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Hard Life on a Hard Land

Documentary explains the complex ties that bind Appalachian family to a cycle of deprivation.

November 29, 1999|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — "Have you ever told a coal miner in West Virginia or Kentucky that what he needs is individual initiative to go out and get a job where there isn't any?"

--Robert F. Kennedy, August 1964

*

"There ain't never been no jobs here," says David Bowling, one of 13 grown children of Iree and Bascum Bowling of Mudlick Hollow in eastern Kentucky. "This place is a plain hole in the wall. Right there . . . " he says, pointing to his parents' vegetable garden on the slope behind their battered house, "is the only way you can live here: Go out and raise you some food, and wait for some little government check to come in.

"I got out of here. I never want to come back here, just to visit."

"Yes, you do," his father chimes in.

"I'll stay right here awhile," 68-year-old Iree says with a smile.

Seven generations of her family have lived in the hollow; some 50 relatives live in and around it still, including all of her children except David.

"You'll die in this hole," he says, not unkindly. "You'll never leave."

"Well," says Bascum, getting the last word, "I've never found no better hole to live in than right here."

Rory Kennedy, the 11th child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, was born six months after her father was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968 and four years after he made a trip to West Virginia that aroused his sympathy for the rural poor. Now, Rory has followed her father's memory to Appalachia to produce a documentary film about a way of life as old as Daniel Boone and as hard to penetrate as a bramble thicket.

The film, "American Hollow," is scheduled to be shown on HBO tonight at 8.

It's partly a tribute to the folkways of an endangered culture.

"This is a culture that has managed to preserve itself more than almost any in the United States," she said in a recent interview, and its devotion to family and community reflects values "that others of us have lost sight of."

Who could not admire a culture so old, so true to its values, so determined to endure? A world where the art of quilting passes from generation to generation. Where families sing songs dating back to the 18th century. Where women collect rainwater to do the laundry because they like the way it makes the clothes smell. And men search the woods for ancestral cash crops--moss, ginseng, bloodroot.

It is a world in which kinship counts above all.

Early in "American Hollow," when Iree Bowling's son Edgar is jailed in a distant town on trespassing charges that are later dropped, the family pools its assets to try to make bail. Iree offers $500 in crumpled bills she has saved. Others bring the deeds to their land, much of it already mortgaged in response to earlier crises.

"Dirt's dirt, you know. Your brother is blood," Neial Bowling explains. "You can get more dirt. I've got seven brothers, but still yet see, I'd like to keep them all. I don't have one to spare."

"American Hollow" is a tougher film than that, however. Rory would not be her father's daughter if she did not sympathize with Appalachia's poor. Yet without analytical narrative or dramatic camera work, her film homes in on one of the most disturbing aspects of life in the region today:

Why, despite more education, more opportunities, and more exposure to the outside world, do so many younger men and women--including all of Iree's children--venture out to more prosperous regions, live and work there a while, and then return to the hollow, to lives of welfare dependency and disappointment?

The question is sensitive because it suggests the plight of Appalachia's poor, and perhaps the poor in other places, is not entirely a matter of innocent individuals crushed by social injustice and uncaring outside forces. It suggests an element of personal choice.

Can it be that Iree's bushy-bearded, Falstaffian son Pat, dependent on government assistance like almost all the Bowlings, speaks for many when he says of his life, "It's about perfect."

"I drink my beer. And got plenty of food. Got rabbits to eat. Dogs to hunt with. . . . What else could you ask for? I love this life."

There is more to the lure of the hollow than indolent pleasure, it turns out. The barriers to escape are more subtle now, but they remain high--beginning with the fact that the areas of highest poverty are marked by rugged terrain and were largely sidestepped by the interstate highway system. They remain extremely isolated, with few indigenous jobs. It is literally a several hours' drive from Mudlick Hollow to almost anywhere else.

The film explores the issue most directly in the life of Lonzo Bowling's oldest son, Clint, who has just graduated from high school. He is determined to get married and find work in Cincinnati with help from David, his uncle.

"I don't want to be like him," Clint says of his father, who sits at home physically disabled by a series of alcohol-related car wrecks and dependent on Prozac. "He ain't doing nothing now except living month to month by getting a check and digging roots. That's a great living, ain't it?

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