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Wednesday, 01 March 2006 00:00

Biggers on Appalachia: New book studies Appalachia’s national significance

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Travel writer and National Public Radio commentator Jeff Biggers spent 20 years collecting and researching the stories and historical papers that make up the backbone of his new work The United States of Appalachia.

It was a process undertaken much by chance, as travel began to reveal Appalachia’s effects on the rest of America — the region’s stereotype as a backwoods hillbilly breeding ground didn’t hold true upon examination of its cultural outsourcing.

From Cherokee scholar Sequoyah’s invention of the first modern syllabary to the Southern mountaineers role as some of the first to rise up against the British, the Appalachians have existed as a melting pot for the creation of social change.

“My whole thesis is that you can’t understand America until you understand Appalachia,” Biggers said.

Historically there have been three sentiments felt toward Appalachia — it is picturesque, it is to be pitied or it is a land of depravity, Biggers said. Naturally, there is much more to the region than that.

“This book is really to say, “Hey, we have this incredible heritage,’” Biggers said.

Raised in southern Illinois, Biggers had an idea of what it was like to be lumped in to a generalization — to outsiders his state is most commonly associated with Chicago rather than rural cornfields. This perceived lack of individual identity also applies to the Appalachian region, which stretches across most of the east coast, but may be seen as having a singular sense of place.

“I think people from the outside think Applachia’s all the same,” Biggers said.

The region runs the gamut from coal mines to Great Smoky Mountains, as do its people, customs and dialects. What the region shares is a common thread of a society shaped by its terrain.

“The whole point is why the mountains, the land, still determines our culture,” Biggers said. “The mountains sort of drive how we live.”

Appalachian mountaineers often are described as having been bred a little hardier, with a little more mettle than perhaps some of the rest — and at times the conflict that taught us these lessons came by our own design. The Appalachian region had a thriving abolitionist movement, and a thriving slave population. Tryon-born international jazz diva Nina Simone opened her concert with folk tunes that drew from her Scots-Irish, Cherokee and African heritage.

“To me the clash of that culture is the beauty of Appalachia,” Biggers said.

Appalachia continues to move and to change, in some ways not for the better.

“America does need to come up to the mountains to deal with some issues,” Biggers said.

Mountain top removal — an issue hitting particularly hard in eastern Tennessee — coal miners safety, and continued development are things that need to be dealt with from a national perspective, Biggers said, as like his final chapter suggests “We Are All Appalachians.”

“People have come in with a different perspective of the mountains, they’re trying to control the mountains,” he said.

The people who have lived here for generations and have shaped the Appalachian heritage harbor a love for the mountains that is more than just a trend, more than a second home with a lake view — it is a love that affects how residents eat, sleep, drink and build their homes.

“We need to try to live in sync with our geography,” Biggers said.

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