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On the Ginseng Patrol in Appalachian Ohio

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Ginseng grower Tom Johnson goes on regular foot patrols through his property in Scioto County, Ohio in an effort to deter ginseng thefts. At first, Johnson posted signs against trespassing throughout his property, but when that didn’t work, he took to patrolling — and shooting at dead trees — throughout his property to try to deter thieves. Photo by Eileen Guo

On a warm day in the middle of an unseasonably dry October, I drive past cornfields, ranch homes, and hollers to meet 70-year-old farmer Tom Johnson.

Johnson and his wife, as well as two grown sons and their families, live on the same land that his great-great-great grandfather homesteaded, nearly two centuries before. But unlike his ancestors, Johnson is not overseeing rows of corn or grain: His “crops” are hardwoods — oak, walnut, and poplar — between which sprout native plants like goldenseal, black cohosh, and — his pet project — American ginseng.

Ginseng, a medicinal root historically grown and consumed in East Asia, grows naturally up and down the ridges of Appalachia and north into Canada. An early export of the American colonies, it occasioned the first trade contact that the new world had with the Far East and, according to some scholars, even helped finance the Revolutionary War.

Tom Johnson shows off a handful of his wild-simulated ginseng roots in Scioto County, Ohio. Ginseng was first discovered by Europeans in Canada in 1716, and has been traded in Appalachia since the 1750s. Photo by Eileen Guo

First discovered in Canada in 1716 (by the Europeans, anyway — Native Americans had long used it for its medicinal properties), the American ginseng trade started in earnest in the 1750s, after the Canadian trade collapsed. John Jacob Astor, better known for his real estate fortune around New York City, was one of America’s first traders, making $55,000 on his first shipment. Appalachian native son Daniel Boone was less lucky on his first try, losing his first shipment of 12 tons of roots in 1788 when his ship capsized in the Ohio River. He didn’t give up though, leading to the eventual accrual of a vast family fortune that, despite popular belief, came from ginseng rather than the fur trade.

Today, the root continues to be a valuable commodity, with demand — and high prices — driven, just as in the olden days, by markets in East Asia, where it is prized both as a medicine and, increasingly as a status symbol. Rich collectors will sometimes pay thousands of dollars for the more uniquely shaped, multi-pronged specimens — which happen to grow well in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains.

While Wisconsin is the United States’ largest producer of ginseng, responsible for 98 percent of the 590,000 pounds of the root exported in 2016, for those in the know, Appalachian ginseng is preferred. This is because, in Wisconsin, they are grown on monoculture farms, losing much of the unique, knotty shape of wild ginseng, as well as the ginsenosides, the pharmacological properties that make it so potent. In contrast, the Appalachian variety still grows in the wild or, increasingly, in wild-simulated conditions, where it is planted and cared for in environments that closely resemble its native ecosystem.

Ginseng is a sensitive, slow-growing plant that takes five to ten years to reach maturity, in the wild or under wild-simulated conditions. It grows best in moist, well-aerated soil on shady slopes with good drainage — the kind of terrain found throughout central Appalachia. But it’s a beloved food for native animals, from wild turkey, squirrels, and mice that dig up the seeds to deer that prefer its leaves.

But if the ginseng can survive to harvest, it pays off. A pound of dried wild-simulated ginseng can sell for several hundred dollars, or higher, depending on its size and shape. The most that Johnson has ever made was $425 per dried pound.  

Ginseng’s high price is great news, in theory, for wild ginseng growers as well as “hunters” (as foragers for the root are known). But Tom Johnson and countless others have discovered that its lucrative value also makes ginseng attractive to thieves.

On a recent patrol, Ohio Department of Natural Resources officer and lifelong ginseng enthusiast Jeff Barry points out a patch of woods where he has found ginseng in the past. Photo by Eileen Guo

Tom Johnson has been planting ginseng for some twenty-odd years. The first time that he was poached was when he was out of town attending a conference focused on forest farming. “I can still remember,” the septuagenarian says of the event, “this older guy stood up, and he said, ‘boy this would be a perfect time for your thieves to go in and steal.’”  

“So I come home,” he continues, “and sure enough, there was an area, probably 20 by 20, that looked like hogs had been in there. They dug everything.” He suspects that the thieves had been watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike when he was away.  

This is a tactic that is familiar to Ohio State Wildlife Officer, Jeff Barry, one of the foremost protectors of ginseng within the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He operates in Muskingham County some 150 miles north of Johnson’s tree farm, but he says that it’s common for theft to happen at times when the farmers are known to be away. One example of this, he says, is during county fairs, when “grandpa’s there, the farms [are] left open, and these guys [the thieves] hit.”

After  Johnson’s first incidence of poaching, he tried everything to deter theft, from putting up signs to setting up surveillance cameras, but nothing worked. The trespassers would simply tear down the signs and while the cameras were capturing photos of ginseng hunters, neither he nor local law enforcement could identify the thieves to prosecute them. Johnson believed that they were coming from out of town.

For the most part, law enforcement was not a huge help in prosecuting theft. In the beginning, he called the local wildlife officer. “Some of them would come out and say, yeah, you’ve been poached,” but without catching anyone with ginseng in hand, there was little that they could do.  

Ohio wildlife officer Jeff Barry enters data after a recent ginseng patrol in Muskingham County. Barry has become known among for his doggedness in pursuing ginseng thieves in Appalachian Ohio. Photo by Eileen Guo

Part of the issue was that most law enforcement agents, especially non-wildlife officers, didn’t really understand ginseng theft. Federal laws and regulations around ginseng harvesting have been more geared towards the plant’s conservation, since over-harvesting led to its near-extinction in the 1970s. As a result, in 1975, American ginseng was designated an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authority regulate the trade.

Today, 19 states currently allow for the harvesting of wild ginseng, but under very specific conditions: in season (typically around Sept. 1-Nov. 30), with a license, with strict limits, and only of mature plants with three leaves each (guaranteeing that they are at least five years old.)

But some of the requirements — such as a license to dig ginseng — only refers to digging on public land. And so, even the terminology to describe a crime — “poaching” — referring specifically to public land, leaves many confused about what exactly is happening on Johnson’s private property. What many, including the sheriffs and judges, don’t realize is that it’s still stealing: “Not my corn, not my cattle, they’re stealing my ginseng,” says Johnson.

The farmer is quick to add that he doesn’t have a problem with law enforcement, “Especially now, in Scioto County … we have a lot of bigger problems than poaching ginseng.”

Scioto County is at the heart of the country’s opioid crisis. Portsmouth, Ohio, which has earned the dubious moniker of “Pill Mill of America” and was the subject of the acclaimed book, Dreamland, on the spread of opioids across America, is just next door. In December alone, 33 people were indicted in Portsmouth for their involvement in a drug trafficking ring.

Beyond keeping law enforcement occupied, the opioid crisis has also affected ginseng theft. “If you have a drug habit, you can go out and steal my ginseng and get enough money for a hit,” he says.

So while he empathizes with the priorities of law enforcement, he did realize that he needed to take things into his own hands. And he thought to himself, “If I were a thief, what would defer me from being on somebody’s property trying to steal their ginseng? If someone is out there shooting, I’d probably think, I’ll go to the next guy’s farm.”

He started heading out into the woods on his twice-weekly foot patrols, accompanied by his 22-caliber, semi-automatic rifle. He’d walk, choose a spot, and then shoot, always aiming at one of the dead trees on his property — never with the intention of hurting anyone, but rather to make any potential thieves aware that he was out there, and that he was watching.

He’s had a few close calls. Once, he shot at one of his dead trees just to have a man emerge from right behind it. The man had been down on the ground digging, and he believed that Johnson purposefully tried to shoot him. That was not the case, Johnson says, but still, the man left. And without any ginseng. Other times, he caught the poachers in the act, but they would just drop the ginseng and go. And, on a few occasions, the thieves actually shot back, though never accurate enough to do any damage.

Johnson believes that his armed patrols have helped, though he’s still lost plenty of ginseng. Of the million or so seeds that he estimates to have planted in his twenty years growing, he says that “ten times as much as I’ve dug” has been stolen.

Johnson turned 71 in the fall, and at his age, he also wonders how long he’ll be able to continue cultivating the slow-growing plant. The root takes years before reaching maturity, and after so much of it has been stolen, he is no longer sure that he has the time or the energy to keep up.

What’ll happen after he’s gone? Though he first went ginseng hunting as a child with his grandfather, he purposefully hasn’t passed on his love of the root to his own grandchildren. So the ginseng theft represents not just a financial loss, but also a lost opportunity for new generations of Appalachians to learn about their heritage.  “I really … hesitate to have my granddaughters out in the woods,” he says, “with the poachers and the thieves that I’ve encountered, I don’t think it would be wise.”

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Scientists Call for Drastic Drop in Emissions. U.S. Appears to Have Gone the Other Way.

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A report by a private research company found that U.S. emissions, which amount to one-sixth of the planet’s, didn’t fall in 2018 but instead skyrocketed. The 3.4 percent jump for 2018, projected by the firm, would be second-largest surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. since Bill Clinton was president.

The signals are blaring: Dramatic changes to our climate are well upon us. These changes — we know thanks to a steady drumbeat of alarming official reports over the past 12 months — could cripple the U.S. economy, threaten to make vast stretches of our coastlines uninhabitable, make basic food supplies scarce and push millions of the planet’s poorest people into cities and across borders as they flee environmental perils.

All is not yet lost, we are told, but the demands of the moment are great. The resounding consensus of scientists, economists and analysts tells us that the solution lies in an unprecedented global effort to immediately and drastically drop carbon emissions levels. That drop is possible, but it will need to happen so fast that it will demand extraordinary commitment, resolve, innovation and, yes, sacrifice. The time we’ve got to work with, according to the United Nations, is a tad more than 10 years.

And so it stings particularly badly to learn from a new report released last week by the Rhodium Group, a private research company, that U.S. emissions — which amount to one-sixth of the planet’s — didn’t drop in 2018 but instead skyrocketed. The 3.4 percent jump in CO2 for 2018, projected by the Rhodium Group, would be second-largest surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the United States since 1996, when Bill Clinton was president.

The report notes that Americans consumed significantly more electricity in 2018 than in years past, and that demand for trucking (think shipping) and jet fuel (lots more people flew) also grew substantially. More alarming are the large jumps in U.S. emissions from industry and from buildings — which the report’s authors note are largely “ignored in clean energy and climate policymaking.” Heating and cooking-related emissions from old, often-inefficient buildings jumped 10 percent, in part due to a growing population and despite a warmer-than-average winter. As manufacturing was buoyed by the strong economy, the emissions the sector produced jumped by nearly 6 percent. The Rhodium Group forecasts those emissions will continue to grow.

Until now, it had seemed we were making modest, if insufficient, progress, largely, many experts declared, as coal-fired power plants were phased out and replaced with natural gas, which burns cleaner out of the smokestack. For two decades, U.S. emissions had been steadily dropping, chipping off more than 1 percent annually in most years since peaking in 2007. But the pace of the decline had been slowing and now threatens to put emissions reduction goals set by the Paris accord — to cut emissions to at least 26 percent less than 2005 levels by 2025 — out of reach.

There are plenty of reasons the Rhodium Group report’s conclusions aren’t particularly surprising. The rate of growth it describes dovetails with what the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted late last year: a roughly 3 percent rise in CO2 from U.S. sources. As far back as 2015, a flurry of academic research raised questions about whether the drop in U.S. emissions was indeed due to successful efforts to curb them or instead reflected the 2008-09 recession. At least one prominent study concluded that U.S. efforts to reduce emissions resulted mostly from economic decline, not other efforts. Even the increasing emissions from U.S. industries — the metric most cited from this week’s Rhodium Group research — may prove to be a red herring: Economists and climate scientists have long argued that global trade merely outsourced U.S. emissions.

In the meantime, some climate deniers — including some in the Trump administration — have seized on earlier reports of dropping emissions to argue that aggressive U.S. emissions controls aren’t necessary. “The economy is booming, energy production is surging, and we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote last October. “Federal regulations are not necessary to drive CO2 reductions.” That thinking was offered as partial justification for everything from the reversal of the Clean Power Plan to phase out coal-generated electricity to the relaxation of fuel economy standards for cars.

Last week’s emissions forecast is a reminder that, as John McArthur, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution recently wrote, “Every new unit of economic gain is still cranking out a corresponding unit of environmental pain.” That may be unlikely to change soon, and the “urgent” challenge for 2019, he writes, is to find palatable approaches to drastic emissions reductions that still allow for the kind of sustained economic growth the nation has been enjoying. Until or unless the economy can be decoupled from the emissions associated with driving it, the fastest way to curb CO2 is to produce — and buy and consume — less.

Correction, Jan. 11, 2019: This story originally misstated the jump in emissions in the industrial sector. The actual year-over-year increase in industrial emissions was 5.7 percent, not more than 300 percent (which refers to the increase in the rate of change for the sector).

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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Rural’s Connection to Environment Means Bigger Climate-Change Impact

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Mainstays of rural American culture and economy – such as timber, agriculture, tourism, ranching, hunting, fishing, winter sports – could see major disruptions from climate change. The impact will be big enough to disrupt the national economy, a federal report says.

Rural communities face clear economic and environmental risks from a changing climate, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.  

The report documents changes in the timing of seasons, temperature fluctuations, increased incidence of extreme weather and change in rainfall – all patterns with the potential disrupt rural economic activities.  

Climate change in rural communities poses an outsized risk to the national economy, the report says. 

Although the majority of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, most of the country is still classified as rural. In this map, counties are classified as rural if they do not include any cities with populations of 50,000 or more. (Figure source: USDA Economic Research Service).

“Rural America’s importance to the country’s economic and social well-being is disproportionate to its population, as rural areas provide natural resources that much of the rest of the United States depends on for food, energy, water, forests, recreation, national character, and quality of life,” the report stated.  

While not all regions face the same impacts due to increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the assessment explains how increased volumes of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will lead to changing climatic patterns. The report’s authors predict that changes will likely increase volatility in agricultural commodity markets, shift plant and animal ranges, increase the number and intensity of droughts and floods, and increase the number and size of wildfires throughout the rural landscape.  

Tourism is often climate-dependent as well as seasonally dependent. Increasing heat and humidity – projected for summers in the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Southwest by mid-century (compared to the period 1961-1990) – is likely to create unfavorable conditions for summertime outdoor recreation and tourism activity. The figures illustrate projected changes in climatic attractiveness (based on maximum daily temperature and minimum daily relative humidity, average daily temperature and relative humidity, precipitation, sunshine, and wind speed) in July for much of North America. In the coming century, the distribution of these conditions is projected to shift from acceptable to unfavorable across most of the southern Midwest and a portion of the Southeast, and from very good or good to acceptable conditions in northern portions of the Midwest, under a high emissions scenario. (Source: National Climate Assessment).

For portions of rural America with an economy based on agriculture, climate scientists are most worried about shifting geographic suitability of particular crops and abnormal timing for planting and harvest. These changes may result in additional use of herbicides and pesticides, which could create additional health risks from chemical applications. Crop and pasture yields and profitability could also be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events. Increased flooding could increase soil erosion and water pollution from agricultural runoff, according to the report.  

Rural communities with an economy based on recreation and tourism also face significant challenges due to climate change, according to the report. Rising seas could damage rural Florida’s multi-billion dollar recreational fishing sector and cause further ecological damage to the Everglades region.  

Coastal erosion and rising oceans throughout the nation could affect wildlife habitat, disrupting hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other wildlife-related activities. 

Rural places with significant winter recreation activities could face risks as snow-pack is expected to decrease.  

Forest-dependent rural communities are likely to face significant change as well. Forest geographies and species composition are likely to shift as the climate changes. The number of pests and disease will increase. These factors could decrease timber and pulp harvests in some places. Forest fires are also expected to continue to increase in number, intensity and cost.  

The report identifies certain demographic trends in rural communities that make climate change adaptation more difficult.  

“Modern rural populations are generally older, less affluent, and less educated than their urban counterparts. Rural areas are characterized by higher unemployment, more dependence on government transfer payments, less diversified economies, and fewer social and economic resources needed for resilience in the face of major changes,” the report states. That combination of an aging population with higher poverty rates increases vulnerability of rural people and places to changes in climate.  

“Emergency management, energy use and distribution systems, transportation and infrastructure planning, and public health will all be affected,” the study states. State, regional, local and tribal governments in rural communities tend to be under-funded and rely heavily on volunteers.  

“Even in communities where there is increasing awareness of climate change and interest in comprehensive adaptation planning, lack of funding, human resources, access to information, training, and expertise provide significant barriers for many rural communities,” the report concludes. 

This report is the fourth National Climate Assessment, and summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States. The report process was established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 and mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the president no less than every four years.  

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee developed the report. Scientists and researchers from federal, state and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector volunteered their time to produce the assessment. Information was gathered through a series of regional engagement workshops that reached more than 1,000 individuals in over 40 cities. Listening sessions, webinars and public comment periods also provided valuable input.  

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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When Losing 14 to 1 is a Win — Sort Of

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Matthew Ferrence is a writer and college professor who ran a 14-day write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state legislator. He got clobbered but finds something positive in the results. Photo: submitted by the author
A last-minute write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state representative yielded 900 official votes. It wasn’t nearly enough to win, but it was enough to show that there’s more to Appalachia than the average TV pundit claims.
Well, I didn’t win. Let’s get that out of the way.But on the night of November 6th, 2018, after launching a last-minute zero-budget Green Party write-in campaign against an unopposed Republican incumbent, in a Pennsylvania district that perpetually votes at about a 70 percent clip for even Republicans who get absolutely blasted in statewide races (see: gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, soundly defeated by Tom Wolfe), I wound up making a nearly 5 percent dent.

The how isn’t quite as important as they why, I think, but in brief: exactly two weeks before the election, I announced on Facebook my intention to mount a write-in campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, disgusted that for the fourth time in seven elections, the local incumbent — Brad Roae — faced literally no competition. Nobody squared off against him in the Republican primary and nobody ran on the Democratic ticket. In fact, only twice in his tenure has he faced opposition from Democrats, each of them throttled to the tune of 60-40 or thereabouts in the general election.

As an even sorrier indication of the state of political engagement in the rural part of Northwestern Pennsylvania where I live, only once has a Republican ever challenged him in a primary. It’s smooth sailing every two years, which leads to a tepid, basic and uninspiring legislative track record. Taxes are bad, he says. And, oh, let’s have some laws to weaken environmental protections for gas well drilling. He has made public media posts that appear to equate school boards to Hitler, and he has argued that state funding shouldn’t support students who major in “poetry or some other pre-Walmart major.”

Yeah, that’s who I lost to, my 900 votes or so to his 13,000. And that’s the guy who has gone to Harrisburg for more than a decade representing my home. Among the many things that gall me about his incumbency is the way that, outside of Appalachia, a lot of people would probably nod their heads and say, yup. Brad Roae is the kind of representative people think Appalachia embraces, is the kind of person so many non-Appalachians see as purely representative of who we are and what we stand for.

But here’s the thing. I’m finding hope in my two weeks as a candidate, and in the sudden flurry of interest and support. I ran because there had to be some opposition for democracy to have any chance at all, and when I did so I hoped I’d get 1 or 2 percent, not embarrass myself, shoot for the bar of 300 votes. That would be the same number of votes I would have needed as signatures to get on the ballot had I, say, planned ahead.

Then a funny thing happened. I started making videos introducing myself and my ideas, and put together a platform paper, and people started sharing these materials on Facebook, and I had to work through the anti-Russian Bot regulations the social media site now has so I could finally “boost” two of those posts on the morning of the election, and even before all that the organic sharing of an electorate dying for something, anything, that pushed against Appalachian political stereotypes meant 9,000 people had seen my stuff. Then, even though people had to first know I was running and then actually bother typing my name in, I fared okay. I earned about 65 votes for each day of my campaign. And I spent $50 on stickers, $20 on my Facebook ads.

Brad Roae poses in the Pennsylvania House chamber with Pennsylvania dairy princess LeeAnn Kapanick. Roae has represented the 6th House district since 2007. The district covers parts of Crawford and Erie counties in the state’s northwest corner. Photo: Pennsylvania State Legislature webpage

Official county returns compiled right before Thanksgiving gave me 851 votes. The Monday following, I reviewed the official computations and found another 60+, if I include misspellings like Matt Terrance and, Michael Ferrence, and Matthew Fetterman (for a voter who maybe confused me with our Democratic Lt. Governor candidate John Fetterman), and That Guy Whose Name Starts With F, as well as The Guy on Facebook Ask (name redacted), as well as a litany of close-but-no-cigar last names coupled with Matt or Matthew: Ferrer, Ferraro, Fetter, Farreah, Ferrenc, Ferrous, Ferris, Ferentz, Ferrick, and DeFerence. I got 14 votes in neighboring state districts, and four votes for the U.S. House Race. Among other write-ins, I beat a slew of names that received a single vote or a handful, tough competitors like Brad Roae (who a few people wrote in, even though he was on the ballot), Stephen Colbert, Anyone But Him, Anyone Else, Jesus, God, and Red Breasted Nuthatch.

Look, my day job is writing and teaching. I’m a professor at a small liberal arts college, chair of the Department of English, writer and teacher of creative nonfiction. I was born in southwestern Pennsylvania, among the played out coal fields and strip mines an hour east of Pittsburgh. I earned a Ph.D. at West Virginia University, where I specialized in Appalachian literature. I wrote a memoir about my brain tumor, and the geology of the Allegheny Plateau, and the curious exile of inhabiting the weird position of Northern Appalachian, which means you’re not quite normal American and not quite Appalachian. None of that adds up to politician, but all of it adds up to frustration. I’ve spent most of my life, other than brief adult stints in Arizona and France, living in a region that skews way right, even as that right continues to exploit and degrade the people and place. All Appalachia ever has been allowed to be is exploited. That’s it. And that’s all the rhetoric of the GOP offers, when you boil it down. Let’s Make America Great Again, like when black lung wrecked lives on the regular and, newsflash, is now roaring back to life since the unions have been busted, and the economy of the region stayed busted, so the people crawled down into mines without the protections hard fought with blood and love by the striking workers of Blair Mountain, and the striking workers of Pittsburgh steel, and the striking auto workers of the Rust Belt.

Ferrence knocked on some doors and created a Facebook page to promote his campaign. He did several short videos to explain why he ran and discuss issues. Photo: Matthew Ferrence for PA House, District 6 Facebook page

Public historian Elizabeth Catte gets it right (she’s the author of “What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia”) when she argues that Appalachians have been socialists all along. They just don’t know it. They gathered together. They fought the power of industrial dominion. They powered America with their coal, yes, but they also fueled the national movement for respect and dignity for labor. Then the GOP figured out how to weaponize hatred and fear, and there you go. You get Joe Manchin, alleged Democrat. And you get a region that votes more than 2/3 for Trump and Trump-esque troglodytes like Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, who claims that global warming is probably just accumulated body heat from a larger human population or happens because the earth is getting closer to the sun, and campaigns by saying he’ll dance on the governor’s face while wearing golf spikes.

It boils down to this: I am so tired of waking up on November Wednesdays in Appalachia, seeing election results and, worse, national punditry that says this is all we are and all we’ll ever be. The election map of my state is bright red, other than around a few urban centers, just like most of Appalachia. That seems to translate to the same conclusion we get over and over and over again: dumb hillbillies voting for the worst. That conclusion seems to be supported by the simple math of our state politics, where more than half of state legislators run unopposed in their general elections, and our incumbency rate is about 90 percent. Few candidates ever put up a fight to change that.

So what’s an Appalachian creative writing professor to do? You run a last-ditch campaign. You tilt against the windmills in a manner that is both impotent (because you get crushed at the polls) and, at least for me, hopeful. Because having a choice, any choice, other than the incumbent mattered to the 2,000 people who either voted for me or tossed in a symbolic protest write-in. Because people stopped me when I walked by, and messaged me on Facebook, and were angry when they learned about the campaign only after they voted because, damn it, they couldn’t vote for the incumbent, and leaving it blank is just what the GOP has wanted for so long. The story of Appalachian politics has been about that blankness, a cultivation of the sense — and you can read this in almost every national outlet at some point in the last two years, usually with a quote from that faux-Appalachian pseudo-pundit J.D. Vance — that there’s nothing but right-wing fools in these hills and hollers. Appalachia is given up for dead again, this time just as a tarnished example of the hatred and backwardness of politics in this strange, strange land.

That’s just not how it is. That’s not the Appalachia I know nor the one I saw in my brief campaign. Heck, I ran this mini-campaign focused specifically on lefty sustainability, as in ecology and tree-hugging, as well as economies that stop repeating the boom-bust cycles of our past, and I drew a mighty good swipe of votes all at once, in the end. There are a lot of people in my county who believe in the value of the environment, and the necessity of fine educations, and the rightness of universal healthcare, and the imperative of social justice, and the glory of love in all its forms. There are progressives in these hills, you know. And a lot of them, but also a lot who hear those same old stories and worry about what the neighbors will think, so they don’t vote, or accept the inevitability of political monoculture. Thus the slam happens again. And again. And again. Unopposed Republican. Platforms of no taxes. Tacit acceptance of the Confederate Battle Flags that flutter on too many once-Union farmhouses.

Yeah, I got creamed. But I think we also won something that night. And we’ll keep coming back for more, riding a blue wave tinged with green, fighting for a change in the rural center of America that so many figure is lost forever. You know the joke, about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and a lot of Alabama in between. Well, Alabama has a Democratic Senator, and so does Pennsylvania. We can do more, do better, push against the dogged stupidity of a right-wing cultural war that makes us all weaker and worse off. We can step into these races, and we can square off and say, hit me, and we can get hit, and eventually we can win. I know I’ll give it another shot – with my name printed on the ballot next time. I’ll need at least a couple of months next time, to get enough votes to be competitive, if history holds. But I’ll vow, and I hope others will too, that no one gets to run unopposed anymore. No one gets to spit out tired political bullshit and not get called out. This is our Appalachia too.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder

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