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Telling the Story of Mountaintop Removal

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Environment, coal mining, mountaintop removal, Mountaintop, storytelling, oral history, music, Silas House, Jason Howard,

Something's RisingSit down on a porch with someone from the American South and you’ll learn why the region is renowned for its storytelling tradition. In the book Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal (University Press of Kentucky), authors Silas House and Jason Howard tell the story of mountaintop removal coal mining through the voices of 12 Appalachians who’ve been directly affected by this devastating practice. Each subject is introduced by a vivid profile, and then House and Howard get out of the way and let them speak. Studs Terkel, no slouch himself in the oral history realm, has called Something’s Rising “oral history at its best,” and I have to concur: Although I was familiar with the mountaintop removal issue, these personal accounts brought it home for me in an incredibly powerful new way. I recently spoke with House and Howard about their book, the growing movement against mountaintop removal, and the outlook for the future.

This book is largely an oral history. Why did you choose to let your subjects tell their stories in their own words?

Howard: We chose to go with oral histories because we felt that the art of storytelling is something that mountaintop removal is destroying. Mountaintop removal isn’t only destroying the land and water and trees and animal habitat and mountains and things like that; it’s also destroying peoples’ lives and Appalachian traditions and culture. For generations, these mountains have sheltered us and provided us with stories and protection. The storytelling is something that’s been lost today because as those mountains are leaving, our culture is leaving, too. It’s becoming more homogenized. So it’s a political statement in doing that. It’s also a tribute to people’s words.

House: We wanted to allow people to tell their own stories in their own words, without any filters whatsoever—without turning them into sound bites—so that it can all be put into complete context for the reader. There is a real storytelling tradition in this region, and we think that really comes through in these oral histories. It’s just our way of saying, look, this is another thing that could be scraped away forever if we don’t stop this.

One of the ongoing threads in the book is the social pressure against speaking out on this issue. There seems to be an unwritten rule in Appalachia that you don’t criticize the coal industry. Can you tell me a little bit about where that comes from, and whether it might slowly be changing?

House: That’s what happens when you live in a mono-economy, and the coal industry has been really good at creating a mono-economy. [We live in a] place whose natural resources are coal, timber, natural gas, and tourism. Well, getting out the coal, the gas, and the timber destroys your chances of tourism. And so you’re completely dependent on an environmental economy.

The coal company has been really smart over the years, saying over and over again, “If it wasn’t for us, you all wouldn’t have anything,” when in fact, there are other parts of Appalachia that are so blessed that they didn’t have coal, and they have survived and become more prosperous than the coal areas. I mean, you take a section of Appalachia like western North Carolina where there’s no coal, and it survives very well on tourism. That’s the main source of income, and it works very well for them—and it’s much less destructive than coal mining.

Howard: It comes from years and years, almost a century now, of being, for lack of a better word, brainwashed by the coal companies. The coal companies came in here and have used up our people, used up our resources—the resources have been shipped out for years. … You can go back and look at the fight for unionization in the ’30s and ’40s, which was a really bloody fight, and the coal companies tried to stamp that out. They had company towns, which were closed societies in and of themselves. They paid the miners in scrip, which wasn’t hard cash money. It was just a token, and that token could only be spent at the company store, which was owned by the company. The schools were owned by the company, the churches were owned by the company—so you had that whole mentality of just things being dominated by corporations.

And that legacy is still alive and well today in the mountains. So people’s feelings about coal are complicated: One the one hand, when you have your great-grandfather smothered by black lung, that has an impact on you. There’s a certain level of resentment there. That was my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was a union organizer, and he was murdered in the coal mines. So there’s that side of it, that people feel like the companies just chew you up and spit you out. But then there’s the other side that, you know, you sort of realize that coal has sometimes allowed families to rise up out of poverty or at least ascend to the middle class. So it’s complicated, and there are all those pressures that are still alive and well today.

Silas HouseHouse: When you’re told something for 150 years, it gets in your DNA. You start to believe it, and it’s hard to get around that mindset after more than a century of being told that, which is what’s happened in this region. And to some extent, [the coal companies] have made that come true—they’ve made it so that it is hard to get other kinds of economy. I mean, who wants to come in and set up a big factory to employ a bunch of people when people from the company don’t want to come to a place that looks like a war zone that’s torn all to pieces and people are being killed left and right on the roads by overloaded coal trucks, et cetera? The only people that are benefiting from it are the corporations.

Howard: In the early 1980s, President Reagan was preparing to go to the Soviet Union for a visit, and when he got there, he went to Moscow and he saw these grand boulevards where people were out cheering. Actually what had happened is that the Soviets, in preparation for his visit, had put up all these false fronts on their deteriorating and decaying buildings—so Reagan didn’t actually see the real Moscow.

And I think that scenario is exactly what is happening in Appalachia today. The coal companies like to put up those big fronts for people, saying, oh, look, we provide jobs, we provide wealth, we provide health care. Don’t worry about that slurry pond up the road—it’s not going to break. Don’t worry about the stream that runs by your house; don’t worry about the blasting—it’s all OK, we’re going to take care of you. And people have bought into that for far too long. Luckily, now a lot of people are waking up and are realizing that that’s not the case. So it is still complicated, and it is still hard at times for people to stand up and speak out against the coal companies, but they’re doing it. So that’s good. It’s progress.

You guys aren’t just carpetbagging journalists. You both have Appalachian roots and coal miners in your family tree, don’t you?

House: Right. We’re both from central Appalachia and are both grandchildren of miners, and we grew up very much immersed in the world of coal mining. Both of us have very close family members who worked in the mines, we both have lived very close to mines. We’ve seen it from every angle. If you’re an Appalachian, you always have a love-hate relationship with coal, but it just became more and more obvious to both of us that this was wrong—and we felt it would be morally wrong to sit by and not say something about it.

Did the fact that you’re Appalachians grant you some access, perhaps make it easier to get inside these stories?

Howard: I think it did, because with the legacy of the coal industry—with people coming in from outside the region and exploiting our people and our resources and then turning around and leaving—some Appalachians are at first leery of outsiders. We didn’t have to go through that because we both have been raised in the mountains and we spoke the language, we knew the shorthand, and we knew the culture, inside and out. So I think that people were more open and free to say what was on their minds.

How did you come to team up on the book, and what did you each bring to the project?

Jason HowardHoward: I met Silas at a writer’s workshop about four years ago, when I was living in D.C. I’d gone to school up there and was working and was in the process of trying to move back to Kentucky. I had watched the anti-mountaintop removal movement from afar, and I moved back shortly after that workshop and got really involved. We began traveling together and working on songs together. We were both in a band called Public Outcry that went around and sang against mountaintop removal, which opened up a whole new audience.

We were seeing so many ordinary people—quote-unquote ordinary—who were fighting back and who were very courageous and brave and who deserved recognition. And so it was born out of that—out of attending community meetings and rallies and marches and singing—that we decided the book needed to be done. And we are both different types of writers. Silas is more known as a novelist, although he’s done a lot of really great nonfiction, so he brought a lot of storytelling elements to it. Whereas I am totally a nonfiction writer. I’m a journalist who’s written extensively for lots of different magazines, and I’m also a creative nonfiction essayist. So all of those things blend, and we sort of balance each other out. I also have a political background, having gone to school in Washington, D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill for a government agency and on some campaigns. So I knew that side of the issues.

Silas, you’ve gone from being a novelist to being an activist of sorts who has spoken at rallies. What’s it been like to come out of your literary shell and be part of a grassroots movement?

House: Well, it’s certainly not something that I wanted to do or ever saw myself doing. It’s just something that I felt like I had a responsibility to do. I’m still not comfortable calling myself an activist. I think that I’m just a citizen who’s saying what he believes in, and that’s about it. I think that’s all that any of us can do—and what we should all do.

It’s interesting that you bring up that you were in a band together, because I want to ask you about music. Appalachia has a strong musical culture, and in your book you interview two musicians, country artist Kathy Mattea and folk singer Jean Ritchie, who are involved in fighting mountaintop removal. What’s the role of music in this movement?

Howard: Well, the role of music in the anti-mountaintop removal movement is growing by leaps and bounds. First, in Kentucky, it started out being just totally a writer’s movement, and then a lot of artists got together and said, OK, we were successful with getting writers on board to get the word out about mountaintop removal—so let’s go to musicians. And there are a lot of different bands and solo artists out there who are singing about it. Public Outcry, the band that we were in, was one of them. Now you have two really amazing musicians from Kentucky who are getting really big names nationally: Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, who has teamed up to record a whole album to raise awareness about mountaintop removal, and it’s being produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, which is a huge band.

I think that music reaches a whole different demographic than writing. You can get people out to a live show or concert who maybe wouldn’t read an op-ed or a letter to the editor or go to a rally or a protest. Music is sort of comforting. It allows people to stay within their comfort zone, and I think a lot of artists are realizing that and in the process are challenging people in a back-door way.

House: This is a fight where the people are up against huge corporations. These huge corporations have coffers overflowing with money, and all the people have are words and music. That’s all we have to fight this fight, and I think that the words and the music are winning so far—and I think that’s an amazing thing, that music and the arts are that powerful. I think that you can take a song and get somebody to understand something that they may have never understood before. You take a song like “Which Side Are You On?” which was written in the 1920s and was basically saying, are you on the side of the people or are you on the side of these big companies? It was written in a coal camp in Eastern Kentucky in the 1920s, and since then it’s been used all over the world in all kinds of social justice movements. And it changed the world. So it’s amazing what a three-minute song can do, or what a piece of literature can do. As for myself, those are some things that I know how to do, so that’s the only way I have of fighting back: telling stories or singing songs.

I see the anti-mountaintop removal movement has had some allies from the entertainment world lately. The actress Ashley Judd spoke at a rally, and the Coen brothers made a parody of a clean coal TV ad. Is it encouraging to see a little help coming from Hollywood?

House: Yeah. In our culture, people listen to celebrities, and I think these celebrities who are getting involved are getting involved not because they want to toot their own horn, not because they want any more spotlight on them—it’s just that they, too, are citizens who are standing up for what they believe in. So I appreciate them for that, and it’s good that people who are more widely known are stepping up to the plate and saying this is wrong. There are lots of people within the country music world who are getting more involved, too, which is an amazing thing because country music depends a great deal on people who wouldn’t normally identify themselves as environmentalists, I don’t think. They would probably identify themselves as conservationists, but not as environmentalists—so that’s a great thing.

Religion plays into this, too: Some of the people profiled in your book have gotten involved in the movement in part because they believe it’s a sin to destroy God’s creation. Do you find that spiritual approach to be a powerful force in the movement?

Anti-mountaintop removal billboardHouse: I definitely think it is. The main thing is that a lot of churches in the region are sort of backwards in their way of looking at environmentalism, and they have this attitude of, well, it doesn’t matter anyway because, you know, God’s going to come back and set everything right, so there’s no use in us spending much time on fighting things like this. But then you have churches within the region who are saying, no, we have to be stewards of the land, and we have been charged to do this in the Bible—it’s clearly set out in the Bible that we are to be stewards of the land and to protect it. And so it is a real moral issue for lots of people, and they’re getting more and more involved in the fight and standing up for the land—and also speaking out against the greed. Because that’s what this is—it’s an issue of greed. There’s absolutely no reason a company would do this unless it was just to make a bunch of money. They’re certainly not doing it for fun. They’re doing it because it’s the easiest way for them to make a huge amount of money as quickly as possible. So I think that a lot of churches are stepping up and pointing out that this is wrong, and that it can’t go on—it’s not morally right.

Howard: We’re seeing more and more churches and pastors and priests and laypeople getting involved. A couple of years ago, we went on a religious leaders’ tour in Kentucky. It was a very hot day, and we hiked up to the top of this mountain and looked over at this valley fill that was right under us. The coal company saw us and started blasting, and the sirens went off and everyone sang “Amazing Grace”—so it was really powerful and ironic. But on that trip there was a nun who accompanied us, and she was in her 80s. On that hot day, she was so persistent in climbing to the top of that mountain. I just remember sitting and looking at her struggling to cross little ditches and to grab hold of trees to pull herself up, and I just marveled at her. It was just like her faith was pulling her along.

And that’s just one story. Appalachia is a spiritual region, and there are lots of people out there who are like that nun, who just hate what mountaintop removal is doing to creation.

Are you hopeful that things are changing under the new administration?

House: I think it’s been more hopeful than not. The Obama administration is doing so much better than the Bush administration. This is not a partisan issue. I mean, the Clinton administration wasn’t much better on mountaintop removal than Bush the second. And so it’s not about party, but I do think that Obama is thinking things through in a much better way, and he’s getting educated on the subject as much as he can, and that’s really all we can ask of a president. It’s certainly more than Bush did. He didn’t try to get educated at all—he just did everything he could to make it as easy for them to mine as possible. So I think things are much more hopeful than they were.

Howard: I’m cautiously optimistic about the new administration. We have a few troubling signs, like the whole debate over who will be the Office of Surface Mining director. But by and large, the Environmental Protection Agency has finally got its teeth back after eight years of being reined in and of utter corruption. They have announced that they will be looking at and reviewing these mountaintop removal permits with the strictest standard, and that they will be following not only the letter but the spirit of the law. We of course would like to see a total ban on mountaintop removal, but I’m a realist and I know that we’re not there yet. Coal is still here, and it’s something we’re going to have to transition away from, and that’s going to take time. But I am hopeful.

Mountaintop removal foes have held several big marches and engaged in civil disobedience in recent weeks. So the battle goes on.

House: It does, and I think it’s going to heat up. There’s going to be more civil disobedience, mainly because when you sit by and you watch the law uphold laws being broken, sometimes you have to break the law to bring attention to that. People’s lives are at stake here. And it’s not just about creeks and owls and trees—and all those things are important—but it’s even more so about human beings. It’s about children and people who don’t have clean air to breathe—and we’re talking about the water. I mean, of all things to mess with, you don’t ever, ever mess with the water. It’s mind-boggling to me that we’re having to put forth bills that protect our water.

Have you engaged in any civil disobedience on this issue, or do you have plans to?

House: I have to some degree, but yeah, I plan to. I’ll do what it takes to protect my children. And that’s what I think it’s about—this is a matter of life and death, and we just have to do what we have to do to protect the place and the people.

Images of Silas House and Jason Howard courtesy of University Press of Kentucky; billboard image courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.