The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 2)

West Virginia has a long history of conflict. The conflicts are documented in our history books and highlight near-wars like the Battle of Blair Mountain and the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. In these kinds of fights guns are fired; sometimes, people die; and almost always there is a gouged scar on our cultural landscape. On a recent visit to Vermont I heard myself trying to explain how things play out in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth after a few glasses of wine was, “We are a culture of winners and losers.” My dinner guests were hooked, I could tell, when they put down their own glasses and leaned in to hear more.

I wasn’t sure there was more to say, and I didn’t expound much on my words; I think they speak for themselves. But I have rolled the wine-tinged phrase around and around in my own mind without ceasing for days now.

West Virginia is a culture of winners and losers.

It is something so obvious once I said it out loud that I hardly know where to start, and yet the looks on my dinner companions faces said it was not entirely normal or expected. I think communities that are thriving well  beyond where we are in West Virginia have either never accepted the winner/loser dynamic or have so solidly rejected it long ago that hearing it is still real in other places is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but you are shocked nonetheless.

We don’t really resolve things in West Virginia, and accepting that reality has been a slow train coming for me. I haven’t wanted to internalize and deal with the fact that this is a place of hurts that fester untended. In an odd way I think we’ve learned, as a people, to allow our wounds to go full-tilt into permanent scars. When I look at mountain top removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates or any number of “wound like” truths in our Appalachian landscape, I wonder. I wonder where that line is when people stop trying to get well and start trying to catalogue their scars. “We may never get well,” they say, “but we can make you look at what happened. We can try to make you look at what you did.”

4 thoughts on “The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 2)

  1. “…try and make you look at what you did.” We hold these truths to be self-evident. Union Carbide wrote its own corporate eulogy here in the Kanawah Valley when the disaster happened in Bhopal India. Most of the other chemical companies that inhabited this area bailed out too. Mine disaster after mine disaster and Massey Coal is no more and Buffalo Creek is a bitter memory that stirs ghosts. The Silver Bridge collapses during rush hour. An airplane crashes and kills 75 including 36 of the Marshall football team. The exodus of jobs and then the exodus of intelligent minds young and old. Just look at what has happened. Just look at what you did… We continue to try and win and make our place. And through all the victories, we still fight against the crush of our own history.

  2. Indeed I have said that I don’t expect to stop mountain top removal but I must expose the lies of the coal association. In WV it is easy to see we are past the tipping point, in Vermont it may take a little longer for them to see it.

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