Michel McKinney

Michel McKinney, Graphic Designer, Artist, Costume Designer; Bristol, Tennessee:

“I was born right outside Philadelphia [Pennsylvania, and we moved here when I was eight. We’re known as the ‘Damn Yankees,’ because we came down to visit and stayed. We had some family that moved down here, and we came to visit. My parents just really loved the area, and thought it would be a great place to raise me. We just kind of packed up with nothing, and moved down here. 

We go up [to Pennsylvania] and visit every once in awhile, and I can usually last just a couple of days before I miss it here. Everyone here is a lot more laid back. Everyone’s friendly. Whenever you go somewhere they don’t just say, ‘Hi,’ or ignore you like they do up north. They talk to you, even if it’s just about the weather. 

I don’t think I’m a hillbilly. I’m a little bit of city, and a little bit of country. When I was really little, we would have to drive two or three hours just to see a cow. And for someone like me, being able to move somewhere, where my backyard was the woods was right up my alley. 

I spent every single day in those woods when I was little. When I was really little, I had an overactive imagination, so I used to pretend I had my own nature show, and would go around, and would tell everybody about everything I had found, and all the different animals. I would have my dog with me, and he was my audience.

I love fishing. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. When me and dad first moved here, we went fishing all the time, and he took me out to the Weir Dam at South Holston before they had actually finished it and paved it. We had to make our way through the woods, and we’d been fishing all day and hadn’t really caught much of anything. Then, we heard the sirens, and thought, ‘Well, what’s that?’ And then they started generating, and the water came up so fast [and] instantly we both had fish. So here we are, trying to go backwards up a bank to get out of the water, while we were trying to catch fish. We both ended up falling in the water, with the fish still on our lines, but we did finally catch something that day. We just went home very, very wet. 

We work with the TVA here, and we get a lot of our electricity from the water. So when they generate the lake, they’re using that for electricity. And when they generate, the water levels rise, and it’s basically almost like a rip tide in the river. It’s crazy, but the fish certainly do bite much better then. It’s right from the big dam, which is right off South Holston Lake. 

I was introduced to jug fishing, which is something I think is very Appalachian. You get a big jug, we used one-liter bottles. You tie a rope around the top. Put about twenty feet of line, then you tie a fishing line on it, about three feet of that, and then a hook. You just let it float with your bait. For three weeks, we were apparently after Jaws, and we couldn’t catch her. She would bend the hooks straight, snap the lines ever time. Kept going to the store, and getting bigger lines, hooks, trying even harder and harder, different things for bait, and we finally caught a thirty-five pound catfish. On a jug! 

I go foraging as much as I possibly can. This year has been a little hard, as much rain as we’ve had. I didn’t know a whole lot about it until about eight years ago. A family friend talked to me about morel mushrooms, and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that. I can find those.’ I went out immediately and said, ‘I have to do this all the time.’ 

In the springtime, it’s morels, and ramps are one of my absolute, most favorite things. They do stink up the house. It’s kind of like a really, really, spicy onion raw, but, when you cook them, it’s almost like an onion and garlic mixed, and had a baby. They’re the greatest things you will ever add to any food. You can eat them raw [but] I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you had a whole pack of gum. If you sweat, the smell of them will come out of your skin. People don’t realize they have been over harvested. They take several years to cultivate, so you go and wipe out a population, it won’t come back. 

Any kind of flowers you can get in the springtime, you can make jellies out of. I actually didn’t know you could do this, but you can use dandelions, violets, most of what everyone considers weeds in their yard. 

This time of year, summer, I’ve got black trumpets and chanterelles. And a little bit before now, you get milkweed, and they kind of taste like broccoli. In the wintertime, you can get oyster mushrooms, and several other different kinds. There’s always something.

Black trumpets are my favorite. You can put them in pretty much anything you put a normal mushroom in. Same with the chanterelles. They have more of a woodsy taste, so I prefer to eat them just by themselves. 

I’ve got [a blog] ‘Foraging Appalachia,’ and I want everybody to do it safely, because there’s a lot of people that just go out there, and pick whatever and get themselves in trouble. I try to post a lot of safety tips, [and] how to identify things. I also post a lot of recipes for people. (foragingappalachia.com

You always need to be responsible foraging. You can take away too much. You don’t want to rip everything up from the ground, because that destroys the root base. 

I am a thirty-four year old person, who wears costumes. Actually, it’s one of the art forms that’s super, super challenging, and I think that’s my favorite part about it.. You take something from pop culture, that’s never actually been created. You figure out how to create it, using stuff you find at Lowe’s, fabric stores, craft stores, and everything else. 

They usually have a competition, which with my competitive spirit, I usually like to enter them. I’ve won a Best in Show, and Best Female, and I think there’s another one. I can’t remember. 

I love the mix of culture you get here. I’ve lived other places, and I just keep coming back here. My heart’s here.

When I’m in the mountains, if I’m real anxious, or having a bad day, it teaches you to step back, calm down, enjoy the peace. Just kind of be in that moment, and not freak out about everything.

Losing my granddad was really tough for me. I’m divorced, and that was really hard for me as well. But even in my lowest moments, it seems like there was always someone there to help me out. When my grandfather died,I went to the woods the next day. It really calms me down, and this area itself helps with that kind of stuff. 

I try to make little differences, because I think even a smile or a kind gesture can mean a lot to someone else. Each day, if you could make a kid really happy, or if you can give a meal to a homeless person, just make those little moments count. I think that makes a difference in this world.”