Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley

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From the air today, as one flies westward across West Virginia, the mountains appear to crest in long, undulating waves, giving way beyond the Allegheny Front to the deeply crenulated mass of the coal-bearing Allegheny plateaus. The sandstone ridges of Cherry Pond, Kayford, Guyandotte, and Coal River mountains where the headwaters of southern West Virginia’s Big Coal River rise are the spectacular effect of millions of years of erosion. Here, water cutting a downward path through shale etched thousands of winding hollows and deep valleys into the unglaciated tablelands of the plateaus. Archeologists have recovered evidence of human activity in the mountains only from the past 12,000 years, a tiny period in the region’s ecological development.

Over the eons it took to transform an ancient tableland into today’s mountains and valleys, a highly differentiated forest evolved. Known among ecologists as the mixed mesophytic forest, it is the biologically richest temperate-zone hardwood system in the world. And running in ribbons beneath the fertile humus that anchors the mixed mesophytic are seams of coal, the fossilized legacy of an ancient tropical forest, submerged and compressed during the Paleozoic era beneath an inland sea.1

Many of the world’s mythologies explain landforms as the legacies of struggles among giants, time out of mind. Legend accounts for the Giant’s Causeway, a geological formation off the coast of Northern Ireland, as the remains of an ancient bridge that giants made between Ireland and Scotland. In Native American mythologies, landforms of the American West cohere as the body parts of vast divinities, whose death precedes the emergence and growth of peoples and cultures. Contemporary Americans of many backgrounds, too, use names for body parts to label geographic forms, naming heads of hollows, gorges of rivers, or mouths of mines. Unwittingly, then, our words suggest that we likewise inhabit landscapes formed from the sundered bodies of giants.

In the Appalachian plateaus, however, the works of a contemporary generation of giants are real. Flying over the plateaus, one sees the emergent formations wrought by the entities often called “corporate giants,” gathered up and embodied in West Virginia as “King Coal.”

  1. Karl B. Raitz and Richard Ulack, Appalachia: A Regional Geography: Land, People, and Development (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984), 41.

—by Mary Hufford

Mary Hufford, former field project director and curator for the American Folklife Center’s Coal River Folklife Project, is director of the Center for Folklore and Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania.


Aerial view of a valley.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Aerial view of Coal River Valley, following Route 3. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Aerial view of a valley with an industrial site in it.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Bird's eye view of a continuous belt-feeder. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.