The Tuesday before the flood came, I stood on the porch of the Hindman Settlement School stringing beans.
When I first walked onto the porch, Rachel was already at it. She and I were among the writers there for Hindman’s flagship literary program, The Appalachian Writers’ Workshop.
“Can I help?” I asked, and she welcomed me.
She handed me a mess of beans and a bowl to discard their strings. I matched her rhythm, sliding the strings from each side and snapping the pod into threes, dropping them into the tall cooker between us.
Another writer, Meredith, walked up. She and I were supposed to meet to talk about my writing, but she too couldn’t resist breaking beans for a spell.
She started to help.
Three sets of hands stringing and breaking, the smell earthy and fresh, the conversation flowing. It’s a magic I’d grown up with in the hills. When you string beans, everything slows down. You are still, save your hands, and there’s time to talk. I had come to Hindman to write, but I had also come for this: to immerse myself in this treasured literary place, where the voices and stories are songs I know by heart, and traditions like stringing beans are a shared language.
A day later, Troublesome Creek would rise up in the night in historic flash flooding that sent many of the workshop’s participants fleeing from rising water, trying to save their belongings, their vehicles, their lives. I was safe: high above the water in a cabin with a dozen or so other women. We woke to no power and to the unknown of what faced us at the bottom of the hill. Breaking beans seemed like a distant memory.
I walked down to see it for myself: The muddy water of Troublesome still high over the grass and under the bridge, the evidence of the destruction and despair all around me: Rachel’s truck now in the water, the smell of gasoline from ruptured tanks, a gaggle of displaced ducks looking as confused as the people. The doors to the administrative officers had been blown off by the force of the rising water. Inside those offices, the photos, books, and other treasured items from the Hindman archives were water logged and coated in mud, their future uncertain. Around me: conversations about insurance companies, rides home, about the devastation in town. Was everyone safe? Was it even possible to get home?
Down by the bridge, I pulled one of the school’s memorial rocking chairs that had been swept away as far as I could to higher ground. I noticed a memorial brass plaque on the chair; I wish I remembered the name. Every piece of this place has a story.
What I couldn’t see: that the water not just at Hindman, but across Eastern Kentucky. Water rushed into valleys and towns, in places that never flooded before. In the hours and days to come, the damage there and elsewhere would become clear: 13 counties have declared states of emergencies; 37 lives are lost and many remain missing. Homes, businesses, bridges and roads are decimated. The magnitude of the flood and of the loss are astounding, as is the magnitude of the response: a chorus of “How can I help?”
In the days since the flood, two stories have unfolded simultaneously at the Settlement School: work to save its archives of precious photos and manuscripts and other historical items, and efforts to serve the community with meals, supplies, and temporary housing.
Preserving the past and serving the community are at the heart of the Hindman mission. On Friday, the School celebrated its 120th anniversary. Opening in 1902, it was the first rural social settlement school established in America and became a model center for education, healthcare, and social services.
The school’s work today includes serving youth with dyslexia with tutoring and in-school support; helping local residents learn to grow their own food; teaching traditional folk arts; and championing Appalachian literature through its 45-year old literary program, the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, as well as a new publishing imprint, Fireside Industries.
Since the flood, the porch where I was breaking beans is now ground zero for volunteers and supplies. Inside the room where we gathered for readings, volunteers hung photos from the archive to dry. A sign on the wall proclaims “Hindman Settlement School: Changing Lives since 1902.” Painted portraits of the men and women who have shaped this place overlook the work to save it.
It is a history — and future — worth saving. The flood can’t take that away.
I went to Hindman with hope. Hope of writing. Hope of connecting with my home. I found it in spades. I found it on the porch breaking beans, in the people who have shown up to valiantly save this place and Eastern Kentucky.
When you can’t summon that hope, get a mess of beans, sit down for a few minutes, and start stringing. I guarantee you’ll not feel alone for long.
Tracy Staley grew up in Hazard, Kentucky, and lives in Ohio. She does communications work for the Rural Assembly and other organizations.
If you would like to learn more about fundraising efforts at Hindman Settlement School, visit www.hindman.org.