Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Winter road trips, Appalachian solutions, & the truth about ‘Kumbaya’

The South is honest in the dead of winter. Nothing can hide behind the lush greenery—not the mined land, not the condescending billboards, not the Confederate flags. Most everything has lost its color except for the kudzu, which never stops climbing. The pine trees along the highways, though still striking, look cold and shaky. From the heads of hollers, poverty is all the more visible. The clear-cut forests are easier to spot. Cold water rushes down the hills, looking cleaner than it likely is. Black coal seams stand out from the sides of icy cliffs.

Winding through back roads in Inez, Kentucky a few days ago, I mentioned to a woman I was interviewing how beautiful I thought the barren landscape was—that I could really see what the place was like in the winter. She nodded, adding, “I still like it better in the summer. Hides the trash.” 

She meant literal trash—litter was strewn all over the shoulders of those mountain parkways. It made sense, I thought, but I like the cold months, too, when there’s no muggy air to drive everyone indoors to the air conditioning, no revving lawn mower engines to interrupt the silence, no porch lights to hide the darkness.

Spanish moss hanging from trees in Savannah, Georgia.

For the better part of the last week, I’ve been driving around the region, from Louisville to Durham, Charleston to Savannah, back home and east to Appalachia again. The trips got me thinking about where we feel safe, where we don’t, and why. As a white person, I am privileged to feel safer than a person of color does. As a woman, I never truly feel safe anywhere.

When I lived out West, I often worried about running out of gas, food, or water while on road trips. Here, I know there’s always a Pilot or Love’s, a Waffle House, a Cracker Barrel. Cell phone service may dip out here and there, but it always comes back a few miles down the road.

Someone recently sent me this piece in the Paris Review, about One Hundred Years of Solitude author Gabriel García Márquez’s road trip through Alabama, which is also the writer’s home state. “I was taught by my grandmother the importance of knowing local flora and fauna and geology and myths,” Caleb Johnson wrote, “as if this information might in some way protect me or at least bring me closer to the knowledge that in the eternal history of the world, I was the equivalent of a speck on a fly’s back.”

It reminded me how much I appreciate learning about this place, my home, through others’ eyes—whether that’s in real life or through words on pages. Charleston was shown to me by a dear friend who used to live there; Savannah, by her sister hundreds of miles away through texts and Instagram messages. Driving past Slade, Kentucky—which I’ve done countless times—I thought of a new friend who told me he lived in the back of a van in Red River Gorge. Durham I often see through a photojournalist’s lens; Tennessee I know well because of someone I once loved. Mississippi I recognize from attempting to read Faulkner; Florida I understand because my mom has always been drawn to the ocean.

Cruising down a back road in Georgia, watching Spanish moss sway in the wind, I thought of all the routes I’ve traveled to get to know the South, and the seemingly infinite others there are to follow. They lead to the myths, the lies, the dangerous and safe spaces, the sacred land and the piles of trash, the gut-wrenching and breathtaking places. As the sun set behind a row of tall, thin pines, I rolled down my window. The bitter cold air made me shudder, but I let it, feeling as though it was bringing me just a step closer to this wealth of knowledge.

Stories worth your time

I wrote a story for Huffington Post on the failing water infrastructure in Perry County, Kentucky, and what rural communities are doing to address basic problems in their region. “Appalachia has historically been a region that people have come in and extracted from natural resources, and from experiences and culture here, so there’s a history of exploitation and forcing dependence on people with one major industry,” one economic development expert told me. “There’s a monopoly on people’s ability to take care of themselves and take care of their families.” But that’s changing, she said. “People who live here know better, and I think they’re getting creative and are excited about this opportunity that now exists. There are hardships along with that, but these conversations are really happening.”

A short PBS segment on Kentucky’s Appalshop, which shines a spotlight on the rich culture and talent in Appalachia.

Hurricane Irma knocked out 50 to 90 percent of Florida’s citrus fruit, caused $760 million in damage, and wiped out 56,000 jobs tied to Florida’s agricultural sector, which was already reeling from a citrus greening disease, as NBC reports.

The Appalachian South is home to six of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country. As Congress continues to debate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, 100 Days in Appalachia is exploring immigrant communities in a new series. Read the introduction.

Central Appalachia is in the middle of a black lung disease epidemic, and a recent NPR investigation found that there are nearly 2,000 cases across Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. Ohio Valley ReSource interviewed miners living with it.

You’ve probably heard these lyrics: Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya. Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya. Thanks to research and lobbying by Georgia’s Gullah/Geechee community, the origins and meaning of “Kumbaya” have been recognized in Congress, raising hopes that a fading culture of slave descendants might get a boost, The New York Times reports.

News flying under the radar

North Carolina environmental regulators have ordered Chemours to take further steps to reduce emissions of GenX and other chemicals that have questionable health effects.

Doctors in Florida are worried about the effects of climate change already taking a toll on mental health. Some have banded together to form Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.Who is most vulnerable? Low-income populations, the elderly, and people of color.

A committee of 18 people in Arkansas—mostly farmers and small business owners—are fighting Monsanto to regulate the use of pesticides like Dicamba.

South Carolinians spend the most money on electricity, according to a new EIA report. Residential customers in the Southeast spend the most on average, partially because of low prices as well as more use of heating and cooling systems.

Louisiana has spent $18 million on a 10,800-square-foot model to better understand the Mississippi River’s hydrodynamics. Instead of computer models, researchers used 216 panels of high-density foam, carved to match mapping data down to a quarter-millimeter.