Appalachia’s Alternatives to Mainstream America by Paul Salstrom (University of Tennessee Press, 2021) Reviewed by Julian Martin and John McFerrin
This is a blend of personal memoir, scholarship about southern West Virginia (particularly Lincoln County) and an alternative vision of how an economy in rural West Virginia (and the rest of America, for that matter) could work.
Much of it is about where he was and what he did as a young man. Taken together, it is a portrait of the things one could do in the 60s and 70s with curiosity, no money, and no apparent interest in a life of material wealth. It includes a trip in the back of a segregated bus with Black workers, a month as a steel worker, time in a Quaker intentional community, hiking in the Teton Range, and climbing in Yosemite.
The story includes time spent meditating in a cave in New Mexico, opposition to the war in Viet Nam, and a stretch in prison for draft evasion. It includes running the Appalachian Movement Press in Huntington, West Virginia, which printed pamphlets for mine workers to distribute during strikes as well as MAW: A Magazine of Appalachian Women.
And that’s not the half of it. He was up and down, all around, seeing what the country had to offer. All was done without a car, or at least without a car that would run consistently and in all gears.
Along the way, Dr. Salstrom encountered notable people, including Dorothy Day. She gave him the insight that saying that alternative economies and lifestyles were “a new society growing in the shell of the old.”
Dr. Salstrom’s ramblings eventually brought him to Lincoln County, West Virginia. There he found cheap land and an economy built upon mutual aid.
As he described the system, it was built upon the idea that any favor done created an unspoken obligation to do another favor for someone else. If someone helped pull your car out of the ditch, you had the obligation to help someone else harvest their tobacco. Or build their barn. Or whatever else needed to be done. The debt did not have to be paid right away and might not even have to be paid to the same person who did you the favor. The debt was to the community.
The book is also fills in pieces of West Virginia history, particularly that of Lincoln County. While it does not pretend to be a conventional history book, in telling his story Dr. Salstrom does provide a lot of information about people who were going back to the land and those they interacted with. He even includes a section about a controversial strip mine that was proposed for Lincoln County and the public hearing about that mine. That section includes an extensive quotation of testimony that Julian Martin gave at the hearing (spoiler alert: he was agin’ it).
Dr. Salstrom eventually left Lincoln County and got a Ph.D. in history. His experiences back to the land in Lincoln County influenced his scholarship and thinking on intentional communities and how economies are organized. He suggests that the sharing economy he found in Lincoln County is not a relic of an early time in history, appropriately discarded as we move to a modern economic model. Instead, he suggests that the modern economic model threatens destruction of the environment, the food supply, and political life. He would prefer an economy based upon small farms, communities, and sharing.
On the whole, the book is both interesting and thought provoking. It is interesting to read about all that Dr. Salstrom has done in his life, including the up close view he provides of the back to the land era of Lincoln County’s history. It is thought provoking in that it offers an alternative way of thinking about how an economy and a society could be organized.