Appalachians know that God has blessed them. Land is the gift. This particular land. A refuge from a wider, unfamiliar world. Here geography is divided into hollows and hill tops. Ridges and mountains define the boundary between earth and sky. Land will provide your sustenance if you work it. Furrowed fields planted in the right sign, given the service of frequent hoeing, will yield their fruit “in due time.” Harvest is only the beginning. There is usually preservation to be done. Canning, curing, drying, saving, pickling. But when people use the gifts of God to do those things, the end result is that life goes on. We can make it through the harshness of winter because we have enough “leather britches” to eat until spring.
There’s something of native American spirituality in the way Appalachians have traditionally preserved food for winter. Stringing up beans to hang from the porch or attic is not a European method. The presence of the “Three Sisters” is prevalent in Appalachian gardens: Corn, beans and squash. Add to those tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and potatoes, and you have a typical mountain garden. Oh, there might be turnips and greens, lettuce and cabbage as well. Maybe even an eggplant. Previous generations swore by gardening. It was the gift of God for those who would work it. Many generations have lived on home-grown vegetables with no real problems.
Of course that is changing. The age of the hand-out has come. People no longer work at raising gardens. Grocery stores prevail. Canned, processed, sodium-filled food is the staple. Fast food. Appalachians were better off when they had little of modern conveniences. But that has changed. Now obesity is epidemic. Drug dependency takes the energy of people who were once able-bodied. TV and computers fill time that could have been used for work. The land is just a back drop for many, an inconvenient pile of rocks and dirt, serving as an obstacle to the next town, or blocking cell phone service.
Appalachians draw their spiritual strength from the land. The mountains seem eternal, like God. “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121: 1). It is in the rivers and creeks up and down these valleys that generations have been immersed for baptism. It is in the land that bodies have been buried. It is on the land that life was sustained. It is in the beauty of the sunrise, the foggy morning, the snow-covered ridges, the peaceful trickling of streams, the sudden appearance of an eight-point buck, that Appalachian people have sensed the presence of God.
It isn’t generic mountains. They are specific places. Newman’s Ridge. Clinch River. Buckeye Hollow. Waycross. Angel’s Rest. Places named, and names honored for many generations. Even within what we call Appalachia there are regional differences. In Central Appalachia, you have to pronouce it “Ap-uh-latch-uh” or you will be immediately ferreted out as a “stranger.” In other places it is normal to say “Ap-uh-lay-sha”. To one native born in any of the regions, it is home. This is where one’s personality gets shaped. The mountains inspire courage and steel. Tenacity is bred in this place. It is not a haven for compromise.
These are values that shape a way of relating to God that is not unique, but certainly common to Appalachian people. It is no wonder that so many who traversed the mountains to settle here used language of exodus and promised land. Here was found among the harshness of mountains a place where life could be sustained in peace and tranquility, not bowing to oppressive forces of aristocracy. Here freedom found its root and grew like bramble vines. Here the land gave forth abundance of food to help free people survive. Here, in spite of the interests of coal, gas, and timber companies, the land continues to hold beauty. In its beauty, it shapes its children. May it ever be.