Self-sufficiency in rural Appalachia

In rural Appalachia (the penultimate syllable pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘apple’, not like the ‘a’ in ‘staple’), self-sufficiency is not an essential characteristic of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, the divine unmoved around which everything else moves. Nor is it the intrinsic property of Spinoza’s substance, that which is ontologically independent for its existence. For generation after generation in these parts, self-sufficiency has meant the ability to take care of oneself and one’s kin without the aid of foreigners.

Time was when these self-sufficient people knew how to name the same tree across summer and winter; could build gardens and make wheels of cheese; concocted home remedies by using local roots and herbs and, on occasion, sold these to the people in the surrounding cities; spoke a language all their own. ‘Are you peart?,’ one used to ask a neighbor who moved in 39 years ago. Meaning: are you in good health, in good spirits?

Development over the past 30 years has transformed the mountaintops into luxury homes, the highways into Humvee paths. It has raised the levels of air pollution and has raised property values to such an extent that some locals–those who make up the service economy–have been forced to move farther away. (As one would expect, the nannies on the Upper East Side in New York City, originally from South America or Mexico, either had a long commute on the subway or lived on-site. One was bound to see them out of doors when the children were let out of day school around 3 p.m.)

These past days, we were reminded of the virtue of self-reliance when the neighbors up the mountain showed us how to survive during the worst parts of the storm. On a springy day before the storm forced us indoors, we had walked down the country road to the family burial plot. The cemetery was lovingly kept. The patriarch of one of the two main families had lived to 94; the matriarch to 106.