In times like these, you have to grow big enough inside to hold both the loss and the hope. (356-357)A few weeks ago, the Southeast suffered mightily from a series of tornadoes. Hundreds of people were killed. Trees and homes were destroyed. Communities were shaken by the distance between familiar befores and alien afters. It was and still is a big deal to the people in my town, in neighboring towns across the region. I was fortunate in that no one in my immediate circle was deeply affected by the storms. There was some damage, some inconvenient days without electricity, but I have not suffered the personal hurts that others have. So, what I'm about to say could easily be disregarded, chalked up to an insensitive position of relative comfort and ease. Unpopular as it may be, I'm going to go ahead and say it:
What happened in the Southeast a few weeks ago is no more tragic than what is happening - everyday - in the coalfields of Appalachia. It was simply more sudden.
When I ran a cross-country event at a former strip mine site in 1996, I was confused. When I read Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven, I was angry. When I took Appalachian Political Economy in college, I was incensed. When I assisted Earl Dotter in hanging his stunning photographs of miners in the region, I was burdened with a quiet sadness. Now, as I sit with images of mountaintop removal mine sites in front of me, as I remember the explosion at Upper Big Branch, as I read about the House Subcommittee on Water Resources hearing titled "EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs," I struggle against a tide of helplessness, a feeling that there is nothing I can do to stop or even slow the destruction of the mountains of Appalachia. I could just as easily face down a tornado and convince it to be still.
Reading Ann Pancake's Strange as this Weather Has Been has been a watershed experience for me. There are books that change you, that assert a presence in you that will not recede - no matter how long or how far you go from them. This book has been that for me. Strange as this Weather Has Been tells the story of a family living with the reality of mountaintop removal mining in Southern West Virginia, a few counties over from where my husband grew up. More than anything else, it is about loss. Almost all the stunners of phrase that I recorded in my notebook (yup, another library book that Must. Be. Bought.) deal in one way or another with losing: youth, love, identity, land, home, family, self. But somehow, it is also, miraculously, about hope. This hope persisted, a burning certainty as I read, so those closing thoughts (quoted at the start of this post) were just right, as Goldilocks would declare. It makes current and real and true and fresh all that Giardina started in Storming Heaven. And it does it with such pitch-perfect prose that I was often breathless at reading it. Here's one:
Stunned golden inside with the dream and the crave and the new of that boy. (8)In that one fragment of a sentence, Pancake displays a unique and chewy-good way with words. She puts them to such provocative use, and once they enter your consciousness, you won't easily forget. Here's another:
A dead terraced the whole width of the frame. Hacked gray stumps where mountain peaks had been, and flung all over, skinless white snakes. Roads. A gigantic funnel, sloppy and dark, running down off it, funnel big as the mountain itself. Is the mountain itself, then fill, it made a dry place in my mouth. (58)You have to understand something about MTR (mountaintop removal) mining to fully understand this passage, but it is stunning once you know. If you don't know much or at all, please visit ilovemountains.org to learn more. Or watch this video:
And if you want to try to understand more the atrocity this destruction is for the people of Appalachia, read this:
now I know people not from here probably don't understand our feeling for these hills. Our love for land not spectacular. Our mountains are not like Western ones, those jagged awesome ones, your eyes always pulled to their tops. But that is the difference, I decided. In the West, the mountains are mostly horizon. We live in our mountains. It's not just the tops, but the sides that hold us. (173)And then, go read the rest of Ann Pancake's heartwrenching, activating, inspiring, and beautiful book, Strange as this Weather Has Been. And don't even try to deny the hope hidden inside that loss.
In Tuscaloosa, in Ringgold, in Glade Spring, and elsewhere, people are still reeling from those destructive winds a few weeks ago. The difference between the tornadoes and mountain top removal mining is not the degree of tragedy but the reality of blame. A tornado is called an "act of God." What is happening in Appalachia is most decidedly not. And that distinction is everything.