Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Rural America, native seeds, & retired coal plants

It’s difficult to remember a time before “rural America” was such a loaded phrase. Before it indicated the strict cultural and political divide in this country, before it changed the way the media attempted to do stories, before it was shoved into the spotlight and scrutinized endlessly. Rural areas and the socioeconomic challenges they face have always been used by politicians, pitted against urban populations that face many of the same issues when it comes to labor, equality, or healthcare. But the words feel different now, as if they’re supposed to make us feel guilty, or angry, or confused. Most of us were already aware of these problems; they were just largely ignored unless a reporter parachuted in to provide a quick image of a distressed people.

The 2016 election shed more light on this — which was eye-opening and crucial — but now, it seems, we’re lumping together entire swaths of the U.S. to prove that point. For instance, many counties in the South are very poor but have little to no economic mobility for younger populations to rise out of poverty. They’re the go-to picture of why Donald Trump resonated, of the contradictory voting habits of rural, conservative people, and of why Republican policies will inevitably hurt them. However, as Vox points out in this article, that only goes so far to explain Trump’s appeal — he resonated in many states with high economic prosperity and mobility, too.

Another example is Trump’s recent budget proposal. The Delta Regional Authority and Appalachian Regional Commission stand to be eliminated. Both serve as economic development engines across the lower Midwest and East, and a large chunk of funding goes to communities in Southern states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama, as the map below shows. In some of these places, the programs are the only source of substantial funding to fix infrastructure and promote business development in order to help the areas diversify their economies.

Most stories about the budget cuts focus on the sheer fact that the rural people who stand to lose the most are Trump’s base of supporters. That is true. It is also true that we rarely dig into the who and the why, often distracted by the colorful maps, the dollar signs, the theories and debunked myths. Each place on the map above is a county, and in those county are thousands of people with diverse perspectives. Just as with urban programs, the challenges the Delta Regional Authority sets out to address — and the consequences of its demise — are incredibly different than those of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The concerns of a coal miner in Virginia are separate than those of a fisherman in Louisiana, or a farmer in northern Georgia, or a single mom working three jobs in Tennessee.

Last year, I lived in a little mountain town on the Western Slope of Colorado. The region’s main economic engines were agriculture and coal mining, not unlike many places I’ve visited around here. The similarities immediately struck me: the trailers in Appalachian hollers looked so much like those on the one-road coal mining towns in Colorado. Conversations among former miners at the diner sounded eerily familiar. Schools were always trying to figure out how to retain kids and get them off to college. But their differences were jarring: In Colorado, people listen when communities fought back against the fossil fuel industry. The mountains and public spaces are fiercely protected. Coal is “cleaner” there, some say; the regulations and inspections were stricter. Recreation and tourism revived mining towns, making them affluent and influential. That hasn’t happened yet in the South, and getting rid of federal funding will make sure it doesn’t.

These kinds of realizations, curiosities and questions drove me to start Southerly. In large part, the purpose is to dive into the nuanced, contradictory, complex characteristics of the South and its individual communities — even when it’s much easier to look at them as a whole.

Stories worth your time

A while back, I mentioned the start of Jennifer Crandall’s documentary project called Whitman, Alabama, in which residents of Alabama recite verses of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Well, several verses/weeks in, it’s receiving some much-deserved recognition from The New Yorker. “[Crandall] noted that the idea of Alabama, and of the South in general, can provoke in outsiders a reflexive disdain. ‘But the South is hallowed ground in America,’ she said. ‘It contains a life and history that we need to move away from and also go towards; there’s a sense of belonging and community we need.’”

Spend some time with this illustration from CityLab that tells the history of coal in Alabama through the story of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company in Birmingham. It was the most profitable coal company in the South, making hundreds of thousands of dollars off the backs of black men who were imprisoned and forced to work in the mines long after slavery was abolished.

I recently stumbled upon this great Yale360 profile of a woman who collects seeds native to southern Appalachia that are threatened by climate change.

News flying under the radar

Owensboro, Kentucky, is retiring its coal-fired power plant after a century and moving on to another source of energy, though no one is sure exactly what yet.

It’s an understatement that there’s contention over what to do about water quality and water levels in the Everglades and how to restore the ecosystems. Proposed plans, which have all stalled in the legislature, include reservoirs north and south of Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest lake. Now, there’s another idea to make deep-injection wells for lake discharges during high-water years.

Norfolk and Newport, Virginia are home to Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard bases and one of the country’s busiest ports. They are also where sea levels are rising the fastest on the East Coast — and that has the military concerned. They’re trying to plan accordingly, but some Navy engineers say they haven’t even fully defined the problem or the solution.

Southern Mississippi residents worry what NOAA budget cuts will do to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Weather Service, and other coastal programs and offices based in Hancock County.