“Hillbilly”. Though modern culture deems it a derogatory label, it just isn’t so. The true meaning is hill folk, the mountain people of the Appalachian area. Traditional Appalachian life was hard, but it is the root of what we call sustainable living. Hillbilly should be recognized as a term of endearment and wisdom, not an insult, or unintelligent bumpkin.
When it comes to sustainable living, there is no better example than the Appalachian people. These wise hillbilly folk don’t just live in the mountains; they live with the mountains. This is a the first in a series about sustainable living in Appalachia, sharing the beauty, joys, and challenges of traditional mountain life and the people who lived it.
Modern power, plumbing, and other conveniences are available today, even if we visit an Appalachian rental cabin. However, imagine not having electricity, AC, indoor plumbing, or housing inspectors (excluding the local carpenter). That was life in the mountains less than a century ago, and even now in some isolated areas. Hopping out to the local Piggly Wiggly, Costco, or Walmart wasn’t always feasible. Many Appalachian towns were hours away from shopping chains, and money was scarce.
A basic general store would normally be within a few miles, but pickins’ could be slim. Shop owners offered limited items, primarily raw goods, like flour/meal, salt, material, rope, soap, etc. On a lucky day, one found homemade jams, jellies, or soup from a local canner. Shopkeepers could make special orders, but it might take weeks or months to arrive, depending on the origin.
Handcrafting and hard work replaced anything unavailable at the general store. Living off Mother Nature’s bounty, locals learned to hone their skills and survive. Craftsmen like furniture builders, wood carvers, smiths, farmers, and seamstresses, used their skills to barter and trade. Work was not always available, even in mining towns, and wages were often low. Still, there was a sense of community, and friends and families gathered together for food, like picnics after a Sunday service.
Trees provided wood and springs supplied fresh water on the mountain. The terrain offered wild berries, herbs, roots and ample hunting. Supplies were precious, so resources were respected, avoiding waste and rot. Beyond that, farming put food on the table or in storage for cold winter months. Preservation could be challenging, regardless of the season. Root cellars and canning were common forms of preserving foods.
What we consider education today was a lot different on the mountain. It was not uncommon for hillbillies to end their schooling around 6th grade to help out at home or work. From a modern perspective, that probably sounds horrific, but in the mountain environment, it was the way of things. Schools were usually all grades together in one or two room school houses. In most cases, only basic reading, writing and arithmetic were taught. The real education came from living the day to day life and survival skills needed for the terrain.
Nothing really came easy for our Appalachian ancestors. Today, if we want to chat with a family member, we use a telephone, or the internet. Decades ago, it was challenging to communicate with those on the mountain. If family didn’t live nearby, travel or the postal service were the only means of getting news. Most mailmen visited by mule or horseback, which made travel slow. A good mule or rusted out farm truck was a blessing. Sometimes people weren’t notified of weddings or deaths till their loved ones were married or buried, and both were usually big affairs.
Although suffering and impoverished at times, Appalachian people are rich in wisdom, sustainability, and traditions. They know the lay of the land and how to best survive in the terrain. Everything had a time, and knowing when to hunt, plant, and harvest were key to survival, especially during times with no work available.
We have barely scratched the surface of the Appalachian people’s wisdom. As this series continues, we will delve deeper into topics like food preservation, woodworking, mountain remedies, superstitions, lore, and more. What aspect do you find most fascinating about the Appalachian communities?
Come back next week to read part 2 in our series on traditional sustainable living in the Appalachia Mountains, “The Sustainable Living of Traditional Appalachian Folk: Food and Preservation.”