Dr. Pancake’s class gave me the platform to reflect inward and explore my relationship with the natural world and my place in it. She shared her knowledge with our class and gave me the ability to finally name the longing and nostalgia for home, which I spent most of my teenage years trying to alienate myself from. Through this class, I was able to analyze my self, my queerness, my family and my Appalachian-ness together, and merge these spheres of my life together. With Dr. Pancake’s guidance, I was finally able to realize that I can still love and long for home, while recognizing the factors that make me want to leave. Throughout the class, we kept returning to the push and pull of the region. Do you stay and help, or do you leave?
"Modern/Industry" Welcome to Appalachia, Where the land is wild, and free, And filled with untouched beauty. Enter stage left: Modernity. Rifles loaded and pockets lined, Banishing any man who didn’t comply, Eradicating any animal seen as possible currency. People still settled and work the land, Rows of corn and beans and tomatoes, Planted near little hand-built homes, Where they sat in peace, sewing by hand. Soon, the land would be disturbed like never before: Trees carted away. By river, then train. The bodies of working men. Dead. Clinging to the trunks. Appalachia would adapt to bare countryside Until a man with his lease would stride in, Tricking and scamming people out of their land, By saying they (The men in suits, Their industries, Their corporations) simply wanted what was underneath. “You get to keep your land, We’ll just mine it out from under ya.” They give you two choices: A) Leave your home and run pray you have enough money to make it out. or B) Work until you die hoping you’ll make enough money to make it out. Coal will leave, willing those they chased away to return and reclaim the land and attempt remake create life again, while leaving those who stayed without jobs or pay. But when hope is lost, and people get desperate, They waltzed in with a new lease in hand: Promising fast cash and big profit In exchange for the gas under your land, And unfortunately, peace in mind. They lie, and guarantee you a life of ease, Without telling you about your soiled wells and tainted creeks. They’ll build new plants near your homes, And leave your town a wreak with new construction and lights far too bright and out of state workers. But don’t worry too much, Industry will leave again, But, this time, they’ll leave opioids to take their place. We have no timber, no oil, no coal, no gas, Hell, no people anymore. I’ll ask you, dear audience, what could ever happen next?
"Appalachia, you bastard" Appalachia, you bastard You challenging, chastising rat bastard. You change me, Gave me a childhood riddled with your shit. You tell me I’m too good to be here. Your teachers push me to leave. Your churches scream they don’t want me here. Your politics make it impossible for me to stay here. Yet, you bastard, You want me. You make me need to stay. You push me to be the change. You put my family here. You let me create my fictitious future here, and see my life, my pride, my hope here, among your hills, yet you tell me to leave. Jesus Christ, What do I do? Do I stay or do I go? I can’t live in this limbo. Stay; continue to live through hell with the hope of change. Or go; feel the guilt of what I could have done for you. Just tell me what to do! Fuck you. I love you.
The Rambling Essay of a Girl in a Random Field and the Memory of a Creamsicle Cat
I grew up on the banks of the Kanawha river, where I would sneak down over the rocks and watch the water. Thinking about it, I’m not sure why I loved the river like I did. I was afraid of the water because of the swift current and how it could sweep a tree away from the banks without a warning. I hated most of the activities that are associated with it. I hated fishing; the fish scared me. Boats scared me: they made the water rougher. A high school kid drowned not too far from my house thanks to some nasty vines just below the water’s surface when I was 7, so I never thought of swimming in the Kanawha. Yet, on a day like today, when my dad would be at his 9 to 5, seven-year-old Haleigh would have toted a journal, a bottle of pop and a stolen box cutter over the bank just to sit at the river’s edge and watch.
I would watch the blueberry birds hop from limb to limb on the small trees that filled the bank where the rocks ended. I would watch the creamsicle cat watch the blueberry birds. Sometimes, it was like I could watch myself watching the creamsicle cat. Sometimes, the creamsicle cat would curl up around my feet and purr with the cadence of the river as it lapped at the banks a foot below us. I would pull out my journal and scribble some notes, none of which had anything to do with the nature around me, which is very reminiscent of me now. Here I am, surrounded by tall grass and dead leaves on a random Morgantown backroad thinking back to a riverbank 200 miles south, a cat that has long been dead, and a girl of 14 years ago.
Sometimes, that cat finds his way into other memories, though. There was a walnut tree behind my house, not too far from the river, that served as my solace when my sisters were getting on my nerves or when my heart raced with the beginnings of a panic attack. I would scrape up my legs pulling myself onto one of the top branches and would settle myself into the bend where the branch and truck met. There, on the smaller branch not too far from my face, the creamsicle cat would sit, licking his orange paw, as if to say, “Took you long enough, kid.” We would sit there, listening to the wind rustle the leaves and talk. I couldn’t understand him, but he would meow at me as if I could. Granted, I guess I did the same to him, venting about my family or why I had tears in my eyes, and he would just listen. He never walked away, and I never left. After a while, as the sun would make its way behind the hills and my emotions had settled, the creamsicle cat would hop over to me, curl up on my lap, and let me pet his long fur. When my dad would holler up for me, I would carry the creamsicle cat down with me and we would go our separate ways.
The creamsicle cat would be the first creature to greet me when I would come home from a late-night practice or a family outing. On cool September nights or warm July ones, he would weave his way between my feet as I rushed out to the playhouse my dad had built. It sat on the clearing in the wooded part of our property, where the glow of street lamps and porch lights were nonexistent. Me and the creamsicle cat would climb up on the pink tin roof of the playhouse and watch the stars wander across the navy-blue sky. We wouldn’t chatter here, rather both of us would lay on our backs and watch. There were plenty of those warmer nights that I would close my eyes to the sky only to be greeted the next morning by my yellow ceiling fan and the creamsicle cat asleep at my feet.
I never considered myself attached to nature. I never thought of her gifts to me or my gifts to her. Sure, I vote for politicians who care about environmental policy and yell at those who toss trash out of their car window, but I never figured I gave to the Earth like other people did. How could I? My dad works with the cars that pollute the atmosphere. My mom was married to a miner. My papaw worked in the chemical plants that didn’t think twice about dumping into those roaring rivers. My mawma worked in a factory with bright enough lights to illuminate acres on end. My grandpa used to lay the tracks that left jagged scars across untouched forests. How could I, a kid born from those who hurt the Earth, ever help? How could I ever be connected to her?
Sure, I always felt at peace under a sky full of stars or felt a rush of joy when a lightning bug landed on my hand on a summer night. My freshman year, my first time in anything that resembled a city, I cried because I couldn’t see the stars. In the bustle of city life, I long for the sounds of boats on the river. I figured it was homesickness, but it wasn’t. It never was. I think I missed my connection to Earth. I never gave back, only took and longed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about place recently, specifically my place in the world. I’m from the world of industry and bright lights, yet I just want to know what the creamsicle cat was trying to tell me all those years ago. I feel so disconnected from the natural world; I feel like I’m not a part of it.
Here I am, sitting in a bunch of weeds, not really sure where I am, and I am thinking about my place in the world. How can I give back? How could I, a proud owner of a gas guzzling Dodge pickup, repay the Earth for what I have caused? How could I, the product of industry, undo the harm to her? I hate light pollution and the annoying glow of a streetlamp, but they benefit me, and I don’t argue against them. How could I ever fix that? What could I give to the Earth? Has capitalism taught me to just pay my way through?
I think of the creamsicle cat and why would he ever sit in a tree with me? Why me? Why would this creature, one so reliant on the world I am unintentionally destroying, ever choose to show me compassion? Why would he ever talk to me?
I guess the creamsicle cat is my connection to the Earth. Maybe he is my link. Maybe that was what he always talked to me about. What could I have ever given him? How could I repay the Earth for him?
Then again, I am a part of the natural world. All of me is. My memories tied to the riverbanks or the oak trees or the stars are as tied to the natural world as I am right now: sitting with my laptop, in a field, griping to myself about the bugs crawling across my screen or the broken stalks poking my legs. The natural world is me, but am I within it? That’s the debate, I guess.
I think of my mawma, her red hair tinted orange in the sun, bent over her flower bed of pink azaleas, tending to them like she has for years. You can’t tell the difference between the soil or the car oil under her nails, but she works to make her garden beautiful. The Earth knows that.
I have to think that my longing for starry skies and my yearning to watch the river lap near my feet has the same power. The Earth knows.
Hopefully, the Earth knows that I would rather stay here, in this field, or in my memories with a creamsicle cat purring in my lap. I have to get up. I don’t have a choice. I need to leave because I have class in twenty minutes, and I don’t think I locked my car. I hate heading toward the city.
I’m going to pick up the trash I had seen near my car. It’s a McDonald’s wrapper, I think. Why would someone throw that out of their car window? Could they not find a trash can at the Sheetz ten minutes from here?
Maybe I’ll leave my windows down as I make my way back into town. I’ll keep my radio off so I could hear the wind rip past me as I weave my way back to town. I love roads like these, but should I? Roads are harmful and cut into the landscape of the world, leaving us to drive pollutants under the trees at alarming speeds. Roads bring Industry, then again, roads like these, that are more gravel than pavement, are more like a river than a road, flowing over ridges and through naturally cut paths, connecting little dwelling to little dwelling. They don’t move mountains; the mountains move them. Then again, they aren’t rivers. They are opposite to the rivers. They are also opposite of the four lanes of traffic that cut through the mountains of Morgantown in half. The gravel roads and the rivers are not the same, yet the roads of the city and the roads like these are not the same. Can two opposites be opposites to each?
Growing up in Buffalo, a small town west of Charleston and east of Huntington left Haleigh Casto in a weird limbo. She was in a wealthier area, but was raised on her father’s mechanic salary. She grew up watching her grandparents, a now paralyzed chemical maintenance man and a retired secretary, struggle to make ends meet. As a queer woman with big dreams, she spent a large portion of her teenage years rejecting home, her accent, and Appalachia as a whole. While working on her B.A. in English Creative Writing at WVU, she felt so homesick. She was still in the region, but Morgantown was not home. Through her poetry, she’s been able to explore her place in this world, and find peace in being home. These spheres she spent years trying to separate are finally finding a way to co-exist.