Spit no Fire, Eat no Dirt

I have one line of ancestors that runs back to the mountains of Appalachia, and it is from this line that I may have inherited the few anomalous orange whiskers that sprout on my chin when my grooming is lax.  The breed was most likely Scotch Irish, and it is my fancy to trace those whiskers to a dashing Viking rover on the cold grey Irish Sea.

I am just now reading an old letter on the Scotch Irish of Appalachia, and I find one critic charging these people with “provincialism, narrowness, bigotry, austerity, and other shortcomings.”  I confess that I bear some tincture of the enumerated traits, but offer no apologies since I deny they are shortcomings.  What grabs my attention, though, is the line with which this critic was reportedly answered.  He was speaking to “a distinguished professor of Washington and Lee University,” a seat of learning in the mountains of Virginia, and this was the professor’s riposte:

“Much of what you allege is true; but they spit no fire before the late war, and they have eaten no dirt since.”

The letter was written in 1894, so the “late war” to which he alludes was the War Between the States.  This was the attitude of the mountain Whites, and I am proud to claim kinship with a people of whom such a thing could be said.  Indeed, I propose to take the substance of this line as my personal motto.

Spit no Fire, Eat no Dirt.

For as the author of the old letter concludes,

“There is a grand character summed up in that short phrase: The conservatism that assailed no one, the tenacity of purpose that admits to no surrender of principle.”


*) William Preston, “The Scotch-Irish of Western Virginia,” The Scotch-Irish in America, vol. 6 (1894): 199-201.

8 thoughts on “Spit no Fire, Eat no Dirt

  1. Pingback: Spit no Fire, Eat no Dirt | Reaction Times

  2. Admirable, indeed. In general, I fancy mountain folk. The Alpine races are my preferred Continentals. Auvergne is my favorite region of France, and the Scots, despite their current shame, were once worthies. There is just something hardy and hearty about hill people.

    • It is good for a man to have a wall of rock and soil between himself and the folks next door. All the better if there is snow and ice at the top of that wall. A man needs to know where he leaves off and the other fellow begins, which is why our rulers do their best to ensure that he doesn’t.

  3. I don’t know. I felt a moment of pride yesterday reading an internet comment when a Californian sharing his perceptions of other Americans wrote that all Appalachians seem to have a problem with ANY and ALL authority figures. I realized it’s true. I’ve got it in spades and always have had. But I thought you all were all about respect for authority, so … ? Actually in my case, and I think in most of my neighbors’ attitudes, it’s not disrespect for all authority. It’s deep distrust of all pretenders and all pretentious people. We tend toward innate skepticism.

    • Postmodernity has put conservatives in the paradoxical position of being radicals, just as it has put believers in hierarchy in the paradoxical position of being anarchists. Of course this may mean that we are just pretenders, but I like to think that it means we are not servile. I am pleased to honor the authority of a man who has genuine authority in the domain where he has genuine authority, but I rebel at the pretensions of blowhards and busybodies. It seems to me that our authorities have grown more pretentious at the same time that they have grown less impressive, and I am hardly alone in saying this about our shabby elite.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/17/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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