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The weather has given us a break, and the girls and I took a hike this past Saturday.  It was lovely.  We got home and both the girls fell asleep by 6:30 and didn’t wake up again until the next morning!

Start with a nice blue sky.

Add a warm hilltop breeze

Two lovely little girls

 

A release of penned up energy waiting all winter long

And a few soft smiles

One portly little cat who follows along behind like a dog

Neglected hunting cabin

 

That had to have once been loved

A few open old deep mines

 

An old logging road

Big old maple leaves

A couple of rolled over rocks

Blow one last kiss to the sun

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I want to begin by apologizing for not quite keeping up here with the comments and posting these last few months.  I want everyone to know I read every comment and respond in my mind (Hopefully, I will be able to do better about posting those thoughts as we get back into a healthy post holiday rhythm).  I very much value the interaction on this blog and the others I read.  It’s nice to have online community.

So, we just got back from Cincinnati visiting some family there.  We went to the zoo’s Festival of Lights and saw an amazing light display, some neat animals (an eastern screech owl up close and personal, shown by a delightful caregiver, and some spectacular insects), and an outdoor show by the Madcap Puppet Theater in about 10 degree weather. 🙂  It was their Christmas present for the girls, and I am so grateful for it.  Both Deladis and Ivy were in high hog heaven. 🙂

But… the highlight of the trip for my personal self was a trip to Trader Joe’s to stock up on some hard to find grocery items.  I had read various women sing the praises of Trader Joe’s on internet forums, and I had never experienced for myself.  I have fallen in love, and I want to know how you can get a store like that to come to a rural place like this.  The first surprise was the size.  It was a tiny, quaint store.  I didn’t know what to expect, and while I didn’t see shelves and coolers filled with a crazy variety of food like you would at a Whole Foods store, I saw just enough.  It was almost perfect – almost.  The prices were the kicker for me.  I found Trader Joe’s bacon that was nitrate/nitrite/MSG free for $3.99.  I bought 4 packs.  Here you pay $4.99.  Frozen blueberries for $2.99 (12 oz.).  Gluten Free Mac-Cheese for $0.99 a box!  I found whole milk yogurt with a higher fat content than Yo’ Baby, and when you have a picky toddler who loves yogurt that is a blessing.  Ivy needs all the fat she can get.  It was wonderful.  I bought four large canvas bags full to the top of good food for $137.00  I can’t believe how excited I get over food.  I want a Trader Joe’s in the mountains.  I pay twice the price for some of the things I bought today on a regular basis.  I think that once local people saw the food was affordable, they’d be happy to shop there.

Yee-haw!!!

2010 is a good year.  Heck, every year is a good year.  We are blessed with life!  I have been inspired in these last weeks, and I know without a doubt that I am being led, and I am taken care of.  It’s nice to be assured of that.  It’s freedom.  It makes you want to do something about it.  Over on a blog I found a few months ago a challenge is being held – Hip Mountain Mama (One Small Change) .  She is encouraging people to make small changes in our living to create sustainability and positively influence our impact on the environment.  John and I try to work on this every day.  It is of a great deal of importance to us as energy issues impact our everyday life with the coal industry being a crucial part of the economy of the mountains and living with the impact that has on our surroundings.  We know that this isn’t a stable energy source, and it won’t be possible to fuel our local economy off of it forever, and John and I both believe we mountain folk need to start making those changes now and learn what we can do to sustain ourselves here.  However, we know that coal provides about 80% of the nation’s electricity, so it is up to all of us to begin that change.

I probably won’t be able to keep up with the blog deadlines she has set, but I’m going to participate in my own way.

Here is what I want to change:

1.  There is no recycling center in our county.  The closest is about 30 miles away.  Because of this we have stopped recycling.  (And John watched a Penn and Teller BS episode and feels it might not be so bad. I don’t know.  I’d have to revisit that episode myself.)  So, in lieu of that, I’d like to reduce our waste.  We have it down to about 1 garbage bag a week.  The next change I think I will make it making some napkins to use in place of paper towels for eating and some mess clean up.  I have some old sheets that would work perfect for that.

2.  I’m going to make it a point not to buy bottled water when I am out and about.  I plan to purchase a stainless steel water bottle and fill that to carry around.  We use water we collect from the watering hole for consumption and cooking at home.  Carrying that with us won’t be hard.  Plus, after hearing about the movie Tapped, I am motivated.  It is hard to think about when the local water supply can hardly be trusted because of recent petroleum spills and other such industrial pollutants.  Praise God for our watering hole.

I challenge everyone to make one small change.  Something you can feel good about.

We’ve had wonderful weather this weekend.  It’s been reminiscent of autumns past and autmun to come.  I got to spend some time at Wiley’s Last Resort for MARS Fest.  It was a family friendly event, so the girls got to go too.  I spent quite a bit of time there as a kid as it was the home of a good friend then.  The house he lived in has burnt down and it has changed a lot, but it is just as much a lovely place.  I am happy that I got to share it with the girls.

Here is a video tour of the place.

The girls loved it.  Ivy roamed and I followed.  Deladis played in the sand.  We enjoyed looking at art and hearing some pretty good music, but mostly the air and the mountain.  Pine Mountain, where the resort is located, is the second highest mountain in Kentucky.  It rests in Letcher County closest to the countyseat of Whitesburg where I grew up.  The highest mountain in Kentucky, Black Mountain, can be seen from Pine Mountain.  It rests in Harlan County.

A while ago, the state allowed a coal company to begin a strip mining job on top of Black Mountain.  I got to see the results of that while I visited the resort this weekend.  Looking out over the landscape I couldn’t help but turn my head at the barren top of Black Mountain.  Sure it will be reclaimed in some form or fashion, but forever changed.  I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how a state can allow for a landmark like its tallest mountain to be stripped, essentially knocked off.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is an activist group that produced this video.  I like the perspectives in this series of videos they have made and posted.  I do very much believe, however, that the solutions to the issues like coal that face the Appalachian people will have to be found within the mountain people.  We are a stubborn sort and often resistent to change.   That quality serves us well at times and hinders us at others. It is very unlikely that we will listen to folks from outside of our area when they are trying to tell us our problems and how to fix them, even if they are other Kentuckians.

I pray that we will take back our culture and stop trying to blend in with mainstream America.  I hope that we will remember the battles of our ancestors and how they were nearly enslaved to the industry once it was allowed in.  I wish that we would open our eyes and realize what our assets are, and learn to utilize them, before more tragedies like Black Mountain take place.  Because, like it or not, coal is not a renewable resource.  It will run out.  Then, what?  A middle ground needs to be found, and a nation wide change in priorities has to take place.

I hope if you are a Kentucky resident or live nearby, that you will take the time to visit the mountains of eastern Kentucky.  We have so much to offer.  I think we also have so much to show that will teach you about the path our country has taken, and how cultures are being lost everyday.

I enjoyed my time on the mountain.  It was time to just be.  I think of all the men and women who are worrying, and can’t just be because they work in the coal industry and their jobs are on the line.  They wonder what will happen to them if the coal industry leaves the mountains.  I think it is time to start creating the answers to those questions.

So many children are being raised without any real identity to guide them.  Sure, we all must search for self, but it is always a benefit to know from where you were born.  It is one of the most important reasons that John and I chose to move back to the mountains to raise our girls.  We had to submerse ourselves in the cultural heritage that has sustained the mountain people from the time they settled here, Native Americans and Europeans alike, in order to parent from a place of comfort and safety.  Appalachian is who we are, and who our girls are, and though they may find things of interest in other cultures (which I’m sure they will as I have) in order to understand themselves, they must know the history from which they came.  Plus, having spent most of our own lives in the mountains, it is what we know.

Industrialization has brought with it a resentment for hard work, for things handmade, and for the time it takes to wait for a good result.  I can’t fire off on this topic and say that I don’t enjoy some things that industrialization has brought to us.  Nothing is all bad, but it is the way in which it’s handled that is the detriment.  I see it trickling now into my mountains with the issue of mountaintop removal.

From the perspective of industry…

From the perspective of the folks that see negative effects…

This issue is setting up a battleground that is similar to a civil war amongst the people of the mountains.  It is being fought with a seriousness like nothing I’ve ever seen, and it is beginning to make me nervous.  On one hand, those fighting against mountaintop removal are seen as somewhat of a threat to the livelihoods of the mountain men employed by the coal industry.  On the other, mountaintop removal is a threat to life as we know it in the mountains of Appalachia.  It’s what they call a conundrum, and the sides are taken.  It’s hard to fall in the middle.

This effect of the disease of industrialization began with the introduction of coal mining to the mountains by elitist outsiders that touted saving a people from the drudgery of making a living by subduing the earth and depending on the good hand of nature for their well being.  Really what this industry did was give people too little money for their land, and put them to work as indentured servants in one of the most dangerous jobs in the history of mankind.  Men risked their lives with no time for working a garden and things such as that, to fill the pockets of the already rich men of the coal industry, as they watched their women and children grow weaker from a life of worry and even greater toil.  The mountain people rose up and fought for fair treatment.  We won some of those battles and lost some.

In the present day, I believe as a mountain culture we have lost so much of ourselves that we have dropped the ball in teaching our children the struggles from which they came.  We only half know the stories, like hearing them in passing, and rather than remember the rich traditions and work that grew our people, we have started fighting for the right to be enslaved by capitalism.  It saddens me to see stickers on the windshields of our able bodied, commonsensical, mountain men that read, “Save a Coal Miner.  Kill a Tree Hugger”.  I’m not sorry because I embrace the outsiders coming into our mountains pretending to know enough about our culture to try to save us from ourselves, but because our own people don’t realize that it goes way beyond a simple love for nature.  Those fighting for a better way, those fighting to save the mountains, and those that are doing it from within the mountains are also fighting to save the men that work in the industry.  There is no easy way.  No one should lose their job, but their job should be transformed and made fair.  It might be that until the answers are apparent that we might have to go back to a more subsistent way of living, and be content with that.  There is no shame in it.  We need to embrace who we are and why our ancestors settled this region in the first place.

I have heard some mountain folks comment that our land is worthless unless we mine the coal and make flat spaces for the sprawl of strip malls, Wal-Mart, and fancy housing.  They have even went as far as saying that that is the reason the mountains are here.  That is the biggest crock of lies I’ve ever heard.  It is nonsense.  It is cop-out.  You take our mountains made by a force bigger than ourselves, and flatten them and replace their structure with man made commodities and you’ll have nothing but trouble.  Our call is to subdue the earth, not to transform it (Genesis 1:28).  Our ancestors moved into this region to set themselves apart from the debauchery they saw taking place in the large cities of the coast.  They wanted to sustain a way of life that in some sense remained pure.  They wanted to live by their own code.  So many of us have forgotten that, or never have been told.  Our people weren’t the mainstream and didn’t want to be.

What we are doing today is affecting the lives of our children.  I don’t want my children to be at the beckon call of a fake culture that makes the rich richer and poor poorer.  I think we all deserve a choice.  If you are in the mountains and you want the same conveniences of the big cities, move to the big cities.  Give those of us who want to maintain a way of life that embraces the landscape and utilizes it’s resources in a sustainable way the room to do so without a fight.  This isn’t the city and it never will be.  It shouldn’t be, and trying to make it such will be a disaster.  I was raised on coal money from generations involved in mining, and I am not against the coal miner.  I just believe that there are right and wrong ways of doing things.  I believe we must work together to find a way of sustaining and building up our way of life.  Those outside of here demanding cheap electricity provided by a non-renewable resource are obviously in the dark as to what it takes and the sacrifices people make to pull it from the ground.  Let’s not continue to blind ourselves for a dream planted in our heads by those who use us for their gain.

Okay, sorry folks.  I’ve written an essay.  This is one of those times when I get carried away with words.  However, I’m not just blowing wind or trying to stir the current.  I want our people to come together with those interested parties to establish viable solutions to the environmental and economic questions before us.  It isn’t an issue that is black and white.  Read more about coal mining and the true impact it has on the state economy here.

Read my other posts on the issues surrounding coal mining in the Kentucky mountains and our future – Coal Mining Unconscious, Gravesite Relocation and Strip Mining, and Spotlight Appalachia – 20/20 and Bill O’Reilly.

As always, I welcome comments and constructive discussion.

In writing classes, we are told to write what we know.  In writing what we know, we can create vivid more universal prose.  I’ve always kept to this way of thinking with my writing in one way or another.  I write what I’m passionate about.  I’m finding it important to tell the story of my people.  Fellow Appalachians and my peers.

So, I set out to write my first novel with characters I had visited before.  Ones I had grown to care about.  The main male character, Glenville, will be going underground to mine for the first time in his life in this novel.  I will be going with Glenville there, but the only difference is that I physically won’t be going.  I have never in my life visited an underground coal mine.

I am a coal miner’s daughter of generations back.  My great great grandfather was part of the Harlan fights as was my great grandfather.  (When miners looking for their workplace rights in Harlan, Kentucky literally had to fight gun thugs hired by the coal company.)   My great grandmother was raised in a coal camp (housing provided to the coal miners’ families by the coal company).  My grandfather was an electrician in the mines.  My dad has worked both underground and in strip mining.  Currently, he works in reclamation and environmental compliance of strip jobs as an environmental engineer.  I was raised knowing that coal money fed us.  I was raised knowing those men with the uncanny dark faces and respected them like you would a soldier returning from war.  I also knew what they were putting on the line to provide for their family as they were taught men should do (and now women).  It was as much a part of my life to see these working men and their black rimmed eyes as it was to wake every morning and see the mountains.  But, in writing Glenville’s character I have realized one thing.  I haven’t a clue as to where they have been or from where they are coming.  It is something east Kentuckians live with everyday, but underground mining isn’t something we can say we know much about because many of us have never been down there.

I am relying on pictures I’ve seen on the internet and those I remember seeing of my dad underground.  I am also reading Nathan Hall’s coal journal which documents his experience as an underground miner.  I am taking what I have lived, looking at it from an opposite perspective, and writing the unknown.  It takes imagination.  A lot of imagination.  It is also very strange to think that something that is so much a part of the Appalachian unconscious and conscious is really an unknown to so many of us.

I’m going with Glenville into that mine.  We are going together.  Right now he’s nervous and has no clue what he is up against, what will be expected of him, and neither do I.  One thing I can guarantee, the next time I see that dust covered face at the grocery, I will see it a bit differently.

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.orghttp://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.

mine located on Hwy 15 btwn. Isom and Dry Fork

mine located on Hwy 15 btwn. Isom and Dry Fork

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.

mine located on Hwy 15 btwn. Wolfpen and Isom

mine located on Hwy 15 btwn. Wolfpen and Isom

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.

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About Me

An Appalachian woman born and raised, mothering two little girls in a place that is non-existent to AT&T or UPS. Happily working toward a sustainable lifestyle and writing on the demand of a loud muse.

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