What the Mountaineer Can Teach Us
THERE ARE aspects of mountain life which might well be adopted by persons now living the over-organized, distressfully busy lives characteristic of our overall society. Let the outsider consider seriously before he rushes in with preconceived notions of how to get the mountaineer to improve (translate: “be like us”). Mountain people have a deep feeling of belonging and of loyalty. They are unashamedly glad to be mountaineers. They are at home here in a unique way. They belong to a family, a valley, a county, a state. They know they belong, and others know it, too. The rootlessness of a society on the move is not found here.
In its less extreme aspects, the person-orientation of the people is refreshing in an America that becomes more and more willing to assign one a number. Here you do know your neighbors (almost too well!), and they know you. Store clerks know who you are and treat you as a human being; service station employees give extra service to please you. There is time to talk and make friends. A former resident back from New Jersey for a visit put it this way: “Up there, they are different from us. Here I care for you and you care for me. We know each other and help each other. There it’s ‘hooray for me, and heck with you.’ “
People in the mountains are not driven by the clock or the appointment book. “The only people who run here are you preachers,” someone once said to me. My wife and I knew that we had accepted the society when we bought a porch swing and found the time to sit in it on a long summer evening, enjoying the quiet and beauty of the mountains around us.
There is an independence from the pressures of the world — no “keeping up with the Joneses,” — no social climbing. The avid and grasping materialism which is apparent in some places is absent here. A man is satisfied with what he has at the moment. Granted, this lack of striving has been carried to an extreme, but a certain easing of the pace is welcome.
The old are not shuffled off in a corner to die alone. If the immediate family cannot care for an aged person, sometimes friends in the community will do it. Many times an old person lives in his own little two-room house as long as he is able, with family and friends to “look about him” several times a day. Care of the bedfast may not be as efficient as that in a nursing home, but it is far easier on the old, who are most accustomed to folk ways. Even though the care of an elderly invalid often works real hardship on the family, nursing homes are seldom resorted to. Such care is considered part of one’s duty to parents — almost a payment for care received in one’s infancy.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of the folk culture will become evident in the cybernetic age to come. Much of Appalachia has slept through a revolution, having missed the whole industrial age with its competition, with its idea that the meaning of life is found in work, that education is only to prepare one for one’s work, that money is the measure of success. This has been a restless age, in which men have driven themselves by the clock and the calendar, retiring in their sixties to rot quickly away because they have never learned how to live unless they are working. Only the coal-producing areas of the southern mountains were affected by the industrial age, and even these sections caught scarcely more than a glimpse of it. Their exposure did not last long enough for them to be caught up by its spirit and molded by its pressures.
Thus the mountaineer has not had drilled into him the virtue of working for the sake of work. He can sit on his front-porch swing and be content, not having to be up doing something or creating something. He can spend time with a clear conscience. I do not want in any sense to romanticize the mountaineer’s situation, but I do want to suggest, as others have done, that perhaps the mountaineer will be more ready to enter the cybernetic age (in one leap from the agrarian age) than those who are deeply enmeshed in the industrial age. When that time comes fully upon us, when machines take the toil out of work, when long hours are not required of industrial workers, when making a living does not require life’s main strength, the mountaineer may well be ready to move into the situation more easily than the rest of us. The cybernetic age is coming rapidly — the age when we must redefine the worth of man in terms other than the nature of his work and the size of his income. Making such a redefinition will not be easy, for it will require a complete change in our concepts and our philosophy of life, as well as in our activities. When our life situation becomes transformed by the cybernetic revolution, it may well be that the mountaineer will already have the concept of life and work fit for the new age.
— excerpted from Yesterday’s People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia by Jack Weller (1965)
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