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The Appalachian and Carpathian Mountains

Scholars from Appalachia have been lucky to relate to their colleagues from the Carpathian Mountains in numerous events in that part of the world. After attending conferences dating back to 2011, they have discovered many similarities between the Carpathians and Appalachians. The paper titled “Mountains Apart, Cultures Connected: The Ukrainian Carpathians and American Appalachians” written by Dr. Donald Edward Davis, Ph.D., a former Senior Fulbright Fellow at the Precarpathian National University in western Ukraine, sheds light on the historical and cultural connections between our two mountain regions.

A brief summary of his findings:

The eastern Carpathians remain one of the most isolated regions in all of Europe. Although we can say that some parts of Appalachia remain isolated, connectivity by land has greatly improved over the past decades and so it is now possible to travel across much of the entire region by car. This fact has caused important transformations in both our economy and culture.

Both the Appalachian and Carpathians are heavily forested landscapes. Making wood and wood products is still economically important for the Carpathians, although we are perhaps more globalized and rely less on local furniture stores. However, both regions practice similar land-use activities, including small-scale agriculture as the local geography permits. In addition, says Davis, “Mountain settlements in both areas have tended to congregate in lowland valleys near major water courses. Whereas transhumance--the seasonal movement of people and their livestock to the highest uplands--was practiced in Appalachia only before the mid-20th century, it remains important in the Ukrainian Carpathians even today. In both mountain regions we see the creation of particular landscapes caused by the perennial presence of humans and livestock in the uplands. In Ukraine, it is the polonyna, the biologically diverse mountain meadow that is the subject of much folklore and song; in Appalachia, it is the grassy bald, an expanse of mountain pastures created largely by the former grazing of sheep and cattle on high elevation slopes.”

The Appalachians and Carpathians also have similar elevations and share some of the same natural ecosystems. There is also “an entire range of Appalachian cultural practices that have their origins in central Europe, including weaving and wood carving traditions, folk music and dance, alcohol distilling, log-cabin construction, folk medicine, and even holiday celebrations.  In fact, even though England officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, in Appalachia “Old Christmas” was commonly celebrated on January 6 in larger towns until the end of the 19th century and in rural areas well into the twentieth. Associated with Old Christmas was the practice of mumming or reveling, a tradition that continues to be practiced in several West Virginia communities. In West Virginia the practice is known as “belsnickling,” and comes mostly from the Germans who settled the area in the 1700s.  Elsewhere in Appalachia, Christmas plays were not unlike Malanka or Vertep performances, but perhaps more closely resembling those performed today in the villages of Maramures, just across the Ukrainian border in Romania.” These interesting facts were put together for the first time in Dr. Davis’s paper.

Without question the Carpathians and Appalachians possess similar development challenges, not only as a result of their geographic isolation and rural character, but also due to the perennial outsourcing of both highland people and their natural resources. “In both the Appalachians and the Carpathians,” concludes Davis, “environmental and cultural preservation are closely intertwined. In preserving the mountain landscape, one also preserves cultural traditions. In both regions are literally hundreds of forest and farmland dependent communities where a considerable portion of the local income is generated by largely undeveloped fields, forests, and streams. Without access to such landscapes West Virginia mountaineers are unable to dig American ginseng each autumn, an Appalachian tradition that often goes back more than five generations. For Ukrainian Hutsuls, not having healthy forests means there will also be fewer if any mushrooms to gather in the autumn, a cultural tradition that goes back more than five centuries. In its purest form, sustainable development brings real economic choices to local communities, a path of self-determination and well-being that benefits both the mountains as well as those individuals who call the mountains their home.”

After reviewing the many Carpathian and Appalachian connections, we are hopeful that a contingent of Appalachian Studies students and academics can make it to this amazing part of the mountain world. We urge you to explore and learn more about the interrelatedness between us and even attend the 2024 Appalachian/Carpathian International Mountain Conference, which will be held at Cluj-Napoca and Roşia Montana, Romania next year (October 15-18).

Photos by Yndiana Montes-Fogelquist:

  • The entire Appalachian/Ukrainian delegation at the conference in Yaremche, Ukraine in 2017

  • Davis surveying the mountain village of Kryvorivnia, Ukraine in 2016

  • An open-pit copper mine near Roşia Montana, Romania

  • The attendees at Carpathian Convention in Belgrade, Serbia, October 17, 2023 (Davis pictured in back row, fourth from the left)

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