Appalachian novelist Silas House on living in his complex region


In the photo, 98-year-old Mae Amburgey sits on top of her bed as water rises on all sides, three feet deep inside her home in Letcher County, Ky. Her legs are submerged in the cold, muddy water as she watches the flood pour in around her, destroying everything she owns. There is a strange calmness in her demeanor—arms wrapped gracefully around her knees, a strength in her shoulders, even in this moment of utter defeat—but her face is filled with worry and sorrow. Her granddaughter posted the photo in hopes that someone who sees him would save “Mom Mae” and two other family members.

Not far away, near the small town of Whitesburg, 17-year-old Chloe Adams had woken up when her family’s home was overtaken by water. She knew that if she didn’t escape, she would drown. Chloe just grabbed her dog, Sandy, and swam out. The teen hoped to reach her uncle’s house on higher ground, where the rest of her family took shelter, but the water was too deep and rough, so she and Sandy waited five hours on the narrow roof of a barn that was almost empty. used to be. completely submerged before being rescued in a kayak. In a photo that would eventually be seen by many, she looks exhausted into the camera, but her determination is intact. Sandy rests firmly on Chloe’s aching legs.

As someone from eastern Kentucky whose family lost almost everything to a flash flood when I was a kid, I was rushed back in time to that cold day when my mom and I escaped our trailer as it was engulfed in churning water. My family was safe this time, but not the complex place I love; Appalachia was again ravaged. The Hindman Settlement School, a center for literary arts, foodways, and dyslexia programming where I often teach, saw its offices, archives, and many classrooms destroyed by the storm that came so quickly there was no time to save anything. Participants in a writing workshop there had to flee their dormitories in the middle of the night to seek higher and more stable ground, fearing rising water and mudslides. Many Appalachians have had this experience. But now it happens much more often. We are all victims of climate change.

As the water rose, a panicked granddaughter shared a photo and an SOS

Americans’ reactions to the images and stories that emerged from the devastating flooding of eastern Kentucky in the early morning hours of July 28 generally fell into two camps. A group expressed condolences and joined the relief effort by donating their money or their services. The second posted mocking tweets (“Let’m swim,” one wrote), ignoring people they believe were responsible for voting for obstructionist Senators Mitch McConnell, who has blocked climate change action and mining regulations for decades, and Rand Paul, who has continuously criticized and voted against aid laws to help others, including hurricane victims. “These people got what they voted for,” commented another.

So many in the area have lost their homes, their children, their own lives. But we should also be concerned, because science shows that the same could happen to many of us one day. We can be better people by putting ourselves in the most desperate situations of others.

We are already seeing the climate crisis reshaping American lives. According to the US government, heavy rainfall has intensified in most of the country; the ability of a warmer atmosphere to hold more moisture has led to an increase in such precipitation. In eastern Kentucky, nine inches of rain fell in 12 hours late last month. A few days earlier, St. Louis had had record showers. Meanwhile, our two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead in Nevada and Lake Powell in Utah, both on the Arizona border, are on their way to dead pool status — the point where the water level is so low that it can’t flow downstream from the dam. . Massive wildfires devastate parts of California, Idaho, Montana and Hawaii. Scientists agree more than ever that we are dealing with extreme weather due to climate change.

The people most affected are generally those who live in the poorest regions of the world, which are also the places that were generally richest in natural resources. The Democratic Republic of Congo has an abundance of minerals such as diamonds, gold and copper, but its poverty rate is among the highest in the world. Studies show that oil-rich areas like Iraq and Syria are often less democratic. It behooves the corporations that control these countries to keep the people poor and subdued so that they can suck up the resources with as little interference as possible. The poorer the person, the less power they have to fight back or make changes to the law.

This has always been the case in Appalachia, where we have to deal with big business and government, as well as age-old stereotypes born at least in part to more easily seize our natural resources.

Often when I am on book tours, people will ask me why I choose to live in Kentucky. They find it hard to fathom why anyone would want to live in a place that movies, TV shows, and other media have taught them to be a cesspool populated only by slack jaws. This question reveals classism and ignorance of what it means to be poor or working class, or to have a loyalty. Eastern Kentuckians remain for the same reasons people returned to their homes after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or the California Infernos.

I am deeply proud to be from Appalachia, despite a total frustration with the way the region votes. You can love a place to your bones and still not quite understand it. We are people who have been fighting for labor rights and the environment for decades. I am the grandchild of a miner who lost his leg in the mines and, years later, gave up his breath when he died of a black lung, like so many others. We have fed this nation for two centuries with our wood, coal, gas, soldiers, music, literature and more. Some of us stay here because we have no other choice; my family lived in the floodplains not because we wanted to, but because we were poor.

I had to study for a while to find out why Mae Amburgey looked so familiar to me. I realized it was because I had seen that same look on my mother’s face when we escaped the flood all those years ago. Her face is the face of so many who have gone before and who will come after her, of all those who have had to fight to survive. I am haunted by the fatigue and determination in the eyes of Chloe Adams. Her eyes belong to so many children from all over the world who are powerless against the greed of others.

They’re my people, not just because they’re Appalachians, like me, but because they’re people. They’re familiar faces because we’re all caught up in the clutches of entities that have more rights than we do as individuals, including corporations that so often get favors from politicians like McConnell and Paul, neither of whom have even appeared in the devastated place they should represent. (McConnell said he planned to visit the area, and Paul said at a press conference in Louisville that he would “try to get there as soon as possible.”) They are ourselves and our children and our grandchildren in the near future; the climate crisis is now underway.

“My heart goes out to all the other people who have lost and suffered so much more than I have in this horrific devastation,” Adams said when she and her dog were safe and dry. Despite being nearly 100 years old, Amburgey swam out of that house. She was dragged by the churning water onto a nearby bridge, but then reached her rescuers’ boat.

Tonight there will be rain again in eastern Kentucky.

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