As a native of Appalachian Ohio, where the undulating landscape is dotted by farms and small homesteads, I can’t help but think the similarities between my home and the Carpathian Mountain region are more than just coincidence. As I travel through rural Romania, I am often struck by the piecemeal cottages and and horse-drawn carriages. For me, it conjures some of my happiest childhood memories. Whether it was chasing chickens with my childhood playmate in front of their trailer or learning how to safely drive past an Amish horse-and-buggy as a teenager, Romania takes me home.
Over the past year, I have been very glad to discover that I am not the only one to have noticed the uncanny similarities between the Appalachians and Carpathians. On 12 April 2013, I co-hosted the first Transatlantic Mountain Cultures lecture series here at Transylvania University with Dr. Cristian Pralea and Dr. Georgeta Moarcăs. Thanks to our video conferencing set up using Skype, students and faculty from both sides of the Atlantic were able to ask questions and participate in the discussion.
Dr. Donald Davis, author and Fulbright Scholar, spoke with us from his study in Washington DC about some of the reasons for the similarities between the two mountain regions and the history of Carpathian-Appalachain exchanges. He has been studying the similarities between the Appalachians and Carpathians for the past decade and has written several books. I was particularly intrigued by his thoughts on how the mountains shape people and their culture more than people shape the mountains. It seems true to me that the landscape has a powerful effect on the culture and behaviors of people. When we live in a synergistic way with the land, everything from our eating and sleeping to our social interactions and world view are in some way shaped by the land.
Dr. Dan Shope of Shawnee State and Dr. Moarcăs both spoke about the myths and legends that haunt the cultures of these two mountain regions. Dr. Shope gave a thorough description of West Virginia’s “Mothman” and cultural coping mechanisms. With beautiful pictures of the mountain villages, Dr. Moarcăs presented on the “Sylvan Maiden” and “St. Theodore’s Stallions” myths from Maramueș. The Sylvan maiden “leads men astray.” Men reported waking up in the woods with thorns in their feet, without being able to remember what happened to them (they also swear they weren’t drinking). St Theodore’s stallions punish women (through disembowelment) for doing work on forbidden days. One of the major differences we noticed between the myths is that although the Mothman is a scary creature, the myth is celebrated with a festival and generally not feared in the same way the Sylvan Maiden and St. Theodore’s Stallions are. The Romanian myths also had a stronger sense of punishment for breaking social conventions, whereas the contemporary Appalachian myths tend to be a way to explain tragedy and hardship through governments cover-ups and supernatural beings.
The final presentations touched on education in Appalachia. I presented my Master’s thesis on perceptions of inequality in rural, Appalachian schools and Dr. Anne Murray of Pfeiffer University, current Fulbrighter in Bucharest, Romania presented on the John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. While my research focused on some of the damage done to rural schools by our culture of competition, testing and standards, Dr Murray proposed the “folk school” as a possible model for some things we could do in public education. Although the John. C Campbell folk school is for adults, its cooperative nature as well as its commitment to the preservation of traditional arts and lifestyles make it an appealing model of education in a rural setting. Dr. Murray also led a workshop for us the following day where she taught faculty and students traditional methods of bookbinding.
Sadly, the conference went too long, so we did not have time for Dr. Pralea to present on the Merry Cemetery in Săpânța, Maramueș. He uses the Merry Cemetery as an example of an idea he developed with Dr. Dan Shope called “Post-industrial Negotiation”. It is a way to explain the Mothman phenomenon and the humorous approach to death in the Merry Cemetery as a coping strategy for the de-industrialization and exploitation of rural people and areas. But, I suppose it is best to leave some things undone in order to have something for our next Transatlantic Mountain Conference.