Going along with the discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird and whether we can understand an Atticus Finch or the people of Maycomb, Alabama, I found an interesting essay on Picher, Oklahoma that made me think again about whether we make presumptions about other people and places that are not always fair or accurate. The essay is in the book, Hard as the Rock Itself: Place and Identity in the American Mining Town, by David Robertson. Picher has been plagued by severe environmental problems as a result of lead and zinc mining in the early twentieth century. Despite all the problems and subsequent health concerns Picher “retains value as a community and home for many.” So who are Picherites and why would they want to hang on to their beseiged landscape.
First Picher started as a prosperous and booming mining community during the heyday of the Tri-State Mining District. These were tough people, surviving harsh conditions and proud of their ability to endure and make a living from the land. Then the Great Depression, labor conflicts, and plenty of unemployment contributed to deteriorating living conditions. This gave rise to social reformers, like Charles Morris Mills, claiming Picherites “lacked the commonest incentives for decency”, and other scathing reports by journalists and social reformers marked the town as a doomed community. While social reform was definitely needed, the feelings and actions of the people who called Picher home were completely left out of the perception of these well meaning folks. Times changed, problems remained, outsiders thought Picherites should leave, the town had fallen to the fate of many small rural communities, population loss, and hard economic times. Later as mines closed, environmental conditions worsened, the government sought relocation for the citizens, why did people stay?
Some insight lies in the booklet produced by the Picher Centennial Committee, C. Allan Mathews describes Picher in this way” “We’ve a long way to go. On the other hand we’ve come a long way too!”.
“Picher is sixty years old. She’s not the lusty lead and zinc boomtown of yester-year. She’s put her roots deep. She’s weathered those intangibles common to evey boom camp…That has been the story of her past. Perhaps that, more than anything else, is her future. By every conceivable, logical deduction, these chat piles should have been her tombstone. But there was a human factor that can’t be overlooked in the miracle that is Picher. A people who wouldn’t give up.” –C. Allan Mathews, resident.
So my response to Malcolm Gladwell and all the other Malcolm Gladwells comes straight from Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For a much better understanding of the culture of mining communities and the people who lived and still live there, check out Hard as the Rock Itself.