That corporate industrialism separates people, places, and products from their histories and cultures while also systematically destroying the environment is a fact some areas of the mainstream American media finally have come to recognize. Given that American thinkers and writers have been studying the problem now for over a century, the concession is long overdue. An unlikely and complex matrix of artistic, intellectual, political, and vulgar economic forces inform the contemporary commercialization of environmentalism which one may witness readily on television screens, computer monitors, magazine pages, etc. Among writers of the American South, Wendell Berry came to inhabit the role of literary statesman for the phenomenon of local environmental and cultural destruction long before it was fashionable to do so. He now finds himself joined by scribblers from countless regions of the world who are seeking to maintain--or at least record with dignity--their places, cultures, and peoples as they struggle in the face of faceless massive multinational economies hungry for their resources and markets. In the blurry region known as Appalachia a number of memorable literary meditations which deal in some way with the byproducts of this sort of exploitation have arrived in the last couple of decades, taking as their foci air pollution, logging, tourism, water quality, dams, and that persistent old bugaboo: coal. Another generation of writers now grapples with the manifold problems of their region, and the best of their work will offer the joys and agonies of their localities while also teaching us how to notice similar dynamics in our own places—wherever we may be. In perceiving the local the best regional literature serves as a lens for the world, affording an acuteness of vision both near and far.
Readers who had encountered Jim Minick's poems and nonfiction in various periodicals and newspapers were treated in 2005 to a compilation of his prose pieces entitled Finding a Clear Path. It is perhaps unusual for a writer who is primarily a poet to publish first a book of nonfiction, but the result has proven favorable for Minick's readers in that Finding a Clear Path situates him in a literary tradition of local environmental and subsistence concerns while also serving as a kind of compass for navigating his poetry. Thus Minick's 2008 collections of verse, Burning Heaven and Her Secret Song, afford perspective to and further elaboration upon the place-based topics of Finding a Clear Path.
Minick's topical and lived-in region is an eastern locality of southwest Virginia, hilly and precariously rural but not so far west as to fall beneath the ever-lengthening shadow of coal. The final section of Finding a Clear Path, entitled "Following Myself Home," embodies the primary task Minick stakes for himself both in that book and Burning Heaven: his self's recording of the everyday natural world surrounding his domicile. As a result one may read with profit the poem "Trying to Tell Time by Splitting Wood" alongside the wood-chopping prose piece "Hitting the Mark"; the lines of "The Bear to the Hunter" in conjunction with the essay "Health, Hunger, and Hunting"; the eight-poem verse section "Wings" with the eight-piece prose section "Flying"; and so on. These are companion books, siblings or friends on a journey toward the artistic identity of their maker and the nature of his lived-in place.
Yet Minick's imagination is not limited to his own place and time, and the collection Her Secret Song spans back into the lives of his ancestors, guided by the inspiring and sturdy example of his Aunt Ruth. This collection, different from Minick's other two books in focus and in form, nonetheless is connected to them through its various portrayals of the natural world. Indeed, in placing his contemporary environmental concerns beside the rural practices of his ancestors, Minick establishes an important indirect association between current manifestations of organic and sustainable living and traditional methods of country subsistence often identified now as quaint.
Minick's work to date thus reflects an interesting and sometimes uneasy contemporary dialectical relationship between cutting-edge environmental concerns and rural folkways of the past. Undoubtedly, this dynamic likely goes all but unnoticed by individuals who have not lived or read about the historical part of the equation. By way of example, I will note that though I am a decade younger than Minick, my father was the tenth child of a Smoky Mountain farmer born in 1897. As a result, my family-based knowledge and associations place me closer to a male Appalachian in his sixties or seventies than a Generation Xer entering his mid-thirties. I can recall many an occasion when a schoolmate responded with incomprehension, fear, or ridicule when I recounted to him or her my family's traditional methods of gardening, cutting wood, or managing varmints—to say nothing of my easy familiarity with guns, physical violence, and the cycle of life and death. Yet it slowly has become politically favorably—and, for some, downright chic—to embrace numerous elements of the rural methods so recently viewed as politically unacceptable or "backward." So it is not terribly uncommon to hear of soccer moms frequenting organic goat milk stands and avowed pacifists beating on man-drums before taking up their shotguns to help bring balance to the local deer population and venison to their families' tables.
Ironies aside, these developments are favorable and necessary ones for American society. As contemporary sustainable practices become more familiar while many of their rural antecedents pass into family myth and/or historical record, it is well we have writers like Minick to give indirect articulation to the deep connection between the two and make us think about where we stand on the matter.
Books by Jim Minick: Burning Heaven - Wind Publications, 2009 | Her Secret Song - Motes, 2008 | Finding a Clear Path - West Virginia University Press, 2005