Monday, May 9, 2011

Pleasing, tho' dreadful: A Primer on West Virginia

After months of not watching any television, I decided to settle down in my recliner to watch "Coal," a television series that follows a small mining operation in McDowell County, West Virginia. Being a lifelong resident of the state, I was curious as to how our people and the mining industry itself would be portrayed.

After the first few minutes watching the show, I was somewhat frustrated by certain aspects of the show. Episodes include the use of subtitles (presumably because the rest of the world doesn't speak 'Appalachian'). The miners are gritty, foul-mouthed, hard working and all speak with a country 'twang' in words that would make any English teacher cringe.

As the show progressed, I warmed up to the miners -- not because I know them, but because I realized they are indicative of West Virginia in a number of ways. Their representation of the state properly exhibits the greatness and sadness of West Virginia and her people.

In determining an overarching theme to the state, I can't state it any better than historian John Alexander Williams, who noted, "If West Virginia history has a central theme, it was sounded at the very beginning by explorers who described it as a 'pleasing, tho' dreadful' land."1 For every wonderful quality about this state, an equally great curse seems to be attached.

The geography and geology of the state have been the driving forces in West Virginia's history. West Virginia is in the midst of the Appalachian Mountains and so much adventure awaits anyone who visits the state. Mountains provide immense opportunities for exploration and seeing land in a new way. The Gauley and New Rivers and falls offer some of the best rafting in the world. Seneca Rock can test a person's physical ability with respect to climbing. Cranberry Glades boasts some of the most unique flora this side of the Mississippi.

West Virginia has also been blessed with large quantities of natural resources: natural gas, salt, and coal. Chief among these resources is coal, which in itself characterizes much about the state. The industry that has provided for countless families over multiple generations might also be the largest problem facing West Virginia today.

Coal mines are operated mostly by absentee landlords -- large corporations with no stake in West Virginia other than to exploit it like a Third World country. Conditions in many of these mines are deplorable at best, creating safety hazards that have led to deaths that could have been avoided.
The tenuous situation between mine owners and the mountainous nature of the state have created an unhealthy distrusts for 'outsiders'. Miners have routinely found themselves involved in disputes with owners -- those who aren't from here and don't truly know what they experience on a daily basis. History also relates several armed conflicts between mine owners and the men who labor inside them.

The mines do provide high paying work for West Virginians, but have been a plague on the environment and the people. Scores of miners have died as the result of (often preventable) accidents. In the last five years, the state's mining industry has made national headlines for disasters at the Sago Mine (2006) and the Upper Big Branch Mine (2010).

The industry also has an adverse effect upon those who live around mines -- destroying the environment that attracts a large number of tourists and adventurers and at times, ending their lives. Look no further than the Buffalo Creek Disaster (1972) for evidence. A dam located in Logan County, composed of coal slurry (slag), burst only days after a federal official declared the dam safe. As a result of the dam failure, 125 people lost their lives and over 1,100 were injured. Thousands more were left without homes. The Pittston Coal Company referred to the event as 'an act of God'.

Also, for most of the state's history, the land can be terribly difficult to navigate. Information, innovations, ideas all flow into the state, but very slowly. People here are slow to change and skeptical of those who are different.

The geography of West Virginia leads to another characteristic -- diversity. Yes, the state is 98.4% white, but includes a mixing of European ancestry: Scots-Irish, English, Italian, Irish, German The state, much like Ancient Greece, has never been truly unified. The rugged terrain and isolation has developed a distinct sectionalism within the state that can't be overlooked. West Virginia holds all types of people: the cultured and refined, the urban dwellers, small town folks, the 'hillbilly'. West Virginians are varied in their heritage and thus, personalities and ways of life.

Generally speaking, the people of West Virginia lack formal education, but they do not lack intelligence. According to the United States Census Bureau, the state's educational level compared to the rest of the country is poor, at best. The percentage of citizens here with a high school degree are comparable to the rest of the nation, but the same cannot be said about higher education. Nationally, 24.4% of Americans hold a bachelor's degree, while only 14.8% of West Virginians can make such a claim. Lack of a formal education has led to less economic development within the state, leaving few choices for work and change.

Though many of our people lack education, they are intelligent. Watching "Coal," I noticed the miners had an intense pride in their work. The machinery and methods for extracting coal from the earth require an understanding of heavy equipment and multiple scientific / mathematical principles. Miners must also consistently keep up to date with safety protocols and legislation. Not every man can do what they do. Moreover, specific trades and art forms have been passed down through generations, such as glass blowing, or folk music. Other heavy industry that still exists within the state require similar talents.

West Virginia is poor in financial resources, but is rich in heart. According to 2009 statistics, a total of 17.7% of the state's citizens live in poverty. Only four states held higher percentages. Even more astounding is the 24.1% of children in West Virginia who live in poverty. Currently, 34.4% of households have an income of less than $25,000.2

Businesses have traditionally stayed away from the Mountain State. The state was focused on coal and heavy industry that has since moved away or been further mechanized, leaving an uneducated mass of workers who took lower paying jobs or moved away. Government has lured some businesses in with tax incentives, but this tactic hasn't been as successful as government leaders had hoped, and has kept the state form receiving much needed tax dollars.

What the state lacks in financial resources, they make up for in passion for life. Most West Virginians are kind, courteous, and enjoy life. Neighbors go out of their way to help one another. People say hello to you in your hometown. You make a connection with someone just by being from the same town.

Having little in the way of money makes West Virginians focus on the more important parts of life -- the relationships with others, enjoying the beauty of nature. The citizens of this state have been humbled. This humility isn't always seen as the most desirable quality by our society, but it does provide a basis for compassion, which is better than money.

I don't know what the long term future of West Virginia holds, but I am concerned about our immediate future. We haven't learned from our history and ultimately, it would appear the early settlers were correct about West Virginia: pleasing, tho' dreadful.


1 Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, Inc. 1984, p. 199.

2 All data can be found at the United States Census Bureau online.

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