Where do things come from in the United States, these days? China? Jesus? The free market?
In the surface ruckus of sales, economic numbers and politics, there’s little time for wondering about the underground source of anything – eggnog and greenery, creek water and birds, foxes and hen-houses and hogwash.
In my native Appalachians, though, walking the faded December hills, it’s quiet enough to inquire down into the source of trees and wildlife, pasture and aquifers that sustain us.
Old carols and preachings in this hilly part of the Bible Belt convey that our lives are rooted in providence – from rainfall to the air we breathe – the very source of our supply.
Each summer, however, politicians visit these mountains to stand high on a platform at a fiddler’s convention and tell us the source of peoples supply is now supply-side economics.
Money produces life, they figure – the largest collections of it trickling down a supply to the poor, like manna from heaven.
This supply, were told, comes partly from big coal, the outfits exploding our mountaintops to fetch out buried seams. They like to go at it lickety-split, with relatively few actual miners and no thought for the vanishing forest and wildlife, the creeks buried under rubble or the ruin of ancient mountain ecosystems.
Lawmakers have worked hard this year to help them, striving to hamstring surface-mining laws and EPA regulations that protect life.
Big money running roughshod over Appalachian life is an old story. Today, however, its cause has been strangely hitched to a pro-life platform.
How can pro-life be positioned against planetary life?
Because life has been reduced to nine months, said Sister Clare, a Catholic nun who moved to these mountains to help children.
Even those prenatal months can be mentally severed from a livable world, Clare said, because political micro-targeting distracts people from seeing life’s bigger picture.
My friend Mrs. Osborne of Grayson County heard FOX News warn Christians, this year, of attacks on Christmas trees. She wasn’t sure if they meant a tax or attacks, but was concerned.
After all, the Osbornes live flanked by neighboring slopes of Fraser firs, pines and spruces – Christmas trees harvested each year and trucked away to cities.
But FOX, it turned out, was not worried about the actual living source of these trees. They were fighting a war over the already-dead ones – the kind propped up in a studio for display, urging that everyone call them Christmas trees instead of holiday trees.
This was hogwash, a Baptist minister told me – a way to rile up Christian voters for next year’s election. If you could get people squabbling over little dead trees, he said, they would not worry about the living.
Still, we do worry. These days, our mountain woods are under so many attacks, it’s hard to keep even little fir trees alive and pretty enough for somebody’s church or mall or campaign office.
Here is the real war – not just on the Christmas tree but the whole Eastern hardwood forest, up and down the Appalachians. It’s a war of new insect invasions – beetles, borers, gypsy moths and aphids..
These are accompanied by strangely persistent droughts and constant drifts of soot from coal-burning power plants, acidifying our mountain soil and weakening the trees hardiness.
Tree farms are now so disease-prone, they require frequent doses of strong pesticides. Deer, rabbits and birds regularly die among the rows, sometimes even a hapless hunting dog. Mrs. Osborne worries that the chemicals will leach into her family’s well.
These ground-level troubles never show up on FOX news, in campaign debates or among the Christmas tree lights. They are troubles rooted in a climate off-balance, in unchecked power plant emissions and ecosystems gone haywire: actual life issues many lawmakers want to keep under the surface, while voters fuss over superficialities.
The Baptist preacher calls this “hogwallering.” Like the Christmas tree, he said, it has nothing to do with Jesus.
He does think faith and politics can be rooted in life, like trees. But cut off from any connection to the humble soil, they’re dead. You can prop them up and add lights and they might look alive, but life has a deeper source than what appears on the surface.
Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governors School and Wytheville Community College.