Story by Beth Ward
Just 46 years ago, when the Foxfire Museum published the first in its seminal book series, the U.S. government had situated southern Appalachia at the center of its War on Poverty. Appalachian families in states like Tennessee and Kentucky were living below the poverty line at rates almost double those of the rest of the country.
People living in the most rural areas of southern Appalachia in the 1960s and 1970s lived without indoor plumbing and other basic amenities, and they graduated high school at rates approximately 20 percent lower than the rest of the U.S.
It was a place commonly referred to as “a region apart,” a culture literally othered in the minds of the American government and the nation writ large. They painted a picture of southern Appalachia as isolated, white, and poverty-ridden — images its natives are still trying to redraw, even today.
Now, in the latest Foxfire book, Travels With Foxfire: People, Passions, and Practices From Southern Appalachia by Phil Hudgins and Jessica Phillips, we find southern Appalachia in some ways identical to what it once was and in others completely altered — by years passed, by a people working to reclaim their own narratives, by cultural shifts big and small.
Hudgins and Phillips may have intended their Travels to be a journey of distance, across Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky — and it is — but more than that, it’s a journey through time. Its essays take readers from the early 1960s to just a few years ago. Hudgins and Phillips understand, and they want us to understand, that you can’t engage with the culture and people of southern Appalachia today without acknowledging how deeply rooted in tradition the culture is.
What does the passage of time mean to a region and culture whose hard and beautiful past has been fetishized by an Instagram culture that’s turning sacred mountain practices like canning and homesteading and herb-gathering into the newest pastimes for the chic? What does the future look like to a diverse people who take pride in defining themselves by who they were, by the lives of their grandparents and great-grandparents?
How do you, as a culture, decide what to keep of that past, and what to let go of, so you can assimilate into the future? What of the old ways do you give away, pass on, and what do you protect, when for so much of history you’ve had to contend with exploitation and extraction, to quote writer, Leah Hampton?
Hudgins notes in the introduction to Travels that southern Appalachia cannot survive as what it was.
“‘It’s going to survive in memory, perception, song, food,’” he quotes Glen Kyle as saying, “‘but it’s going to be mixed with more modern activities and lifestyle.’”
Because, as Hudgins notes, “hardly anyone wants to live the hard, hungry lives of our ancestors, barely eking out a living on isolated land often too rough to plow.”
If that’s the case, though, how much does southern Appalachia have to give away to ensure its own survival?
These are the questions that arose as I dug into the essays and interviews in Travels With Foxfire. They’re touching tales of times past, often told to Hudgins or Phillips on front porches or around kitchen tables. There’s no analysis, no critical take on the memories its subject share. Travels is just a living record proclaiming, “We were here. Our stories are America’s story. And we are the ones best qualified to tell it.”
Hudgins’ and Phillips’ essays took me back into Jane Taylor’s workshop, where she turns iron scrap into folk art; back into Western North Carolina with a medicine woman who still uses curative herbs and the old ways to heal her community; into Lazell Vinson’s kitchen to learn how to make cabbage casserole.
The stories made me feel nostalgic for my own family's history — one that was hard but happy, decorated with open pastures and sweet-potato pulling, with resiliency and making do with what we had, with putting family and God before anything else. I went to public schools and had a traditional education, but the most important lessons I ever learned were those taught around my grandmother’s kitchen table as she shaped homemade biscuit dough by hand. Those recollections came back vividly as I read.
But the stories also dislodged in me memories of what it was like to go without, of my parents and grandparents working themselves sick to get by, of wondering which bills would get paid, of determining how the union work was going by noting whether Daddy opted at the workday's end for cheap beer or whiskey.
And there’s no pretty Instagram filter for that.
The Travels essays situated me firmly into that past, into a version of myself and my family we don’t live anymore. And while my past had a great deal to do with the person I am now, I’m glad I don’t have to live in it forever, that I don’t have to have it constantly re-told and parodied back to me as a fetishized or villainized caricature.
In light of that, I have to wonder if our continued insistence, as a culture, on shackling southern Appalachia to what it was 50, 75, or 100 years ago — black-and-white pictures of poor, white, hardscrabble living, or a glossy magazine version of quaint woodstoves and outhouses — is not equally stultifying, serving only to reinforce an outsider’s narrative of the place.
Nostalgia is a strange thing. Science tells us that a bittersweet longing for the past, dancing around in memories of the olden days, helps us feel more connected to others, increases our vitality, helps combat loneliness. In such a fragmented, disconnected, rapidly changing time as this, it’s no wonder we’d all like to retreat into what we’re told were better days — cooking around a fire, sharing stories while we sip sweet tea on a front porch, canning fresh vegetables for the winter in grandmama’s kitchen.
But for much of history, nostalgia was also considered a disease, a distortion of the past that sought to upend the reality of the way things actually were. In many cases, people in Southern Appalachia canned those vegetables so they wouldn’t starve to death. And an outsider’s continued reverie of that may not be beneficial to the region anymore.
There’s an irony here for me — that all this reverence we’re paying to a glorified Appalachian past is actually leaving us, not them, behind. Because as we continue to try and pull southern Appalachia backwards to a time of fiddle picking and hog killing, Appachians are looking to the future — a future shaped by West Virginia teachers fighting for higher pay and lower healthcare costs, grassroots organizations combating the opioid epidemic, and women like Ann Miller Woodford, interviewed for Travels With Foxfire, who’s made it part of her life’s work to shed light on “black invisibility” in the region and tell the story of African American families in Andrews, North Carolina.
Preserving who we are and where we come from is important work, especially in a place like southern Appalachia. Those roots, that past, give it a context, and it helps its people claim their earned place in history. That’s what the Foxfire books help do. They hold that place, and let Appalachians speak for themselves.
But if we’re not careful, we can allow ourselves to stay too tightly anchored to old stories at the expense of new growth. As James Speed says in one of the book's essays, “Moonshining Days”: “There’s been so much written about [Appalachian] people that ain’t right. We need to see the truth, whether it hurts, or it’s good. The true story needs to be told.”
And maybe, like Hudgins and Phillips, we should leave it to Appalachian people to tell that truth. Maybe what southern Appalachia should keep of its history, what it chooses to preserve and protect, what it chooses to share with us and release itself from, should be up to Appalachians.