I’m from here. Yeah, I know it’s surprising. I attended a meeting a few weeks ago where we were all asked to state our name and how long we’ve lived here. The first person announced that she’s from Greensboro, a North Carolina native. Probably the only one, she added sheepishly. The other people gathered around the long tables were outlanders, folks who’ve moved here from somewhere else—Florida, New York, Atlanta.
Then it was my turn. “I’m Byron Ballard, and I’ve lived here for 51 years.” I watched their faces as they looked at me and did the math. “Well, off and on. I did my graduate work in Dallas and lived in London for a bit.” The circle of faces still regarded me curiously. “But I’m not really from Asheville.” They visibly relaxed. “I’m from Enka-Candler. EHS class of ‘74: Go Jets!” My 30-second intro was done and we moved to the next person. She was from Connecticut, as I recall.
People get confused when they meet me, because I don’t have a strong regional accent. I also practice a minority religion that usually brands me as a kook from California. And I wear shoes, even in the summer. I do have bad teeth, though, despite the best efforts of a wonderful periodontist, so that part of the hillbilly stereotype holds. I think if I reach the age of 60, I’ll take up smoking a corncob pipe.
Last month I attended a folklore conference at Harvard, where I presented a paper on traditional Appalachian healing modalities. I called it “Hillbilly Hoodoo and the Question of Cultural Strip Mining.” An Appalachian witch and a writer, I was dubbed an “independent visiting scholar” and spent a gloriously heady weekend with other bright people who presented papers in their chosen fields. And in the irony department, I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast that was in a house previously owned by Al Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner. Woo-doggies.
University professors and researchers asked me questions about mountain charms and healing techniques, and I enjoyed telling them about how folks cured ills in the days before Merck and Pfizer. But they were not surprised to hear that the culture itself is thinning, that this knowledge is being lost as more and more people assimilate into the dominant culture. They’ve seen it the world over. They’ve also seen the next logical step: when people from outside the culture come in to “learn” the native lore and techniques. The hungry outlanders are not necessarily respectful of the culture, but they prize the information, the knowledge that comes from generations of living on the land and making do. They suck up what they find appealing about the culture and let the rest fall away or die beneath the wheels of progress.
I am indebted to mountain philosopher and storyteller Marilyn McMinn-McCredie, who calls this “cultural strip-mining” because the culture itself gains little from the exchange and, in fact, gives up precious material that leaves it weaker than before. She likens it to mountaintop removal and to clear-cutting, both of which rip out the natural resources and leave an ecological disaster behind. Then the mining company or the timber company moves on to the next mountain, the next forest, as if all resources were renewable—nothing lost in the destruction, and much profit gained.
Georgia native Jeff Foxworthy has made his fame and fortune mocking the people he comes from. He is not the first, nor will he be the last. But at least he comes out of the culture and isn’t an outlander poking fun at our supposed lack of sophistication and our refusal to be like the rest of America. It’s the rare commentator who “gets” us; most err on the side of Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons. Even Stephanie Miller, the darling of progressive radio, doesn’t hesitate to ask for her Deliverance music and dredge up her phony accent.
Others make us sound like noble throwbacks to a quaint Shakespearean age. Writers who’ve come out of this culture often look back on it with a rosy romanticism that conveniently forgets the hardship of carrying water from the spring, heating a house with paper-thin walls through a mountain winter, and the relentless, low-level stress of growing the food you eat and the cash crop that has to pay your taxes. In either case, some parts of the stereotype are accurate, but the images can’t match the depth of experience found in our mountain culture—now nearly lost.
It’s an old story here in the mountains. Families have fewer children, and in their new urban lives, the old ways are not important. We are self-conscious about granny healing, not sure if it’s OK to be a cove woman. Outlanders buy up the farmland, drive up the taxes, make the landscape unfamiliar. And we are willing participants, selling the old home place for more money than we could ever have dreamed of.
But that still leaves the matter of this odd knowing, these healing modalities that aren’t necessary in the world of modern Western medicine. And meanwhile there are all these outlanders who seem sincere and want to learn what you learned from your grammaw—and they’ll pay good money for it, too.
Some people believe that the charms and portents of their grandparents’ generation are best left to thin out into obscurity and disappear from the mountains, lost forever. These people feel that this knowledge should belong only to the folks whose direct ancestors collected and retained it. In our typical land-proud and insular way, some think it’s better to lose the knowledge than to pass it on to the larger world, which scorns everything about our culture except this one thing that seems to have value for them.
Although it’s taken me some time to know this, I am glad of the knowing. But whether I choose to transmit this knowledge to the broader New Age spirituality machine—that, I haven’t decided. Yet.
[H. Byron Ballard is a writer, bookseller and urban farmer who also serves as Asheville’s village witch.]