Bombs go off right across the world
from where I live, among a people who
look like me. This is news because
they are not at war — or at least,
not very much — & because they look
just like me. Meanwhile in America
we are blowing up mountains
& burning their black hearts to keep cool.
Meanwhile in America we are setting off
three & a half million pounds of explosives
every day in this undeclared war
against ourselves. This is not news because
it happens every day & is therefore
nothing new; because there is no easy-
to-tar enemy except perhaps for
the black-hearted mountains;
& because the people who die from it
die slowly & unspectacularly,
& are too often guilty of being poor.
Meanwhile in America it is hot
& getting hotter, & this is news
because it keeps us indoors, glued
to the news or at least to the sweat-
sticky couch. Meanwhile in America
the news anchors make a show
of indignation at the sun, righteous
& well-coiffed as fallen angels, &
never speculate about why we might
really be so hot, never mention
that we are blowing up mountains
& burning their black hearts to keep cool.
Note: I don’t mean to minimize the horror of the events in Norway, which now seem actually to be more about the massacre on the island than the initial bomb blasts. Every violent death, especially the death of a child, is a tragedy regardless of where in the world it happens — even schoolchildren in Appalachia who get brain tumors from having the misfortune of living too close to coal processing plants.
This is one of my favorite modal tunes — in part because it’s one of the few I know the words to. These aren’t the commonest lyrics, but they’re the ones I learned, probably from one of my brother’s banjo tablature books.
One charming verse I don’t sing here goes,
When I was a little boy, I wanted a barlow knife.
Now I want my Shady Grove, to have her for a wife.
As for the lyrics I do sing, “Harlan” is Harlan County, Kentucky, home of some of the bloodiest mine wars back in the day:
They say in Harlan County,
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
(“Which Side Are You On?”)
And now it’s a national sacrifice area. And when I say “sacrifice,” think “Aztec open-heart surgery.” A land is being eviscerated to enable our comfortable lifestyles.
Which does relate, however obscurely, to this song. I’m not sure how or why a woman might come to be called Shady Grove, but there’s something very appealing to me about this identification of woods with lover.
I decided to include this brief documentary here as a kind of quick course for those who might be unfamiliar with the phenomenon of mountaintop removal, since I’ve made reference to it here in the past (most recently in my Campfire tale post). I don’t particularly care for the use of celebrity spokespeople and other outsiders to the region, which to my mind reinforces the notion that mountain people are incapable of speaking up for themselves, but otherwise I think the video gives a good overview of the crisis.
Some additional points to consider:
“Mountaintop removal” is a bit of a euphemism. This form of extreme strip-mining effectively obliterates the entire mountain by taking off its top and then using the “overburden” to fill in the adjacent valleys and ravines (a.k.a. hollows).
The forests will likely take tens or hundreds of thousands of years to recover, if ever. When the narrator refers to a moonscape, that’s not hyperbole. However, more aggressive species of grass will grow, and some local boosters of the coal industry talk about how this will open up the view and allow cattle grazing and the introduction of Rocky Mountain elk for big game hunters to pursue.
The practice of mountaintop removal is tantamount to ecocide. As mentioned in the documentary, the location of these mines in southwestern West Virginia and Kentucky threatens one of the most biodiverse temperate ecosystems in the world: what forest ecologists call the mixed mesophytic forest. This forest is simultaneously under assault by pulpwood companies who are stripping out everything, plowing, and planting red pine monocultures designed for short-rotation tree farming. Many species of salamanders, land snails, and beetles, and even some wildflowers and songbirds, will be threatened with extinction if the combined assault continues too much longer.
Mountaintop removal amounts to an undeclared war against the people and communities of this region. The mining companies display the same kind of callous disregard for life as the European companies that conspired to ship deadly chemical waste to Ivory Coast last month: it’s not that they hate poor people, exactly, they just fail to recognize them as fully human. The documentary shows this pretty well. Like any war, it also divides communities, with many people clamoring for the few, temporary jobs that this form of mining provides, even knowing that laying waste to the land will render it largely uninhabitable for generations to come.