Berea, Kentucky – On the weekend of March 28, 2015, nine Berea College students and two children set out from Berea eastward with the intent to view a sampling of the atrocities of Mountaintop Removal. This was going to be my first trip to see mountaintop removal up close. I knew theoretically about strip mining, valley fills, reclamation sights, and the like, but never had I been witness to such things. I felt like the greatest Sustainability and Environmental Studies hypocrite there ever was, and I wanted to take this trip to remedy those harsh feelings.
We began our journey with a drive-through of an “economically improved” subdivision built atop a former strip mine. Cookie cutter houses lined the lane that was just wide enough for the bulk of our van to slide along unhindered. Neatly cut lawns cluttered with plastic relics of childhood gave way to a barren wasteland just beyond the boundaries of the suburb, and in the near distance bald mountaintops could be seen rising above the rest as a sad tribute to their former glory. On the way out of that desolate place we realized that the road we were driving on was built on top of a valley fill. From below, the terraced slopes could easily be marked, with recent growth of small trees and bushes half-heartedly covering the landscape. For a moment I worry about the stream that must have been choked off when the “overburden” of loose rocks first came tumbling down the valley. But that stream is long gone, along with so many others.
We pass a yard sign that says, “Stop the War on Coal.” It can be easy for us to exclaim loudly and with much remorse about how people choose to live in such a way–how wrong they are to say such things. But we know, and can recognize that jobs in coal mining are steadily declining. The health issues that arise among people who have worked in mines or lived near them are severe. But when coal provides paychecks and healthcare and even subdivisions with a view, I’m sure it’s hard to look out the window and see any other way to live.
The winding expanses of roads that we traveled took us clear into Virginia. Switchbacks gradually inched us towards the tops of the crags. With a slightly woozy head and continuously popping ears, I peered out across the valley floors to see the mountains across from us. A white sheen glistened from a few of the tallest ones, courtesy of March’s late snowfall. From a distance, the hillsides looked covered in trees, gentle forests of centuries past marching down to the now cultivated valley floors. We turned a corner in the road and another portion of the mountain became visible. Below the snow-covered peaks was a depression, an obvious cutout in the mountainside. A patch of bright green startled the eyes. It was grass, a reclamation sight. Trees had been removed and they were replaced with a non-native species of groundcover. I don’t think the mountain was happy with that bright green. It was like a giant toddler had erased a huge portion of forest and colored over it with a lime green marker. It didn’t belong.
We stop at an overlook on the way up the mountain where we peered out at distant expanses of mountain-scape. The scar of a mountaintop removal site was unmistakable, courtesy of a few profit hungry energy capitalists.
A pocket in the mountains holds the town of Whitesburg, where we just came from. Other distant valleys hold similar settlements. I think back to a time when the road wouldn’t have been there. When the towns wouldn’t have been there. When we would have had to have hiked to see such a sight. Or ridden mules. Or not come at all.
Next we went somewhere where we didn’t belong. Or at least, the corporate powers that be didn’t want us to be there. We stopped off at a mountaintop removal sight that had been “reclaimed.” Reclaimed to us is a dirty word. A curse. To them it is a convenient way of saying “we don’t care about what we did.” The land was patched with scrubby bushes. A bit of grass poked through some wet, concrete-like dirt. A pond at the bottom of the hill held a reservoir of sediment, sludge, and rainwater. I picked up a little piece of coal, fallen off a retreating coal truck some time past. Or maybe little random pieces of coal are just a part of this landscape. I think about putting it in my pocket, a memento of this tremendous occasion. I drop it. It rolls among some leftover gravel from the road out of this hell hole. I’m already trespassing and I can’t even bring myself to take a piece of left behind coal. The corporate powers that be have more of a hold on my than I thought.
We take a hike to see Bad Branch Falls. The path begins by being deceptively easy. I’m not quite out of shape, but I’m not an athlete either. The path goes over a stream. Then up a hill. Then way up the hill. I think about falling. I focus on each step. As long as I know where I’m putting my foot next I’ll be okay. Focus. I look up. There’s a waterfall in front of me. Old water pours from a place far above. I can’t go closer to the water. My legs are still shaking from the exertion. I stop and think and listen. The water is telling us something. Something about ourselves. The water is where we came from, after all. What can we learn from listening?
We make our way back down from the falls. It is time to settle in for the night, so we travel to Hindman Settlement School where a dormitory has been prepared for us. Not many people are there, but the sight of historical buildings and a pretty stream is welcoming after a long day in the packed van.
I hike again that night. This time in flats and a skirt. Brambles pull at the fabric and leave snags. I go on anyway. At one point I have to scramble up the shear side of the hill, hoping the slick souls of my shoes don’t send me plummeting to my death. I’m a bit dramatic about such things. The brambles would have embraced me first. I clamber up another rock. The sun is resting atop the mountain across from us. The gentle breeze rustles Fall’s few remaining leaves in the branches high above us. We settle on a log and listen. The light fades and the valley sinks into darkness. A car pulls in the drive of the house below us. Home for the night.
We too go home, back to the dormitory.
I’ve lived in Kentucky my whole life. Kentucky is my home. Map boundaries and ridgelines may keep people apart, and they may be used as political lines of power, but my understanding of home is beginning to transcend them. I’m beginning to glimpse a life lived as if every tree and every mountaintop is home. Every breeze and every waterfall is a whisper to remember where I came from and where I’m going. Every time I look out my window or make a trek through a field I’m reminded of all I have to live for and all that needs my protection. One trip into the great mountains of Appalachia did this for me. What might it do for you?
By: Annette Dangerfield
Ecological Design Resident
Berea College Class of 2016