The bones arrived on a Friday afternoon.As a wildlife biologist, it’s not uncommon for people to bring me oddities they find here in the Virginia woods. I’ll get a turtle shell from time to time, maybe a deer skull or a fossil imprint frozen in a lump of coal. But something was different about the handful of bone fragments a local student brought us after hiking an old railbed above the Powell River. It only took a few minutes for us to figure out why they seemed so strange: they were from a human leg.Certain things happen when you discover human remains. The police are called. Evidence is collected. Questions are asked. Was this a murder victim? How long had the bones been there? No one seemed to know, so we waited while investigators pieced together their history.Artifacts are a core part of our identity in Appalachia. I teach at a small college in the southwest Virginia coalfields, and I’m often asked why those of us in coal country focus so much on the past. It’s a common refrain. J.D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy recently touched off a national discussion about our region being stuck in a regressive cycle of poverty and dependency. Even the 2016 presidential election seemed to be a referendum on whether Appalachia should look forward or inward to its roots. Media profiles have been dissecting us ever since.When I get those kinds of questions, I often point back to that handful of bones. We can’t avoid the past here because it’s everywhere, hiding unnoticed above a riverbank or in plain sight in the ragged scar of a surface mine. The scattered remains of those mines, in fact, are about all my county is known for outside of the mountains. Read a piece on coal country in the New York Times or Washington Post, and chances are it will be accompanied by a panoramic image of the guts of a surface mine from here in Wise County. When photographers turn their lens on our people, they’ll find the most poverty-stricken neighborhood or visit the free health clinic we host each summer, where folks file into stalls at the county fairground to get teeth pulled and their vision checked.But rarely mentioned in those articles is what lies beyond the poverty and outside of a mine. Hidden behind the camera in those jarring images of mountaintop removal often isn’t more coal extraction but tens of thousands of acres of national forest. Long-forgotten trails trace faintly into shadowed coves that hold secrets, some of them cloaked in virgin timber. And those same people so often caricatured in photo essays and stump speeches are working to enhance our outdoor assets into a sustainable alternative for an industry in its death throes.When you’re born and raised in coal country, though, one-sided perceptions take a toll. My students often complain about having nothing to do in this part of the mountains. For many, their degree is a path out of an area that seems too far gone for any real hope. With so much emphasis on our region’s problems, it can be difficult to see past them.So, we take a hike. I’ll walk them up those overgrown trails to see hemlocks some three centuries old. We’ll sample wild brook trout from a mountain stream or climb to a lookout tower to not only look at distant surface mines but also peer into the high country of North Carolina and Tennessee. We don’t get into the woods to forget or minimize our region’s issues; we go there to explore the treasures we still have and what’s at stake if they’re lost. “I’ve driven by this trailhead a thousand times and never thought about stopping,” one of those students told me after a local field trip this spring. “I’ll be coming here a lot more now.”Few of us are naive enough to think that simply getting onto the trail could save the coalfields. But our hope is that in helping people realize what we still have here, we can each find something out in those woods, whether that means developing a new regional identity or just discovering a missing part of ourselves.Or, perhaps, stumbling across an odd group of bones.It took several months for the investigation into the remains we received to reach a conclusion. The bone fragments were old—ancient, in fact—dating back at least five hundred years to when a Native American man came to rest on a lonely sandstone ledge above the Powell River. A rail line was built just a few yards away after coal was discovered several centuries later. That rail line eventually closed as the industry boomed and faded away, leaving the remains of two eras lying side-by-side in a forgotten part of the mountains that most of our youth have never known.This spring, work began to convert that abandoned railbed into a trail that will be used to attract hikers, mountain bikers, and perhaps one more round of rebirth to these hills. Will it work? It might take a generation to find out, but in the meantime we’ll do what we know best: we’ll look to where we’ve been to see if we can figure out where we’re going. In a place that’s been built on uncertainty, transitions are more familiar than they seem.
LUCKNOW, India, (CMC) – Newly-appointed West Indies head coach, Phil Simmons, has warned his charges of the threat posed by his former side Afghanistan, and says execution and consistency will be crucial to success in the upcoming series.West Indies arrived here this week for a six-match limited overs series – three Twenty20 Internationals and One-Day Internationals – but are aware that even though Afghanistan are one of the youngest international sides, they will be dangerous in familiar subcontinent conditions.“It’s a positive thing that I know much about the rivals but they are a young and energetic side who can upset anyone,” cautioned Simmons who stepped down as Afghanistan coach following the ICC World Cup back in July.Over the last many years, they have become quite a confident unit. They will be playing on home turf; it’s not going to be easy for us. We have to make sure we are ready for what comes to us while facing an aggressive opposition.“On both the occasions when Afghanistan beat West Indies, I was their coach, and this time I would like to see things in the reverse order. It would be important to see how the West Indies boys execute plans.”He added: “If we really need to come up in the ladder, we need to have a consistent showing in all the series. We have a new captain (Kieron Pollard) and let’s see what changes he wants to make for the good.”Simmons was named as West Indies coach earlier this coach, returning for his second stint in four years after the first one ended in acrimony.Under his guidance, the Caribbean side captured the T20 World Cup in 2016 but in his absence they have slumped to number 10 in the format – below the Afghanis now ranked eighth – and number nine in ODIs.Simmons, who has penned a four-year contract, said he hoped to see the return of a winning culture during his tenure.“It’s a big responsibility on my shoulders after three years and it is different too,” said Simmons, who played 26 Tests and 143 ODIs during his career.“I would love to start with what is necessary for now. As a coach I have a goal for myself and I want my team to be a consistent winning unit. West Indies should win more matches instead of losing more matches.”He added: “We have won the World Cup twice and finished runners-up once and now all the stakeholders need to work hard to get things right once again.“It’s about getting the balance right, discipline right. Once we have all this, we can hope for a turn-around in fortunes for West Indies cricket.”West Indies take on Afghanistan in the first ODI here next Wednesday.