Dear West Virginia,
Place that made me, and made my parents, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs. I write you from Seattle, Washington, three weeks after the election and three decades after leaving you. A note of thanks for the most recent gift you gave.
In early October, West Virginia, you placed a picture in my mind. A slender arc of deer leg, curving to an elegant hoof. Most but not all of the flesh decayed; a little fur left at the fetlock. Although the image came to me in Seattle, I knew that the leg lay in West Virginia, could tell that by the dead oak leaves on the ground. I saw the leg like I’ve seen, heard, felt that spring-fed reservoir of images, sounds, scents, people, stories you have given me, West Virginia, all these thirty years away. And what kind of writer would I have been, West Virginia, without you? Would I have been a writer without you?
If I hadn’t grown up surrounded by land always, land around my shoulders, land up over my head, hill, hollow, ridge, creekbed, riverbank, draw, that land pushing up into my throat, word-birthing land. What kind of writer would I have been, West Virginia, without your language, the accent itself feels close to the ground, an English soft and loamy, language I can wrap around, language that will play with me, easy in my mouth, language that never binds me as so often “standard” “proper” English does.
What kind of writer would I have been (would I have been a writer?) if I couldn’t walk on you and hear a story, the sounds first, then the pictures, then the narrative itself, like beats from the ground. When I cannot hear land anywhere else, not in Washington, or New Mexico, or Japan, or Pennsylvania, or Samoa, or Thailand, or North Carolina, all those mute-to-me places that I’ve lived, no matter how I’ve ear-cocked asked-them tried. When I can hear you, West Virginia, without even having my body on you. I can hear you just by dreaming myself back to you, just by imagining myself into you earnestly enough.
That deer leg in my mind, torn or cut from its body, I guess a lot of people might find such an image grotesque, macabre, but the associations are different for me. We played with deer legs when we were little, picked them up after our fathers and uncles butchered bucks. We gripped them by their knees and made them prance. Imagining the whole deer trotting in front of us, or imagining the deer taking us for a ride, or imagining being a deer myself, fast-flowing up a hollowside. Bones mean death, but they are framework, too. Bones are, in a sense, where we begin.
Dear West Virginia, what kind of writer would I have been if I hadn’t been raised to love you? Taught to love you by my family and by the culture, by school and even by church, but taught to love you also (and here “taught’s” too innocent a word: “seduced”? “ensnared”?) by the land of you itself. Pull of you, draw of you, hold of how you won’t let us go, and why, when almost everyone else I know is also decades from their childhood places, I’m about the only one who still calls that place home?
And through you, West Virginia, I have also learned how the ferocity of any love is hotter-fired by threat of loss. To grow up in you, West Virginia, was to be nurtured by what was also continuously being taken away, from the days I stood, six years old, in the picture window of our middle-class home in Nicholas County in view of bulldozers stripping a mountain, to the day I stood, thirty years later, with another generation of West Virginia children at the turquoise-goo toe of a seeping mountaintop removal valley fill. West Virginia, how profoundly beautiful. How profoundly vulnerable. Loving you accompanied always by witnessing, by bearing up under, your destruction. Clearcut, strip mine, gas well, chicken factory farm, pipe line, power line, subdivision of second homes, whatever the appetites of people not of this place who don’t and won’t have to look at what was sacrificed for what they have to have.
West Virginia, what kind of writer would I have been without this staggering ambivalence? If I only loved you? If I didn’t sometimes hate you too? Hate when our culture is narrow, intolerant, resigned, hate when it’s callous about the land. Hate how it feels to be so profoundly attached to a place so compromised. Ambivalent, too, because in West Virginia, the line between lover of place and destroyer of place is not invisible like it often is elsewhere. In West Virginia, I see without obfuscation how we ruin you ourselves and in this way ruin ourselves as well. West Virginia, you expose my complicity too.
West Virginia, nucleus of contradictions, reverence and decimation, desire and repulsion, warmth and violence, ignorance and decency, murder and fecundity. From you I’ve learned, as an artist and as an activist, the power of the in-between. How the richest making can arise in the friction between polarities. How tension brutal-births unexpected acts of imagination.
And my long experience of witnessing your ruin has taught me, too, that tearing down clears an emptiness for opportunity. The extent of breakdown offers corresponding extent of possibility for transformation. The richest making can happen in that loose, terrifying, nothing-anymore-taken-for-granted, the way, West Virginia, you pull open my chest. I have known for a very long time, West Virginia, that you are not different from so-called mainstream America, but a distillation of it. That you are not backwards, but the opposite: you are prophecy. The kind of disintegration--environmental, political, economic, spiritual--underway elsewhere in the United States already took down much of West Virginia. What we, along with other derided, exploited, tossed-aside places have already learned about creation and destruction the rest of the nation finally learns now for real.
At the end of October, a few weeks after you put that deer leg in my mind, I walked up into the woods on my father’s family land. Land that’s been in our family for two centuries, but where I hadn’t set foot in two years. Because during those two years, that piece of you, West Virginia, which is closest to me had been ravaged too.
But in October, I told myself I had a responsibility not to abandon you who weren’t responsible for what you’d undergone. I reminded myself that looking away was the reason the madness everywhere could keep spinning on. So I climbed up the bank into the woods, not to the hurt place itself, couldn’t do that yet, but to the edge of the wound, there in the border area where trees still grew. I spent a couple hours there, mostly sitting at the base of a pin oak, then I headed out, stepping over logs, scuffing through leaves. I was nearly to the clearing above the road, the edge of the edge, when I looked down.
And there that deer leg lay.
West Virginia, for most of my life, you’ve given me images, feelings, rhythms, stories in my head, and some of those, as best I could, I tried to make into art. This time you gave me, in bone, on the ground, you made real, the imagined thing itself.
West Virginia, you’ve taught me as an artist and as a human discipline, resourcefulness, how to cobble together, improvise. West Virginia, you’ve taught me how to suffer loss without losing my mind. You’ve shown me the space opened for making after the destruction is over and even while it’s still going on.
And I know this is an era to make, not maintain. A time to invent instead of sustain. Improvise. Imagine. West Virginia, you’ve shown me.
There that deer leg lay. I could touch it. The one you’d placed in my mind. West Virginia, nothing is impossible.
Your great-great-great-great-great granddaughter Ann
Ann Pancake grew up in Summersville and Romney, WV. She is the author of two short story collections, Given Ground and Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, and a novel about mountaintop removal mining, Strange As This Weather Has Been, which was one of Kirkus Review’s Top Ten Fiction Books of the year, won the 2007 Weatherford Prize, and was a finalist for the 2008 Orion Book Award and the 2008 Washington State Book Award. She has also received a Whiting Award, an NEA grant, the Bakeless Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. In 2016, she was the first recipient of the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and the Community Fellowship. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University and is currently the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.