The Art of Being a Neighbor

Eve Birch - Martinsburg, West Virginia
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, April 12, 2009
Eve Birch

A few years ago, Eve Birch was broke and living alone in a dilapidated mountain shack. Yet she discovered a community of people willing to befriend her, share what little they had, and show Birch the value of neighbors uniting to help each other.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I used to believe in the American Dream, which meant a job, a mortgage, cable TV, credit cards, warranties, success. I wanted it and worked toward it like everyone else, all of us separately chasing the same thing.

One year, through a series of unhappy events, it all fell apart. I found myself homeless and alone. I had my truck and $56.

I scoured the countryside for some place I could rent for the cheapest possible amount. I came upon a shack in an isolated hollow four miles up a winding mountain road over the Potomac River in West Virginia.

It was abandoned, full of broken glass and rubbish. When I pried off the plywood over a window and climbed in, I found something I could put my hands to. I hadn’t been alone for twenty-five years. I was scared, but I hoped the hard work would distract and heal me.

I found the owner and rented the place for $50 a month. I took a bedroll, a broom, a rope, a gun, and some cooking gear, and I cleared a corner to camp in while I worked.

The locals knew nothing about me. But slowly, they started teaching me the art of being a neighbor. They dropped off blankets, candles, tools, and canned deer meat, and they began sticking around to chat. They asked if I wanted to meet cousin Albie or go fishing, maybe get drunk some night. They started to teach me a belief in a different American Dream—not the one of individual achievement but of neighborliness.

Men would stop by with wild berries, ice cream, truck parts, and bullets to see if I was up for courting. I wasn’t, but they were civil anyway. The women on that mountain worked harder than any I’d ever met. They taught me how to use a whetstone to sharpen my knives, how to store food in the creek, and how to keep it cold and safe. I learned to keep enough food for an extra plate for company.

What I had believed in, all those things I thought were the necessary accoutrements for a civilized life, were nonexistent in this place. Up on the mountain, my most valuable possessions were my relationships with my neighbors.

After four years in that hollow, I moved back into town. I saw that a lot of people were having a really hard time, losing their jobs and homes. With the help of a real estate broker I chatted up at the grocery store, I managed to rent a big enough house to take in a handful of people.

There are four of us now in the house, but over time I’ve had nine people come in and move on to other places from here. We’d all be in shelters if we hadn’t banded together.

The American Dream I believe in now is a shared one. It’s not so much about what I can get for myself; it’s about how we can all get by together.

Eve Birch is a librarian in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where she still works with the homeless, while also running a small construction business that provides day work for needy neighbors. Two stories Birch wrote about her life in the shack are featured in the anthology, The Green Rolling Hills.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.