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What Does Appalachia Mean to You?

By Madeleine Isabella Hall and Savannah Dummer

November 23, 2016

The authors are Appalachian State University students, who are serving as LiKEN Research Assistants in the Fall 2016 term as part of their Anthropology of Environmental Justice class.  In this blog, they describe their experiences as participants in the September 30 meeting of a new working group to study ownership of land, coal, oil, gas, and other minerals in Appalachia.  Co-hosted by LiKEN, this meeting took place in Lexington KY. For more on this new Appalachian Land Study, please go to

“For decades, Appalachians have been told what we want and need. And I am fed up with that.  So we need to hear from you! What do you want to see? What do you want?” – Landra  Lewis

Community members began by introducing themselves by name along with why they loved Appalachia, starting with a letter from the alphabet. Bill Price kicked it off with,  “We all love Appalachia because it’s awesome, with an A, get it?”, expressing, as did many others, how beautiful, picturesque, and inspiring this region the people gathered for the first Appalachia Ownership Land Study meeting on Sept 30 in Lexington KY.

Many participants gave more intimate responses that offered a peek into how Appalachia is more than just an escape from the city or a part of the backwoods stereotype.

“Its shared its secrets with me”, Mary Cerillo.

“It’s just”, Mary Hufford.

“It’s righteous”, Shanna Scott.

“It’s youth”, Ashlee Lane.

Understand, Support, Empower, and Inform

Each and every community member, researcher, activist, grassroots member, and organizer who has a stake in this land study inspired the artwork displayed here. Painted in the center, are the Appalachian mountains with the main components of the new land study written in the peaks to show their importance in the community taking back this region. The hands symbolize the community members, as a whole, with academics (tassel) and the legal system (scales) all working together. Some groups, including labor unions, economic development groups, and the deep-southern states are written along the hands to better represent their involvement. Each member in a community should have an equal part and say in this process.

The tassel wrapped around one of the fingers in a nod to the original Appalachian Land Ownership Study of 1979, because we are building upon it. In between the hands, is a pine tree that symbolizes grassroots organizations that are making a real comeback in this collective collaboration. As Carol Judy puts it, “…this is a time for grassroots academia and grassroots strategists”. Marie Cirillo discussed successful grassroots efforts where land trusts were created in rural towns, and suggested that research into the question of “why can’t community land trusts work?” should materialize. She also added that she felt like “…we don’t have a place in planning anymore”.

An important step in the new land study is to establish agency for every single individual and a platform on which they can act together. The tree also symbolizes growth in the community to work together on issues (each tree branch) that were caused by the coal industry in this region. Such issues include deforestation, poverty, relocation, erosion, pollution, and exploitation of the community. Carol Judy brought up the importance of the temperate rain forest and watersheds and asked, “When does government have responsibility in broader based commons?” Davie Ransdell discussed generational leases where people may be leasing land from coal companies, but do not own the land or the mineral rights. She added that this would make records not easily available, if they even exist. Joe Childers chimed in to describe how permits can even overlap. Davie voiced her concerns over the issue of property being passed down through the generations to multiple heirs, resulting in unclear ownership and decision-making left out of the hands of landowners.

Above the mountains, is a pair of eyes that shed tears not of sadness but of joy. They were inspired by the reaction of a member who attended the first Appalachia Ownership Land Study meeting in Lexington, KY; Deborah Bahr.  Carol Judy turned to her to say, “…realizing the pearls of the moment” as Deborah had tears of relief from the sprouts of communal action unfolding.  This is a sign of healing. This meeting is giving hope for the future and that’s what this painting is all about–healing in Appalachia and in what this beautiful region means to its people. It’s about every single Appalachian dweller taking back their home by being informed, empowered, and supported by one another. These tears are no longer tears of sadness but joy and relief that a very promising new land study is already underway and participants are growing in number. Our vision is to make data and knowledge, in general, more accessible to everyone through digitizing it in a language everyone can understand.

Art is a powerful tool for advocacy and sharing knowledge. It’s also a testament to the fact that there are many routes that can be taken to spread information, to speak to the hearts of every stakeholder. One member voiced that visual and descriptive models for change are needed to accompany quantitative data. Every person has a different set of skills and background that can be valuable and open up the door to more resources that can used for this land study. This is not a process that is reserved for just professionals and academics. All walks of life and all forms of expertise are vital.

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