The Blue Ridge Mountains have figured it out. During Winter and Spring, the rain pools up in the sky then showers over the many waves of mountains below. The water first drapes itself over the mountain tops and then slowly filters into the valleys. The process must be time consuming because water can be seen bubbling out of the rocks on the mountains year round, sometimes turning to ice in the winter. The air has been unseasonably dry in Appalachia this year, yet the grass in the valleys below never turns brown, a likely result of the slow trickle of moisture feeding it year round.
The system is real simple and quite neighborly, with the mountains feeding the valleys with their slow internal precipitate. Through layers of rock, earth, and the roots of tall trees, the water takes its sweet time, for it has all summer to get there. And for this prolonged moment of focus we might just find tranquil beauty bubbling up from such a glorious trek.
Whereas modern life is full of so much clutter. And technology did not make life easier as promised. Millions of photos to sort, emails that just won’t stop, excessive shopping bags at the grocery store, just stuff, stuff stuff. Filtering out the unnecessary, in the modern world, involves vigorous energy and is nearly a full time job which leaves behind exhaustion.
Whereas the water seeps through several layers of stone, taking a quite peaceful journey that leaves behind ultra pure water. If only we could make water as pure as nature does.
Whereas other waters rush down mountain gaps through shape shifting streams bringing mineral rich waters into the valleys below. Rushing down swiftly bringing sudden change.
Fast or slow, the water makes its way down and begs for us to listen.
Instead the promise of the ease that modern life made to us smolders under the surface, finally consuming us before exploding into the air.
Instead the loneliness of modern life rises up until it reaches the edge of the river bed before spilling over the edge. And we let the sadness overtake us while we wait for the flood waters to recede, only to be left in a film of mud and displaced fish.
In Asheville earlier this year, we watched the leaves in April finish their annual unfolding, their shiny pale green leaves ready to be recruited for a season of life. Spring rains were strong. They pounded down on us so much so that John took cover under a mailbox while his phone and Garmin both failed from the stress of being drenched so suddenly. Without technology, he feared he would not find his way home. The creek behind our Airstream swelled up and we prepared ourselves to be ready to hook up and drive away if the water crested the bank.
And this Fall, the nights were still too warm and the leaves did not shift to their dramatic reds, yellows and oranges. Mostly, the leaves just turned brown, curled inward and dropped to the ground. The climate must surely be shifting.
But just as water in the Blue Ridge takes it’s sweet time to filter down, it takes a long time for people to change. Mostly people just want to run away.
In North Georgia at the bottom end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I came back from a run in the woods and a man was standing there looking at my van.
“Is that your van?”
“I didn’t know they made vans like that”
“Yeah, I think it originally came from Alaska”
“Funny you say that because I was actually thinking that if I had that van like that, I would drive it all the way to Alaska.”
“Well that’s about as far from here as you could get.”
And so too are the people slowly filtering out leaving history behind.
I imagine that there is nothing left in those mountains and the lives of the people built by coal. Nestled deeper underground, the coal now takes longer to find. Huge coal seeking machines are faster than the people they replaced, but sometimes more expensive. Once seen as the ultra pure result of the energy that plants absorbed from the sun millions of years ago, coal is now viewed as dirty and rotten. It pollutes the environment. Unlike the water that paces itself through a slow trek through the mountains, the coal economy is fleeting, and generations of people who have relied on it, are sort of washing away.
The only option is change. But change is not easy for economies literally built in stone. Moving quickly is not the Appalachian way. Taking that first step requires balancing on one leg, if only for a moment, and that takes a lot of faith, which, luckily, they have.
In places like Pikeville, Kentucky, startup companies are investing time and training coal miners in new technologies. The beauty is now instead of getting all black in the face and risking their lives trapped in an underground tunnel, these miners just need to learn to code. For the miners, it’s just a new skill and the bonus is that technology jobs usually pay the same as coal. Now aptly named “Silicon Holler”, the program seems to be working, albeit with the slow progress that the region is used to.
Eventually the coal economy will be filtered out of existence and most likely environmentalist will rejoice. But instead of a celebration of destruction there is hope. And with this new foundation, aptly built by the people that developed the old foundation, there is a pretty good chance that the pure triumph of the human spirit will be left behind, continuing to keep the valleys green year round.