Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 3, 2013

Tradition collides with modern technology in dense forests of Appalachia

In a scene from “Steel Magnolias” Shirley MacLaine comes into the beauty parlor and hands out bags of tomatoes to her friends. Although she doesn’t eat tomatoes, she grows them, MacLaine’s character “Ouiser” explains, because that’s what southern women do: Wear funny hats and grow tomatoes.

Ouiser’s traditionalist views are not lost on those who live in Appalachia. Many of us have a tendency to cling to our roots even while we’re embracing the technology and modern wonders each new year brings.

The juxtaposition of old and new is evident on a large and small scale across southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

lll

I find it a bit odd, at times, that I’m talking to Siri — giving directions and orders — while walking the dogs in the middle of a hardwood forest. “Text Jamie,” I request of my iPhone butler. Siri doesn’t question my request. In an instant the text display pops up on my phone with Lifestyles Editor Jamie Parsell’s name in the recipient’s line.

One might think it would take a matter of significant consequence to break the tranquility of a forest walk on a warmer-than-normal and beautiful winter day.

Deadline changes. Staffing issues. Press problems.

Not on this day.

“Chipped my nail polish!” I furiously text. “In need of an emergency manicure.” As if the words were not enough, Jamie gets a photo of the offending chip to underscore the importance of the 911 text. Jamie understands, and responds with an empathetic message.

Ten years ago, our mobile conversation would have taken place well after the fact in the lunch room or around a water cooler. But in today’s world there’s no need to wait.

Seize the thought. Text the message. Communicate in real time.

lll

Back in the day, I can recall our family having a “party line.” Unlike today’s telecommunication and online offerings of the same description, party lines in those times were not a dating service for young singles. Instead, it meant that several residences shared the same telephone line — kind of like the old days in the ’80s when a home typically had one or more phone extensions.

Our phone line was shared with the Lusk family who lived at the bottom of the hill. We were fortunate to have neighbors who were generous and respectful with their telephone usage.

Today, I can’t imagine sharing Siri with anyone else, much less several people in multiple households.

lll

I always considered myself a traditionalist, proud of my lifelong residency in southern West Virginia, proud of my family’s connection to the coal mines and coal towns and proud of my drawl — the accent many folks from other states “just can’t quite place.”

Born after the women’s movement, I still grew up to appreciate having a door held open for me and my chair pulled out at the dinner table. And I’m not opposed to the use of the words “Honey” and “Sweetie,” as long as they’re used in the proper context — such as a kindly cashier who helps bag my groceries at the check-out line.

Like Ouiser, I also feel compelled to grow tomatoes, simply because it’s what my family did every year. Although my few attempts at vegetable gardening have been so woefully pathetic I finally threw in the “trowel,” that doesn’t stop me from perusing the tomato plants every spring. I don’t buy them because I know it would be a waste of money, but I still can’t completely shake the feeling that I should be growing large, succulent, beefsteak tomatoes and carrying on the family tradition.

It is, after all, what southern women do.

Perhaps this year I should Google some gardening sites, take the advice of online gurus and then tweet the results to friends and followers.

lll

Several years ago, when living at my previous residence, my father came for a visit. Walking outside I discovered him standing in the driveway, staring at my new car and laughing like crazy.

Taking a hard look at my shiny sports car, I saw no humor in the situation.

“Look around Little Girl,” Dad said, gesturing to the dense forest surrounding our home, the oak trees lining the long and curvy gravel driveway and the rabbits scurrying into the dense brush. “Don’t you think your car looks a little out of place?”

Dad was right. The landscape outside our home was the type one would view while camping or visiting the Smokies. But, at the time, I was still unwilling to sacrifice my love of sports cars for a more appropriate sport utility vehicle.

I wanted the best of both worlds.

lll

Living in Appalachia during this technological age, it’s easy to feel conflicted — drawn to the simplicity and values that highlighted our past, yet eager to embrace the modern lifestyle that technology brings into our home via smartphones and tablets every hour of every day.

Like the flowing rivers and shifting seasons, change is a constant force we cannot ignore. But, as long as we continue to grow our tomatoes, wear funny hats, respect our heritage and cling to our drawls, I think, in the long run, we’ll be OK.

If not, we can always turn to Siri for words of advice.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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