Ro wanted to see the elk. Knott County is the elk capital of the world, or something like that. The elk tours in Knott County are conducted off of a reclaimed strip mine that has been stocked with a breed of elk that are not native to Kentucky. We had tried to take her twice before and didn’t see anything.
We had been visiting with my dad who is an environmental engineer and works with coal companies to reclaim strip mines and keep all mines within environmental regulations. He depends on coal for a paycheck just like many hardworking Appalachian men and women. We rode all over the reclaimed job in his new work truck. I could tell he loved riding where cars and trucks don’t go on a typical day. He was bound and determined to let his grandbaby see some elk. “I look out over all that grass and expect to see Indians chasing buffalo,” he said. I can understand what he’s saying, but find it ironic that he is talking about the life of a plains Indian on the top of an eastern Kentucky mountaintop. “I’d love to own all this land. It reminds me of Montana or South Dakota.” He was proud of the job they had done, I could tell, though this wasn’t one of his sites.
We round a corner and over a little embankment nestled in a patch of some trees was an old cemetery. All around where this family had buried around seventy of their loved ones, the ridge lines were blasted off to get at the seams of coal underneath. At times, this cemetery would have been unable to be visited by family without permission from the coal company. Surrounding the final resting place of these people would have been piles of dirt, mud, a sludge pond, heavy machinery, dynamite blasts, and coal. Fortunately, those graves were located in a place where they would not slide off the hillside from erosion. They were not buried by mounds of dirt and forgotten. They weren’t relocated to a site deemed appropriate by the coal company. They were left, and are now dotted with flowers in the middle of horse trails, ATV trails, and elk tours.
I was reminded of seeing this little cemetery when I heard Rich Kirby read “The Week in Coal” on WMMT 88.7 FM. (www.appalshop.org – http://www.wmmtfm.org) and he reported on a story released by the Associated Press about a man named Walter Young. Young is sixty-three and recently went to check on his great-grandmother’s grave when he heard there was mining surrounding her burial site. He went, and the grave wasn’t there. The coal company could not tell him where the grave had been relocated or if it was. (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5g0eTRLqVGyaOcigLssVdyuYFVVgQD96QNT381) The piece continued mentioning an area that rests under a cemetery that hadn’t been used for seventy years. This area contains approximately $5.2 million dollars worth of coal. This would require moving the graves to a place with perpetual care. Eight of the twelve families have given permission.
I am a coal miner’s daughter. I was raised on the money that was brought forth from coal. My family history finds my great-grandmother Golda Ruth Steven Johnson raised in a coal camp in Burdine. It finds my great-grandfather John Thomas Hansel and his father working the underground mines in Harlan. My great-great grandfather was in the area during the time it was called Bloody Harlan when the union and the coal thugs battled it out over wages, living conditions, and workplace safety. I can’t say that I was raised here without the need of coal money. I can say that I firmly believe that many of us would have been better off if it had never been found in these hills.
So, when I think of a wrongdoing such as that of the coal company against Walter Young, and others who have lost gravesites, or had to endure their loved ones being dug from the ground and moved off family land, it furthers my hope that someday mountaintop removal (strip mining) will not plague our area anymore. I wonder at what point have we as an American people (this isn’t an isolated problem) come to value money over the hearts of people and respect for the dead. I wonder why those outside this area who protest strip mining don’t see how they are as much a part of the problem as the coal companies pulling it from the ground at the lowest cost to them. You too demand cheap electricity, and love the city lights.
I am not in anyway saying that there is currently a solution that justifies taking the jobs of those employed by strip mines, nor am I saying that these miners aren’t to be fully respected and appreciated for the job they do. Doing away with their jobs without a replacement for them would be just as wrong as disturbing those laid to rest. What I am saying is that in order for this region to heal, we need to find viable solutions to the problems we have. One of those is that strip mines (though pulling a vital God-given resource) are tearing up our landscape, causing water pollution, and leaving scars on our psyche. Those in the industry argue that it provides flat land for development and housing. I’m not sure that the mountains need the kind of development that it brings. Do we want shopping malls? Large golf courses? Up-scale housing? Sure, some of you would read this and say, of course. However, I don’t believe our future as mountain dwellers is in blending in with the larger American society. I believe our future is in embracing our cultural heritage, our landscape, and the fact that we were blessed to be born here. We should not seek to lose ourselves in commercialism, but in our own uniqueness. That should be a big part of where our future economy lies.
I sincerely hope that Walter Young finds his grandmother and can see that her remains are properly taken care of. I hope the coal company pays for mishandling the gravesite. I hope that at some point in the near future our people can find a way to exist with coal, the use of manpower instead of large machinery to pull it from the ground, the possibility of alternative energies in the area (please no wind turbines – those are a nightmare for the wildlife and way too noisy), and a renewal of pride in our rich history of art, music, storytelling, literature, woodworking, cooking, and so much more.
*For more extensive photographs on strip mining in various stages please Google “strip mining” or “mountaintop removal”. These photographs are the best I could do myself through snowy weather yesterday. These mines are starting to be reclaimed.