I grew up between three different cultures: the rural agrarian inner-homeland (my grandparents and the rich family culture centered around the garden and moments reminiscing of the old days in the 'Country'), the suburban isolated landscape (my parents and their lives), and the sprawling, exciting urban rollercoaster (semi-often visits to Charleston, the capital city of West Virginia, and being lightly immersed in the 'future' going 'out there' to 'achieve the American Dream').
As time went on and I grew up, I realized the changes that were underway. I realized that my grandparents didn't have much time. They had already halted the growth of their one acre garden, and instead, my grandfather brought in a crew to plan and build an orchard of various apples, pears, and citrus fruits before his death (how beautiful of a thought this has been to me... My grandfather didn't just build an orchard in his garden - he left a spiritual orchard of inheritance and memory as well).
The changes that emerged over the next decade after his death have been vast. Not only did all of my remaining community dwindle - including the church I grew up in, but also all the people I grew up with moving away for the most part, among other things. The local community also seemed to become dull, bored with themselves, lost for any ability to thrive in a landscape that once was the backbone of America.
Culture here became more the 9-5 job, commuting to Charleston, where businesses and culture lacked and the streets died at 6pm. Families seemed tired all the time. Youth seemed disillusioned and emotionally-absorbed by the latest trends, social media and games). Several fast food joints opened and there was an effort to expand the Mardi Gras Casino and Dog Track that failed, minus a hotel. In recent years, a Sheetz has opened and a Popeyes joint. Some local businesses have closed and the church that I grew up in that once held 500 or more members is down to its lowest point of 70. Most of those who still remember the "good ol' days" seem brokenhearted and tired of trying; they seem to have a limp in their walk and in their heart, longing for those days to return, but knowing it probably won't happen in their lifetime, especially as they continue to say fare well to their children going off to college or another state.
What happened here? I ask that question a lot. At the rise of the 21st century, I believe the completion of the rural exit had taken full effect. After the last remaining industry (coal) took a deep dive into near-oblivion, with the state holding a remaining 5% job "security" in the industry, and Walmart taking the top-ranked job creator in the state, the exodus of the now-industrialize masses are gone.
As studies show, in the late 1800s, nearly 90% of the country lived in rural America. Literally, "E'rybody is from around here." Now, 85% of the nation's population live in urban-coastal cities. At the same time in the 1800s, 60% of the countries population were farmers and gardeners. Now it's dipped to a depressing 1% or less.
Through all of this, my heart has been taught to groan for times I never fully knew. I guess the stories of my grandfather tilling the soil of his garden, riding horseback through the hills, and, in a soft, tenderly voice reminiscing of the "Country" (Braxton Co, WV, where he grew up) and speaking of his longing to go back at age 85, spoke deeply to me as well. Memories of all the aunts and uncles and cousins gathering for Thanksgiving on my grandparents 5 acres in Cross Lanes, WV brings back a nostalgia I cannot shake. Husking corn fresh from the garden, cutting rubbery-like, bright-colored green beans on the porch with my grandmother, singing old songs in the living room, feeling a deep sense of belonging with a home well-filled with family, and seeing my grandfather raise his arms in the air with his eyes clinched closed, filled with longing and bliss at the sound of my fathers singing of "Chariots of Fire." All these memories, these moments, fill my hearts lungs with breath, not soon-there-after exhaling before holding my breath again for months on end.
This place's heritage and meaning is not one of intellectually-dead people; or ignorant hillbillies and confederate-flag-waving big mouths; or coal stained hearts with glazed over eyes at the sight of Trump... It's filled with a people who have been stripped of their agrarian heritage, of their cultural and familial memory, of their sacred spaces and communal pride, forcefully blocked of remembering any fond memory beyond the mono-economies dominate propaganda...
Coal is the story that was told to a people who needed one to survive the industrial era, now gone; an oxymoron of a gift from an evil Santa for their good deeds, forcing the fast-forging spirit of American Exceptionalism down the throats of sacred humans and their knowledge-based, memory-rich, culturally sustained agrarian lifestyle given them by God.
So where do we go from here?