it but leave it’ people from the area I still feel passionate about, an 18th century left-over from farm country, and I identify strongly with your mountain love affair.

    Did you have Nancy Jones still on your email list? She now resides in White Birch Estates between Bridgewater and rt. 11. She will love this. Keep it up!

    1. Anne, thanks a million! So nice to feel my feelings resonate with others. I sent it to Randy Jones, Nancy’s son; i don’t have her email and hope he’ll forward it on to her. Nancy was my 11th grade English teacher and the best one i ever had!

  3. Have just finished your article; well done!!! A fascinating exploration of the identity issue. I am American/Swiss and I really think that means I don’t exist. The Cherokees were right about about the outside perspective that can never be undone. When we live outside our sphere and become for part of our lives woven into another culture, we remain unique and a being defined by both cultures but foreign to each one. When your Ruritan friend said,”She’s not from here, but we’ll claim her”, you know you are 80 – 90 per cent assimilated. The other 10 – 20 per cent of your being respects and accepts what you brought with you to Appalachia when you first moved there.

    Mountains are spellbinding, and I have thought about their power to accept or reject those who venture into their sphere. ie…Did you choose Appalachia or did it choose you??

    Please write more. I enjoyed your article. I love the mountains, too.


  4. Thanks, Dorothy! What a great question — did Appalachia choose you? Yes, it did — we knew from the first that we HAD to head for the mountains. We just didn’t realize how much more than mountains were involved.

  5. Thank you for mentioning in this essay my absolute favorite book “the Dollmaker”. Even though one year I gifted it to some friends and family, they didn’t read it! I would LOVE to discuss this novel with someone sometime…

    1. I adore The Dollmaker and have read some of Arnow’s other books on the Cumberland. I truly think it may be THE least appreciated novel in American literature! I’m still haunted by many of its scenes and feel that i learned so much about people from it. Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk at one of the upcoming meetings.

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