This post isn’t about the chemical spill in West Virginia, at least not completely. Of course I am writing this because of what has happed in West Virginia, but this is a love letter of sorts and so it may be a little scattered. You see West Virginia, specifically Kanawha County, is my adopted home. I was born here in Pittsburgh but grew up moving around the mid-west and eastern seaboard and subsequently never really felt at ease in any place I lived. Then I met and married a man from Charleston, West Virginia, and while we have made our home here in Pittsburgh we dream and talk about ‘moving down.’
It is hard for me to adequately explain my feelings about WV without sounding clichéd; sadly my words fail me when I need them most. Maybe these emotions come from the fact that I have always gone for the underdog, or possibly it is simply the Appalachian Mountains which, despite the harshness of the terrain, have inspired loyalty for generations.
What is happening right now is a shame. There is a long history in WV of King Coal and for every person you find who curses that history another will praise it. WV is an economy based on a few natural resources and for many complex reasons, political and otherwise, opportunities have dwindled in the state. It hasn’t helped that, for much of the rest of America, West Virginia has become a stereotype of the “Row faster, I hear banjo music” variety.
We traveled to my mother-in-laws’ the weekend after the spill bringing a U-Haul of 55 gallon drums of water with us. The gesture was appreciated but the truth was generations of making do with little assistance from the outside world have created a people who seem almost impervious to distress. It rained on Saturday night and we woke up to find that many neighbors, friends and family had simply put out plastic totes to collect the rain water. Others were gathering water from nearby unaffected streams and still others offered up well water to those in need. People who were unable to work due to restaurants and businesses shutting down were busy finding other ways to make ends meet. My MIL tried to convince us to take the gallons of nursery water (meant for my sister-in-law and her baby) back with us since we are expecting. She argued that we needed it more. This is the West Virginia I see. This is the West Virginia I love.
And yes, like every other place in the world, there are terrible problems and issues and people with backward ideas. I am not saying it is utopia south of Greene County. What I am saying is that it is a place where, when the sun sets, it turns blue mountains pink, dirt paths lead to centuries-old cemeteries, pawpaws grow on sandy creek beds, and there are hidden waterfalls and caves around every bend. It is a place where my daughter goes to bed with dirty feet and wakes up with an open heart.