Telling the Story of Mountaintop Removal

| 7/9/2009 5:11:26 PM

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.