On Sunday, I ran across two stories in the media that illuminated one another in such a way that I dropped the paper and stood up from my chair.
The first was a Washington Post story reprinted in the Gazette-Mail titled “In W.Va., a chance to connect with the land, disconnect from devices.” The writer is Christina Ianzito, a staffer for AARP, whose twitter handle is “Book lover. Stable genius.”
Ianzito’s piece recounted a trip she took to Lost River State Park for what she called a “low-tech” weekend. Why? “Because sometimes it seems awfully hard to juggle both digital and family interactions,” she writes, “without compromising something meaningful.”
The second piece is a podcast from the series “Homecomers,” featuring Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (“Heroin(e)”) of Elkview.
Producer Sarah Smarsh is the author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” which became a national best-seller. According to their website, “‘Homecomers’ brings you stories of folks who, as residents or advocates, remain committed to their complex, embattled homes.”
No home is more embattled than the West Virginia home of Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Yet she may be the most stubborn “homecomer” in Appalachia — if not America — today. Smarsh explains: “She hasn’t left home for Hollywood — which is precisely why she’s well equipped to get the story about West Virginia right.” She and Sheldon spoke about the danger of the media “parachuting” in to tell the story of place like Appalachia, where the instinct is to focus on run-down houses and despair.
Here’s the part of the podcast that I kept rewinding:
“I think there’s a shift going on beneath the surface of our national story: It’s a return to, or a refusal to leave, the least glamorous corners of this country — I’m talking about the small towns, rural lands, working-class communities that national headlines say are ‘dying’ — in order to fight for the place that feels like home.”
What Ianzito and her family discovered was something part and parcel of that “shift.”
She writes about a 3.5-mile hike with her teenagers: “Nobody stops to check their phones for new texts or emails along the way because we can’t. Instead we chat about the possibility of a bear sighting (highly unlikely) or enjoy the silence.” Her 16-year-old eventually gets it. “Mia ... says she thinks society has a problem with cellphone addiction,” telling her mom she even wishes sometimes she didn’t have one.
Here’s my point: America is desperately trying to find its soul. Sheldon believes that nature is where to find it: “I mean, it’s nature. I’m very connected to nature. It’s one of the reasons why I still like to live in West Virginia, you know — hiking, kayaking, being out in nature, being able to walk outside and go into the Kanawha State Forest and going into Fayetteville and places to just be among nature. I mean, all my grandparents and parents instilled in us the stewardship of loving nature and taking care of it.”
The irony, of course, isn’t lost on Sheldon that the scourge of addiction and extraction industries has left these precious places in ruin. The temptation is to have disdain for the people of these places, but Sheldon doesn’t let the national media off that easily: “I don’t think America is ready to own up to the fact that we all share responsibility in the shame and stigma and negative environments that are created that only fuel drug use or substance use disorder.”
Smarsh’s commentary seems to link Ianzito’s experience with Sheldon’s: “So, the United States has two geographic parts: the places our economy and culture tell us to get out of and the places we’re told to seek in order to make it.“ Ianzito lives where she has to in order to make it, yet she yearns for a place where her children can unplug, connect with nature, and find a sense of community our nation has lost.
Sheldon wants desperately to figure out the should-I-stay-or-should-I-leave conundrum in her filmmaking: “I want to find people who are just as passionate about not seeing this place die. I don’t think I can continue to exist within this region without trying to focus my lens and trying to understand other people who give a shit.”