Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

What makes for a healthy rural community? Is there even room for such a thought in this world where it sometimes seems that any truly rural community is by definition under-developed, deficient, abandoned, lacking in dynamism, behind the curve, back-ward, almost horrifying to the sensibilities of the global capitalist elite. Its inhabitants are the subject of barely concealed scorn, or perhaps ambiguously romanticized as throwbacks to a kinder, gentler, less complex time. Either way they are not seen as full citizens and actors in the present political and economic moment, and often rural communities are seen as white savior projects – they must be saved from their truculence by some kind of development or program.

Or, if a rural area is fully integrated into the global economy, this has occurred, all too often, at the cost of its habitability. Giant fields or greenhouses tended by immigrant workers or, increasingly, robotic machinery. No one lives there. Not even the managers of workers or machinery, who commute from a nearby city perhaps. Different kinds of dystopia.

What makes a healthy rural community?

Are there any such communities left in the US? In the world? Or have they all been devastated over the last hundred or so years by the intensifying logic of global capitalism? I like to think that there are little nameless, unknown places that by some luck of terrain and politics have managed to survive whole and real. But I doubt such places really exist. There is probably not a single spot on Earth in the habitable zone that has not been scarred by the extraction and commodification of its natural resources, no community that has not been turned into a source of labor for mine or farm or factory or clearcut.

Perhaps we can only answer the question of what makes a healthy rural community if we understand the forces that have destroyed their health over time. Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow undertakes this task in unearthing the history of Appalachia beginning with the arrival of Europeans settlers. Stoll’s history, it must be remembered, begins after the denouement of another history, in the empty forests that resulted from the devastation of indigenous communities by disease and dispossession. These native communities may have had rural characteristics but can hardly be classified by the rural-urban nexus that is characteristic of European societies.

Did the early European settlers live more or less as natives to Appalachia? Could they be called a healthy rural community? Certainly not by current standards, with our high expectations of access to medical care, educational opportunities, and consumer choice. But on their own terms they could be said to have been successful. The early settlers of Appalachia moved into the forested hills and verdant hollows of Appalachia, whether as squatters on the vast land grants bestowed by a distant English king upon his equally distant nobility, or with some form of legal title granted by the states of a nascent US. These European settlers created a backwoods economy and society that, by drawing on the wild resources of the forest – hunting game and gathering wild foods such as the ramps, or wild onions, of the book’s title – as well as planting gardens for home consumption and small-scale commodity cropping, was successful in supporting back-woods families for decades. By distilling a portion of their grain crops into spirits they were also able to participate in trade for currency in order to buy the few items that needed to be purchased off-farm.

This trade in whiskey was a small but important part of the backwoods household economies. Other than whiskey, however, these homesteads produced little besides their own reproduction. Which, for Alexander Hamilton, was a problem. The Founding Father wanted to build a dynamic, powerful democratic nation and backwood subsistence households contributed nothing to the ability of of the infant republic, continually under threat by British imperial power, to ensure its own continuity and national stature. Hamilton proposed a tax on spirits, and chaos ensued in Appalachia as subsistence farmers fought against the intrusion of a heavy-handed bureaucratic apparatus into their back-country economy. Tax collectors were kidnapped, tarred and feathered, murdered. Hamilton raised and personally led an army of 13,000 militia-men to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.

And it just got worse from there. Next came the land speculators who, working the legal machinery in flat-land state capitols, came to evict Appalachian homesteaders in order to perfect their titles. Coal was discovered under the forested hills which led to the incursion of railroads, and the clear-cutting of the forests using steam-powered skidders. Deprived of a land base and the wild resources of the forest homesteaders were lured and driven into coal-mining camps, which offered scant refuge from the economic forces that were ravaging Appalachia. Attempts were made along the way to better conditions in Appalachia, with model mining camps, New Deal programs, and development projects, but Appalachia still suffers today from corporate extraction of its resources, such as hill-top removal coal mining, and by being left behind by a national economy driven by the cities of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Despite its suffering it still exists, mired in impossible conditions, vulnerable to every form of depredation from corporate America, from big-box stores to pharmaceutical marketing to industrial pollution. Yet Appalachia still stubbornly survives.

Stoll’s history concludes his history of Appalachia with proposed legislation – “more a thought experiment than ready-made policy” – called The Commons Community Act which offers a framework for reconnecting communities to their resource base through economic governance of common resources. “The act seeks to preserve and encourage a makeshift economy that has been practiced for two centuries among mountain farmers, as well as among people in other parts of the United States.” (275). Stoll also compares what has happened in Appalachia to current corporate land grabs in Mali and other agrarian communities. The dispossession continues. Rural communities are being preyed upon as we speak.

When I look to my own neighborhood, the small towns of the district of Ka’u, I see many parallels to Appalachia – the loss of a land base by native communities, the infantilization of communities that results from generations of being company towns for distant corporations, the stripping of soil by a hundred years of highly extractive sugar-cane cultivation, the despair that resulted when the sugar-cane plantation went out of business twenty-five years ago. Also the resilience, however problematic and partial and often tragic.

I would agree that reconnecting the community to its resource base is critical. How to go about it with what little economic and political resources our small communities can muster is the question. I appreciate Stoll’s attempt to write policy, however incongruous it may be in a work of history; it is an attempt to engage with the present, to offer one possible tool to the project of restoring some degree of health to ravaged, abandoned communities.

5 Replies to “Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia”

  1. Living fairly close to Appalachia, but not close enough to ‘taste’ what it would be like to live within it… I have mixed feelings about these matters.

    One can quite easily demonstrate that some people have despoiled almost any landscape you can mention. And if we’re honest we can take a hard look at some practices among First Peoples in their handling of the habitats they called home. Of course modern technology enables us to be dramatically more destructive than those we’ve replaced. But within our modern toolbox we also have the means to regenerate and approach some sort of healing.

    J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes to mind when I consider what those of us close to but outside Appalachia might concern ourselves with whenever we look to make matters better.

    But I also have a feeling there are some matters better left alone (by outsiders). I don’t feel a need to project onto others any sort of system just because I personally feel it might be appropriate. It’s complicated.

    So I’m quite fascinated by your example – as an inside member of a community taking on issues you are concerned with. Making the effort toward betterment. Complicated or not; with no effort, no result.

    1. Thanks Clem, I agree that outsiders coming to help without a deep understanding and respect for what is already there usually doesn’t work out too well.

  2. This is a superb reflection on Stoll’s book and the peek into a sustained way of life in the Appalachian backwoods is really tantalizing. Does the author mention Elinor Ostrom and her work on managing common resources? Turns out the ‘tragedy of commons’ was predicated on a universalized homo economicus, that cypher of rational self-interest, whereas all else being equal people prefer to share and successfully manage land whose health and diversity they are invested in. Problem is all else isn’t equal and would-be sharers on the ground are actual enemies in the eyes of tax-grabbers, strip-miners, plantation owners, forest-ravagers and all that profit-maximizing malarkey. Community-destruction (and disconnection from the land) is the intruders’ first and favourite tactic, ergo community-building (and reconnection with the land) is a huge part of the way back.

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