“I can read, write, and speak standardized English clearly, accurately, and efficiently.”
As an English major, I have a large bank of written pieces created entirely by me or written in response to works of literature. Writing in general shows my ability to write English effectively, whereas writing in response to a literary work shows the ability to read effectively and to write effectively. Below is a piece I wrote about mountaintop removal, in response to various pieces of nature writing read in a May Term course and also to my own experience of seeing a mountaintop removal site. The piece was written to be read aloud, demonstrating my skill in the area of communication.
“I will lift mine eyes up to the hills, from whence comes my help.” Psalm 121 The Appalachian Mountains are a source of protection and strength for many, myself included. On every trek from my parents’ home at the tip of Virginia’s middle peninsula back to school in Salem, I feel a sense of greatest relief when I scale a large hill near Charlottesville and get my first glimpse of the mountains that make me feel at home. However, as I stand deep in the heart of West Virginia and look down upon the demolition at Kayford Mountain, there is no sense of comfort. No sense of help. No sense of home. Here, there is just a sense of brutal emptiness.
For several minutes, all I can do is stare blankly into the void of the site. I can find no words to describe the mountaintop removal site that has all but conquered Kayford Mountain, or the feeling that I get from looking at the annihilation below. I would say that the area looks like a desert, but even deserts show signs of hope. Here, there are only gargantuan machines beeping on and on… at what I cannot tell. There is no life; even the hydrograss being flung onto the barren “hillsides” of valley fills is surreal. It is given water imported from someplace not yet sucked dry, and it takes on an eerie blue-green, lifeless, phony appearance.
Even with much research, it is very challenging to describe the scope of this mountaintop removal site. Massey Energy heads up the whole operation by subsidizing to smaller companies, such as Princess Beverly/Horizon and Catenary. However, Massey is very cagey about the visibility of the business. The corporation reports only rough statistics about how much coal is being extracted. It does not even mention the amount of land being impacted, which sheds a falsely positive light on the whole deal. Additionally, Big Coal glosses over a number of its mountaintop removal locations, likely in an attempt to keep as much about the industry as possible a secret.
Not only does Massey publish pitifully little about how much land area it has under its thumb, but the coal company also structures its mountaintop removal sites so that they will not be visible until you are on the brink of toppling into them. By leaving an inadequate number of old-growth trees in place and creating an illusion of a seemingly idyllic scene, Big Coal hides its destructive force from the casual passerby. Massey is certainly hiding something; according to the Larry Gibson’s Keepers of the Mountain Foundation, the area being blasted away to obtain coal at Kayford Mountain is now on the scale of 12,000 acres, and the quantity of destroyed landmass is increasing all the time.
For as long as I can remember, I have inherently hated mountaintop removal. As a little girl, my yuppified-hippie parents began pumping environmental awareness into me. Pulling our Volvo over to the shoulder of the interstate on road trips to show me where the mountains had been destroyed by dynamite or hiking up close to train tracks and into places where mountain peaks and old-growth forests had once been, they were determined that I wouldn’t grow up to be just another American kid who never even bothered to flip light switches to “off” when they weren’t in use.
My parents were more or less successful; I cannot remember a time when I did not love the mountains and want to protect them. I was probably the only adolescent in my small, super-conservative coastal town of Mathews, Virginia to get into a personal dispute about the demolition of mountain tops, when I (as a general rule a quiet and nonconfrontational kid) told my best friend off for her lack of concern for the environment. For her overuse of a space heater, for her incessant TV watching, and for her dedication to her mom’s SUV, I cold-shouldered her for several days. After graduating from high school, I began eagerly teaching the kids at my conservation summer camp to save electricity, to look for alternative sources of energy, and to take hold of the power to save their own future … etc.
At the same time, I myself continued to use far too much electricity, wasting coal. Sometimes I forgot to flip light switches. Sometimes I turned the thermostat up a little (or a lot) higher than was necessary when I got chilly. Sometimes I just didn’t care enough to think of flipping off the lights when I stepped out of a room for a few minutes. I was in a rut of environmental inactivism, and I did not even know it. And so for many years, I went along my way, happily hating “ Big Coal,” an entity that I myself did not actually know, but that seemed to be running America in a sinful fashion. Unfortunately though, I continued to actively (and silently) waste electricity myself: I had never actually seen at work the destruction that provided me with my bright, cozy home.
This was until I paid a visit to Kayford Mountain, a mountaintop removal site near Cabin Creek, West Virginia. At Kayford Mountain, I was given my first opportunity to observe first-hand what the coal industry looks like today. On my journey up the winding gravel road to Larry Gibson’s destruction-free zone, I noted a growing abundance of dust, the ever-present train tracks with their “loading dock” of a processing silo for coal, and the small, crowded lawns with each housing several little homes. Otherwise the town looked peaceful and beautiful; the world seemed in perfect order… almost. Had I not been looking for the evils of the coal company, I would have seen little but the tranquility of rural Appalachia.
Little did I know that my innocent delusions were soon to be broken. Just a brief walk through the cozy haven of cabins that make up Gibson’s stronghold, and my group and I were faced with a heavy roadblock gate and an “Authorized Personnel Only” sign, compliments of the Princess Beverly coal company (one of Massey’s subsidiaries, according to our local guide, Ronnie Workman). Ronnie warned us of the $250 fine for getting caught trespassing on the site, but of course, we ignored these barriers and walked as close to the site as we could safely get. The white pickups bearing Massey’s overeager security guards (the only job now available to locals as mountaintop removal replaces traditional coal mining and “dynamite experts and heavy equipment operators” are shipped in) would have had to drive all the way around the windy roads up to Gibson’s home, if they had caught sight of us. Even if they had bothered to come chase us away, we could easily have been safely back on Gibson’s protected property by the time the guards reached us. There were lessons to be learned at Kayford Mountain, and so we continued on our way.
The first sight that met my eyes as I ducked under the gate appeared to be a wall… composed of broken mountain shards. At least twelve feet almost straight up and spanning a good five hundred feet horizontally (in one direction, before turning sharply to outline the desolate basin), this was all that was between the mountaintop removal site and me. This wall, made of the last fallen remnants of a once-majestic mountain, was the only thing I had to scale to see King Coal at work.
Once I had climbed atop the wall and looked down, I wished I hadn’t. The sight that met my eyes was more massive and hideous than anything I’d ever imagined seeing in real life. This was not just the peak of a mountain, removed to pull out the coal. Oh, no. The scale of this wasteland was massive, spanning into three counties and forcing itself upon all of the coal-rich land but Gibson’s 50 acres.
Looking down into the vast expanse of man-destructed oblivion, I began to wonder what kind of future we are making for ourselves. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Mountaintop coal mining is a surface mining practice involving the removal of mountaintops to expose coal seams, and disposing of the associated mining overburden in adjacent valleys – ‘valley fills.’" When the EPA describes the process, the area destroyed is “regraded” and “revegetated.” And yet, somehow I cannot call the puny patches of blue hydrograss “revegetation.” Nor can I consider the replacement of a mountain, ancient, lush and forested, with a pile of dense, dead rock “regrading.” Nothing here has been replaced to its initial state. So much for leaving the world a better place than we found it.
Trudging away from my gloomy overlook on the mountaintop removal site, I felt hopeless and downtrodden. Nevertheless, my thoughts now turn to the future, and I see choices on the horizon. When I look into the earthly hell of the mountaintop removal site, I think of the pessimistic lyrics to a song in a seventies-era ecological awareness movie called “All the Difference” that we show the kids at camp each summer.
When the last flower has dropped its last petal
When the last concrete is fired away
The moon will shine cold on a nightmarish landscape
Our gift to our children the world that we made.
Will this nightmarish landscape of slurry-filled schoolyards and toxic air that lies before me now be the only gift we give to our children? It surely could be, and at the rate we are going now, it seems likely that it may well be. The 50-acre land trust on which Gibson now lives was once 500; his family cemetery, once the lowest point in the area is now the highest. The coal company’s employees use methods of intimidation towards Gibson and the other activists: shooting at them or their pets, confronting them, and making their lives hell, in hopes of scaring away the opposition.
Still, the companies go unchecked, breaking numerous regulations put into place by the national Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection and rarely being called out for their offenses. Valleys and the rivers running through them are filled with mountainous debris, resulting in erosion and contamination as ecosystems are destroyed. According to the Clean Air Task Force, there are 30,000 deaths per year resulting from coal-fired power plants. Toxins like arsenic, mercury and lead are making their way into the groundwater, and thereby the drinking water in wells. The reverberations from the dynamite explosions are damaging homes, but the companies refuse to take responsibility. The dirty air is causing increasing numbers of respiratory ailments, particularly in children.
As the machinery drones on, beeping and screeching, day and night it takes on an unnatural sound that will haunt me forever. The massive bulldozer screams, and I can hear in its call the voices of all the mothers and their children crying out, begging for someone to listen. Call me a crazy hippie, but even as I hear the agony of Appalachia, the hopeful refrain of the super-corny but priceless camp movie plays on in my head.
Leave them a flower, some grass and a hedge row
A hill and a valley, a view to the sea
These things are not ours to destroy as we want to
A gift given once for eternity.
It is true that today corporate America is razing my beloved mountains faster than you can say the word “coal.” Yet, I have hope in our next generation, a youth that can take control of Appalachia in due course and show her the care she deserves. As I begin to walk back out of Kayford Mountain, I turn around and look at the skyline. I look at the place where the trees end and the demolition begins, and my mind is already whirring with a plan to share my own personal lesson with the kids I teach. I can only offer a twisted smile as I look back upon the mountains I love so much, to whom help must come … and soon.
Bible, Psalms 121 vs. 1.
Bowe, Rebecca. “In Defense of Mountains.” E: The Environmental Magazine 17 no. 1, 19-20 Ja/ F 2006.
“Campaigns: Mountaintop Removal.” Coal River Mountain Watch, 2005. http://webpages.charter.net/crmw/MTR.htm 27 May 2009.
“Dethroning King Coal.” Sierra 88, no. 6 20-4 N/D 2003.
Evans, Santelli, & George-Warren, ed. The Appalachians. New York: Random House, 2004. (p. 182)
“Keeper of the Mountains Foundation.” Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, 2007. http://www.mountainkeeper.org/ 25 May, 2009.
“Mid-Atlantic Mountaintop Mining.” Environmental Protection Agency, 26 Mar 2009. http://www.epa.gov/Region3/mtntop/ , 25 May, 2009.
“Mining Locations.” 2009, Massey Energy Corporation. 27 May 27, 2009. http://www.masseyenergyco.com/about/locations.shtml .
Motavalli, Jim. “Once there was a Mountain.” E: The Environmental Magazine 18 no.6, 34-9 N/ D 2007.
Reece, Eric, “Looking for Hope in Appalachia.” Missing Mountains: We went to the mountaintop but it wasn’t there. Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2005. (p.182)
Shnayerson, Michael. Coal River. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2008 (p. 7)
Thanks also to Ronnie Workman, an active member of Larry Gibson’s Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, for his information and time as a “tour guide” at the Kayford Mountain site.