On April 14, The Herald- Dispatch published an editorial “Little things will make WV a desirable place.” I have no quarrel with the “little things” suggested, but I found the implication that, as it is, West Virginia is apparently not a desirable place, saddening. A little Googling, however, does seem to back up the idea; the respected Gallup organization found that in 2019, in terms of wellbeing, our state ranks last. Even worse for Huntington residents, a more recent Gallup poll of wellbeing within each state ranks Huntington last in West Virginia.
I have lived in nine U.S. states and four non-U.S. countries (lived — not just visited) and have not found West Virginia lacking in comparison. What gives?
Part of the answer is found in a wise and interesting old book called “The Nine Nations of North America.” Briefly, the thesis is that there are deep-seated natural cultural divides in the USA that have nothing to do with boundaries of the 50 states. Example: New York City is, in itself, a “nation” because the driven and enterprising Dutch founders of New Amsterdam were motived solely by trade. Anyone welcome — we don’t care how you look or speak — just get into business and if you fail, don’t whine — start again.
The founders of our region were Scotch/Irish who had been marginalized back in the old country. Our “nation” — greater Appalachia — starts at the Appalachian Mountains and extends to east Texas.
Appalachian folks are by long tradition skeptical of people in power and “outsiders.” Our grandparents and even their grandparents had been forced into mountain living because the more fertile and easier-to-move-around-in flat lands were dominated by more cohesive and cooperative cultural groups. This gritty Appalachian history was well described in another recent Herald-Dispatch column by Grant McGuire, who lauded the Appalachian willingness to fight but neglected the unfortunate lack of felt wellbeing that Gallup polls have brought to light.
Emotionally, I encountered the sharpness of Appalachian sadness and resolution in a concert that took place just before a symbolic walk to Blair Mountain to protest the removal of a park that commemorated just the kind of attitude to which McGuire and I refer. One singer — her soaring voice clearly indicating she was not citified — sang a cappella and brought, not applause, but silence. A stunned, pregnant and appreciative silence.
A third Herald-Dispatch article titled “WV looks to lure outdoors enthusiasts here, work remotely” gives residents some hope. The move toward working remotely has been put on steroids by COVID, and the eastern USA has no better inland outdoor attractions than here. If we emphasize our parks and trails and build more of them, we will find a scattering of high-earner, back-to-nature types moving to our remoter and prettier areas.
It’s true that the population of these high tech folks will not include many state natives, but the fish guides, cleaners, grocery sellers, security guards and trail builders they will, directly or indirectly, employ will be natives. These jobs will not pay what coal mining did, but they will be steadier and healthier. And while climate change will bring megastorms and salt water incursion to the coasts and droughts and megafires to the West, it seems likely that our state will not be quite so exposed.
We may not ever rank high in wellbeing, but we will endure.