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Longevity in Mountain Culture

by Ashby Underwood / Editorial Staff

There certainly are some areas in the world where the “place” people live have an affect on aging. “Blue zones, ” as they are popularly called, are locales with an extraordinary number of centenarians--persons living to ages well past 100 years--who are very active physically. A few of the most notorious “blue zones” are mountainous regions very similar to the terrain of our Southern Appalachians.

In 1972, physician Alexander Leaf, MD traveled on a research effort sponsored by National Geographic Magazine to several mountainous regions around the Earth, – Hunza, Pakistan, the Caucasus Mountain region of Georgia (also called the Abkhazia, a former state of the Soviet Union), and Vilcambaba, Ecuador. His desire was to research rumors and conduct studies of people in these regions who were said to be living well into their 100’s. He published some of his findings in an article in 1973 entitled “Every Day Is a Gift When You’re Over a Hundred”. Some of the people in these particular populations were 95 to 125 years old and older. Two common threads of these “advanced aging” cultures were usefulness through walking and farming in steep terrain, and being an integral part of making community decisions. Age itself was regarded as a qualification for leadership in the community. Dr. Leaf finds that in these communities older persons died soon after they lost their usefulness and importance. Physical ability in the Abkhazia region was noted by Dr. Leaf. He observed “an unusual number of very vigorous old folk clambering over the steep slopes that make up this mountainous land.” In one account, he told of a man who submerged himself every morning in a nearby cold rushing stream.

America is not necessarily known for its advanced aging population. I recently asked a friend of mine who is eighty-nine years old, “What is the key to longevity?” Her response was, “Well, let me think about it for a minute. Oh, OK, I know (looking me square in the eyes) Stay interested in something! Trees, Books, People…Yes, that’s it. People make the most interesting study!”

And they do, meet Ervine Chastain from Mountain City, GA. Mr. Chastain is one of ten children and turned eighty-five years old this past June. Mr. Chastain smiles most of the time he is talking. He has been living in Rabun County since 1938. When asked why he moved here to the mountains, he laughs, “Everybody got to know us in South Carolina!” I ask him his age, Mr. Chastain jokes, “I’m 49.”[laughs] Then, as if he were sharing a secret teaching, he leans toward me and holds out his hand with his palm open: “Let me see your left hand. See that line there. [takes his finger along an indention in his left palm, instructing me to do the same] My daddy showed me this. That there is your Life Line. See mine, it’s uninterrupted.”

I looked down at his palm, and indeed, there was a visibly deep, continuous crease along the center of his left hand. Chastain continues his story: “My father would walk twelve miles in the morning to go work in Stumphouse Tunnel [editor’s note: Stumphouse tunnel is located in Oconee County, SC on Hwy 28]. He was born in 1881. Sometimes after breakfast my father would dump out the grounds in his morning coffee onto a paper and say, Look there. That’s my fortune, and it’s going to be a good one!”

Mr. Chastain worked for the Forest Service for eleven years, “They got rid of the Seniors about five years ago. They thought we’s going to live too long.” [jokes again] And that might have been the case for this man who studies and farms honey bees. Known as a beekeeper in Rabun County, Chastain now has eight hives of honey bees on his one acre property. Most current land cultivation practices encourage the re-introduction of honeybee colonies as an integral method of transforming and revitalizing the land. He and his wife Annie started out with six acres and as many as nineteen hives back in the 1980’s. Chastain has been farming bees for 30 to 40 years now. He explains his relationship with the bees: “I help them and they help me. Back sometime in the 80’s I noticed that the bees were droppin’ dead. They would come back to the hive and jus’ drop dead. It was the poison on them blossoms. So I called the man at the county office and told him about sprayin’ that corn. I told him about the bees. And he told me that he would stop right now with that.”

In return for his stewardship, Mr. Chastain enjoys the fat of the land that the bees make. The honey produced right there in his backyard is a practical source of medicine for Chastain and his family. His daughter, one of two that share his six-acre property, eats a spoonful of honey each morning to stave off her allergy symptoms. Pollen that is collected by the bees from native plants is a wonderful remedy to reduce a person’s allergic reactions to the native flora. This cure is often prescribed by doctors familiar with homeopathic medicine, but is innate wisdom for this caretaker of bees. Along with the healing property of honey, Mr. Chastain swears that the sting of the bees also decreases the inflammation of arthritis: “I used to get stung pretty regular, and I didn’t have any arthritis. I don’t get stung very often now, and now I have arthritis. I had a woman come over the other day and ask if she could go out to my hives and get herself stung. She had bad arthritis. I said OK and to wear some perfume. Oh yeah, they hate perfume.”

Still working four days a week at the recycling center on Warwoman Road, Mr. Chastain is both active and productive. Like Dr. Leaf’s findings during his 1972 research, Ervine Chastain epitomizes the robust, elderly populations of the world who were all good-natured and lively people. They enjoyed the abundant landscape and had reverence for the land. I find it interesting that Mr. Chastain’s work experience with the forest service and the recycling center has, innately, exemplified ideas like conservation and usefulness to society. Like the bees, he is part of a colony. Through his work he continues to serve his greater community. I would say that this philanthropic quality is not necessarily conscious for Mr. Chastain, but more instinctual. It is part of who he is.

With thousands of acres of National Forest, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails, fertile valleys, and cold streams for swimming, are we living in a potential “blue zone”? Perhaps. Developing intimacy with the land through farming, hiking, and maintaining a supportive role within a community is a commitment to one’s personal health. It has been proven a good recipe for longevity worldwide.

The four counties that comprise the Golden Corner of Georgia, and North and South Carolina have been a summer haven for modern American culture in the South East Region for over 100 years. Though some of us live here year round, most folks head back to a major metropolis somewhere a bit further south, hoping soon to make a permanent move here. As our community grows, we can look to our elders for the way to stay true to the land. Living in these mountains continues to assist us in living a longer, fruitful, and more useful life.

Part Two to follow in Spring 2010 issue: SPRING/SUMMER 2009, B&L, PAGE 4 Longevity and Respected Decision-Making