Spring does not often come early to my neck of the woods. Early May and the trees are only just gently feathering their leaves into the world. Mystical pockets helped along by Mother Nature’s alchemy remind us how unfurled but not quite fully formed leaves look. April’s showers linger in humid air.
Occasionally we’re treated to a day as hot as late June. Instead of grumbling, we revel in the sweat. Thankful to put away down coats and heavy scarves, everyone seems to have grown taller. No one hunches against the cold wind but beams upward at watery sunlight instead.
Birds chirp and chatter, building nests, mating, and laying eggs. Dogs decide to bask in sunlight and dewy grass, wet up to their bellies from exploring all the smells winter dulled with ice.
Gumption returns, too. Projects and improvements that lay fallow all through the cold get started and finished. Minds grow warm again with use, looking for new new new, fresh and happy and not yet slowed by summer’s heat.
My brain whirs and chirps and hums along, excited as a bird, looking for new projects and new ways of thinking. Thinking of a life to build and the lives all around me. Passion projects come and go, but the passion for a project stays and stays.
In the brief moments between reading in bed and sleep, in between discussions and dissertations, while knitting and sewing, and chopping, cooking, baking, cleaning and painting, I think about this place I live. I think about the lives led here and the one I’m leading here now. I think about the stories we tell and the ones that need telling. The little ones, the true ones.
I think a lot about writing. That itchy feeling in my fingers that comes just before the thoughts coalesce. The snap I feel with an ah ha moment. That choked up feeling I get when I read something so true, see something performed so right. That’s the story I want to tell, I tell myself.
I drive around with the windows down. Thinking. Thinking about this place and who we are. I sing along and I wonder. I wonder who we are in this little corner of Western Pennsylvania. James Carville famously said our commonwealth was Pittsburgh on one end, Philadelphia the other, with Alabama in the middle. It resonates because it’s true.
But it isn’t, not exactly. Our foodways are rather less lush, our words shorter and more to the point, our ways and feelings held far closer to our chests. We mistrust outsiders and won’t exactly be inviting a newcomer directly to our homes before she proves herself. You do your work, and why are you complaining because we all have to work hard to get by. Your life’s no harder than mine.
We think of ourselves as Northeasterners, and I never thought I held that distinction more dear to my heart than when I had to talk Midwesterners out of thinking Western PA is part of the Midwest. I’ve been thinking, though, and reading and pondering, and letting my mind whir and chirp along. We aren’t Northeasterners here, either, not really.
We’re rural people, and forest people, and hill and holler people, even if we do try to fancy it up and say holler but spell it hollow. We’re crick people, which means creek, and river people, and we’re pickup truck people, and we’re a people still in a place that hasn’t had an industrial boom since they finished cutting all the trees down in 1900. We’re still here, but not exactly stuck here, though we’re stuck here, too.
I’ve been trying to figure us out, as one does, to be objective but not condescending to the same people I went to high school with, and not pandering to the people who left to get a job different than the ones left here. What I keep coming back to, what I keep feeling a kinship with, is that we’re Appalachian people.
I’ve tried it out a few times, with people who have lived here and gone away and come back and people who have never left, and no one has liked hearing it. Every single person has instinctively recoiled a bit. If we can’t mock West Virginians and Tennesseans and Kentuckians and all the rest, they’ll be mocking us, seems to be the mindset.
Then we talk about it for a bit, we really think about it, or maybe I push it a bit, and, shit, if we aren’t Appalachian. Our hills and ridges are technically part of the range, if evened out from the peaks further south.
We don’t do kil’t greens, but we do do wilted lettuce, which is the same damn thing. Our seasonings are all salt and black pepper and vinegar. Spices are foreign and expensive and why don’t you have a slab of meat with that? Now, not that we haven’t evolved, because we do have the internet and food blogs and fancy coffee…but if you wanted a cappuccino, couldn’t you have gotten one of those from Sheetz?
We get our taciturnity from our Scotch-Irish and German ancestors. Thank god for the Italian immigrants and the Eastern Europeans that came to work the coal mines and steel mills farther south, or no one would invite anyone else to a party. We’d just have one and be pissed only our kin came. That’s alright: we didn’t need them anyway.
We talk a bit funny, even if we don’t stretch our vowels out, and we don’t bother with the letter g at the end of words. We’re mistrustful of outsiders and the government as is the way of rural people the world over, but we’re pretty sure we’re right anyway.
If you haven’t lived here, and by here I mean on the same street in the same town, for generations, you aren’t exactly from here. Your grandfather was from here, but he moved your daddy two towns over, then he moved you back, but not into town, outside of town. I suppose you’ll do. Let me tell you a story.
I’ve been thinking, letting my mind wander driving around with the windows down. I’ve been waiting for those itchy fingers and knowing what story to tell. I’ve been waiting for some sunshine and gumption and heat and passion.
Spring has sprung. The green haze of the treetops grows less ephemeral every day. I think of sweat and toil, labor physical and mental. My brain whirs and chips and hums. I think of this place where I live. I think of the lives we have led here and do lead here and will lead here. I think of the stories we tell. I think I know the ones that need telling.