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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.

*The following is the first part of a two part post dealing with the degradation of culture equating in the degradation of the quality of life.  This first section is about food.  Part Two is about mountaintop removal.  Both of these issues are extremely important to me, but the issue of mountaintop removal has been the hardest to address because of the weight it carries in my east Kentucky home at the present.  Please, leave your thoughts in the comments section of these posts.  Good, respectful discussion is the key to finding answers.

The most informative blog (for my needs) that I have found so far is Nourished Kitchen.  Jenny blogs about “real” food and the ways of traditional food preparation.  She writes from a place of well researched thoughts, and a recent post she made added some flame to thoughts I had been having recently.  Prisoners in the Illinois prison system are being fed a soy-based diet where they are eating upwards of 100 grams of soy daily.  This isn’t normal for any person of any culture.  What makes it even worse is Illinois has started a pilot program of this sort as lunches for children.  What is so horrible about that?

Watch this 4 part video on the dangers of soy from the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation – Sally Fallon.

Get it straight from a world renown doctor – Dr. Joesph Mercola.

As if that wasn’t enough… Have you incorporated soy as part of a low fat diet?  Do you have thyroid issues?  Read this.

All this cheap, fake food is lining the pockets of big food corporations and the Illinois governor, making the rich richer at the expense of people in need of rehabilitation and our children!  Some of you may be of the mind set that prisoners are being punished, so why not feed them as cheaply as possible.  Not every man or woman in the prison  system is there because they consciously chose to commit a  crime.  We also must think that the majority of prisoners will be released one day.  Do we not want them on the road to rehabilitation?  John and I watched this Frontline two part documentary about that subject recently.  About the children – for goodness sake they are growing beings making physical and mental leaps and bounds on a daily basis.  They should be fed the best food possible to insure their future health.  That is our responsibility as their caregivers.  It’s not our lives we are taking in our hands, but the life of another.

I could write a book of ranting on the issue of food alone, but I think this is one symptom in the disease of America and other industrialized nations.  It is the disease of the industrialization of culture.  It’s embracing the easy road like there is some kind of prestige in a life that contains too much leisure.  It is the replacing of the “real” with manufactured impressions.  It is a sad state, and it is deteriorating any joy, love, and meaningfulness that we can glean from life on earth.

We can see the symptoms all too clearly when we take into consideration the lives our children lead and the things they contend with today via the media.  Think back on your childhood and the images that filled your days.  We are quickly becoming a nation void of culture that is outside of the culture that popular industry would have us adopt.  Traditions are being lost and replaced with those that perpetuate capitalist ideas and goals.  For example, the after Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza.  What is the need, really?  Who are you benefiting by putting yourself in debt or spending your money on frivolous things?  How long will that feeling of joy last, if you even obtain it at all?

We are a nation that puts to much faith the system of gaining and utilizing monetary wealth.  We listen to what industry tells us are the quick fixes to all our problems from our looks to the food we eat.  It is not a wonder that we are becoming the most obese nation with the myriad of health and emotional  problems that come with that.  It is unnerving the many ways this diease affects our lives and the way we have become dissensitized to the effects.

Please check back tomorrow for Industrialization of Culture – Part Two (Coal).

Last night, I sat in my living room watching the lightening bugs flicker in the misty twilight filling the hills with flecks of gold through darkened hues of green, brown, gray and black.  I watched the spectacle and thought about those who live away from here.  Sure, every place has beautiful scenes that the world should see, but I’m partial to the Kentucky mountains because they are home to me.  If I had to pick ten things to share with outsiders to help them understand where I come from, these would be them.

What I’d Love to Share with You…

  1. An evening of just listening… Sitting on an old timer’s porch swing just as it starts to turn off dark, we would listen to their tales of “making do”, playing in the mountains, courting their sweetheart, and working their fingers to the bone because that’s what you do.  We’d listen and learn that there is more to life than celebrity, money, what you have and what you can buy, and whether or not you live within a short driving distance of a strip mall with a Super Wal-Mart.
  2. The view from the mountain in front of my cabin...  We’d hike the steep hillside in front of our cabin until we reached the large rocks placed on the mountaintop by movement of earth and time.  It would be early fall and we’d be quiet there letting the strong breeze work its way through our bodies with a sweet purity that fills us up with serenity and appreciation.  We’d learn that yes, there is something bigger than all of us, that made us a small part of this beautiful creation.
  3. Bad Branch Falls I’d love to take you up Pine Mountain by Wiley’s Last Resort and on down to Bad Branch Falls.  The small falls is a local respected landmark that is a public park that in many ways still feels like you are the first person to see it.  We’d let the falls rinse us clean and play with our children in the little pools of fresh mountain water.
  4. A morning on George Gibson’s porch listening to his banjo ring… After a “full” breakfast, we’d walk down the holler a piece to visit George Gibson at his cabin.  He’d play his banjo for us in the old-time Knott County way (that isn’t Bluegrass which was created by the likes of Bill Monroe in the 40s).  I’d have to ask him to play “Jubilee” because it hits you in the chest and makes it unnecessary to breathe.  The music breathes for you.
  5. A dinner of Appalachian soupbeans, cornbread, kraut, fried potatoes and onions, pork tenderloin, and fresh sliced tomato and cucumber… The meal of all meals that makes you wiggle while you eat.  All of it will be cooked in cast iron with bacon fat.
  6. Scare the pants off you with a bobcat hollering in the night… Sounds like a woman screaming for her life.  A banshee woman.  It’ll scare the bejezus out of you for a few minutes until you realize (only because someone’s told you) it was only a bobcat.
  7. A mountain church service… You’d have to stay two Sundays because I’d want to share with you both the Old Regular Baptist and Pentecostal traditional services.  I’d want you to hear the mournful sounds of the Old Regular’s lining out their hymns (you will cry whether you want to or not) and the soul catching sounds of a Pentecostal band with all the instruments playing in such a way that draws you up out of the depths and makes you dance with joy and praise.  Oh, and then dinner on the grounds. 😉
  8. Experiencing mountain hospitality… You’ll never go hungry or lack for a place to lay your head.  We’ll be waved at by those in passing cars.  We’ll pull off the side of the road for funeral processions.  We’ll always have time for a few words with a neighbor.  If the car breaks down, we won’t be long or scared on the side of the road.
  9. Carcassonne Square Dance We’ll go to a real mountain square dance called and played by some great folks.  We’ll dance ’til our legs give out and then we’ll dance some more.
  10. Coal Mining… I’d share with you both a mountain top removal (strip mine) site and an underground mine.  There is great dualities in this issue.  On one side coal is the largest employer in the mountains, but on the other side strip mines are ruining our mountain landscape and causing havoc in the balance of things.  I’d want you to understand the sacrifices our people make in bringing you your electricity.  I’d want you to understand that when you turn on the light that you are using an non-renewable resource that comes from a real place and is pulled out of the mountains by real people.  Our miners deserve respect as do the people living in coal producing mountains.  It is my personal belief that most coal companies have placed us in a situation of indentured servitude and they abuse our people and our homeplace.  Solutions have to be found so that mountaintop removal becomes unnecessary, and our people can still be gainfully employed.

I believe there is magic in these hills.  Sure, we are a clannish bunch, but for those who take the time to listen and pay attention you’ll find a place.

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.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. ( 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.


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.

April 2023

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