I found a hole in the perimeter fence on a Sunday when the haul trucks were idle and I could work my way up the shoulder of mountain undetected. About 100 yards from the site rim, I came into a collar of dying trees — leaves dusted with grey mountain gilings, a forest floor of scattered flyrock.
I reached the brim of the place and looked out over a landscape of total devastation. Miles of raw, broken hardrock where a tract of mountains had once been. Flat buttes of exposed grey slag with black coal seams at the bottom. Cairns of rubble with haul truck tracks crosshatched between them. A black lake filled with some obsidian ooze. At the far end, on a remnant hill, was a last frieze of orphan trees, standing proud and defiant as the mountain around them had been blown up, hauled off, and pushed into a hollow to level the land.
It was my first look at a mountaintop removal mine and it made me want to throw up.
I was down in eastern Kentucky, researching my debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, and trying to free up a narrative log-jam in the story. I had heard about the practice of mountaintop removal, a dressed-up term for strip mining, and knew it was causing environmental havoc in Appalachia — but nothing I'd read or seen in photographs prepared me for the shock of witnessing it firsthand.
You see, I'd fallen in love with this region like a local on many backpacking trips in my teens and 20s. It's a simple, beautiful place of rolling hills, verdant forests, and wonderful people — place-proud folks whose love of the land is palpable.
In these parts, coal has always been king and at its peak, the industry employed nearly 30,000 miners, nearly all underground. Coal drove the economy and offered reasonably steady, well-paid — if not dangerous — work. Then the coal companies discovered that they could extract more coal with much fewer people if they just blew off the peaks and dug at the coal from the top. Lax regulations and old-fashioned greed prevailed, and mountaintop removal mining exploded... literally.
To date, Appalachia has lost more than 500 hills to mountaintop removal — the practice has obliterated 2,000 miles of streams and hundreds of hollows. But until you actually see the devastation firsthand, these are just numbers. Until you actually look over an ancient beautiful mountain range that has been reduced to rubble, you just can't know the true toll. Even the pictures I've included here are a pale telling of what's really happening in Appalachia. It's like the difference between reading about a terrible accident on the highway and actually walking among the fresh wreckage — there's just no comparison.
Mountaintop removal and its effect on a small eastern Kentucky coal town is one of the key plot points in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. And until that trip and the broken-fence reconnoiter, I'd been struggling to connect the threads of the novel into something cohesive.
The story is narrated by a 40-something man looking back on the summer of his 14th year. Two months prior, he and his mother witness the death of his younger brother at home in the most horrific accident imaginable. Kevin and his mother go to live with her father, Pops, in the old peeled-paint coal town of Medgar, Kentucky, where they both hope to heal from the tragedy. And that's as far as I'd gotten — the rest of it hard set against a granite wall of writer's block.
And then I climbed through that fence.
As I stood on the rimrock of that once-proud, ancient hill, the disparate themes and opposing plot points began aligning inside me, all joined by the connective tissue of loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of innocence, loss of a way of life, and now, loss of these majestic mountains. And once the allegory of mountaintop removal revealed itself on that Sunday in December so many years ago, the rest of the story fell together.
But allegories won't feed families or take the sting out of joblessness. One thing that I learned on my trips to the region is that the issue of mountaintop removal isn't a simple good versus evil tale. It's a far more complex issue. The miners with whom I spoke were all, ironically, outdoorsmen with an obvious love for the region — they hunt, fish, hike, and camp these backwoods; have been all their lives. They aren't destroying these mountains because they want to, there simply aren't many other economic options.
But economic need doesn't make it right. And so, I've committed myself to helping stop the awful, irreversible practice of mountaintop removal mining, and I'm writing to ask you to join me. I know you're busy, but please take a moment to do three quick things:
- Educate — click here to view more aerial photos of the devastation that MTR has wrought in Appalachia. It's appalling and sad — but keep in mind, these photos only partially show the toll of devastation.
- Donate — Appalachian Voices is one of the best activist organizations I've come across. They live in the region, love the land, and are committed to ending this destructive practice. Please donate whatever you can to help their mission. They are good people. Click here to go to their website.
- Share — send this blog post to as many people as you can. Facebook it, tweet it, tumble it, post it. We are so much stronger as a collective voice against this kind of outrageous behavior.
Thank you for reading this far and for taking some action, even if just a small one, to support the wonderful people and the beautiful place that I've learned to love so well.
Five hundred hauled-off mountains is an unacceptable price to pay — for cheap energy or a trenchant allegory. I would happily give them both up just to get a few mountains back.
Photos courtesy of iLoveMountains.org; flight by Southwings.