Dark and Bloody Ground: Language, Landscape, and Liberation in East Kentucky
Country musician Tyler Childers stumbles over the word ‘resources’ during an interview in Colorado while trying to explain the history and legacy of colonialism and exploitation in Appalachia. Or he doesn’t exactly stumble, but rather loses the word entirely. It’s pulled out from under him at the very curve of his sentence. As he falls calmly through the air—accustomed to heights as any man from the mountains ought to be—his red eyebrows come together over squinted eyes, and his head tilts slightly to the side as if he might glimpse the hook of an ‘r’ or the slithering tail of an ‘s’ somewhere in the back of the audience. He never finds it for himself, but the interviewer provides the suggestion, “Rresources?” Childers tentatively nods his head and looks embarrassed, yet it remains unclear whether or not this is the word he was searching for—whether this is the word he would have chosen if given the [ ].
Childers is from Lawrence County, Kentucky—a few counties East of the farm where I grew up. Just far enough East that the tight-knit mountains block out the sun for most of the day, and the coal industry has come and mostly gone leaving the water tinted slightly orange. In recent years, he has drawn a large following of listeners who rally around his complex vernacular storytelling that seems to fill the cultural void left behind in the absence of the coal-town, the union organizing ballad, or any other symbol of unified working-class struggle in the Mountain South. Now, in the face of low-paying ‘unskilled’ service industry jobs, the myth of a just transition to renewable energy, and the ever-growing regularity of predatory lending in the mountains, Childers’s narrative- rich, working-class anthems are about the only whisper of a Kentucky-based labor movement that remains east of Lexington.
The cover of his 2017 album Purgatory features the solitary shape of Lawrence co., Kentucky rendered as a cross-section of red-banded agate—a rock formation common in the Knobs region of Kentucky. The layers of agate depicted are beautiful, yet given the title Purgatory, seem to represent degrees of suffering or even layers of hell. In the title song, Childers’s drinkin’ and druggin’ speaker asks,
Will you pray for me
When the roots of the oak and my rib cage are braidin'?
He continues on to depict a contrast between the highlands of Lawrence Co. and the undergloom below.
High on the hill where the fox horns blow
And down in the city where the heathens go
Catholic girl, pray for me
You're my only hope for Heaven.
More literally, the layers of agate seem to represent layers of pain, sorrow, and colonial impact embedded in the very geology of East Kentucky through years of Indigenous removal, logging, and mining. Throughout Purgatory, Childers sings of the natural beauty surrounding him as well as the pain associated with place in Appalachia. In the song “Banded Clovis,” the speaker and a friend head out on a drunken search for arrowheads. He describes the landscape they traverse in detail, depicting ridgelines and overhangs for the entirety of a verse, at the end of which he remarks,
We bent o’er our handles and we bit in the ground
The dark and bloody ground.
The song—like any respectable mountain ballad—ends in murder. Childers’s speaker kills Tina Nolan’s man, not for the love of her, but for the measly profit he might reap from the sale of a banded clovis—or arrowhead—he found on that “dark and bloody ground.” The vehicle of the notoriously violent murder ballad genre is blended—whether consciously or not—with themes of Indigenous removal and white working-class struggle in the Mountain South to produce a haunting tale of contemporary Appalachian pain and resistance.
For months at a time, Childers is the only musician my Uncle will listen to. He is the only musician many East Kentuckians feel represents their struggle in the mountains—a struggle that has been a common subject in national media since Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964 in Martin Co., Kentucky. Similarly, the discussion of environmental degradation in the coal producing regions of the Appalachian Mountains has grown to prominence in recent years. That said, much of the conversation about Appalachian issues on the national stage has been simplistic, moralistic, and too often spoken in the voices of people who are not from the region. Works like (and I’m worn out by the fact that we still have to say this) J.D Vance’s 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy and Diane Sawyer’s TV documentary A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains offer a one-dimensional illustration of the nuanced problems at hand. They argue that the people are poor, pitiful, uneducated, and drug addicted, and the coal industry is ‘bad’ because it disturbs pristine mountain views, destroys the environment, and makes the region’s inhabitants its victims. While it is true that the comings and goings of exploitative industries have made life in the region challenging, the story of Appalachian resistance and oppression is much more complex.
It is safe to say that every Appalachian person has their individual story of resistance, difficulty, and place in this sprawling mountainous region that spans from northern Mississippi to southern New York. The vast assemblage of differentiated experiences in the mountains is unwieldy and impossible to fully document fully through traditional archival methods. However, the people of this region share the seemingly inescapable social and economic structures that produce and reinforce systemic oppression: colonialism, capitalism, and globalization. These far-reaching social and economic structures are the forces that shape both life and landscape in Appalachia.
Upon European settlement of Central Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, the landscape was vastly different than it is now. While this might be glaringly obvious—especially to those who have traveled through coal and timber country to see the kudzu-covered hillsides, topless mountains, honeysuckle-infested forests, Dollar General stores, and flooded valleys—it is important to investigate exactly how this place has changed, and arguably even more important to acknowledge who changed it. Before European conquest, this region was inhabited by a number of Indigenous tribes (the Miami, Shawnee, Iroquois, and Cherokee), people who understood their ecological community which allowed them to nurture both themselves and the landscape. Upon arrival, European invaders tilled up the earth reducing soil productivity. They logged hillsides for farming, and drained wetlands leaving them fallow and unproductive. These settlers were unaware of the biome they entered and wholly ignored the natural contour of the ground on which they walked in favor of a fantasy of what it should provide for them. They were placeless, and there is ultimately no evidence that this placelessness has improved over time. Because the white settlers paid so little attention to the intricacies of the place they arrived, because they continued to use farming methods fit for the European landscape from whence they came, and because they ignored all signals of dissent offered to them by nature, their relationship with American land has always been doomed to fail.
While Indigenous people frequented this region for hundreds of years, nurtured a complex understanding of place, and developed sustainable food-acquisition practices, the European settlers who stole their land seemed to be utterly out of place tending their tilled-up clay gardens on steep hillsides in the blistering heat. Somehow, this lack of connection did not prevent the settlers from framing themselves as Indigenous to the region. As Stephen Pearson writes, “Positioning themselves as Indigenous victims of colonialism allows Appalachian Whites to remove themselves from complicity in the capitalist economy and permits them to inhabit a romantic image of anticolonial struggle” (166). While it is clear that white Appalachians have been repeatedly and painfully exploited by external capitalist forces that follow colonial models of subjugation, one must also recognize that the indigenized framing of Appalachian struggle is harmful, untrue, and ultimately serves to further colonial narratives and state interests. The truth is that most Appalachians view their relationship to place in the region as something special, something that runs deep. This conflicted existence of concomitantly occupying the role of conqueror and conquered in a singular location, of simultaneously loving and destroying a place, and of feeling deeply attached to and knowing very little about a place brings to mind a number of questions about the relationship between humans and the places they inhabit.
Robert Macfarlane explores this complex relationship in his 2015 book Landmarks. He argues that language is a critical site of investigation when it comes to the connection between humans and their landscape. Language, after all, is one of the primary mediums through which humans express their thoughts and emotions. Macfarlane argues that the strength of connection between personhood and sense of place weakens in the wake of technological growth, globalization, and climate change (3). He also discusses the effects of language loss on human relationships to place. He writes, “As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted” (24). While this observation makes sense in relation to the alienation of people from place through increased use of technology, it also speaks to the larger tragedy of Indigenous language loss in the Americas. Many languages that were born here and that were produced to describe this specific place in detail, are either dormant or endangered. Many of the Algonquin languages that were cultivated in this region are undocumented and spoken by a narrow few—or spoken in Oklahoma— and modernly used to describe places other than those for which they were created. Due to forceful removal and genocide of the people who possessed the words to describe Appalachia, the settlers now living in the region are woefully lacking the language necessary to describe their surroundings.
In the early 2000s my parents bought a farm in Bath Co., Kentucky with a couple of their college friends and my Aunt and Uncle—that same Uncle who almost exclusively listens to Tyler Childers. The land is surrounded by beef cattle farms uninhabited by humans, and itself served as a cattle farm for years. Many of the hillsides are un-forested, populated by broom sedge, Kentucky bluegrass, invasive bush honeysuckle, and fescue in the cold seasons and ironweed, milkweed, and wild blackberry briars in the summer. The few tree-covered ridges and valleys are home to young growth forest. Some hillsides are covered only by small cedar trees, others by young oaks, hickory trees, and sycamores.
The blunt scars of human activity are obvious. On a walk through the forest miles removed from any living human, a wanderer might come upon the jagged flat of an old roadbed winding back a holler. The moss might slide out from under her foot to reveal a long-covered rock fence. The sediment and wildflowers might make way for a set of irises or daffodils sown in a perfect square around the outline of what used to be a house. The skeletons of houses and sheds dapple the ploughed, logged, and grown-up again farmland, so that one can’t help but sense years of human memory, experience, loss, and joy embedded in the contour of the earth.
As a kid, this bastardized landscape was my playground. When all of the adults on the farm (except for my Uncle Brett) went to work in the morning, my sister and I would walk a quarter of a mile up the hill to his house to be homeschooled. He made pita and hummus for us, explained the basics of physics using his exercise ball, and showed us the wonders of Ray Hicks, Captain Beefheart, Junior Kimbrough, and Charlie Kinney via Youtube. He let us play for hours in the forest and encouraged us to work on nature art projects, the most organized of which was Camp Nest. We built the camp on the flat of an old roadbed in the woods just over the hill from his house and populated it with a home-made fire-pit, a dry tool-shelter made from lichen, and many nests modeled after those of different birds of indigenous to the region.
When Uncle Brett wasn’t looking after us, he was most likely to be found “going on a ramble.” More often than not, this entailed a slow meandering from house to house of the families who bought the farm together as well as our friends and neighbors who owned land down the road, particularly Roger Workman—a hard-working Bath co. man who rented a trailer on the neighbor’s farm. But between houses and on days when he felt less sociable, Uncle Brett would walk leisurely through the forest identifying plants, clearing out space for trails, stacking rocks in precarious piles, and marking the corners of his path with aluminum cans. At some point along the way, he would begin to document his ecological findings on a website called Mind-Map. He came to visit neighbors even less often, leaving the farm only on the rare occasion a once-in-a-lifetime master jazz musician, or Tyler Childers himself came to play at a venue in driving distance. These days, for the most part, he stays at home with his kids and tends to the creek, rerouting the path over a waterfall daily.
Uncle Brett is not a master ecologist, rather just a person—a person living in a place, looking at it intently every day, and trying to figure out what to call the things he sees. Some of the plants are native to Kentucky, many of them have been introduced since European contact. Some of the biological phenomena have occurred for millions of years, some since Indigenous Kentuckians came to inhabit the region and nurture the forest, some only since Europeans removed the forest, ploughed the clay hillsides, and slashed roads through the countryside. Some of the plants are correctly identified, some, he calls the wrong name for years before realizing the mistake.
Some of the things he sees are inexpressible in the available language: the magic that occurs in a heavily mossed, thick cedar forest, the sensation of surprise upon hearing the cough of a deer in the dead of winter, the new path taken by water through gulley after heavy rainfall, the sorrow of marking the property line with signs instructing the loggers on the neighboring farm not to cut the largest oak in our newly revitalized forest, the swell and retreat of locust song, the new path taken by water down a logged hillside, the muck and algae in the creek-bed all shriveled up after 40 days with no rain, the new path taken with water in the downpour following 40 days with no rain. the new path taken by water.
Looking, smelling, and hearing around the farm, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the inability to verbally express the finer sensory details of landscape. If not through language, how might we identify our surroundings? The extent to which I personally rely on language to understand my experiences makes it challenging to even believe or recall my own memories if words are not laid out neatly before me like step-stones through the muck of manure in the valley. If I can’t call it, how will I ever be able to find it? And how can we—as a cultural community bound together by place—use our resources sustainably, how can we use our resources at all, if we don’t know what to call them? The colonizing language we use can’t offer the specificity needed to understand how our little farm works, yet my Uncle Brett still tries with a persistence I’ve yet to find for myself. It seems there is no path to arrival on Flatbottom Farm through the English language, yet he shows up and looks. He attempts other modes of understanding. He catalogs what he can verbally and nurtures a physical relationship with the land. Every single day he walks out into/onto it and thinks about/with it. He tries to find the same “dark and bloody ground” Childers ponders in “Banded Clovis.” As far as I can tell, the deep observation of and engagement with the landscape that both my Uncle and Childers so stridently undertake is an act of revolution.
Tyler Childers on eTown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-E-Jlt6AtM
Tyler Childers, Purgatory.
Stephen Pearson, “‘The Last Bastion of Colonialism’: Appalachian Settler Colonialism and Self-Indigenization.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, 2013, pp. 165-184.
Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks.