Sunday, May 3, 2009

Edited by Silas House and Jason Howard University Press of Kentucky, $27.95, 320 pages

When the prophet Isaiah famously wrote “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” to prepare for the coming Messiah, he didn’t have the modern practice of mountaintop removal in mind.

To many modern readers, the very term “mountaintop removal” is a mystery, so a few words of explanation may be in order. Almost everyone is familiar with the practices of underground mining (where miners descend into tunnels to mine silver, coal or other minerals) and strip-mining (the radical terracing of mountains in search of minerals). You might think of mountaintop removal as strip-mining on steroids. It refers to the practice whereby coal companies in Appalachia — particularly the mountains of West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia — use heavy machinery to excavate individual mountains out of existence, in whole or in part, seeking the coal that lies beneath.

Kentucky-born novelist Silas House and journalist Jason Howard view mountaintop removal in much the same way chattel slavery was viewed by Abraham Lincoln, who famously declared, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.” Having decided to tackle mountaintop removal, Mr. House and Mr. Howard strike at it with cool, measured fury.

“Something’s rising in the mountains of Appalachia: the voices of the people,” they declare in their introduction — thus the title of their volume. In it, they interview and give voice to 12 individuals from Appalachia of varying interests and occupations, who oppose mountaintop removal.

Interviewees include nationally known singers Jean Richie and Kathy Mattea, writers and activists Pat Hudson and Denise Giardina, Vietnam veteran and former miner Larry Bush, and several others. Perhaps the most delightful of this group is the self-described hillbilly Judy Bonds, a feisty activist who says at one point:

“I believe there is a glimmer of hope. Even if we can save just one mountain, if we can save something for our kids. I believe there’s hope. Even if there’s not any hope, I’m not going to do like the rest of these yaller dogs and hump up in the corner and bury my head in the sand and say, ‘I can’t do anything.’ I’m not made that way. My mommy always told me, ‘Don’t you hump up in the corner. You get a lick in so they know they been in a fight.’ So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to get a lick in so they know they’ve been in a fight. Now ain’t that what a true Appalachian does?”

Coal companies consider mountaintop removal economical and safe to everyone involved, both to the workers and the people in surrounding communities. But to many who have set down roots in the Appalachians, mountaintop removal is an abomination of desolation, a spiritual wrong. It is a practice as ugly as sin, leaving a hideous, never-healing scar upon the Earth: where there was once a tree-covered mountain — providing majestic beauty as well as herbs, shelter for wildlife, arable soil, and much more — there is now a blasted heath.

“Where once there was a mountain here in Virginia, now there is a deep, dead hole,” write the authors in one stark passage, describing a stricken community. “Even far past the mine, coal dust and dirt cover the huge kudzu plants that crowd close to the road. The kudzu has crept onto the houses and trailers, too, as if this place is being devoured by two non-natives: a plant from Japan and corporations from a place that locals call ‘Off,’ a land whose inhabitants don’t have to see the damage they’re doing, or don’t care.”

As the authors note, mountaintop removal is also a health hazard. Groundwater and creeks are contaminated with toxic chemicals and unidentifiable glop, soil not held in check by tree roots becomes eroded and unstable, and slurry impoundments endanger the lives of everyone living downstream from them. When crews mine a mountain through mountaintop removal, crudely built impoundments are constructed, serving to hold a witch’s brew of fallen trees, contaminated rainwater, chemical toxins, and other waste material. If and when these impoundments give way during a heavy rain, the results can be a flood of contaminated water, muck, and debris that destroys lives and renders everything in its path a poisoned wasteland.

In one episode of the fast-paced television drama “NCIS,” encyclopedic medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) spoke in passing of the Buffalo Creek Disaster, in which “a West Virginia coal mining community was utterly destroyed when a dam gave way during a heavy rainstorm.” Several contributors to “Something’s Rising” reference this same event. The Buffalo Creek Disaster was an incident that occurred in 1972 in Logan County, W. Va., one that left 125 dead and 4,000 homeless after a slurry pond broke through its earthen walls during a heavy rain. It destroyed not a single community, but 16 small towns along Buffalo Creek.

As one of the contributors to this volumes notes, opposition to mountaintop removal is not a matter of the left or the right, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. It is a matter of standing against something that is wrong, regardless of one’s political standing, for it affects everyone. Many contributors to this volume view their opposition as a spiritual act, in keeping with one’s Christian responsibility as a steward of the Earth.

Conservatives, perhaps wary that this is only the concern of bleeding hearts, may wish to consider the words of conservative man of letters Russell Kirk (1918-1994) who famously wrote, “There is nothing more conservative than conservation.” Liberals, perhaps seeing opposition to mountaintop removal as simply one more opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of corporate America, would be wise to heed a thought that recurs throughout many contributors’ interviews in “Something’s Rising”: They are not against coal mining, do not wish to see coal mining come to an end and recognize that the energy needs of the world cannot be fueled by smug self-satisfaction.

Let there be no more Buffalo Creeks. At one time, buffalo actually wandered the bottomlands of the Appalachians. But today they are gone. Still, it is not necessary to believe the area can or should be returned to Edenic purity to believe that turning the Earth into a giant midden and an open sewer is a terrible thing, and taking a stand against the destruction of human life and community is a good thing.

“Something’s Rising” is a humble call to those who believe that man is capable of all things, stating that the beginning of wisdom is respect for creation, the rightness of place, and the order of being. The contributors to this volume are to be commended for their actions in helping to raise awareness of the costs of mountaintop removal — costs in terms of health risks, unfixable uglification of America’s natural beauty, and unintended consequences for future generations of the sons of men.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel.

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