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Our Good Earth

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By Gary Anderson

Many years ago, in the time when farmers worked their fields with oxen, and a John Deere tractor in every barn was a thing of fantasy, Pearl S. Buck published The Good Earth, her masterpiece about rural life in China. In The Good Earth, the manuscript that propelled Buck to fame and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, she told the story of Wang Lung, a poor farmer who overcame drought and countless other maladies to become one of the greatest landowners in China. As a farmer, Wang accumulated land for cultivation and personal wealth. But as a farmer, he also loved the land and treated it with respect. Perhaps anticipating the onset of the modern age, the book’s last scene depicts Wang Lung, elderly and near death, walking his land one last time. His two sons see in the land only one thing: money. They reveal to the old man their ambition to sell the land for fortunes. Brought to tears, Wang protests and reminds his boys that their land cannot be “sold,” for to sell the land would be tantamount to selling the Lung family legacy. To console Wang, they promise to never sell the land, even after his death—and then they smile at one another behind their father’s hunched back.

Several weeks ago a spirited discussion about “mountaintop removal” and the organization that opposes it, SOCM, illuminated the editorial page and letters section of The Press. Not long thereafter, scores came to the Louie Bluie Festival at Cove Lake State Park and endured a sweltering day in the East Tennessee sun. There is a connection here that many have failed to consider. Why did they make the pilgrimage? What compelled young and old to brave a blistering Tennessee afternoon? Did they come to eat cotton candy and drink soft drinks? No, they came and suffered for one reason: our good earth.

The Louie Bluie Festival is about many things, but at its core is a celebration of Appalachia’s good earth. We came because we wanted to hear, taste, feel and interact with Appalachia, the land of our birth and the place that continues to provide us with a heritage unique to our country.

Our music, our dialect, our food, our names, our religion, our gentle way of interacting with one another—all of these precious characteristics that comprise our Appalachian identity are inseparable from a landscape guarded by the mountains. This is our good earth, and, in the final summation, when all of Norris is sold off, when all the pasture fields are entombed under acres of plastic houses, when all that we have has been sold to the highest bidder, at least the mountains will remain as a magnificent, inviolable sanctuary of our heritage. Or will they?  

Following the Civil War, Southerners were consigned to over a century of miserable poverty. We were relegated to raising “cotton and cane” while the rest of the nation reaped the benefits of education and industrialization. Then came the Depression and the war, during and after which millions of Southerners, but especially Appalachia’s children, left the region forever. In the 60s came strip mining and the rape of the mountains, depicted by Harry Caudill in his classic book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. And now, after only a short reprieve, the greedy jaws of mechanization are prolifically at work again, levelling mountains without remorse in an unparalleled and shameless demonstration of modern-day carpet bagging.

Many stand ready, as ever in our country, to play the jobs card. They say that razing the mountains will make us richer. Is this really so? Were we really richer during the heyday of stripping? Will we be richer as ancient oaks fall to the chainsaw and bulldozer? Who will benefit when the grouse, squirrels and deer are driven from their habitat? Will we be better off when the last whippoorwill has sung its song, or when our mountains resemble barren, upturned Tupperware bowls? Will we be happy then? No, Mother Appalachia will weep as ever before.  

Wang Lung was right: to sell our land is tantamount to selling our family. Appalachia gave birth to and succoured us; selling our mountain home for its certain exploitation and destruction is the moral equivalent of selling the coins from the eyes of a deceased parent.

At the risk of being branded a communist, Marxist, fascist, Islamic terrorist, atheist, America hater, liberal, democrat, Al Gore fan and tree-hugging hippie, I only have this to say: Sock it to ‘em, SOCM!