Review of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, eds. Silas House and Jason Howard, University of Kentucky Press, 2009. 306 pgs. Hardcover $27.95
A Review by Larry Smith
The voices rising in this fine and essential collection gathered by novelist Silas House and journalist Jason Howard each sings his/her own song of the people and land, protesting the violence being done to it by energy companies and their practice of mountaintop removal…strip mining with a vengeance. I would almost call this a “chorus” of voices, except it is clear that each candid voice has its own native character and story. Country singer Kathy Mattea, for example, comes across with characteristic wit and passion in her call for “A Light in the Dark.” Coming from a family of miners, she dares to speak out against the coal companies. Mattea’s “Coal” album or Jean Ritchie’s songs of “Black Water” and “Now Is the Cool of the Day” in which each cries out in beautiful plaintive voice and story might well be played while reading this book of fellow Appalachians.
Editors Silas House and Jason Howard make clear in the introduction, the way the land has been violated by energy companies and the complicit cooperation of government agencies including the Environmental Protection Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration. They carefully lay out the process of mountaintop removal with its method of destroying the land by creating “valley fill” out of the trees and vegetation, and its use of slurry impoundments that result in contamination of the waters and flooding of whole communities. As we are beginning to hear on public service announcements, “There is no such thing as clean coal.” And this is the message here of these warm hearted, sharp witted speakers including native miners, union organizers, teachers, nurses, singers, writers, and social workers. As Giardina declares, “I will be as blunt as I can be. Mountaintop removal is evil, and those who support it are supporting evil . . . I puzzle over the modern-day difference between a terrorist and someone who supports mountaintop removal. One destroys with a bomb, the other with a fountain pen, dynamite, and a dragline. God help us” (48).
The editors also make the case that Appalachians must stand on their own feet against this practice which ultimately uses machines to rob the region of jobs and land. To do so one must witness first hand the effects of mountaintop removal to sense the measure of loss and to gauge a commitment. These images come close to conveying the impact: “Below was a scene of utter destruction. A bulldozer groaned back and forth, piling up green-leafed trees it had knocked over. Another mess of trees was slowly burning, the black smoke curling up lazily on the still spring air. There was nothing else but dirt and exposed rock for acres and acres before the site stopped abruptly at the rich, green woods in the distance. Beyond them was blue mountains that faded away to the horizon like smudges of paint. ‘Look, that’s like heaven,’ [Anne] Shelby said that day to the person standing next to her, pointing to the far mountains. Then she brought her finger down to the mountaintop removal site, ‘And that’s hell.’” (223-224).
Environmental engineer Jack Spadaro makes the case clear: “We’ve destroyed a million and a half acres in the past thirty years with mountaintop removal. It’s gong on at an accelerated rate now. It’s not just destroying the land; it’s destroying a whole people. It’s destroying a culture. It’s destroying towns. It’s destroying the most diverse forest outside the tropics in the world. This is the Mother Forest for North America.” Spadaro laments the way the United Mine Workers of America and the Mine Safety and Health Administration have become complicit in this devastation of a culture and a land. Though he worked for the MSHA through many administrations, beginning with Richard Nixon, it was George W. Bush’s administration who fired him in 2001 during his investigation of the Coldwater Creek disaster where 300 million gallons of coal slurry leaked out into the Tug Fork River in Martin County, Kentucky, killing everything downstream. Spadaro refused to sign a false report dismissing charges against the Massey Energy company and went public with the truth. This environmental disaster, possibly the worst in the nation’s history, received little news coverage and no government action. As Spadaro and others point out, it’s part of a classist bias against Appalachia. Had it happened in New England or an upper Midwest state, there would have been a national outcry.
Much in the manner of Studs Terkel’s oral journalism, each speaker is given a detailed profile, and each provides a statement of their life and involvement. All are native Appalachians who share a passion for its people, culture, and land. It begins with folk singer Jean Ritchie, moves to radical novelist Denise Giardina, nurse activist Bev May, veteran coal miner Carl Shoupe, vocalist Kathy Mattea, local activist Judy Bonds, grassroots organizer Pat Hudson, engineer Jack Spadaro, young miner Nathan Hall, writers and singers Ann Shelby and Jessie Lynne Keltner, and concludes with Larry Bush of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Each of their voices and stories is worth the listening and ultimately inspiring. The book’s mission is clearly to move the public to action, to create a public outcry by building a concrete awareness. “Dissenters are not asking that the coal industry be shut down; they are simply asking for mining to be done with respect and responsibility, treating the place and its people with dignity. So far the coal companies have refused to listen to that request. Government officials refuse to require them to do so” (21). This book is long overdue and a healthy gathering of stewardship in the heart of the country.
Larry Smith is a native Appalachian and professor of Humanities at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College in Huron, Ohio. He is a poet, fiction author, and literary biographer of Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.