With this column, “The View From Mudsock Heights” enters its sixteenth year.
It began 15 years ago and and I’ve not missed a week since. (There was one week, during a time when it was published in only one paper, that it didn’t appear. The editor and his young assistant were afraid it would anger people on Facebook, who might have responded by saying angry things on Facebook. Really.) But I wrote it that week, and sent the column out by email to those who requested it; they were more numerous than I expected.
The column began a year and a half after I had moved to a house on a piece of rural land in the Appalachian woods not far from the college town of Athens, Ohio. It’s inspiration came in part from the contrast I’d found between my new home and the northeastern megalopolis, where I’d lived for close to three decades.
Why did I give it the name I did? I’ll quote from that first column, published on October 2, 2006:
When I was preparing to move to Athens County last year from the vast urban wasteland east of the Hudson, it seemed a good idea to do a little research into the history of the place I would soon make my home.
How it happened I do not know, but soon I was looking at a website written by Richard Dean of Athens. It had to do with the settlement of Mudsock, which was once located on the north bank of Federal Creek, about a half mile west of present-day Amesville. It got its start in about 1798, got its name somewhere between 1820 and 1828, and got abandoned entirely by 1858. Its boomtown era, if that’s quite the phrase, was from 1827 to 1837. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been in the county for more than a few months that a village on the banks of Federal Creek is a village often underwater.
I had purchased property atop a ridge, safe above the floods, between two much taller ridges. It is untouched by the signals of local television and radio, not that they’re much to begin with. To continue:
There is a long tradition in my family to name its estates, such as they are. When I was a kid in Missouri in what seems now to have been the early Iron Age, my parents called our little farm “Mockingbird Hill,” after a once-popular song. There were certainly plenty of mockingbirds, but the place was flat as a board. So I had no problem, even though I’m a few miles away from the original Mudsock, naming my little piece of the world “Mudsock Heights.”
It is from this perch that I observe, and write.
That explains the name, but not this column — why I’m writing it or why you should bother to read it. Fair enough. As a reporter and editor for a zillion years at places as varied as CBS News, The Miami Herald, and Yankee magazine, I developed contrarian tendencies and a compulsion to write about everything I saw. (In my view, the only valid reason to be a reporter is a strong desire to have a front-row seat so as to rush out and tell everyone else what you have seen. Want to change the world? Politics, next door over.)
Having moved here, I quickly discovered that I love this place. This county, this region. The people. After a month here I had more and better friends, who were themselves more interesting people, than I had known after five years in Connecticut. They are wise and funny, and here I hope to give some of them a wider voice. (One day as I was getting into my car, which is a Honda Element, a young woman hollered from across the parking lot, “I like them cars. Them is awesome!” Not textbook grammar, but if communication is the purpose of language, then language has never been put to better use.)
I’ve also noticed what I halfway think of as the Fortress City of Athens. Except for the common shopping area of East State Street east of the Route 33 overpass, there might as well be a wall separating the City of Athens from the rest of the county. There isn’t much intermingling. Athens the city is missing a lot, and I’d like to tell about some of that, too.
There are critters out here in the woods. The hawks that circle, rising on thermals as gliders do, in the valley below my house each morning, and the pileated woodpecker, more than a foot tall, that perched on a vertical column holding up my back porch a few weeks ago. The bald eagle that flew over week before last. The deer. The deer. The deer. The (maybe) bear that (maybe) lives in my cave. Something has left bear tracks on my lawn along with additional evidence suggesting that what bears do in the woods they do other places as well.
And so it began.
The newspaper industry was far different just 15 years ago. The little twice-a-week paper for which I now wrote was touted in Editor & Publisher magazine as one of three papers in the country that were actually growing. (The Wall Street Journal was another. I don’t remember the third. There may be growing newspapers now, but if there are they are few. Indeed, Editor & Publisher itself announced that it was ceasing publication in 2010, but it got bought and revived.)
The trend became that what amounted to publishing scrapyards bought up papers, squeezied them of staff and services, and harvested what profit they could. This isn’t true just of little independent newspapers. I worked for a time decades ago for a conglomerate of a dozen daily newspapers in Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland counties in New York, all owned by the nationwide Gannett chain. It was there that what became USA Today was born; at the time it was called TODAY and was published on pink paper. Radio and television audiences heard ads that encouraged them to “Reach for the peach.” The paper cost, I think, a dime, cheaper than the other New York metropolitan dailies.
Like most in the newspaper industry, Gannett apparently believed that the future was in the big box stores. The dozen papers merged into one; the staffs were correspondingly reduced. Ad revenues dropped as small local stores were unwilling to pay extra to have their ads delivered to readers 50 miles away. Then the big box stores — Crazy Eddie’s, Filene’s Basement, Gimbels — started to disappear. Ad sales people had no idea how to respond — they didn’t seem aware of the actual advantages of newspapers over other media. (Yes, there are some.)
My first paper, in Missouri, got bought by a company famous for doing its editing, page makeup, and national and international coverage from offices far away. The paper had been owned by the same family for more than a century.
And my little paper in Ohio, one of the only three growing papers in the country, got bought by a company that had acquired a reputation for buying up and bleeding dry small newspapers in several states. The sale was announced seven years ago almost to the week. One of the two founders, who had tearfully announced the sale, later took me aside and asked me if I would reassure the staff that everything would be okay. “I can’t do that,” I said. “I’ve been through these things before, and they’re never okay.” I’m sad to say that this case was no exception. Today that paper is skin and bones. In July, with a new editor, it decided that I was not worth my keep. Fair enough, but at the time of the sale there were an editor, a couple of full-time reporters, a mostly full-time photographer, part-time sports writers, a large and effective advertising staff, and a competent publisher. Today there is a reporter-editor-”publisher,” part of the time of another reporter also writing for the semi-daily in the same mostly empty building. When it is mentioned locally, it is always out of surprise that it still exists at all.
It would be merely tragic if it were not such a common story.
But some of us are still around and plan to stick around.
Which brings me to an update to issues raised in that first column: I still love living in the Appalachian hills, despite the occasional inconveniences (such as the weekly blackouts, including the one in progress as I began this week’s column). The “urban”-rural divide remains as firm as ever. The Honda Element is still in the driveway — want to buy it? — though I drive a Subaru Forester now. The deer are still a problem. The woodpecker is still here and still confounds my efforts to photograph it. The bear hasn’t made itself evident since those early days, but a whole mess of wild turkeys and maybe a bobcat have taken its place.
And the local rural language remains colorful. If someone invites you to dinner, it’s best to make sure they aren’t talking about the noon meal. If you are off in a ditch, the person who stops to help might offer to give you a poosh. The important part is that he will stop to help. That doesn’t happen everywhere.
Nor do contrarian tendencies and compulsions to write.