Appalachia as seen by two who know it

When Ross Spears and Jamie Ross started work on their documentary film about the Appalachians, they went for a drive.

It was a long drive, or series of drives, logging more than 10,000 miles before shooting any footage.

There was a practical reason for that. The project started in the late 1990s, in the film era and before digital recording became the more affordable norm. Film is expensive, Spears points out, so they didn't want to start shooting before they had a really good idea what they were looking for.

That leads to the second and possibly key thing that sets their new four-part documentary, Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People, apart from other national television reports on the mountain region that stretches up the eastern United States and encompasses all of Eastern Kentucky.

"I learned about looking, about not always trusting what you think you see," says Ross, who lives in Asheville, N.C. "We have such a strong image of what the region is. When I started digging, I realized as we say in the film, 'More is known about Appalachia that is untrue than anywhere else.' I realized that even though I lived there and taught in a rural school district, there was a lot that I didn't know.

"We did a lot of looking, and it got to be kind of a joke with us: 'No trailers, it can't be Appalachia.' Every image we saw published was what you saw on TV, of people with no teeth. But if you drive down the roads of Appalachia, what you see is lots of people living in modest houses, taking really good care of their gardens and a landscape that is much different than what you see on TV."

Appalachia has had its share of humiliating portraits of poverty and squalor, the most recent being ABC's 20/20 report by Kentucky native Diane Sawyer that detailed the plights of children struggling with addiction and poor health.

Ross and Spears' ambitions were a bigger picture: "Half a billion years in four hours," Ross says, laughing.

Spears says the project was inspired in part by the work of author John McPhee, the writer whose accounts of areas such as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and orange groves of Florida focused on the land and its impact on the residents as much as the people.

"When we decided to make the mountains the main character, to tell it from their point of view, that really brought a focus to the project," Spears said.

The four-part environmental history series, narrated by Sissy Spacek, premieres on Kentucky Educational Television at 10 p.m. Thursday and runs the next three Thursdays.

The series starts at the beginning, with geographical shifts that helped form the mountains, among the oldest on Earth, and the terrain that would support some of the greatest biodiversity in the world.

Spears points to a segment at the beginning of episode 3 of Appalachia exploring the salamander. The film describes how it was a perfect inhabitant of Appalachian terrain and how that rough land separated the salamander species, letting different groups of the same animal take on remarkable genetic diversity over the centuries.

The film describes how nature gave the mountains an incredible variety of resources and created unique communities that lived in harmony with their environments, until the Civil War. The 19th-century war brought outsiders into the mountains for the first time, and the advance of industrialization attracted coal and timber industries primarily, but not exclusively, to irreparably alter the land and the Appalachian ways of life.

Ross says that the film is honest but avoids finger-pointing or advancing causes.

"We didn't want to get into polemics. We just wanted to tell the story," Ross says.

"Rich landscapes produce rich cultures, and that's what you see in Appalachia. Where Appalachia is troubled is where the land has been plundered, exploited and denigrated."

The films constantly wind back to the relationship between the land and the people.

Looking for an entrée to PBS, Ross and Spears say they intentionally sought a presenting station outside the Appalachian states.

"We got a lot of help from KET, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Commonwealth Public Broadcasting in Richmond, (Va.)," Spears said. "But what we wanted was a national broadcast, and if it had been presented by one of those stations, it would have been pegged as a regional program."

So, well into the process, the filmmakers approached Oregon Public Broadcasting about presenting the series.

"We wanted people to understand that this is not just a regional story, that it is an important story for the nation and the world," Ross says. "We're important to the whole world, the mountains are, because of the incredible biodiversity, and these mountains are unique in the world in that they've experienced human impact in a way no other mountain region has. The whole chain is half of the industry in the country, and a third of the population is within two hours of the mountains.

"We are the first frontier. Daniel Boone was here, the Cherokee were here, all kinds of Indian tribes were here, and much of our story is the story of the rest of the country.

"We offer a lot to the country in terms of what we've learned from our story and how people need nature. The big lesson that Appalachia teaches us, and I think we've forgotten, is we are creatures and not just creators. What we learn time and time again in Appalachia is we are part of the land, and the land is not just a backdrop for our actions."