From ancient mountains to the Appalachians…

Dawn reports on yet another mountain trip, this time to the Appalachians.

As my post about attending Thinking Mountains 2018 in Banff, Canada, may have suggested, one of the real advantages of studying mountains is getting to visit them. A few months ago, our mountains project was privileged to be invited to participate in the International Mountain Studies Symposium hosted by Appalachian State University. I pulled the short straw (!) of representing the team and travelling to the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.

I was asked to give a keynote, so decided to go for a somewhat ambitious title to justify my position in the programme, speaking on A Mountains Manifesto? Toward the Historical Mountain Humanities. My proposal – riffing somewhat off Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto – was that a collaborative, longue dureé history of mountains had the potential to highlight far more diversity of experiences, and offer far more to contemporary debates, than the long-established sense that European appreciation of mountains only began a few hundred years ago. This received a warm hearing in a room of Appalachian scholars: somewhat akin to premodern mountain history, the mountain experiences and engagements of the Appalachian region have frequently been overlooked and stereotyped.

The symposium itself was a rich demonstration of the diversity of mountain studies in Appalachia: with parallel sessions representing around 80 speakers I was barely able to scratch the surface of topics on offer, but was variously moved, fascinated, and enlightened by the panels I did attend. This single day of learning and discussion would have made the trip worth making on its own, but Appalachia had more in store for me. The mastermind of the symposium, Katherine Ledford, had planned a series of field trips for the half dozen or so international guests of the event. The day after the symposium, we duly tumbled into a sturdy white minivan (‘borrowed from Geography’), and were treated to a whirlwind tour of North Carolina’s places and people. We headed up to the Swinging Bridge (which does not, alas, swing any more) on Grandfather Mountain, and learnt about the amazing work of the High Country Food Hub, Boone, which makes it easy for shoppers to buy local food from small farmers, and Appalachian Voices, which campaigns against mountaintop removal coal-mining. We visited the Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain, where Katherine apologised for the wind and fog (which I felt was unecessary as it made me feel right at home – are you meant to see a view from a mountain?), and looked around the incredible Penland School of Crafts. Finally, we were treated to an evening of ‘oldtime’ music and a potluck supper at Bakersville Baptist Church – I’ve never seen a more generously-laden row of tables.

This may all seem quite a long way from the premodern history of mountains, but the aim of all this was to highlight the diversity of lived experiences of Appalachia, and to get beyond a university boardroom and into real communities. I found this incredibly thought-provoking. I was struck by how central the mountains were to the way people defined their daily lives: so many people I spoke to referred to themselves as ‘mountaineers’, not in the climbing sense but in the living-on-the-mountain sense, spoke of their music as ‘mountain music’, and took pride in offering warm mountain hospitality. Just like my premodern ‘mountaineers’, their relationship to the mountains was quite separate to the practices of climbing and heroic conquest which are paradigmatic of the modern engagement with the ‘wild’ landscape.

After all this food, music, and hiking, the minivan crew rounded off the week at the 42nd Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Asheville. I found myself speaking to another ambitious title as part of a roundtable ‘Conversation Forging New International Connections in Mountain Studies’. In subsequent discussions, I somehow managed to volunteer to found a new International Journal in the Mountain Humanities: watch this space, I suppose! I even found time to visit the secondhand bookstore display in the exhibition hall, and so finally left North Carolina with my suitcase bursting with classic Appalachian mountain books, my brain brimming with new ideas, and, most importantly, having made a number of new and genuine academic friends. It turns out that trundling up mountains together in a minibus, and being fed to bursting by friendly churchgoers, is far more effective at forging ‘new international connections’ than any other kind of networking…

Illustrations: View from the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway, and on Grandfather Mountain.

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