I hiked up the gravel lane, following the ridgeline to a farmhouse at the top of the hill. My traveling companions were already in the small but tidy yard, peering into an outbuilding and taking photographs. Inside the small building was a homemade distillery.
Sounds like stereotypical travel writing describing the Appalachian Mountains, right?
In fact, this story is about a group of scholars from Appalachia traveling in the Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. I will do my best to avoid perpetuating stereotypes, but when you are writing about a different culture and navigating the fine line between being a scholar, a tourist, and a human being, it is sometimes hard to tell.
I travelled to Romania in October to attend a conference titled Appalachians/Carpathians: Researching, Documenting, and Preserving Highland Traditions. The event at Transylvania University of Braşov brought together a group of international scholars to discuss sustainability in global mountain regions. Refreshingly different than most academic conferences, this gathering focused on the lessons rural regions can teach us about creating a sustainable future.
Dr. Georgeta Moarcas, one of the conference organizers explained: “By comparing histories, literature, and community development in the Appalachians and Carpathians, we hope to find common ground between our two regions as well as promote collaborative strategies for protecting and preserving highland traditions.”
Like many Americans, I knew little about the Carpathian Mountains, the range that stretches across Central Europe, including parts of the Czech Repulbic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and most of Romania. In his keynote address to the conference, biologist John Akeroyd from the Adept foundation described the region as “the last of old world Europe” and a hotbed of biodiversity. A myriad of small farms dominate the foothills. During my visit I learned that of the nine million farms in the European Union, half are located in Romania.
The steep mountain landscape and agricultural traditions provide an easy place to start discussing the similarities between the Appalachians and the Carpathians. Things get stickier when talking about the stereotypes that have plagued both regions. Two recent articles from the United Kingdom-based Guardian shed some light on how urban centered publications frame articles about mountain people:
“America’s Poorest White Town: Abandoned by Coal, Swallowed by Drugs,” by Chris McGreal, November 12, 2015.
“The Murders Next Door,” by Adam Nicholson, November 19, 2015
As people from Appalachia have learned, stereotypes perpetuated by commercial media outlets usually validate the views of urban investors who seek to exploit natural resources that are abundant in rural mountain regions. As a result, decisions that shape the lives of mountain people are often made in corporate boardrooms many time zones away. For much of the 20th century, Romania was part of the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, and decisions about land use, farm policy, and many other aspects of local life were made in Moscow. In the 21st century, Romania is part the European Union and what many refer to as the “global free market.” However, policies that shape residents of the Carpathians are often created with little input from local residents.
Communities in the Carpathians, like those in the Appalachians, are shaped by decisions made in boardrooms in London and New York – or in government buildings in Bucharest, Brussels, or Washington, D.C. International exchanges between rural mountain regions can increase our understanding of how global political and economic forces shape opportunities for rural people. Knowledge about how to shape policies such as agricultural aid, water rights, and forest preservation, can provide rural residents powerful tools to shape their own future.
The Appalachians/Carpathians: Researching, Documenting, and Preserving Highland Traditions exchange affirmed my belief that mountains throughout the world are the keepers of many things that people hold sacred. This list includes aesthetic items such as pristine views, wildlife, and recreational opportunities. But mountains also provide essential elements for human life such as fresh water, clean air, and forests for carbon storage. Perhaps most importantly, I witnessed how mountains can preserve cultural traditions that help feed our souls and keep people connected to the places that sustain us.
Conference co-organizer Don Davis says the goal is to hold an Appalachian / Carpathian conference every two years. The location will be finalized by the end of 2016.
Tom Hansell is a documentary filmmaker who teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.