A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness
Wendell Berry (Fwd.)
John J. Cox (Photog.)
New York: Riverhead Books, 2006
The peak was called Lost Mountain long before it was surveyed and sounded by the coal company. But soon after that analysis, the company moved in its giant excavators to tear away the surface "overburden" and remove the coal beneath. Now Lost Mountain is truly lost.
Erik Reece watched the process at close range from September 2003 to September 2004. As he puts it, "I came to Lost Mountain because last month, Leslie Resources Inc. was granted a state permit to shave off its summit. I came to see up close what an eastern mountain looks like before, during, and after its transformation into a western desert." This is his obituary for Lost Mountain.
"A carbon tax levied on the use of fossil fuels would reflect this true cost and would discourage wasteful use. Kentucky, a midsized state, ranks eighth in the country in energy use. Why? Because we can afford to; coal is cheap here. Conversely, as of last November , Toyota dealers could not keep the fuel-efficient Prius in stock because oil prices were rising. By the same logic, when consumers are forced to pay the true cost of coal, they will begin to think about smaller homes, better insulation, fluorescent lighting, strategically placed shade trees, and solar hot-water heaters. The technology is there; we simply lack the will."
– Pages 62-3
"Coal operators are not an easily intimidated bunch. But there is probably no one in the state of Kentucky who rattles their cage like a forty-eight-year-old grandmother named Teri Blanton. A prime mover in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), the state's largest social-justice organization, Blanton has spent the last two decades helping coalfield residents fight the corporations that have turned so much of eastern Kentucky into what she calls a toxic dump." (page 42)
In 2003, Kentucky produced 120 million tons of coal, which sold for $3 billion. Four-fifths of it was sold outside the state; nine-tenths burned to power the nation. Surface mining supports 4,000 jobs in the 30 eastern counties. Coal-related jobs dropped 60 percent from 1989 to 2004. It's estimated that 95 percent of the valley streams in eastern Kentucky have been filled by mine waste. And the region tops the nation in OxyContin abuse.
On average, each of the more than 6 billion people on this planet uses up 5.44 acres of land. Americans average 23.47 acres. The World Wildlife Federation estimates that using more than 4.45 acres apiece will eventually overwhelm the planet's ability to regenerate.
Reece's writing is often sarcastic, reflecting a deep disgust at the way American industry in general handles environmental issues. His chapters are short and episodic. Page 35: "When the overburden is dislodged, it becomes spoil. And, as we have already seen, according to the 2002 rule change, the spoil that is dumped in the valleys below is no longer waste, but 'fill.' Streams are not buried; rather, valleys are filled."
Reece's writing style carries the reader along smoothly. There is a good deal of exposition, but he weaves it into the narrative so skillfully that it is never burdensome. He's amazingly well-read; he quotes passages from popular songs, the stories of Franz Kafka and the poetry of Robert Frost and Wang Wei, as well as historical texts like Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He knows his science too, frequently naming the local flora and fauna, and sometimes using scientific nomenclature. His imagery is vivid and often gritty, he has a knack for quoting trenchant one-liners from locals, and he's mastered Poul Anderson's trick of appealing to sight, sound and smell. In all, the book struck me as more bitter and fatalistic than Coal River. I think that is because Reece is more of an observer, while Shnayerson was involved in the day-to-day battles. But it is just as moving an account, and it conveys the same devastatingly thorough research on coal-industry corruption. Read "Whitewash in Martin County" — at 15 pages, one of the longest chapters in the book. Despite focusing on different states, both books also cover some of the same ground: the Appalachian forest; Massey Energy, the slurry pond looming over Marsh Fork Elementary School.
I don't want to give the impression that Reece's book is a downer. He ends it on a hopeful note:
"I, however, do not intend to end an unfortunately bleak book on a note of despair. So consider what the Nobel Committee decided around the same time Americans were deciding in favor of George W. Bush. The Norwegians awarded the 2004 Peace Prize to a Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai—for planting trees."
Twenty years ago, Maathai's countryside, like the mountains of central Appalachia today, was on the verge of desertification. Poor rural women had to walk farther and farther to collect less and less wood for heating and cooking. So Maathai mobilized a legion of these women to start planting woodlots, known as green belts, throughout their villages. Soon there was more shade, less erosion, cleaner water, cleaner air, ample firewood for cooking, and jobs. Maathai's Green Belt Movement started solving problems of poverty, malnutrition, pollution, and women's rights. Maathai brilliantly used the example of a forest community to reestablish human communities across Kenya.
– Page 217
The author goes on to describe a plan by the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative that would get the mined-over lands closer to their original condition than what the coal companies are doing now, and would actually be cheaper. Now that's what I call hopeful.
To sum up, this is a worthwhile description of the grim situation in Appalachia. The research is thoroughly documented, and a recommended reading list is provided. There are a few typos, but they do not detract from its value. What I missed most is an index; this would have made it far more useful. Still, I give it a 5 and rate it a keeper.