In 2021, I had the extraordinary opportunity to design a class at WVU that I called “Love, Grief, and Hope: Appalachian Literature of the Environment.” Throughout the semester, we read Appalachian fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music, and film, striving to deepen our understanding of the following conundrum and questions:
Being Appalachian often means grappling with painful dilemmas involving the natural world. We grow up being taught to love our homes, that we come from one of the most beautiful places in the world. At the same time, we grow up learning that if we don’t want to be poor, we must sacrifice that natural world that sustains us, physically and also psychologically. How can we imagine going forward in ways that might reconcile that contradiction and bring West Virginians healthier, more sustainable lives?
When the class met for the first time in January 2021, many students hadn’t been in a classroom since March 2020, and all of us were almost desperate to connect as a community and to discuss challenging subjects that had affected all of our lives as we grew up and lived in Appalachia. We read books like Louise McNeill’s Milkweed Ladies; Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity; Shannon Bell’s Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed; and Crystal Good’s Valley Girl along with many other poems, essays, and stories. Students wrote papers responding to what we read, and often I gave them the option to respond with their own creative work, as long as that was accompanied with a reflection on how their creative work was informed by the published pieces.
The course turned out to be the most remarkable I’ve taught in my thirty years as a teacher. The work that all twenty students produced, both critical and creative, astounded me and inspired me—and I think sometimes they astounded even themselves. I’ve never been prouder of a class. In this feature, five of those students present excerpts from work created for the class–poetry, fiction, memoir, and song—and talk a little about how they are in conversation with our region’s literature. We hope this will showcase the students’ own love—and grief—for Appalachia, along with they ways they are imagining different futures for their own generation and for the West Virginians that follow them.