Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People (Review)

PBS series looks at the region's history and mystery

Apr 8, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Appalachia is a mystery in the heart of America.

It’s surrounded by of some of the richest land and people in the world, the East, Gulf and Great Lakes coasts and the fertile Midwest, yet it’s chronically poor. It’s right next to us, but it seems remote — Appalachia includes much of eastern Kentucky and southern and eastern Ohio.

It has a long history of political activism — support for the New Deal and unionized labor in mines — yet it’s socially and religiously conservative and wary of change. What gives?

A new four-hour PBS series, Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People, tries to provide some answers. It sees Appalachia’s people as having been badly exploited, even dehumanized, by our capitalist economy. The rich industrialists who bought up the resources saw the “workers, like the land, (as) simply tools for profit.” The series debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on CET (Channel 48), and subsequent episodes air at 10 p.m. April 28, May 5 and May 12.

Appalachia takes way too long getting to the state of this region in the 20th and 21st centuries and then skims over critical material — union organizing at the mines; the 1960s-era War on Poverty’s emphasis on the area; recent horrendous mountaintop-removal mining — that should have been some of its most important topics. Instead, it allows a lot of romantic musings from several writers and scientists about the land — and the salamanders!

It might be that the series, directed and written by Ross Spears and narrated by Sissy Spacek, is trying to carefully build to its Howard Zinn-worthy radical conclusion about Appalachia. However, its soft Ken Burns-style approach ultimately shortchanges its point. But it does unearth lots of interesting and beautiful footage, plus old photographs and illustrations, along the way.

Appalachia is the world’s oldest mountain range, and the region has had a human population for 10,000 years. It contains all or parts of 13 states from New York to Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Within that area today are glorious forests, national parks, lakes and streams, but also much that is denuded and polluted.

As the series sees it, the rural, mostly white residents historically have been treated poorly — even though the region’s rugged, guerrilla-like mountaineers delivered a crucial victory in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Kings Mountain. The early settlers wrongly kicked out the Indians but at least practiced sustainable lifestyles that honored and preserved their resources. The Civil War ended that by introducing outsiders to the treasure that was Appalachia’s forests and mountains.

They bought land for a pittance, often tricking the small farmers, and set to work feeding the Industrial Revolution with timber. They clear-cut forests and left a scarred, fire-ravaged and flood-prone topography in their wake.

Coal barons also moved in, paying $1 for an acre of land that might produce up to 25,000 tons of coal. Low-paid workers, including children, worked long hours in unsafe mines and died young.

As if in cahoots with the industrialists, writers in the late 19th century began stressing the “strangeness” of Appalachian residents, creating stereotypes that still exist today and made it easier for them to be exploited.

“The land was transformed in the region from a place to live to a commodity to sell,” says historian Ron Eller in the series.

The Great Depression came early and, as Appalachia points out, never completely left. People left for big cities to survive. In recent years, there have been conservationist reforms, government aid and a new stress on recreational tourism, but also strip mining and mountaintop removal.

All in all, it’s a powerful story, a cautionary one about what can happen to the economically powerless, even in a democracy. Appalachia needs a much stronger voice in telling it, but at least it does try to tell it. Grade: C

Series begins at 10 p.m. April 14 on WCET (Channel 48) and continues through May 12. Get the full broadcast schedule here.