Deep in the hollows of Southern West Virginia, on steep slopes, and along narrow river valleys, there still live a few hardy individuals who have spent their lives virtually within a few hundred yards of where they were born and grew up, often within sight of their family’s old homeplace.
Like most of us, these folks have a special bond with their backwoods homesteads, the lush forests, crystal streams, and the abundance of wildlife.
Most of them would probably tell you if you asked them, “The mountains just had a hold on me, a tight hold and wouldn’t let go for nothing,” even while acknowledging their own hardscrabble way of life, their occasional loneliness and feelings of isolation, and their poverty, especially their poverty in what they call “a land of plenty.”
Despite those hardships that confront them daily, these mountain people have chosen to remain “being part of the land.”
Even as a youngster growing up in the state’s southern coalfields, I sensed the magnetism of the mountains for the people who chose to live among them. Years later, after I wed the girl of my dreams and graduated from college, my affinity for the hills became even more apparent.
Perhaps the attraction of the mountains stems from the feeling of strength they impart, offering security to those who share the valleys, coves, slopes, ridges, and dales of the emerald elevations.
Or it might come from a desire of the people to hold on to a simple, easy, and honest and forthright lifestyle—to dwell in the privacy and safety of a ridge or hollow can offer, something outsiders might think of as isolation, separation, or seclusion.
Perhaps the spell the mountains cast on those who prefer to live there comes from the serenity they evoke, a serenity often enhanced by small things known to every mountaineer: moonlight ridges set against a canopy of stars; the lingering echo of a locomotive whistle and the rumble of a train breaking the stillness of a valley at midnight; the lingering song of a whippoorwill, as evening shadows fall, signaling that it is corn-planting season; rolling thunder and striking lightning in the approach of an April storm; the gold and red and yellow leaves that cover the hills in early fall; the quietness of solitude among the fireflies darting and dipping through willow branches when evening shadows fall; the crystalline frost on top of a far-off ridge; or the early spring love-notes of tree frogs after a rain.
Simply explained another way, it is the sensitivity of those who listen intently when others are speaking, the compassion through glimpses into the lives of proud Americans who would never think of calling another human being a racist or a bigot.
“It’s just not in our vocabulary,” says David L. Godfrey of Hanover in Wyoming County. “We have no use for words like that. They just do not apply to our lifestyle and our relationships in the community. You will not hear that kind of talk from local people. They would have more self-respect than to say things that have virtually no meaning in our neck of the woods.”
Godfrey, a storeowner, has guided many of his customers and friends in the use of Appalachian etiquette and ethics for many years. “We have a strong spirit of independence that seems instinctive in the people who live and work around here,” he said. “We also have a sense of freedom that might not exist in other parts of the country. It applies to all hill people.”
Godfrey is a man with purpose. He has made and lost fortunes during his career as a retail store and lumber yard owner. Two summer floods back-to-back a few years ago washed away prime lumber valued at an estimated $500,000.
Yet the intrepid entrepreneur is undaunted. “When you’ve been in business as long as my family has, you learn to take the bitter with the sweet,” he said. “I’ve been lucky, I guess. But I prefer to call it a blessing. I worked hard to help my family and friends. I cannot tell you how many other people I helped get into business. By doing that, I helped myself as well as my community.”
We all cherish glimpses into lives that reflect a strong spirit of independence that seems instilled in those who live there and even reflects a magnetism and sense of freedom.
Perhaps our attraction to mountain folk stems from the feeling of strength they impart, offering security to those of us who share their secret longings for the valleys, coves and slopes that haunt us in our dreams.
Or, perhaps it is a collective yearning to hold on to a simple, leisurely way of life—to rest among the sycamores, elms, and birches along a remote river trail, to revel in the privacy a hollow retreat can offer, something strangers might even look upon as solitude.
“Living in America with change and uncertainty has caused the masses to grab hold of what they know—that is, what they think they know with certainty,” Godfrey explained.
“Many citizens feel victimized because they are no longer in control of their surroundings. They would rather connect with the land where they can shape their space with their own hands and sustain their values and traditions in a place where they can participate with dignity.”
Top o’ the morning!