Last year, I attended the funeral of a friend’s father. The entire service took place on a mountaintop overlooking a rural valley in West Virginia. As the family sat under a small canopy next to the casket, people stood loosely arranged in semi-circles emanating out for about thirty feet. There weren’t a lot of people present, perhaps forty or fifty, but they all had a connection to the family that made them want to come and pay their respects. Some stood alone, and others huddled in groups. Periodic rain showers came through, but were broken-up by shafts of sunlight that painted dramatic pictures on the hillside worthy of an Ansel Adams photograph.
Staying true to the father’s wishes, the service was kept very simple. It was nothing more than a speaker and two musicians playing hymns on a banjo and acoustic guitar. When the rain fell, those with umbrellas shared with the people around them, while those who didn’t simply stood there, never flinching or complaining about the rain. As I looked around, I was struck with pride. Few outsiders will ever understand the strength of the people like those who stood on that mountaintop, and even fewer can ever hope to emulate it.
These people, my people, are often mocked and made fun of by outsiders who know nothing of the values and history that define us. We are all descendants from immigrants who helped settle the wilderness when life was being breathed into the American nation. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the eighteenth century. They planted the roots of family trees that continue to grow today.
We are fiercely independent, and do not shed ties to our families and communities with ease. Most of us believe in God, and we have the largest per-capita veteran population in the country. For centuries, we have served our communities, state, and nation. In his book Born Fighting, former US senator Jim Webb, pointed out that forty percent of the Continental Army was Scots-Irish. That has remained remarkably consistent for over two hundred years. We are born fighters and do not suffer threats to our families. We don’t just talk about freedom. We have fought and died so others can have it. We are providers, and when confronted with adversity or challenges, most of us look to ourselves first, and our communities second. Expecting help beyond that is often considered a waste of time.
So, what does this have to do with anything? Rural life is born out of cultural need for us to come together to help our own. When some communities suffer, they tear each other apart. When people from Appalachia suffer, we reach out and help each other. It’s just simply part of who we are.