Hard Life on a Hard Land


"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?

"And every one of my uncles except a couple of them are doing the same damn thing--nothing."

Clint's uncle David, who went to prison on drug charges but now operates a garage in Cincinnati, points the way.

"I was always wishing one of my uncles would say, 'Let me take him,' 'cause I sure would have went," David says.

"Clint could have saved hisself a long time ago by getting away. He's not a bad boy. He just needs to get away from all this."

Later, around a bonfire with the cicadas whirring, he invites Clint to visit him and look for work.

"Somebody offers you a hand, a chance, take it. . . . You can always come back with your tail between your legs," David says, but adds, "You got to want it."

As Clint prepares to try his luck, other members of his family predict failure.

"You won't be gone long," his father jeers. "A bad check always returns."

In the end, his marriage plans fall apart, and the film's epilogue reports that Clint lasts only four weeks in the city before returning to Mudlick Hollow.

"We've all left and come back," Lonzo says.

Career as a Filmmaker

For many Americans, Rory Kennedy is best known as a member of America's tragedy-struck political family. It was en route to her planned wedding that her cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed last July, along with his wife and his wife's sister, when his plane crashed in the ocean off Martha's Vineyard.

Out of the spotlight, Rory has pushed ahead with her career as a documentary filmmaker whose special focus is unfashionable social problems.

When she first went to eastern Kentucky and met the Bowling family in 1996, she had a relatively narrow and conventionally liberal goal in mind: to explore the impact of welfare reform on the rural poor.

"I wanted to show that poverty is pervasive in all areas and that the system was failing to meet the needs of many, especially in economically depressed regions like Appalachia," she says in an introduction to a coffee-table book published simultaneously with release of the film.

"Early in the process," she confesses, "it became apparent that the Bowlings were not going to fit my preconceived notions about poverty in Appalachia."

Over most of the succeeding 12 months, as Kennedy and her one-man film crew, Adam Zucker, lived with the family in Mudlick Hollow, they let the disjointed lives of the Bowling clan take them where they would.

The result is a film that recognizes the many-layered reality of Appalachia today.

Admittedly, much has changed for the better.

When Iree was a child, hunger was commonplace.

Her father beat and abused her mother so savagely that she and her brothers and sisters were afraid to leave the house, afraid they would come home and find their mother dead. Her sister Marion, who is retarded, married a man who also beat her--with a stick he kept behind the door and nicknamed "Old Hector."

"Her husband treated her in ways he ought to have been killed for," Iree says.

As a little girl, Iree never had shoes. In the book, she describes walking to school barefoot in cold weather: She would hop back and forth from one side of the road to the other, trying to stay where the sun had warmed the dirt a little.

Today, there is enough to eat. Everyone has decent clothes to wear. Schools may not be of high quality, but bright yellow buses collect the hollow's children each day, just as they do everywhere else.

There are television satellite dishes outside the houses. And cars and trucks and Easter egg hunts and Halloween parties.

And when Iree's granddaughter Samantha finds that she too has married an abusive man, there is a shelter for battered women to which she can escape with her two young daughters.

In addition, over the last several decades, hundreds of thousands of young people have successfully broken away from Appalachia.

Jesse L. White Jr., federal co-chairman of the Appalachia Regional Commission, sees Kennedy's film as "a brilliant documentary at capturing a part of the Appalachian dilemma, which is the intergenerational persistence of poverty, loss of self-esteem and so forth."

"But in the last 45 years it . . . has gone from a region of uniform distress to a mixed picture," he says, noting that high school graduation and college attendance rates are up and infant mortality rates are now at the national average, instead of being far higher.

Why do the Bowlings and people like them remain on the dark side of White's "mixed picture" instead of breaking free?

Kennedy's film touches on what experts say are parts of the answer.

For one thing, "there is a fear that if we educate our children, they will leave," White says.

Another factor is cultural values and pride that some attribute to the legacy of the coal unions, and that may go much farther back.

"In many communities," says Gordon McKinney, director of the Appalachia Center at Berea College in Berea, Ky., "the United Mine Workers helped shape an ideology that the absence of work was not the fault of the person unemployed. . . . If the system doesn't provide opportunity, it's the fault of the system."

"If prosperity came," McKinney says, "they would not avoid it. . . . But there is an element of wanting the modern world to come to them; they don't want to go to it."

Cynthia M. Duncan, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has studied rural poverty in Appalachia and elsewhere, sees the problem Kennedy portrays as rooted in a society rigidly divided between what one man she interviewed called "the good rich people and the bad poor people."

Welfare-dependent families like the Bowlings are scorned as "drawers, not doers." Individuals from "bad families" are often excluded from scarce opportunities, Duncan says in her recent book, "Worlds Apart."

In addition, while young people like Clint Bowling have more education and larger horizons than previous generations, in urban areas where jobs are more plentiful, they are still seen as "hillbillies."

Their English is rough and strange, Duncan suggests. They may have bad teeth or the wrong clothes. People look askance or make remarks. The job pays minimum wages with little future. Life is lonesome.

So after a while they ask themselves why they're going through so much misery for so little gain when they could at least be back home with the family.

"In an important way, the family does become a safe haven, and that safety becomes an obstacle" to breaking out, she says.

As "American Hollow" nears its end, Iree Bowling looks back on her life and sees success precisely because she has provided the come-what-may shelter for her faltering children that Duncan describes.

"They knew that if they was home, they'd never have to do without. That we'd always have food. That we'd always have a place for them to stay," she says.

"And we'd always take them right back in, no matter what's happened."

* "American Hollow" will be shown tonight at 8 on HBO.

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