I’ve spent the week on and off delivering supplies, as they were collected by my church, to various relief organizations set up to deal with the aftermath of last week’s tornadoes.
It’s hard to imagine that it’s been just a week since Mother Nature spit over thirty of its whirling, swirling funnels of death and destruction upon Alabama, several of them qualifying as the worst she has to offer, in the process killing and destroying in such haphazard manner that making sense of it all humbles even the most capable of natural and human observers. That’s how time feels during calamities like this. An eternity of time seems compressed into each passing moment. For a great many people in North and Central Alabama, April 27, 2011 will forever be a day upon which they’ll drape the garlands of their life’s time. Over 230 have now been confirmed dead. The tiny town of Hackleburg, population 1,500, suffered a direct hit by a monster F5. It lost 26. The Smithfield/Pratt City neighborhood of Northwest Birmingham lost another fifteen or so, as the Tuscaloosa tornado raced to the northeast, tracing a nearly identical path as a monster twister that struck the area in 1977, then killing 21.
But in the Alabama I’ve seen this week, there is no self-pity. There is no resignation. There are no complaints about the relief efforts. There is just will. Will to survive. Will to help. Will to live.
Alabama is often ridiculed for its belligerence and bellicosity towards the federal government, particularly during the Civil Rights era, after which it seemed the whole expanse of constitutional jurisprudence in the latter half of the twentieth century could be understood by simply studying Supreme Court cases overturning Alabama statutes and customs. Alabamians, especially those in the North and Central parts of the state hit hardest by the tornadoes, have a fierce independent streak borne of their cultural heritage as immigrants from the borderlands region of England and Scotland.
The borderlands region in the old country was so poor it could barely support sheep grazing. It suffered constant conflict as English and Scottish royalty forever bickered over how far their kingdoms ranged. The borderlands people learned self-reliance from the land and government skepticism from the monarchs. They brought these views to America, settling, among other areas, the marginal lands of the Appalachian foothills in Alabama. They were a hardy, self-reliant, determined people because they had to be. They were yeoman farmers, moonshiners and lumberjacks. Only the most successful among them ever owned slaves, and even then, a bare few–nothing compared to the hundreds that worked the rich Black Belt soil marking the edge between the Appalachian foothills and the coastal plain, the area in which Montgomery, the erstwhile capital of the confederacy and of the state today, not accidentally sits. The Appalachian foothill–Tornado Alley in Alabama–was not suitable for plantation agriculture, so while the second sons of English royalty farmed vast plantations in the southern half of the state, the Scotch and English borderlands immigrants hacked a living out of the infernal rocks and trees of the hilly, inhospitable north.
Except for the Tennessee River Valley in the far-northern reaches of the state, the land was hard and poor, and so were its people. Even the land in Jones Valley, where Birmingham now sits, was so rock-strewn and useless that the city itself wasn’t founded until several years after the Civil War, and even then, only because of the discovery of iron ore close by.
When the Civil War came, most of the borderlands descendants joined the fight for the Confederacy. Though not many were themselves slave owners, like almost all people throughout all of human history, they were racial bigots. And their heritage fighting the border wars made them deeply suspicious of any sort of centralized government power. Even so, not all could be convinced. Winston County, directly east of Marion County in which Hackleburg sits, voted to secede from the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Plucky determination and fierce independence, passed down from Alabama’s borderlands ancestors, formed a wellspring of resolve and grittiness when storms again swept through Alabama’s Appalachian foothills. Though instinctively leery of outsiders and independent to a fault, there was nothing these people wouldn’t do to help a neighbor, because they knew their neighbors, self-reliant and proud, would only accept help as a last resort. Their churches, always important as centers of social activity, became conduits for delivering relief and compassion. And no government coercion was necessary, nor could have been effective, at arousing the massive relief effort that is now underway.
No, don’t weep for Alabama. An independent streak isn’t always a bad thing. In this age when the guarantor of first resort always seems to be some nameless, faceless federal government bureaucrat, a little self-reliance around which neighborly charity can coalesce goes a long way. Don’t weep for Alabama. Alabama will be just fine.