I mentioned almost a year ago in West Virginia, Take Me Home about growing up in Florida until the year I turned 13, but always thinking of West Virginia as home. My parents moved to Florida for work before I was born, but they still kept that connection to home. They, like many generations before them, were West Virginian born and bred. Like many others from the state, they left home looking for opportunities. My grandparents did the same, heading out to California for some time when my mom was young, before returning home. I’ve heard it said that West Virginians always come back home, or they at least want to. It’s seemed to be true for much of my family who’ve left.
Though I sometimes feel nostalgic remembering the ocean and the river we lived on, I can’t remember ever really thinking of myself as Floridian. I can’t imagine going back outside of maybe a vacation. The idea of Florida being a place that I used to live almost feels like a distant dream – one of the strange ones that leave you wondering, “what in the world was that about?”. I simply had no connection there. When I remember my childhood, some of my fondest memories were those spent visiting my Papaw’s house in Lincoln County, WV and running amuck with the other kids up and down the hollow and into the mountains surrounding his property. Not sorry, Sunshine State, you don’t hold a candle to these hills.
I feel a deep connection to these mountains. To me, they are sacred. I grew up hearing stories from my family that I now realize are a testament to our Appalachian heritage. It was like a whole other world to me. It’s no wonder I didn’t connect with that other state. Yet, partly because I did grow up hundreds of miles away from home, I sometimes feel like I’m not Appalachian enough. This despite my living here for almost 2 decades now. Imposter syndrome is a nasty little monster that will gnaw at anything you hold dear when it finds a way in. Sometimes I also just find myself comparing who I am to some stereotype of what an Appalachian is “supposed” to be.
Religion and it’s influence is a big part of what I think of. Like most Appalachians, my family is traditionally Christian. I recall visiting the Baptist church my mom grew up in. We didn’t go back because it must have been too painful for her to be there after having lost her own parents years ago. My Mamaw, though a self-identified witch, also grew up Baptist and still held Christian-oriented beliefs alongside her craft. The culture around Appalachia as a whole often centers around Christianity. As for me? If you’re reading this blog, you’ll already know that I’m a polytheist Pagan. Sure, I now have a church aside from nature; but it accepts people of all faiths. I love that it’s so inclusive.
It’s important to remind myself that the religious influence on the culture here is based on a history of colonization that used religion as a weapon. Christianity was the dominating religion across Europe, and thus across the colonized America’s, for so long. Of course the people of West Virginia were just as influenced by that as everyone else. As people in this past century have been finding their own religious and spiritual paths, Appalachia now has a growing and diverse Pagan community. Leaving behind the religion of our more recent ancestors doesn’t make any of us any less Appalachian.
This brings me to Appalachian folk traditions/ magic/ witchcraft, also now commonly called Granny magic. Because of the history of our people, it is true that these traditions have a heavy Christian influence. Does that mean that an Appalachian Pagan can’t practice our own family’s traditions, or reclaim what we’ve lost? I’ve seen some make that claim. It doesn’t make those people right. It just makes them gatekeeping, bigoted assholes. Yeah, I said it. It seems that most have the sense not to share those harmful views, though. My family’s stories and beliefs, despite the Christian influences, are part of me. They’re part of what led me toward Paganism, to my gods and my identity as a witch. Nobody can take that from me. And, besides, a lot of the beliefs and traditions aren’t even specifically religious, anyhow. They work no matter what else you believe in. The women (and gender diverse people) in my family still have dreams and feelings that show us the future or other things we have no logical way to know. Owls are still a symbol of death and deaths often come in three. Blowing smoke in an ear can still cure an earache. Spirits are still real. So on and so forth. For me, these things are part of my Appalachian heritage.
A lot of the old traditions are disappearing among families. There are people publicly sharing their family’s traditions to preserve them, but different families have different ways. I recently spoke to my mom about our family’s old traditions. Aside from what I remember learning from her, she didn’t remember much else. Most of the older folks in my family who would have known more of the old ways are gone, or else their memories are fading. People like me, who ache for our Appalachian folk ways, are left to put the pieces back together in whatever way we can because we either waited too long or were born too late. It is for this reason I am thankful for those who are sharing the Appalachian folk magic from their own family traditions.
What it means to be Appalachian is going to vary among individuals. We’re a diverse bunch with our own backgrounds, but we’ve all got common ground. We share similar histories as a people and a love for these mountains. I am proud to be Appalachian, proud to be West Virginian.