Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People

Article excerpt

Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. Narrated by Sissy Spacek. A Film Series by Jamie Ross and Ross Spears. (DVD; Riverdale, Md.: Agee Films, c. 2009. $42.95.) The region known as Appalachia stretches from southern New York to northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia and is only roughly defined by the ancient mountains that run along that geographic length. Appalachia is celebrated by some for its cultural distinctiveness. Jamie Ross and Ross Spears argue instead for a more complex portrait of the region, one that emphasizes environmental change as a key factor in shaping our historical understanding of a place simultaneously central to and separate from the American story. A promised land blessed with abundant space, a high level of biodiversity, and vast stores of mineral wealth, this "American Canaan" offered shelter and sustenance to its earliest inhabitants, But its resources also fueled American industrialization, the cost exacted in the degradation of Appalachia's forests and mountaintops.

It is against this backdrop that the human-environmental relationship takes form. The documentary Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People unfolds chronologically in four parts. The smooth narration of Sissy Spacek unites the segments into a seamless whole, while a panoply of diverse voices-historians, biologists, anthropologists, novelists, activists, and others--explain the ways in which the mountains shaped and were shaped by Appalachia's human population. The result is a sensory delight. The hypnotic storytelling of Cherokee teacher Laura Pennix, who explains the creation of the Appalachian Mountains as the combined efforts of water beetle and buzzard, links humans and nature from a Native American perspective. …