Poison in the Heart of the World

Blue Ridge Red Shift. Photo by Andrew Flenniken

I was born and raised, as the phrase goes, in the desultory tail end of the Appalachian mountain chain as it swings through north Georgia on its way to Alabama, and the twangy lilt of Appalachia persists in my voice through graduate school and nearly thirty years down from the mountains.  Since I reached adulthood, I have lived both in the rolling Piedmont and in the sandy-soiled, pine and palmetto strewn coastal plains, and spent most of my time in and around the buzzing, sprawling, urban tangle of Atlanta.  I’ve learned to love all of the places I’ve lived, sometimes with a bit of negotiation and difficulty.  But some part of my heart is full of a wild yonder, smoke-blue mountains rising to hazy blue distance.  I was a fleet feral barefoot child there, and a serious-minded poetic young girl.  Even when nobody else in the world understood me, the wind in the pine trees and the ancient worn-down ridges and peaks held serene. Whenever I go home to visit family, as soon as I can see those mountains, my heart lifts.

The Elk River is poisoned.  You may have heard.  It may seem far away, but rivers are long, and connect to other rivers.  The Elk flows into the Kanawha, which flows into the Ohio, which flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf…which has had more than enough crap dumped into it already.

Amicalola Falls. Photo by Andrew Flenniken

There is magic there, in those mountains.  Inherent in the woods and hollows, tumbling down the mountain sides, rising up like mist, but also in the people:  their songs and stories and ways, their yarbs and praying rocks, their burn-talking, water-dowsing, blood-stopping charms.  Things get remembered there that other people forget, until one day somebody wonders where that Child ballad or old-timey cure went and comes looking to find it, kept safe in the memory of the mountain and its folk.  It is not a coincidence that Faery, the most well-known “home grown American strain of religious witchcraft” as Ronald Hutton called it, has its roots in Appalachia.  If you have any love of such things, know that the tributaries of your knowledge have springheads in those hills.

The magic cannot be separated from the land.  You can put the knowledge in a book, perhaps, but that does not preserve it; once everything is gone but the dry pages, they only point to what is lost.  Magic is alive, as the mountains are alive, as we are alive. One of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth cloaks those mountains like a mantle woven from a million colors. Richness, true wealth, in the living breathing threads, wealth we barely comprehend because it seems so ordinary, precious beyond anything else we know or could tell.  Like the old ballads, we remain ignorant of its value, perhaps, until it is lost…except when a thing is finally gone from these mountains, the oldest in the world, it is gone forever.

The truth is, this latest calamity isn’t new.  It hasn’t been new in my lifetime…or in the last century.  That glory has been being slowly poisoned to death all this time.  In Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry Caudill chronicles the pattern of destruction and exploitation carried out all over the region:  First the trees, then the coal.  Starting in the late nineteenth century, the dense forests were razed; then, when mineral wealth was discovered under the now denuded ground, coal companies secured deeds to mineral rights with contracts that would cause Mephistopheles to blush with envy:

The broad-form deeds passed to the coal companies title to all coal, oil, and gas, and all “mineral and metallic substances and all combinations of the same.”  They authorized the grantees to excavate for the minerals, to build roads and structures on the land and to use the surface for any purpose “convenient or necessary” to the company and its successors in title. Their wordy covenants passed to the coal men the right to use as mining props the timber growing on the land, to divert and pollute the water and to cover the surface with toxic mining refuse. The landowner’s estate was made perpetually “servient” to the superior or “dominant” rights of the owner of the minerals. And, for good measure, a final clause absolved the mining company from all liability to the landowner for such damages as might be caused “directly or indirectly” by mining operations on his land.

…a single acre sometimes yielded fifteen or twenty thousand tons [of coal]….For this vast mineral wealth the mountaineer in most instances received a single half-dollar.

It is evident that the modern descendents of yesteryear’s coal men view this period as a golden age,  a time when they could plunder freely without any pesky environmental or safety regulations or indeed any legal restraints whatsoever. They are anxious for those days to return.  The usual defense is to explain at length how they have brought in jobs and industry; the benefits of their reign can be seen in that a hundred and twenty years later, after many many billions of dollars of mineral wealth have been extracted from the region, how well the descendants of those original landowners are doing.  Hardly an Appalachian child goes hungry, and poverty is a thing of the past.  Oh, wait…

How can this be?  How can the rest of America sit by complacently and watch this unfold, with barely a flicker of outrage?  Well, part of the reason is that we have been carefully taught that Appalachia is a worthless backwater, full of ignorant, racist, inbred, willfully impoverished, disposable people who aren’t worth listening to and can’t be saved.

Understand that this is a lie.  Understand that it is a lie that has legs because it serves the interests, not only of the rich and powerful, but of every person who benefits from cheap coal and natural gas.  This means you. If you live in the service area of a coal-burning plant…and you probably do…understand that people who look and sound like me die to keep your lights on.  You are complicit, but so am I.  We live in a world that shapes our choices, and only through a collective rebellion can we change that reality in a way that will do some good.  That’s why politics, rather than personal moral choice, is the answer to certain kinds of systemic problems.

But the hillbilly stereotype, like other kinds of prejudice, serves other motives as well.  It is classism, pure and simple, as well as the kind of cultural prejudice which is next door to racism, and like other “isms” serves a twofold purpose:  It punishes the exploited, disheartens them to keep them down and saps their will to fight, and it divides them from their potential allies. It gives those who might otherwise feel some solidarity or a modicum of guilt the ability to rationalize that “those people” deserve what they get.  Like Eric Waggoner and Zada Mae and Betsy Phillips and Byron Ballard, I have less patience with that:

“this country has a long history of believing every terrible thing it hears about Appalachia…”  — “The Hillbilly Backlash”  Betsy Phillips

“To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated. To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don’t just leave, don’t just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we’d all suddenly recognize something that hadn’t been on our radar until now.”

- “I’m From West Virginia and I’ve Got Something to Say About the Chemical Spill”  Eric Waggoner

“The same progressives and liberals who would have us believe they care for the underprivileged and oppressed also like to point at the working class white people in WVA and use words like ‘redneck’ and ‘snuff dippers’ and ‘hillbilly’ to describe them.

Enough.  Enough.”

- “But what am I to do with all this fury, all this rage?”  Byron Ballard

Photo by Andrew Flenniken

Do you think the beauty of the mountains is somehow in ironic contrast to the ugliness and squalor of its human inhabitants, that they just somehow wound up there by happenstance and are as insensible to the complex living world around them as so many bumps on a log from a old-growth tree? Or are you willing to contemplate the idea that they are the descendents of people who chose to live in all that beauty despite the difficulty of making a living there, and that that could say something about who they are? that their enthusiastic preservation of oral storytelling and old ballads and music and arts of all kinds indicates a love of such things for their own sake? that their ingenuity and ability (not yet entirely lost) to make anything out of two sticks, a rock, and a piece of home-made string, or to cure sickness with weeds out of the yard, are due to an intimate knowledge of the environment which might be useful somehow? that you have been sold a bill of goods, about the region, about the people, about us?

I am not trying to romanticize the people of Appalachia, either; that’s just another trap. I am just saying that one of the answers to “If things are so bad there, why don’t you just move?” is “Because we love these mountains.” Another is, “To where?” This is not just a story about Appalachia, you understand. This is a story about everywhere.

A segment of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. Photo by Andrew Flenniken

To contribute to relief efforts aimed at some of the hardest hit, go here.

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About Sara Amis

Sara Amis writes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and rants. She is a Faery initiate who kicks it old-school, a member of Hellbender Coven, and has many opinions. Her work has appeared in Datura, Jabberwocky, Lilith Queen of the Desert, Witches and Pagans, Moon Milk Review, A Mantle of Stars, and her blog, the Consequence of Chance. Her poem series The Sophia Leaves Text Messages was published as an artist's book by Papaveria Press. She teaches Tarot and magic sometimes.

  • http://www.nonukesyall.org Glenn

    well sung, Sara

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      Thank you :)

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  • Barbara Weaner

    TRUE, TRUE AND MORE TRUE

    Thanks for the beautiful photos as well

    From a little hollow in Tucker County WV, not far from an injection well

  • Kate

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

  • http://godsrbored.blogspot.com Anne Johnson

    I was born and raised in Appalachia. My ancestors had lived there for 14 generations, some of them on the same land for more than 150 years. And I love the Nation of Appalachia with all my heart and soul. I am one of the people who “just moved” because “things were bad.” There were no jobs, and I had a college education. So I went to work in the city. It is now 45 years since I left home. My children have grown up in New Jersey. They love the beach, New York City, and Philadelphia. They have a tenuous connection to Appalachia because our family farm was still in family hands when they were young. The farm has been sold. My descendants will live in the city, and soon enough they will lose all touch with the generations of Appalachia. They won’t care any more than anyone else that the mountains are being torn down to keep their computers running. And mine.

    The best way to save Appalachia is to spend your tourist dollars there. If enough Americans discovered the beauty of our eastern mountains, and the affordability of vacations there, perhaps it would help get more land preserved. Google Four Quarters Farm and calculate the cost of a five-day spiritual retreat, with meals and lodging. It’s the deal of the century, and it still helps the local economy of Appalachia.

    My heart, my soul, and my grave are in Appalachia. I’ll get off my soap box now.

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      But you look so good standing up there :)

      Seriously, we need to tell these stories. I teach multicultural lit (which is actually mostly American ethnic lit) and when I’m the instructor, a lot of what we read is Native American authors. If any one group has been damaged by media depictions more than anybody, it’s them. And the thing I learned from reading those authors is this: Tell your own stories. Tell them, and tell them better, and keep telling. You can’t drown out the racket. But some people will listen.

      • Helene

        You got that right! Bravo…

  • Michele Griffin

    It has been a long time since an article made me want to run back to West Virginia. To fight for it. Thank you.

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      This may be my favorite compliment :)

  • http://www.jailexchange.com/CountyJails/West_Virginia/Tucker/Tygart_Valley_Regional_Jail_Tucker.aspx Mark Miclette

    I just ‘discovered’ West Virginia last summer and am getting ready to return next month for my third visit and I tell everyone I can about it. I’ve lived all over the country and have never experienced such a beautiful place. I firmly believe this national treasure will be saved… I have to believe that.

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      It will be saved if enough people wake up and work for it. I personally am feeling the value of doing what I do best, which is write on the things I care about. I have a half-written short story about…well, the same things I’ve talked about here, more or less.

  • Naor Edwards

    I’m a born New Yorker. But I fell in love with West Virginia and wanted to reitre there, never made it. You have an almost perfect climate. The mountains are wonderful, not like our northern glacier scored mountains. The valleys don’t all run north/south. I wanted a milder climate, I don’t like the heat on the piedmont, and the ocean is mostly for rich people. I searched on the internet and took drives down.

    As i searched,I realized what coal had done to this beautiful land. Taking advantage of people who’d chosen a simpler life is part and parcel of the underside of the American heritage. We need to stop. We need to leave the glorious mountains alone and not cut them down for caol, or as they do here for countertops that will be in the landfill in ten years. Those country people who choose to live on the land are the right ones. This mechanized culture will fail in the end. I hope we learn this lesson before we kill the whole planet.

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      Cities can be ecological…they just aren’t. I think we’ve all bought into this notion that technology HAS TO BE damaging, that we have to pay a terrible price for our modern civilization, and I think it’s a false dichotomy. The problem isn’t that we have cities or technology. The problem is being stupid with it. Like your example of using stone for countertops because it looks pretty and treating it like it’s disposable, when it’s a material that could last hundreds of years. Squandering people and an ecology so we can run electricity for a few years is similarly short-sighted…because eventually we will have neither electricity nor mountains, and then what?

  • http://simplydeb.com Deborah Aldridge

    I don’t blame them for wanting to stay. If I could take the cold, I would move there too. I hate what has been done to them, but what is the solution?

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      Complex problems don’t have simple solutions. But talking about it, paying attention, being real with it is a good place to start. How would things be different if we demanded accountability? or if the damage to ecosystems and people were included in how we calculate the cost of energy? What if we put windmills on top of those ridges, instead of blowing them sky-high? We need energy to run society as we know it…ok. Find a way to do it that won’t cost us everything we have that really counts.

  • Dan Ross

    As a lifelong resident of WV, it saddens my heart to see our state depicted as a poisoned place that only bears heartache to the people that call WV home. The writer here points out that we are not alone in this plight. How sad it is that big business has ruined the beauty of WV’s people and it’s land. A hillbilly I may be, but at least I know who I am and proud to call WV home.

  • Ella

    Heavens Sara, you can write! wow . . . very powerful. All kinds of connections are firing. I really appreciate your responses to the comments, too. You managed to rip the blindfold off and tell it like it is and at the same time I feel oddly hopeful . . . and I can’t quite put my finger on how you did that because things are very bleak indeed. I want everyone to read this!

  • http://paganarch.com Rhyd Wildermuth

    Thank you so much for this essay.

    I grew up in the foothills of Appalachia, and remember the beauty of the land fondly even as I remember the horror of its destruction and, honestly, some really very horrible people.

    Being queer means I’ll never feel safe returning to where I grew up (the last time I visited I heard more anti-gay slurs in one month than I have in the rest of my 37 years of existence) and the memories of abject poverty still haunt me(I wrote a tiny bit about it here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/asenseofplace/2014/01/please-dont-hit-me/), but despite my experience (and those of others who’ve had to flee, sometimes for their lives), that land still holds tightly to a bit of my heart.

    That ambiguity is the most difficult part for me, the beauty of the land I remember always smiling just past the hatred and misery. I’m glad some people are still fighting for it.

    Sigh.

    Thanks again.

    –Rhyd

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      I am also queer, so I get what you’re talking about, but I think horror fosters horror. It would be nice if suffering and adversity caused nobility and compassion…but mostly it makes people miserable, which they all too often take out on other people.

      Personally I have found that I didn’t fit in very well where I grew up, and left…only to find that I don’t fit in very well anywhere else, for completely other reasons sometimes related to being from Appalachia and sometimes just because I’m strange. My response to that state of affairs was to become a witch and a writer. We’ll see how that turns out ;)

      • http://paganarch.com Rhyd Wildermuth

        My Appalachian comes out quite often, particularly after a drink or two! I still say “reckon” pretty often (I’d actually like to re-introduce it into normal conversation), and I kinda like when I start talking slow and ponderously. : )

        You’re definitely right about horror fostering horror, but I suspect it’s the systematic impoverishment along with some cynical internal politics– such as coal-men using religious language to turn locals against “socialism”–that breeds the most horror.

        (as an aside–I remember anti-union billboards all over south-east ohio with pictures of Jesus and the quote “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy-ladened, and I will give you rest,” as if Jesus were a better answer than safer working conditions in the mills and mines!)

        Oh, the sadness. I hope something changes there.

        • CKendrick

          Hello, Rhyd. If you don’t mind me asking, what town in south-east Ohio were you from? I’m just across the river and always interested in learning of other formerly-neighbor Pagans.

          • http://paganarch.com Rhyd Wildermuth

            Hello! A few places–outside of Chillicothe, Waverly, and Jackson/Wellston. The first two are closer to Kentucky than West Virginia (though all our radio and television stations were from WV), and I wasn’t actually in any “towns” (you probably know how that goes…”townships” more specifically).

        • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

          I was raised Southern Baptist. Part of what drove me away was the hard swing to the right that happened…which was not just restricted to Appalachia, but all over. You did not hear the kind of homophobia and right-wing politicizing when I was growing up in the 70s that you started to hear later. There was plenty of talk about God, but it was much more poetic and about treating people well.

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  • Teresa Bandrowska

    Beautifully written. Unfortunately can apply to homelands all over our planet. As Black Elk said, “All things are connected. Whatever we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.” May we awaken and know this to be true before our planet turns to dust.

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      It’s true. This is a single manifestation of a planet-wide clash of values.

  • http://kdillmanjones.com Kdillmanjones

    So beautiful. Thank you for the challenge to writers, to remember that our words mean nothing when the waters dry up and the earth cries out. Thank you for this lovely piece.

    • http://www.deadmadorpoet.com Sara Amis

      But they can mean a whole lot if you speak up at the right time…:)

  • Layna

    Sara~thank you for this beautifully written article. Makes my heart overflow with both pride and a certain amount of sadness…

  • Julian Martin

    My Letter yesterday to The Editor of the Charleston Gazette

    Do “they” really expect us to pay for this? My eyes were burning after I took a shower in the “safe” water that we are now enjoying here in Charleston and surrounding unfortunates. This morning I washed my still burning eyes with bottled water.

    We are in real trouble. I am not going to shower in this water as long as I can smell it and for sure will not drink this stuff. We can’t or at least shouldn’t bath in or drink the water now coming into our homes and who wants to wash their clothes in that stinky stuff.

    Should we be charged for water that is almost useless? We now have two water bills—one for piped in water and one for bottled water.

    Charleston has entered into third world status. Other parts of southern West Virginia have been in the third world for a long time with water problems caused by the coal industry’s underground mining and mountains obliterated with strip mining and its grotesque juiced up version called mountain top removal with left over dirt and rocks dumped into the valleys.

    Friends and I have done water testing throughout southern West Virginia. We have found readings of 400 to over 1500 on a conductivity scale where anything over 300 is not good for aquatic life.

    The Charleston Gazette reported this morning that Senator Joe Manchin and Representatives Capito and Rahall, took pains to distance the chemical that spilled, which is used to process coal, from the state’s coal industry. During a televised press conference, Governor Tomblin fell all over himself trying to disassociate the coal industry from the chemical spill. All these politicians grovel before big coal.

    I am mad as hell. After the shower last night that made my eyes burn, I cursed big coal with words that would catch this paper on fire. Big coal destroyed the sight in my fathers left eye and they are destroying the mountains all around our home place at Emmons on Big Coal River and now they are destroying my drinking water.

  • CKendrick

    Thank you for this, Sara. I wish more people were aware of the plight of Appalachia. The destruction here is an absolute sacrilege. What hubris in humans to think some of the oldest mountains in the world are only put there for exploitation.

  • http://diary-of-demosthenes.tumblr.com/ Adrian Columbia

    Thank you so much for this post, Sara. I grew up in Appalachia and felt your discussion of the fae and magic resonate within my very soul. The destruction of the land, its waters, and its very essence by pollution such as this is just a prime example of the exploitation that must stop.

  • willow

    Wow! This is such a necessary, well written and powerful post! I lived in southern Indiana and north eastern Tennessee, and I understand the magnificent beauty/magic of the land and why people would want to stay to make it better. In addition to their amazing culture with ties to the old world. It is so horrible what the people of the Appalachians have endured for our benefit. It is a story sadly told all over the world by too many people. It must stop; green technology has become a necessity!

    Thank you for writing this, may these words spread and inspire many others to do what they can to make the earth and her people more healthy!

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