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Coal on a conveyor belt near Rhodell, W.Va. The mountainside to the left has been stripped.[P. Tristam/1999]


Plundering West Virginia

It hasn’t been a good couple of months for West Virginia. There’s that sniper murdering people at random. A child was sexually assaulted by a guard in a Charleston department store. An unhappy employee at a school board meeting doused his supervisor in gasoline (before the latest spike in prices) then shot up the place with an assault rifle. A plague of locusts was inevitable: The media have descended, trilling the same old inventions and preconceptions about the Mountain State while missing the real story altogether.

On that score it hasn’t been a good couple of centuries for West Virginia. The crime to speak of there isn’t the odd sniper or the occasional predator. Their likes are the natural byproduct of our unnaturally violent society regardless of the zip code. The crime in West Virginia is the oldest continuing gang-rape in the history of the Union. It is the way a state rich in resources, richer in culture, richest in beauty has been plundered raw for spoils and stereotypes by the rest of the country. It is the way West Virginia, not without the resigned complicity of West Virginians, has been reduced to a domestic case of Caribbeanism - a convenient hop for tourism and profiteering with accommodating blind spots for corruption and poverty.

The locusts’ latest swarm really goes back to the frenzy over Pfc. Jessica Lynch, whose home sits on a hill or a dale - hard to say which, anymore - somewhere barely mapped in West Virginia. It was Jayson Blair, remember, formerly of The New York Times, who embellished one of his reports by grafting Erskine Caldwell’s tobacco fields onto Lynch’s landscape. His inventions now look positively factual compared to the subsequent transformation of Lynch’s unfortunate car wreck and lucky convalescence in Iraq into the gutsiest feat of heroism since Lt. Ripley saved her skin from that lizard in the “Alien” of your choice. Lynch gave the swarm a crack at yet another hillbilly-goes-hero kind of story (a warm-up to CBS’ “The Real Beverly Hillbillies,” in which an actual Appalachian family would be plopped into a Beverly Hills mansion for some hick-hip entertainment). The attention on the crime spree is paradoxically reaffirming the West Virginia image the nation is most comfortable with: as a place where nothing happens.

I was a reporter in southern West Virginia for several years. I reviled the place at first - its isolation, its suspicion of outsiders, the skeletal look of its hills in winter - then came to love it as if I’d grown up there, as if every new exploitative design on the place was an incursion on my native land. My assignments were like crime reporting on a panoramic scale. West Virginia was the blotter, out-of-state companies, always with local accomplices promising jobs, were the gangsters. There was the attempt in the McDowell County hills to carve out a landfill big enough for 30,000 tons of imported garbage a month, the attempt in Wyoming County to be the host of a nuclear waste dump, the attempt in Summers County to string high-power lines over the New River and the Appalachian Trail, the many attempts, usually successful, to plunk prisons in every other county. And always and everywhere the rapacity of loggers and strip-miners, razing mountainsides or lopping off mountaintops for cheaper access to coal beds.

Of course the rest of the nation would rather not see. It might make us rethink the actual price we’re paying for cheap energy and cheap paper, for the supposed disposability of everything. It helps when the plunder is out of view. It helps even more when the plundering is made to look like salvation for a state’s insistence on being backward. But what if backwardness were a fantasy, a projection by other states to hide their own? The convention about West Virginia is that it’s behind the times, and in some ways it’s true. Time there dissolves against the Appalachians’ 400 million years; it is more like a suggestion than a dictate. So it may also be true that West Virginians have a knack for seeming out of sync with the rest of the nation’s hypertension. But that means only that time is relative, not that backwardness is absolute.

It helps other states to have West Virginia to kick around, but if backwardness were the issue, no state has it cornered. Florida’s idea of growth management is backward. Its habit of mistaking malls for natural landscape is backward. Its dependence on Disney for culture is backward. California’s idea of mob democracy is backward. Texas’ conveyor belt executions are backward. Utah’s Wahhabite-like mores are backward. For that matter the whole Northeast’s electric grid is backward. You get the picture. What the rest of the nation won’t admit is that America’s treatment of West Virginia historically has been backward in ways that can’t be said of most other states, and to an extent that makes whatever backwardness is pegged on West Virginia seem as affecting as the lyrics of a Red Sovine song.

West Virginia’s image is changing. It is modernizing, franchising, “developing,” becoming more like its neighbors by the day. But I’m not sure aiming for Ohio is an improvement. West Virginia’s identity is one absolute I hope will never get plundered.

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