The sustainable lifestyle of an Appalachian community

Harlan County Kentucky River Cleanup III 2011 wildflowers

Roadside wildflowers - photo day of River Cleanup III, the Hullaballoo

I am watching a 12:53 video made by The University of Kentucky in 1940, uploaded into YouTube by nologorecords/The Film Archive (I love: you, The Film Archive!) that, I think, is intended to make us feel sorry for the family characterized in the film and ultimately, suggests that Appalachian children should study useful subjects in school like crop rotation instead of how to invest.

As an Appalachian, stock not only of the Europeans that the film narrator compliments as cousins of the early settlers, but also of my Cherokee foremothers and forefathers – I want to say, flpspstiseinptsinflpanfnaenasph.

The film shows an Appalachian family, the progeny of “brave pioneer stock,” scratching a living out of the side of a hill, with worn-out dirt and “the same old seeds” passed from earlier generations.  And that’s where the evil begins.

This films vilifies that which it should celebrate:

  • Self-determination
  • Self-reliance
  • Resourceful instead of resource-intensive lives
  • Recycling and reusing

This film wants us to pity that which we should congratulate and emulate.  This film portrays as unfortunates those whom we should regard as a perfection of humanity: one who lives sustainably with his environs, one who does not overrule his neighbor’s – be it human or other plant and animal – right to its natural life, in its balance and harmony with its niche.   This film uses precisely these same characteristics to portray these people as unfortunates.

We are told that these people did not get enough food or have the proper nutrition: no fresh vegetables in the Winter (although I’m not even believing that these people didn’t have a root cellar containing potatoes, other root vegetables and home-canned goods).  Don’t get me started on nutrition, with most of us still eating an agribiz-invented made-up food pyramid that had a huge part in creating Fat Unfit Unhealthy Nation.

The film doesn’t say, but could have, that these unfortunates likely had less fat and more vegetables in the Summer, because they would be focusing on growing the animal for next Winter’s slaughter, and would need bodies that cooled effectively rather than stored heat.  During the Summer, both the humans and the hog and cow would be grazing on the vegetable bounty provided by the Earth.  Then in Winter, they would eat more fat when their body most needed to store it to generate that extra heat and provide a bit more insulation.

But if all that – not to mention the mournful music – wasn’t enough to plunk your heartstrings to play the sound of pity, they show us more, to feel a pang loud enough to want a vague something “more” for that poor unfortunate family.

What more does it want for these people?  The film apparently wants the children of Appalachia to go to school to study only certain subjects, like how to rotate crops, while avoiding subjects that would not contribute to his or her life, like saving/investing or the banking system.  And certainly they shouldn’t waste their time reading – egad – fairy tales.

Remember: this is a family that, with collaboration with its neighbors, feeds itself, clothes itself, provides its own shelter, with materials at hand.  Newspaper, recycled as wallpaper, with articles on sustainable farming practices.  Guess Mr. Film Man didn’t notice that article.

New ideas are not easy to come by when learning passes from mouth to mouth, from father to son.

We lost ourselves when we as a species completely forgot the lifestyle of a village that supports itself – where some shoe our horses, forge our wheels, make our tools; others grows our flax and cotton one year alternating to corn the next while his neighbors do the opposite; everyone has a kitchen garden; they collectively store the grain for food and seeds for future crops.

I know there are pockets of individuals out there (and I know nothing yet about the Amish or other more traditional village-based communities), so this isn’t intended so much as the castigation it sounds.  It’s more my own call to that part of myself that remembers that the values in the post-Depression era that were all about progress (culminating in a seed company getting patents on food seeds and acquiring monopolitic water rights) may have more than outlived their usefulness.

While I think the film is wrong-headed from start to finish – I do think that more of us should learn about crop rotation, real nutrition, and sustainability in our every day lives.

I’ll close with two questions:

  • Who would benefit if more of us returned to this lifestyle?
  • Who would benefit if we didn’t?

Leave a Reply