In Search of Appalachia is a Must-Read
Travel writer Nancy Diggs’ Exploration of her home
By Matt Martella
Nancy Brown Diggs has spent her literary career writing in-depth books about cultures from all over the world that she has gotten the opportunity to explore.
Her newest book, In Search of Appalachia, is an entirely new project for her because, instead of looking beyond borders for inspiration, she is diving into the variety of cultures and people in nearby Appalachia.
In Search of Appalachia is Nancy Diggs’ eighth book in her prolific writing career. Originally from Kentucky, Diggs was surprised by what she learned about Appalachia while writing this book. Diggs has said that her first-hand experience with the Appalachian culture was quite different than how it is portrayed in the media.
In Search of Appalachia covers a variety of aspects of Appalachia, from historic landmarks to the people who live there. Many highlights of the book include The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee; the restored Barthell Coal Mining Camp, next to the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, in the Stearns, Kentucky, area; the hike-in Charit Creek Lodge in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area; and, in Bristol, Tennessee, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.”
In Search of Appalachia is published by Hamilton Books and is available by Rowman & Littlefield for $24.99 for paperback and $23.50 for eBook.
Excerpt from the Book: What They Found –Geography
What would greet the immigrants when they arrived in the New World? For many, it was indeed the Promised Land, and one created over millions of years.
If we could fast track our geological history, the world would seem to be a restless place: continents shifting, mountains forming as the earth’s crust folded and faulted, seas rushing in and then disappearing.
Ancient lava flows metamorphized into gneiss, schist, and granite, while heat and pressure from the collision of continental masses and other forces melted rock, sometimes causing it to “flow with a consistency like that of toothpaste,” leaving a scene that can “look like the folds and swirls in a marble cake.”
For geologists, who can read the rocks in the same way that some read books, the Appalachians must be a real page-turner. Scientists tell us that a billion years ago there was one continent surrounded by water, a supercontinent.
We can see evidence of that period in places like North Carolina’s Blowing Rock and Red Top Mountain in Georgia, while spectacular outcroppings like North Carolina’s Whiteside Mountain and Chimney Rock are of ancient granite, revealed by the erosion of softer rock. In some areas, mountain paths sparkle with tiny particles of mica, as if a powerful force had sprinkled diamond dust.
One Second After 12
Put in simple terms, using the analogy of a 24-hour clock, all of this would have happened about one second after 12:00, with mankind appearing almost an hour later, less than a second before the minute hand reaches 24:00. Or, in terms of a calendar year, Kentucky’s coal was being created around 2:30 P.M. on December 6. The Paleozoic period, during which many Appalachian features would emerge, would end on December 12, around 1:30 in the afternoon, and—finally—people would appear at about ten minutes before midnight on December 31.
As continents shifted, strata of rocks would be pushed over others, vertical layers would become horizontal or be forced into crazy-quilt angles. Some 750 million years ago, vast inland seas like that of the Ocoee Basin, which covered parts of the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia, were created and left their mark; sediment, accumulating over millions of years, became limestone and dolomite. Over thousands of years, erosion trimmed down formerly Alpine heights.
While today, by world standards, Appalachia’s mountains are not big—the highest, Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, is a mere 6,684’—they’ve helped to shape the character of its population.
Photographs from space give a clear picture of accordion-pleated green velvet, whose steep slopes and deep valleys would form remote and hidden “hollers.” There, settlers created their isolated communities, learning to rely upon themselves.
But there’s a surprise in the landscape at Middlesboro, Kentucky, which otherwise is a typical Appalachian city. Some 300 million years ago, it’s estimated, a huge meteorite struck the earth, creating a basin in which the town would later be established.
The meteorite would play a role in the American history of the eighteenth century. The thrust of tectonic plates had prepared the way, and the meteorite landed in just the right place for erosion to enlarge the gap and make it easier for pioneers like Daniel Boone to head west. About three-fourths of the settlers who came to Kentucky are thought to have passed through this, the Cumberland Gap.
Not only would coal have been formed in those ancient eras, but rich deposits of copper and gold—more like a curse than a blessing–would form in ways that were not well understood until the late 1970s.
That was when scientists “saw dark plumes of hot fluids emerging from vents along fractures in the ocean floors.” The liquid emitted contained metal deposits that would accumulate around the vents. It was surmised that the same process had formed gold and copper, the metals having spewed from vents in the floor of the Ocoee Basin, once an inland sea.
Gold Miners Rushed In
Gold would help determine the fate of the native Cherokees. Although those in the region had long known about the deposits, gold was of no use to them, but when the word spread among the white population, hordes of gold miners rushed in.
It all began when twelve-year-old Conrad Reed found a seventeen-pound gold nugget in a nearby North Carolina stream. Not knowing its value, but admiring its beauty, the family used it as a doorstop for a few years, until someone took it off to a jeweler for his opinion.
In today’s currency, it was worth about $160,000. Although the jeweler paid a paltry $3.50 to the family, history tells us that eventually, they may have received fair value for this, the first recorded gold nugget discovered in America. Soon the
Reed gold mine was in full operation and continued to produce for another couple of decades. Although it is no longer operating, It is still possible to tour the mine today.
Greed for gold would be an impetus for President Andrew Jackson to forcibly remove the Cherokees from their homeland in the winter of 1837-38. More than a third of them, some 4,000 souls, would die on this “Trail of Tears.”
And coal? It too would be a mixed blessing. Although the hill folk looked to the mines to support them, the greed of absentee mine-owners eventually led to the destruction of the land, and damage to its people.
Copper and iron ore were found in abundance. What geologists called the Ocoee Basin, an ancient sea, came to be called the Copper Basin.
Mid-nineteenth-century mining and smelting of the copper deposits created sulfur dioxide fumes, which in turn produced acid rain, creating a nineteenth-century Carthage: thousands of acres of land where nothing would grow. It was only after some fifty years that better methods were discovered to convert the toxic fumes into sulfuric acid for fertilizer production.
The process of change continues, as evidenced by frequent landslides, as softer rock collapses under harder layers, sliding down the steep slopes. Interstate 40, which goes through Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina, was closed for several months in 1997 and 2009 due to massive rockfalls, as was Interstate 75 in Tennessee in 2016. Other geological events continue, but the pace is too slow, and our lives too short, to discern them.
In this chapter, Diggs bounces between different viewpoints seamlessly, meaning the reader can be educated on the historical and scientific significance of a particular site without the transitions feeling jarring.
Diggs is also good at applying perspective to major historical events surrounding Appalachia, such as how the discovering of copper and gold ended up becoming a burden on the communities that discovered it.
Who is Nancy Brown Diggs?
Nancy Diggs has been immersing herself in cultures from all over the world since she was in college.
In addition to an early work exchange program in Switzerland, Nancy earned a B.A. in French at Western Reserve University and a PhD. in East Asian studies at the Union Institute and University. She has also worked as a translator for the French, German, and Spanish languages.
Nancy is an enthusiastic traveler, so much so that she has visited every continent. To name a few of her international escapades: she lived in France, participated in language immersion/homestay programs in Japan and Mexico, and volunteered in Ecuador, Haiti, and Mexico.
Praise for In Search of Appalachia
In Search of Appalachia is available now, and it is already receiving great reviews from critics. Jean Ballantine of Wright State University writes “THIS IS A MUST READ for those interested in Appalachian culture’s historical development, social values, music, religion, and social problems.”
Bob Taft, who was the Governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007, also has high praise for the book, saying “In Search of Appalachia paints an intimate and respectful portrait of the people of Appalachia. In a conversational tone enlivened with entertaining anecdotes and interviews, Diggs illustrates the spiritual and cultural values unique to the Appalachians and shows how they have survived the many challenges they have faced.”
Author Ann Hagedorn says “In an era when the truth about everything is crucially needed, author Nancy Diggs unveils the true soul of Appalachia, a region commonly depicted by stereotypes of poverty, ignorance, and violence.
“From coal mines to mountain churches to dance halls of country music, Diggs explores it all, sculpting new images as she introduces her readers to strong, creative, hardworking folks—many having survived tough times through their music, religion, and sheer strength gained from hardscrabble pasts.”
Her passion for writing is intertwined with her love of travel, as she often writes extensively about cultures she gets to interact with first-hand.