If ever there were a person who best epitomized the culture and character of the North Georgia mountains, it might be Barbara Taylor Woodall, who lives on Kelly’s Creek in Rabun County.
She is an example of what the Foxfire method of education in Appalachia was meant to do. Barbara was in the eighth grade at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School counting the days till she would turn 16 and drop out like many before her. But Eliot Wigginton’s Foxfire program hooked her; she stayed in school, graduated, owned a successful business and now is an author who defends the mountains and the people who love living there.
Foxfire, which continues to flourish today, sent Barbara and her friends out among the hills to write about the people and their ways. It resulted in a series of books about mountain culture compiled by students themselves, as well as exposure in national media.
Barbara grew up in a home that didn’t value formal education. “Dad believed a diploma was earned with calloused hands,” she said. “Traditional classroom learning did not work for me. I longed to be outside.”
Foxfire, named for the bioluminescent fungi growing on decaying wood in forests, changed her thinking and her life and gave her a fresh appreciation of native Appalachians, their land, practices and lifestyles. It also brought home in an emphatic and personal way the importance of her heritage.
Barbara resents strongly the movie “Deliverance,” which she said depicted mountain people in a negative light. She didn’t attend any of the recent events marking the 40th anniversary of the film. “I see nothing to celebrate given the blatant stereotyping of our wonderful mountain people and the very people that Foxfire represents,” she said.
The festival, she said, wasn’t popular among natives. “Salt was thrown in an old wound and lipstick smeared on an old pig. My heritage is not for sale.”
“It’s Not My Mountain Anymore” is the title of a book she wrote. The title gives away the theme, which is how the mountains have changed she was a child. She’s now 55. A chapter of the book also criticizes “Deliverance.”
But her main theme is how the picturesque, once-thickly foliaged mountains are now spoiled by over-development. Thankfully, Chattahoochee National Forests protects about two-thirds of the county, and other acreage is preserved by the Hambidge Center, Rabun Gap Nacoochee School and Georgia Power Co.
But only a tiny percentage of land is owned by Rabun County natives. Some sold their homesteads because of increasing taxes, family divisions, profit or an absence of heirs. A lack of jobs also forced some to move to other areas, “only to spend the rest of their lives working to come back home IF they can afford land here,” Barbara said.
“Being a seventh generation Appalachian and from a humble, passive people, I’ve surrendered parts of the county to tourists, like the Chattooga River and Main Street Clayton on Friday and Saturday afternoons,” she says. “I think our natives’ greatest loss is freedom. Giant pastures we once called our own to roam, hunt, fish and explore began to shrink due to outside ownerships who put up ‘no trespassing’ signs and security gates. They send a message to mountain folks. We don’t know our neighbors anymore.”
Barbara concedes, though, that many transplants love the mountains as she does, adapting rather than trying to change long-time residents. “The mountains can be changed by development and inhabitants, but you can’t change a mountain heart,” she says.
There’s little one can do to change the direction of the mountains, she says. But natives should encourage their children and grandchildren to grab onto their birthright and hold it with both hands.
She’s done that, living on 7 acres on Kelly’s Creek where she grew up on a hard-scrabble but happy existence.
“I’m married to these mountains,” she says.
She spends most of her time “booklegging,” as she calls it, signing and promoting “It’s Not My Mountain Anymore,” which sold 1,000 copies its first 17 days and is approaching a third printing.
As for Foxfire, it remains as a chief recorder of Appalachian culture with more than nine million books in print. “That’s not too bad for a bunch of kids with ‘hillbilly’ written all over us,” Barbara said.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times, and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle, NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays in The Times and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.