Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Do you have bumper stickers on your car? I have one on the rear bumper. It says "I (heart) Mountains." I bought it in West Virginia.
There's been a great deal written about West Virginia in the past week, some of it by Pagans who see the Mountain State as a microcosm for our rape of Gaia. Well, they are dead-on correct about that. And it's nice to see the collection plate going around to buy water and supplies for the thousands of people affected by the recent chemical spill. But sending packs of bottled water to residents of the Elk and Kanawha watersheds is akin to doling out broth to starving kids in Africa. Until the root reasons for environmental disaster are addressed and remedied, West Virginia is a region where calamities can happen and will happen.
Why would anyone want to live in West Virginia? It's a mess, isn't it?
I can answer both questions.
As an expatriate Appalachian, I can tell you exactly why people want to live in West Virginia. It is beautiful. If you can step out on your back porch and lose your breath in awe of the vista beyond your house, you live in West Virginia. Many of the people who live there have ancestry going back centuries. I could wax poetic, as some bloggers have, about the ecosystem, and the sense of place, and the grounding in tradition, and all of that. I'm not a poet. I tell it like it is. West Virginia is beautiful. If you live there, you don't want to leave ... especially for some big city in some flat tidewater state.
But West Virginia is a mess, isn't it?
West Virginia has been ruled by big monied interests since the first tunnel was dug into the first mountain in the pursuit of coal. The politicians are on the payroll of Big Coal, and they have been since that first tunnel was dug. The current crop of Democrats are only Democrats because Lincoln won the war ... they act like Republicans and are often the serious movers and shakers behind efforts to squelch the EPA. How do they get by with such antics? By persuading their constituents that the EPA will raise the jobless rate, and environmental activists are by and large replants from other areas of the country. (That is certainly not true in either case, I'm just giving you the politicians' talking points.)
Today's Sunday New York Times reports that only 4 percent of West Virginians are employed in the coal industry. Seem low to you? Be advised that you need far fewer workers to rip the tops off mountains with bulldozers than you do to go deep into the underground and blast the coal out. Nor is there a great need for a vast workforce to sink natural gas wells. The extraction of coal for our nation's energy needs is more and more done efficiently with machinery and a few people who know how to work it.
Fracking is also coming to West Virginia, big time. Once again, people who love the mountains will be convinced that they will have good jobs that will keep them in the mountains if they extract natural gas, and never mind how safe or unsafe it is, who cares?
So, Anne. Do you have any free advice on how to save West Virginia?
I sure do. Go there.
The whole state doesn't look like the picture above. Most of it is gorgeous. Do you love Gaia? Do you love the outdoors, the majesty of the land, the joy of exerting yourself on a hike, on a bike ride, on a raft? Would you love to spend an afternoon having a spa treatment at a mineral spring? Do you live in that great megalopolis on the East Coast, or in the Rust Belt? Take your tourist dollars and spend them in West Virginia. Heck, if the one-percenters can do it at The Greenbriar (to which I could not successfully link you *conspiracy*), you can do it at Spruce Knob.
Most of the Appalachian mountain states have vibrant tourism industries, but West Virginia lags behind, possibly due to the ridiculous and insulting notion that the entire state is an environmental wasteland peopled by violent, inbred, three-eyed hillbillies. What utter nonsense! By the same line of reasoning, New Jersey is nothing but gun-toting mafia dons plotting murder over plates of linguine.
Visit West Virginia, reader. Make your vacation plans. You'll find that, if you avoid the above-mentioned one percenter hideaway, you'll make a dollar holler. My personal favorite part of West Virginia is Berkeley Springs, pictured at the top of this post, and the adjacent Cacapon Mountains. If you're more of the rugged type, try hiking in the Alleghenies.
Pagans, if you want to help the Earth, West Virginia should be a pilgrimage destination. Every dollar you tip a waitress, every campground you reserve for a Ritual, every piece of original artwork or crafting you bring home, will help the state far more than a package of plastic water bottles, shipped and forgotten when the next disaster hits elsewhere.
But Anne ... I live thousands of miles from West Virginia. What can I do?
Turn down your heat, turn off the lights when you leave the room, power off your electronics when you aren't using them, live close to your workplace, take mass transit, use the laundromat, eat local and seasonal produce, have a small family. Notice I don't say write to your Congressman. That is whistling in the wind. I visited a coal-burning power plant this past summer, and I heard it right from the foreman's mouth. The plant burns less coal when there's less use of consumer electricity. Vote with your thermostat.
I moved away from the mountains when I was 18. I have lived in big cities or their suburbs ever since. But the lion's share of my tourist money has gone back to Appalachia. I will move home some day, either as a live person or in an urn. Either way, the mountains are my final destination. Fourteen generations of my ancestors are waiting for me there.