“I don’t know whether I’m part of Appalachia anymore, but Appalachia is part of me,” says Graham Shelby in a wonderful Lexington Herald-Leader essay published last week. It’s a refrain so many young Appalachian ex-pats find themselves saying. There is a pull to the place, but often, the place is not where they ultimately decide to hang their hat.
Shelby grew up in eastern Kentucky, but moved with his parents – Edmund and Anne Shelby, two Appalachian writers of note – just outside the region to Lexington in 1978. He now lives in Louisville, where he “haunt[s] coffee shops and Indian restaurants, listen[s] to classic rock and watch[es] sci-fi TV.” He is physically far from the mountains of his youth, but his roots in the region run deep, even though he often struggles to find the proper balance of Appalachian dialect to use.
His is the story of migration – generations of Appalachian diaspora, the impacts of which can still be seen in the region: “I grew up like countless other kids in Lexington, Cincinnati and points north, spending Friday and Sunday evenings on Interstate 75, Ky. 11 or some other umbilical highway in and out of a place the ancestors called home.”
He says one challenge in sorting out his feelings about the region is “acknowledging there is more than one Appalachia:” The real, geographical place, and the Appalachia that is a myth that can be “anywhere, everywhere, all the time.” He acknowledges all the challenges the region faces, and all the things that are good about it: food, song, arts, storytelling, and beauty. He also acknowledges the deep pull so many feel to Appalachia: “There is something that melts inside me when I see my own sons throw rocks in the same creek under the same burr oak as my late grandmother, who was born almost 100 years ago.”
His story is important to remember in our just transition of the region’s economy. There are many more just like Shelby who’s family moved away to other places, but who still inherently feel the gravitational pull that Appalachia has on those who’s ancestors’ bones are buried in and have returned back to the hills. No matter where we children of Appalachia go on this whole, wide green earth, we always feel the region drawing us near.
Surely there is a way to draw on this knowledge. Surely there can be a way to draw those ex-pat-Appalachians back to their homeland to live and work and play and raise their families. Surely some of them will return to plant their roots here. And surely those who do will help grow our transition.