Saturday, April 5, 2014

You can take the girl out of WV...

Charlotte strikes me as a city that's welcoming to outsiders. Maybe that's why you meet so many transplants. My home state of West Virginia, on the other hand - while not necessarily unwelcoming - is rather suspicious of outsiders. Although I haven't lived there (aside from nine months while attending dog grooming school - yeah, you read that right - after college) in almost 20 years, that suspicion comes almost naturally to us.

That's why when I got a press release about Perez Hilton crowning NJ/NY songwriter/producer Skrizzly Adams as an artist to watch based on his lyric video for a tracked called "West Virginia," my WV meter spiked. I wasn't expecting John Denver. Hilton labels Adams' music "Bropop," which sounds like a recipe for frat boy mangling of hip-hop and country, but to my relief "West Virginia" is actually really good. It's more of a love song that doesn't really relate to the state or our reputation as the "most depressing state in the US" according to a recent ranking (which explains a lot about my high school years, actually). Adams' "West Virginia" is quite lovely and doesn't fall into any of the traps a term like "Bropop" implies. Watch the lyric video for "West Virginia" above.

Usually when outsiders target our state (which I still view as mine) the results are something like MTV's "Buckwild" or the tragically successful documentaries about "The Wild, Wonderful Whites of WV." My father discovered "The Dancing Outlaw" on PBS long before Jesco was a hot commodity. Dad had a friend that worked at the local PBS affiliate nab him a VHS copy after it premiered as part of a series on interesting West Virginians in 1991. He showed it to everyone. I, at 15, was horrified at how WV was portrayed. I equate the suspicion of outsiders to being bullied or unpopular in school. You get made fun of with jokes about inbreeding enough, you're likely not going to expect much from folks that are making them.

I realize being suspicious of outsiders is antiquated, but it's something that's come up quite recently as my husband investigates mountaintop removal in WV for a paper he's working on for class. It's a touchy subject. While opponents of the practice have been more than willing to discuss it, he's had trouble getting miners who have worked in the industry to call him back despite my ties to the state. These are family members and friends of friends who won't even broach the controversial subject for what he is hoping will be a balanced piece.

Last weekend a friend from high school, who still lives there, and I spent almost six hours traveling back roads to photograph the ravaged sites where mountains have literally been blown up and mined for coal. Even worse than actually blowing up the land is the fact that this releases chemicals like arsenic and selenium into the streams where people in rural communities actually get their water. So in my county for instance, you have higher rates of cancer and birth defects than in areas without mountaintop removal sites. In one community in particular, six neighbors died of brain tumors. They ranged in age between 4 and 37. That is absolutely horrifying, but having left 20 years ago before mountaintop removal was common, I never knew much about it. When an anti-MTR group called Appalachian Voices approached us about it at Bonnaroo a few years ago, my initial reaction was suspicion although I signed up on their mailing list. Now I realize what a huge deal it is and one that my friends who live there seem pretty oblivious to because they reside in the city where the destruction isn't as apparent. Unless you're looking for these sites cruising through the mountains down I-77, you're not going to notice them.

This is much like the coal ash situation facing NC right now.

What this excursion into the backwoods of WV made me realize is that I'm the outsider now. My friend was nervous about the rough terrain her CRV was taking on on muddy, unpaved roads with snow from the night before still melting on the fringes and no guardrails ("I'm glad I got that Xanax refilled," she muttered at one point). I was worried about security trucks posted at mine entrances. I kept my long lens camera in my lap as we passed on the way to the top of Kayford Mountain where Keeper of the Mountains has created a park that overlooks the biggest, bald site we found.

We never encountered any trouble, but my knee-jerk reaction of Skrizzly Adams' song helps me understand the born-in suspicion many West Virginians have of outsiders as well as a reminder to keep my own mind open. It's funny. When I tell people where I'm from, I expect some sort of weird reaction, comments about how poor the state is or how uneducated. But people usually remark on how beautiful the state is - those lush, green mountains towering above you. That is certainly the impression I'd like people to keep.

Note: As I was scheduling this to post Saturday morning I realized today is my father's birthday. On what would be his 67th birthday it's fitting to write about his beloved home state, which he refused to leave - like so many WVians - despite the promise of better pay, better work, and a seemingly better life. I once worried about the environmental impact of spreading a portion of his ashes over the Greenbrier River. With all the pollution in the water there now, I realize that wasn't really a big deal.