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Inside Appalachia

Possum in Kentucky Artist’s Mural Reveals Complicated Connection to Marsupial’s Symbolism

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Possum and pokeweed mural designed by Lacy Hale in Harlan, Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy of Lacy Hale

Scavenger. Trash animal. Chicken killer. Hero. People here in Appalachia have lots of feelings when it comes to opossums — or “possums” as some people call them. A town in Harlan County, Kentucky, found this out first-hand when they decided to feature a possum on a mural in their downtown.

It was a clear, sunny day in May and Lacy Hale was putting the finishing touches on a mural destined for a brick wall in downtown Harlan, Kentucky.

Panels of mural fabric sprawled across the floor of Hale’s workspace. She walked barefoot, bent over, creating sweeping brushstrokes of vibrant greens and deep purples. 

Lacy Hale puts the finishing touches on the mural in her workspace in Whitesburg, Kentucky before it is installed in Harlan, Kentucky. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

“You know, possums are everywhere. You see them all the time when you’re driving around,” Hale explained. “They kill ticks, they kill snakes. They’re North America’s only marsupial. So I thought they were super cool animals.”

Hale worked with high school students and other community partners on the project, which was spearheaded by Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College’s Appalachian Program. Robert Gipe, a staff member of the Appalachian Program, explained that they sought community input on the mural design. “We did a long community engagement process for several months, and we had people giving us ideas for murals all over the county,” Gipe said.

Community partners Carrie Billett (left) and April Collins (right) install the mural on the side of Sassy Trash, a retail shop owned by April and her husband Paul Collins in Harlan, Kentucky. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

Based on that input, they chose local plants and animals as the mural’s theme. They decided to feature pokeweed as a nod to Harlan’s annual Poke Sallet Festival, which celebrates a dish made from the plant’s leafy greens.

Hale researched pokeweed and found that it relies on certain animals to spread its seeds.

“One of the biggest proponents of that was the possum, when I was reading about it,” Hale said. Possums are one of the only mammals that can tolerate the berries’ toxins.  

In the mural, a baby possum hangs by its tail from the pokeweed’s purple stem.

‘There Were Just a Lot of Feelings’

This isn’t the first time that possums have been favorably featured in eastern Kentucky’s music and art. For example, WMMT-FM, out of Whitesburg, is fondly nicknamed “Possum Radio.” But not everybody feels so warmly toward these creatures.

A painting of a possum hovers above the on-air studio at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which is nicknamed “Possum Radio.” Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

When Knott County, Kentucky, named the possum their official animal in 1986, some took offense. In a letter to the editor of the local paper, one reader wrote:

“My personal opinion is that an opossum is a very low and unintelligent animal. A scavenger is a better word. This action insults the intelligence of our county and Appalachian area, which we should all love.” 

When Gipe showed a draft of the mural to college students in his Appalachian Studies class, the possum caused a bit of a stir. 

“They felt that this possum would be perceived as a representation of our community and of them. And that they had had negative associations with possums due to [it] often being found dead in the road and in their trash cans. Maybe its rodent-like nature, that seemed to come up in some of the students’ responses. But there were just a lot of feelings,” Gipe said.

When Hale heard about some of the negative reactions to the possum, she was surprised. 

“I was completely shocked because I’ve never really encountered anybody that’s been so vehemently against an animal being in a piece of artwork,” she said.

Hale learned that people associate possums with negative stereotypes about hillbillies that often appear in popular media. For example, the 1960s television show The Beverly Hillbillies regularly featured bits about eating possum.

‘They’re Resilient’

But increasingly, artists from within the region are turning those negative associations inside out. Artists like Raina Rue, the creative force behind Juniper Moon Folk Arts. Rue’s currently based in Winchester, Kentucky, but hails from Irvine.

Raina Rue, of Juniper Moon Folk Arts, sifts through a suitcase full of pins that she designs and makes at her home in Winchester, Kentucky. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

She describes her work as “a weird ‘lil hodgepodge of rural queer art you can wear.” Her pins feature pawpaws, rainbows and morel mushrooms, with phrases like “homegrown in the holler,” and “kudzu queer.”  

“My top sellers are my possums. I sell more possums than anything else. Which I love. It makes me so happy,” Rue said. 

Some of the possums are cute and cuddly, some look tough and ornery. One hangs from a rainbow flag by its tail, another sports a red bandana around its neck.  

Amid pins that feature images and words of rural-ness and queer-ness is a possum pin, all by Raina Rue of Juniper Moon Folk Arts. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

Rue’s favorite possum design is her most recent. 

“He’s punk and he’s wearing a vest that says homesick on the back and he’s crying and smoking a cigarette in a trashy alley.”  Rue calls him the Homesick Possum. “It’s kind of like a little ode to displaced country folk,” she said.

It’s also a tribute to Appalachia’s DIY arts and punk communities, some of which are embracing the underdog animal as a kind of mascot. 

For Rue, the misunderstood possum is more than just a cute, weird little creature. 

“They’re resilient, they don’t need any sort of special surroundings to live in,” Rue said. “They can live under a truck, or in the woods in a hole in a tree. And I guess I can relate resiliency, scrappiness, all those things to where I come from and the kind of people that I come from.”

Hale also hopes more people will begin to think possums are awesome. “I would like to see them appreciated for what they are,” she said.

And her wish seems to be coming true, as possums are popping up on jewelry and T-shirts, as tattoos, in memes that possum fans share on social media and on the now-colorful wall in downtown Harlan.

As Hale put it, “Possums are in, possums are it, possums are the thing.”

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia  Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virignia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stores of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.

Inside Appalachia

How Fly Fishing Saved a Veteran’s Life

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Kyle Chanitz ties a fly at his home studio in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Army veteran Kyle Chanitz spent two and a half years deployed in Afghanistan, where he saw intense fighting and suffered concussions that led to seizures. When he returned to the U.S., he started taking college classes, but then dropped out to follow the jam band Phish around the country.

INside Appalachia’s story: how fishing and tying flies turned a veteran’s life around.

He spent 18 months on the road, got into drugs and spiraled out of control. 

“I had eight accidental heroin overdoses in a year,” Chanitz said. “And the whole time it was like, man, I don’t want to be doing this.”

Then one day, Chanitz was driving through Richmond, Virginia, on his way to the beach when he said he saw a sign for a Veterans Affairs hospital. He was in the midst of a methamphetamine binge and felt suicidal. Chanitz pulled over at a Walmart and convinced his meth-maker, who was riding with him, to get out of the car. Then he drove off to check himself into the hospital.

The VA moved him to a facility in Salem, Virginia, which sits at the eastern gateway to central Appalachia. After rehab, Chanitz tried to settle into life in the Roanoke Valley. He spent a lot of time in programs for disabled vets. He was learning how to garden when someone told him about Project Healing Waters, a fly-fishing program for disabled vets. 

“We take vets that have never fished, and we walk them into the middle of the river, and it just washes over them,” said Bob Crawshaw, a Navy veteran who works with Project Healing Waters. “They just relax. They just go … whoooooooo.”

The program is designed to tap into the veterans’ situational awareness—the training that soldiers need to stay alive in a combat situation, but which can become intolerable when they return home to civilian life. In Afghanistan, Chanitz was usually the first guy through the door when his unit was searching for enemy combatants. He was trained to immediately process his surroundings and detect potential threats — a stray wire, a person holding a gun or knife. 

But you can’t just turn that off after leaving the military. Even today, seven years after he got out of the Army, Chanitz said his eyes still dart around, followed by his arms and upper torso. It’s the muscle memory of maneuvering with a bullet-proof vest and rifle.

Crawshaw said that fly fishing takes those instincts and applies them to a serene, peaceful environment. 

Kyle Chanitz makes a gear change while fishing on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On the banks of Wolf Creek, in Bland County, Virginia, Chanitz watched for insects in the air and on the water, then used that information to choose a lure that mimics what’s he’s saw.

“So you see that right there on top of the water?” Chanitz said as he waded through Wolf Creek. “That’s a crane fly. I have a lot of crane fly imitations.”

Chanitz enjoyed fly-fishing and fly-tying so much that he got obsessed. He quickly got bored in the classes at the VA. He started watching Youtube videos to learn new fly-making techniques. He bought tons of gear and went fishing every week. 

Fishing also provided Chanitz an outlet to connect with other veterans. Some of them took him under their wing and became mentors. That’s how he met his future wife, Jessica.

“My dad kind of took him under his wing, which my dad does,” Jessica Chanitz said. “He’s that kind of person. But there was always something special about Kyle.”

Kyle and Jessica Chanitz married and bought a house in Roanoke. Fly-fishing and fly-tying have been part of their relationship since the beginning.

“I think at this point I know more about fly fishing and fly tying than a lot of people,” Jessica Chanitz said. “I’ve slowly gotten used to the names of the material. He can tell me about a fly and the material he’s using or the hooks he’s using, and I can visualize pretty well what he’s talking about.”

The cluttered desk in Kyle Chanitz’s fly-tying studio at his home in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Chanitz blends old-school and new-school techniques to make flies that are utterly his. For example, he’ll use a modern, neon-colored synthetic thread but mix it with natural feathers, all tied in a traditional way. He’s also developed a special blend of glues to secure his eyes on lures, which gives them extra action in the water and makes them more attractive to fish. 

His fly-tying workshop takes up a sizable room on the second floor in the Chanitz house. Both Kyle and Jessica Chanitz spend a lot of time here—he tying fishing flies and her making jewelry, including with Kyle’s old flies.

“I get kind of my own little bit of my own little creativity,” Jessica said. “I don’t have his creativity, but I take something that’s very much a sport into something that has some beauty to it.”

Jessica Chantiz displays a necklace she made out of one of her husband Kyle’s old flies. Photo by Mason Adams. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Kyle and Jessica Chanitz sell their creations online mostly through social media, but it’s not their main source of income.

Kyle has benefitted from his interest in fishing and tying flies, but he’s also paid it forward by working with other vets, like Moir Edwards, another military veteran who also loves fishing. Edwards served 20 years in the Air Force as a mechanic. He learned to tie flies by reading books, but then he found Project Healing Waters, where he met Chanitz.

Kyle Chanitz (left) talks with fellow veteran Moir Edwards (right) on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Kyle has given me some flies that he tied,” Edwards said. “I try to imitate them. He’ll come in sometimes and he’ll just say, ‘Here’s a fly.’ You take it.”

This story is part of our Folklife Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folklife Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Inside Appalachia

Mountain State Mead Makers Provide a Taste of Appalachia

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Mountain Dragon Mazery makes nine varieties of mead. Photo: Larry Dowling, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Mountain Dragon Mazery co-founders Ruthann Smith and Tom Maltby began making honey wine — or mead — more than two decades ago as a way to marry their love of old-world traditions with their love of honey. Five years ago, they opened a tasting room and custom-made micro-factory to produce and bottle nine varieties of mead on a commercial scale. They’re part of the fastest-growing sector of the alcoholic beverage industry in the U.S.

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“I’ve been a beekeeper since I was three and alcohol making has always interested me,” explains Maltby, who sports a long, grey-streaked beard and brown leather fedora with feathers.

At its core mead is simply water, honey and yeast, mixed together and left to ferment, but the beverage can take many forms. Fruit, spices, rose petals and more can be added to create different varieties. Mountain Dragon Mazery, for example, specializes in a style of mead that is dry, which makes for easy drinking.

Tom Maltby checks on fermenting mead. Photo: Larry Dowling, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Historians have found evidence that honey wine was made by communities around the world thousands of years ago, something Smith and Maltby have embraced. Their blue glass bottles of mead are adorned with a dragon and red-haired maiden logo. Inside their tasting room and factory ⁠— an old neighborhood bar in Fairmont, West Virginia, that has been repurposed ⁠— a large black and orange dragon kite hangs near the bar.

“It’s been really neat to bring to the local community, and West Virginia in general, an old-world craft to the modern times,” Smith said.

In the decades since Smith and Maltby began experimenting with mead in their kitchen, the beverage, often associated with Vikings and medieval feasts, has experienced a modern-day revival. In 2000, there were less than 100 commercial meaderies nationwide, according to the American Mead Makers Association. Today, the trade group estimates a new meadery opens, on average, every three days.

“When we first opened the people would come in and say, ‘you’re making alcohol out of honey — are you sure that works?’” Maltby said. “And now we have people searching for us, sometimes driving from several cities away.”

Appalachia’s unique geography plays an especially important role in the mead crafted in West Virginia. That’s because honey, the core ingredient for mead, tastes different depending on what plants and flowers the bees had access to.

Honey, It’s Important

Maltby checks on a new hive. Photo: Brittany Patterson, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

At their farmhouse just a few miles away, Maltby tends to the hives of bees that make the honey used in Mountain Dragon Mazery’s mead. Each 60-gallon batch of mead requires 10 gallons of honey.

As their mead operation has grown, Smith and Maltby have moved most of their hives to the care of another beekeeper in the state. Four hives remain at the farmhouse.

“I believe that the Mountain State is making some of the best honey left in the world,” Maltby said. “Partly because we’re so far from primary sources of agriculture and chemical pollutants. Here we make forest honeys instead of agricultural honeys.”

Bees make honey by extracting sugary nectar from flowering plants and storing it inside a honeycomb. West Virginia’s diverse geography, mountainous terrain and relatively small farms mean that the nectar collected by bees here can be quite diverse. That changes the way honey tastes and one’s mead will taste, said Josh Bennett, owner and founder of Hawk Knob Cider and Mead.

“If you’re a beekeeper and trying to make meads from locally sourced honey you’re going to have the essence of your region in your mead,” he said. “That’s going to be dependent upon when that honey was harvested by the bees and the little microclimate that it was in, but specifically related to your local flora.”

Bennett said the types of tree and plant species in the local forest or region change the taste.

“Here in the mountains you’ve got bees away from large swathes of monoculture,” he said. “Appalachia has a lot to offer in that way and the diversity of the biosphere that we have here.”

Versatile Beverage

Hawk Knob’s barrel-aged cyser mead. Photo: Brittany Patterson, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s also a diverse drink.

“You can have something herbal, something fruity, something sweet, something dry,” Bennett said. “You can hop it up like a beer, or you can age it like wine, and there’s just a lot of versatility. You can create a lot of different types of beverages within the realm of mead.”

Mead’s versatility is both a blessing and a curse for modern day mead makers, said Rowe, with the American Mead Makers Association.

On a regulatory front, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates mead as a wine, which Rowe argues is not broad enough to cover the variations on the beverage, which can range in alcohol by volume (more commonly known as ABV) from under 4 percent to upwards of 20 percent.

“We have a segment that aligns more accurately with what the cider people or what the craft beer people are doing, and yet we’re still clumped under wine,” she said.

Because meaderies aren’t individually tracked like cider and beer is by federal regulators, new mead makers face barriers in applying for loans with up-to-date growth numbers for the industry.

And the wide variation among mead often means mead makers, like Mountain Dragon Mazery, often find themselves educating patrons about the craft beverage.

On a recent weekday, Smith gives a full tasting to the Menjivar family who stopped into the tasting room while on vacation.

Smith pours a blush-colored liquid into a small plastic cup. This variety of mead is called a Rhodomel, which is fairly unique. It’s made with wild tea roses harvested at their home along the Monongahela River and fermented with wildflower honey.

Paty Menjivar, the family matriarch, said she wasn’t sure what to expect but was curious about honey wine. She takes a sip.

“It’s really good,” she said. “Really good.”

This story is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring the alcohol culture and industry in Appalachia. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Inside Appalachia

Craft Brewers Work With Farmers For Unique Ingredients

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Craft breweries are popping up all over the region. In West Virginia alone, there are 27 breweries and three quarters of them opened in the last five years.

Sam Fonda, from Weathered Ground Brewery in Raleigh County, West Virginia, has almost 3,000 gallons of soon-to-be-beer fermenting and another 1,000 gallons aging in oak barrels nearby at any given time. That may sound like a lot, but his typical batch is 220 gallons, and that gives him the chance to experiment.

In addition to the basics of water, malted grains, hops and yeast, small craft brewers all over the region are experimenting with locally sourced ingredients to give their beers a unique flavor. Today, you can find West Virginia beers that contain traces of coffee, berries — even tree branches.

Sam Fonda adding malt from North Carolina into a recent batch of beer. Photo: Janet Kunicki/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Weathered Ground buys malted grains from the mountains of North Carolina, as well as hops, fruit, and flavorings from local farmers. Working with his neighbors is a source of pride for Sam.

“That’s why using local is so much fun. Because you can have this personal relationship with your suppliers. It’s almost always more expensive. Sometimes double really, but that’s just kind of the price you pay for doing what you want to do. So, we’re happy to pay a little more for the flavor we’re going to, as well as supporting local,” Fonda said.

One of Fonda’s suppliers is JR Ward, a hop farmer and full-time underground coal miner who lives just 20 miles or so down the road in Fairdale. JR loves the farm he has built, with 3,000 square feet of vegetable garden and a quarter acre of hops.

“Years ago, I couldn’t tell you what a hop was, didn’t even know they looked like, did not like craft beer. Then what really made me going forward was a few years ago we had layoffs in the mines and the hard times and I never want to leave here because this is just a piece of heaven to me. And it’s beautiful land, I just started looking into stuff and hops caught my attention,” Ward said.

He currently supplies Weathered Ground with enough hops for 440 gallons of beer in two batches. They are: “Lost Ridge Pale Ale,” named for JR’s farm, and the second is a nod to JR’s other job. It’s called “Hop Farmin’ Miner.”

JR Ward stands in front of his hop yard. Over the next few months, the hops will grow up the ropes behind him and will be ready for harvest. Photo: Eric Douglas/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Starting next year, he plans to expand to five full acres of hop yard on his property and is working with a friend to plant an additional five acres on a nearby farm. That will make Lost Ridge Farms one of the largest hop growers in the state.

Besides hops, Weathered Ground sources local fruits and just about anything that tastes good according to Sam Fonda.

“We brewed an IPA a few weeks ago with birch branches, and then the flavor that comes from birch just unreal, so a lot of people don’t think about that kind of thing when they think about beer, but back in the day, that’s kind of what beer was, what materials do you have on hand,” Fonda said.There is a growing movement throughout Appalachia for beverage makers to use locally sourced ingredients. It may cost more, but brewers like Sam Fonda believe in the process and so far, they’ve been successful using that business model.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring the alcohol culture and industry in Appalachia. 

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