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. Continue reading “Becoming Appalachian”

Gone With The Windmills? A Plea to President Obama to Save the National Forests of Appalachia

Backbone Mountain wind turbines

by Chris Bolgiano

Dear President Obama:

Thanks to you, America is turning green again, nearly forty years after I went “Back to the Land” as part of the first Earth Day generation. You came within twenty miles of my passive-aggressive solar homestead on Cross Mountain last October, when you spoke in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Surely, as you flew into the Shenandoah Valley airport, you noticed to the west the long, sinuous lines of forest-covered mountains, fall colors blazing in faux fire.

A century ago you would have seen smoke billowing from real fires, caused by a rampage of steam-powered logging. Flooding caused by deforestation of the mountains became so costly by 1911 that Congress passed the Weeks Act, authorizing the U.S. Forest Service to buy land from willing sellers and repair environmental damage. Some of the highest ridges you saw when you looked westward are in national forests that were established then, along the spine of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

These forests now face their greatest threat in a century.

Reflecting a nearly 50% nationwide increase in wind electricity plants in 2007, developers are arriving in what they themselves called “a gold rush” at a recent industry conference. There, a wind map ranked thin red currents along the highest Appalachian ridges as just possibly strong enough to power turbines for massive industrial wind installations.

Glossy ads for wind power always show turbines in open fields, never in forests. That’s because every turbine requires up to five acres of deforestation. Hundreds of turbines are being built here, burgeoning to tens of thousands if the U.S. Department of Energy indiscriminately pursues its “20% Wind Energy By 2030” program. Do the math, and factor in the forest fragmentation that multiplies the loss of habitat, and the super-wide new roads that destroy the last remote, wild ridges.

wind turbine with powerlinesSlender, rocky ridges are blasted and bulldozed to flatten pads for turbines. Each pad requires hundreds of tons of concrete. After the 25 year life span of the huge machines, the pads remain as dead ground but possibly good tennis courts in a summer camp for giants in the future.

Deforestation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuel burning. The rest of the world agreed at the recent U.N. climate summit to protect maturing forests that sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide — like those now healing from old abuse in the Southern Appalachians. In Transition to Green, the 400 pages of nature tips sent you by a coalition of environmental organizations, the first recommendation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to “manage the national forest system to secure climate benefits.”

Industrial wind will blow this opportunity away.

It’s already blowing away a lot of wildlife. Turbine blades reach 450 feet above ridge crests where songbirds migrate, bats feed, and eagles rise on thermals. Just across the state line in West Virginia, thousands of creatures are being killed every year at new wind plants, the highest kills ever documented worldwide from turbines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly recommends against turbines on nearby Shenandoah Mountain due to the likelihood of killing endangered species, yet several projects are underway.

Some of the people living near turbines suffer from chronic sleeplessness and other symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome (including depression over loss of property values).

Death, destruction and insomnia are marketed to urban consumers as “green” electricity, what little there is of it. Turbines produce only about 30% or less of their maximum rated capacity, and some of that is lost along hundreds of miles of transmission lines. When the wind does blow, the aging lines can hardly handle the surge.

What drives this high-cost/low-benefit gold rush is the federal production tax credit. More tax breaks beckon in national forests, where no local property taxes are levied so local communities wouldn’t share in revenues produced by turbines, plus the Forest Service helps pay for building roads. In the three years that the federal tax credit hasn’t been reauthorized since first enacted in 1992, the skyrocketing wind industry plateaued like a mountaintop-removal coalmine.

The coal mining that has ravaged the land and people in part of Appalachia for a century is our major source of electricity, and is obscenely destructive to forests. But destroying more forests in order to stop destroying forests doesn’t make sense. And building industrial wind plants in Appalachia isn’t change. It’s a 21st-century version of the same old pattern of taking value out and leaving costs behind.

These ancient mountains are well-documented as the biologically richest temperate woodlands in the world, one of North America’s greatest natural treasures, rich in globally rare species and communities, including human ones. So you can’t dismiss my aging hippie protest merely as NIMBY, which in any case is simply love of place. It breaks my heart to see these murdered old mountains assaulted again.

Since 1911, the Forest Service has salvaged the land and regenerated trees in watersheds that, today, supply drinking water to millions of people (not to mention clean air). Tens of millions of people depend on these national forests for access to the outdoors, spending in local economies as they go. Timber from regulated harvests supports local companies.

National forests are the last vestige of the rural commons, where, as you noted in a recent speech, “the proud tradition of hunting is passed on through the generations.” Deer eat my flowers and I eat the deer in an Appalachian adaptation of flower power.

No flowers bloom now; the mountain forests you saw in autumn glory are bark naked and blue with winter cold. Warmed by firewood from my hundred acres of oaks, I’m writing you on a computer plugged into nine solar panels that power my house. I believe in green energy so much that I’ve started a new savings fund to buy one of those million plug-in hybrid cars that you’ve promised to get on the road by 2015.

Industrial wind power has a place, and T. Boone Pickens knows exactly where that is: On the plains, where winds are incessant. Other potentially low impact sites are mid-western cropfields, eastern strip mines, and off-shore waters, much closer to the coastal cities that need the power.

But in forested rural areas like Appalachia, community-scale rather than industrial-scale would better contribute to your goal of 10% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2012. Solar panels and small wind turbines have enormous potential for on-site, small-scale power generation, with hardly a ripple on the grid.

Consider how much stronger our nation would be against disasters both natural and criminal if schools, hospitals, community centers, businesses, nursing homes, farms, houses and apartment buildings across the country made enough electricity to pump drinking water and refrigerate food.

Americans haven’t enjoyed that kind of independence since they drank from dippers and packed pond ice in sawdust for the summer icebox. The decentralization of electricity represents a new perspective on the old rallying cry of democracy, “Power to the People!”

Can’t we make some of that $150 billion you want to invest in “building a clean energy future” available to ordinary people, small businesses and neighborhoods, as well as distant corporations? And can’t we keep our national forests intact for future generations?

My hope for change is that you will answer, “Yes We Can!”

Yours in the Red, White, and Blue Ridge,

Chris Bolgiano

(Chris Bolgiano is the author of five books, innumerable articles, and one short history of a small place — her own community. She has generously made this essay available for free distribution on the web; feel free to reproduce it on your own blogs and websites. A PDF version is available from her website for print distribution.

Via Negativa also published Chris’s essay “My Best Friend is Building a Hummer of a House” last year.)

Supporting Documents (A Very Few of Very, Very Many)

Arnett, E.B., et al. 2007. Impacts of wind energy facilities on wildlife and wildlife habitat. Wildlife Society Technical Review 07-2. Bethesday, MD: The Wildlife Society. The Wildlife Society is a national association of natural resource managers.

National Library of Medicine. Pubmed and Environmental Health and Toxicology databases (approx. 30 other citations available):

  • Harding, G. et al. Wind turbines, flicker, and photosensitive epilepsy: characterizing the flashing that may precipitate seizures and optimizing guidelines to prevent them. Epilepsia. 2008 Jun;49(6):1095-8.
  • Findeis, H. and E. Peters. Disturbing effects of low frequency sound immissions (sic) and vibrations in residential buildings. Noise Health. 2004 Apr-Jun;6(23):29-35.
  • Pedersen, E. Wind turbine noise, annoyance & self-reported health and well-being in different living environments. Occup. Environ. Med. 2007 Jul;64(7):480-6.

National Research Council of the National Academies. Environmental Impacts of Wind-Energy Projects. 2007. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Pierpont, Nina. Wind Turbine Syndrome: a Report on a Natural Experiment. In publication.

Transition to Green: Environmental Transition Recommendations for the Obama Administration. Nov. 2008.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Elkins, West Virginia Field Office. November 16, 2007. 12 page letter “Re: Proposed Construction and Operation of a Wind Power Facility, In Pendleton and Hardy Counties, WV [PDF].”

Please see also for extensive further coverage of wind power issues in eastern forested areas. See also,, and hundreds of other sites for the worldwide grass-roots struggle to make industrial wind responsive to environmental and human health concerns. —Chris

wind tubine base

My Best Friend is Building a Hummer of a House

by Chris Bolgiano
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Licenced through the Blue Ridge Press free syndication service and posted here with the active cooperation of the tragically blogless author.

Our best friends Philly and Jake retired last year and built their dream house a short walk over the ridge from where my husband and I live amid a hundred acres of Appalachian Mountain forest. We all met in college and bonded on the first Earth Day. Since then, my husband and I have gone “Back to the Land,” homesteading in the lushest temperate woodlands in the world, while Philly and Jake worked their way across continents. For 35 years, we’ve looked forward to retiring together.

Now, their dream has become my nightmare. It began with their plans for a 4,000-square-foot house — twice the size considered comfortable for a family of four just a few decades ago. Suddenly I felt frightened for the state of the world, and saw the situation in double negatives: If my nature-loving friend Philly wouldn’t choose not to build a mansion, who would?

“It’s a personal decision, how much space you need,” Philly said, not in answer to my question, which I’ve never asked, but after I emailed her a link to a website that calculates the environmental footprint of such “personal” decisions. Every decision an American consumer makes is environmentally charged, because we use more of everything and pollute more than anyone else in the world. Philly knows this, and she knows that I know that she knows.

As Philly’s blueprints materialized, I recognized the green-eyed face of jealousy, namely my own, reflected in the wall-sized windows of her cathedral-ceilinged great room.

Philly’s house is much bigger and far more elegant than my rustic, passive-solar cabin — House Beautiful magazine versus Field and Stream. Trading jealousy for guilt, I joined Philly on shopping forays and shared her new-house happiness by buying toxic remodeling products likely made by exploited Chinese workers.

Meanwhile, Jake was directing bulldozers to open the view by pushing down two acres of big oaks and pines. No one limited the tread of tires, no one tagged any trees for protection, no one saved the mossy-carpeted forest topsoil for reuse.

In a footprint eight times larger than the standard quarter-acre suburban yard, nothing above microscopic level was left alive, and even the soil microbes must have been pretty hard pressed. Then dozens of dump trucks delivered soil mined elsewhere. Jake just bought a riding mower.

The real test of friendship came when I first walked down the southern slope of Jake’s new yard. Fallen trees sprawled across the property boundary and their wilting canopies sagged into our creek, where they would, in a sudden storm, divert the flow and erode the stream banks. I knew this to be a violation of a local erosion ordinance.

Talking to my husband later, tears sprang to my eyes. “If it was anybody else, we would turn them in just like we did those other two neighbors when they threatened the creeks.” One case involved a careless logger and the other a careless house-grader, and both times the creeks ran the color of bad coffee.

“Yes, that’s true,” my husband acknowledged. “But these are our best friends. We’re not going to… turn them in? His voice took a Valley Girl swing upward.

No. Ethical questions about who is responsible for protecting the environment faded in the harsh light of being a snitch. Who am I to criticize, anyway? We sent our share of sediment to the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay when we built our quarter-acre pond. Our ecological footprint here casts a shadow even at high noon on a clear day.

Scales of space and time determine what is sustainable. Extrapolated to each of the world’s six billion plus human beings, the scale of even my (minimally) more modest materialism would crash the earth’s ecosystems sooner rather than later, according to climatologists.

Well, I’m hoping for another twenty good years of living next door to Philly and Jake before the world collapses or I take the ultimate “Back to the Land” trip. Now that they’ve moved in, we get together regularly for dinner and a movie. We laugh at all the same jokes, just as we did in our youth. Our dear old friends have become poster people for the American environmental disconnect, but like siblings committed to family peace, we skirt the topics of our personal contributions to consumption, climate change, energy wars, and pollution.

For me, friendship trumps ideology. And if environmentalism is a religion — if the Creation is sacred — then I want to be a “hate the sin but love the sinner” kind of believer, not a “if thine eye offend thee pluck it out” kind. All I can do is ride herd on my own damage to the earth.