Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Southerly: A Year In Review

My dog Tule dragged me up the final ascent to the top of Siler Bald in North Carolina. Facing south, each mountain ridge faded into a lighter shade of blue, until they blended in with the pale sky. The Appalachian Mountains have such an ethereal quality. It’s as though if you blink too many times, or turn around too quickly, they’ll disappear with the wind—or maybe, they were never real to begin with. I spun around in circles to take it all in, breathing deeply after the steep climb. It was bitter cold, the sun peeking through a thin layer of wispy clouds. Not a soul was around.

Nearby, a peach-colored plaque marked the peak: 5,216 feet, with a 360-degree view of the Appalachian Mountains. I fell to the ground in side-stitching laughter. A year prior, I lived in a Colorado town nestled at 5,600 feet. I hiked at least twice a week, and nearly all of the trips climbed more than a thousand feet above that. Most of the time, when I reached a peak, there were many others towering over me, their jagged, snowy corners piercing the sky. And here I was, completely emotionally and physically spent, 400 feet below last December.

When I stood up again, cackles lost to the wind, my mind’s eye kept comparing this view with those Western ones. The dramatic Rockies take my breath away. The Appalachians do too, but in a different way. They’re mysterious and compelling, misleading and quiet. They hold secrets and dangers that few people know or understand. They are majestic in a way that isn’t obvious unless you’re standing above them. Their colors and shapes shift with the shadows of the clouds, telling stories of millennia past.

I came back to the South for that reason, I suppose. To seek the truth of those mysteries, to tell the stories that are forgotten, to confront the legacies that still linger. To look more closely at the landscapes, and speak more often with the people who live and work within them. To try to make sense of my home.

This has been a disheartening, painful, difficult year. It was full of injustices: President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies; mass shootings that were glazed over; a push to drill on land and in the water; white supremacist rallies that elected leaders refused to condemn or stop; systems that double down on environmental racism; a well-financed, strategic effort to misinform the public about science.

It was also full of beauty: constant protests against those injustices, no matter how exhausting they became; social and political progress in Alabama and other elections throughout the region; efforts to make cities and homes resilient to climate change; a solar eclipse that brought everyone together; small changes in conservative towns that are becoming more open to science and clean energy.

I know this because there was a lot of beautiful, critical, unforgettable storytelling in 2017. Tomorrow will mark one year since I started Southerly. The goal was to share those stories, fill an information gap, counter typical narratives, and shed light on the importance of solid, smart journalism about this region. I hope I’ve delivered on those promises, and I am eager to continue to do so next year. I’m excited by the growing community around Southerly. Thanks for being a part of it.

Rather than sharing news this week—because let’s be honest, we’ve all probably reached our capacity—I’d like to share some great reads from the 50 issues I put out this year.

Favorite stories of 2017

In no particular order, here are some of my favorite stories featured in Southerly. The list could be endless, but I kept it to 13. If you have others, or ones I missed completely, please send them my way.

Going It Alone
By Rahawa Haile, Outside Magazine
What happens when an African American woman decides to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine during a summer of bitter political upheaval?

In Appalachia’s Foothills, a Leaner Textile Industry Rises
By Debbie M. Price, Undark
The fabric industry in Catawba County, North Carolina, was decimated by offshoring. Now it’s making a high-tech comeback, albeit with fewer employees.

By C. Morgan Babst, Oxford American
“The fact is, most disasters look at first like nothing—a flicker at the corner of the mouth, a flick of the wrist, an intake of breath. A rumble: just subway work, a couple of blocks down. A puddle of water appears at the base of the levee: maybe we slept through the rain.”

By Brian Reed, This American Life
A man named John, from “Shittown, Alabama,” asks Reed to investigate a murder. But the story evolves into a beautiful, heart-wrenching unearthing of the mysteries of his life.

The Perils of Pork in America: A Series
By Sandy Hausman, WVTF
A five-part series on the impacts of pork on the environment, public health, and the animals. It traces the consolidation of hog farms in the region, following Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork.

Kaboom Town
By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
The U.S. military burns millions of pounds of munitions in a tiny, African-American corner of Louisiana. The town’s residents say they’re forgotten in the plume.

Digging in the Trash
By David Joy, The Bitter Southerner
They say we need to learn to talk to each other. They say we need to bridge the rural-urban divide. But that’s hard when folks see trailers and immediately think “trash.”

The Poisoned Generation
By Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic
The story of a decades-long lead-poisoning lawsuit in New Orleans illustrates how the toxin destroys black families and communities alike.

America’s Most Political Food
By Lauren Collins, The New Yorker
The founder of a popular South Carolina barbecue restaurant was a white supremacist. Now that his children have taken over, is it O.K. to eat there?

The Plant Next Door
By Sharon Lerner, The Intercept
A Louisiana town plagued by pollution shows why cuts to the EPA will be measured in illnesses and deaths.

Seeing God’s Hand in the Deadly Floods, Yet Wondering about Climate Change
By Meera Subramanian, InsideClimate News
An evangelical mountain town lost eight people to flooding from an extreme rain storm. Many residents see the Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse, and welcome it.

Fire on the Mountain
By Justin Heckert, Garden & Gun
A night of terror in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Natural Gas Building Boom Fuels Climate Worries, Enrages Landowners
By Kristen Lombardi, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Center for Public Integrity 
Companies have asked a federal regulator to approve thousands of miles of pipeline from Appalachia. They almost always get their way.