“He who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly
despair.” —Henry David Thoreau
“Expediency always carries the day.” —Erik Reece
Erik Reece is standing barefoot in the organic garden he keeps in his Lexington backyard, absent-mindedly running his hands through voluptuous lettuce leaves while discussing the new book contract he’s recently received. The book he is currently writing seeks to cope with the spiritual and religious aspects of Eastern Kentucky culture, and in particular how they relate to coal mining. It is, he says, a continuation of the final chapter of his book “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness,” a tour de force that is arguably the most high-profile piece of journalism ever done on mountaintop removal mining.
In the corner of the garden is a bucket with the word “metaphor” stamped on it in large block letters. He laughs when asked about it, explaining that the Greek word metaphora means “to transfer.” This is a particularly adequate way of explaining his sense of humor.
These days, Reece, 39, a Louisville-born writer and journalist, is a writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky whose innovative summer nature-writing program in Robinson Forest gave him the idea for the Harper’s magazine piece that would become “Lost Mountain.” He doesn’t strike an imposing physical presence, nor does he have a particularly menacing gaze, although certain photographs have caught him in what may seem like one. His voice is deep but not gravelly, tinged with twang that reveals itself over vowels.
He dines regularly on humble pie; his book maintains a surprising amount of emotional distance yet manages to offer thoughtful, poignant peeks into life in Eastern Kentucky, a place so endowed with natural beauty that fate would only have humans try to wipe it clean with greed and contempt.
What’s happened to Reece since his long-form piece “Death of a Mountain” first appeared in Harper’s in April 2005 is that he’s not only become a direct object of King Coal’s ire, he’s put a progressive and intelligent face to voices of the same timbre out in Appalachia, one of this country’s most forgotten places. He’s a modern-day crusader fighting a behemoth industry, an Upton Sinclair figure whose observations led him to a distinct belief that a government and industry taking advantage of an underrepresented constituency and its land is not only morally repugnant, but in many cases downright illegal.
One chestnut reality of a political movement on any level is that not everyone will care, and not everyone who cares will agree. The main measure, then, is one of dedication and sincerity. Having spent a year watching a mountain reduced to rubble and rot, and even more time talking to the people whose lives are routinely devastated by the web of wholly unnatural consequences wrought by mountaintop removal mining, Reece commands a powerful, authoritative kind of respect. He writes from a sage-like perspective, crouching in thickets of thorn bushes or standing on the man-made dirt roads that weave through ever-leveling mountaintops like rivers on the moon, taking note as millions of years of rock and sediment drop to reveal another uniform highwall. His prose is terse and insistent, flecked with frank notes like, “What is remarkable about the ugliness of Appalachian poverty is its closeness and contrast to the spectacular mountains rising around it.”
While coal mining’s history is woven with the skin of countless dead miners, the past year has pushed the humanitarian issue to the forefront of America’s social consciousness. While the Bush administration continued to appoint industry insiders to top regulatory positions — the direct result of which has been, in some cases, relaxed safety standards at mine sites — two major disasters, Sago in West Virginia (12 dead) and Darby just a few weeks ago in Harlan, Ky. (five dead), reminded Americans just how dangerous and savage a coal miner’s job routinely is.
I had the opportunity to talk with Reece about his book, mountaintop removal mining, and the philosophical and religious issues that frame and define it, first when he was in Louisville for a reading a couple months ago, a week later on the phone, and finally just two weeks ago at his Lexington home.
LEO: When did you first take an interest in mountaintop removal mining?
Erik Reece: It was because I was taking my summer environmental writing program, which is a month-long writing program, it’s an annual thing I do every year down in Robinson Forest, which UK owns, it’s 12,000 acres, it’s contiguous. So my original thing was, I just wanted students to understand the ecosystem and to be in a place where it’s very pristine and there’s no fast-food architecture, there’s no media, where they could just write in a very pastoral place. And it is that, but also it’s completely surrounded by mountaintop removal, and so I realized that was going to have to be part of the education as well. I began to be educated pretty quickly on it, and that’s what just sewed my faith. I felt like I had to write about it.
LEO: Talk about the genesis of the book, from the initial idea to publication.
ER: The initial thing I did was, I thought I’d just move back and forth between Robinson Forest and the strip mines, and just show the contrast between the two. When I pitched that to an acquaintance at Harper’s, he said there’s not really a narrative there, and he just offhandedly said, “What if you just followed one mountain from beginning to end?” So I went to the permit room in Frankfort to see what was about to be mined. I found this map and it said Lost Mountain, Perry County, Ky. I immediately recognized the metaphorical potential there, and it was a small job, so I thought, I’ll dedicate one year of my life to this. Because it was a small job I figured it’ll probably get done in a year, and they were right on my schedule. The dates went from September ’03 to September ’04, and by September ’04 when I went up there, the mountain was gone.
LEO: The book is ostensibly about bearing witness to the destruction of one of the most diverse ecological and biological systems on the planet. What was your initial, visceral reaction the first time you went up there, when you saw that mining had begun?
ER: The first thing I really saw was, I arrived one day and they had shaved all the trees off the mountainside and burnt it and grubbed it up, and it was like, Jesus Christ, this was an intact forest last month. That was pretty visceral. It was a shock in a sense that I realized they really do have the equipment to do this. And then what would happen was, I would be walking one ridgeline one month, and I would come back the next month and the ridgeline just wasn’t there, it was a crater. It’s amazing to think we have that much explosives and equipment large enough to do that so quickly.
LEO: You’re talking about a 300-million-year-old natural thing that’s just destroyed in a year.
ER: That’s why I quote the Rachel Carson thing about — there is no time in the modern world.
LEO: I think people are starting to see you in a role of environmental savior for the more progressive sect of the political left, particularly with this issue because there’s not been a real loud, prominent voice like this. Do you agree?
ER: I certainly feel like I’ve gone from journalist to advocate in the process of writing the book. I knew I was writing for a left-wing magazine, so I didn’t have to be quote-unquote “objective,” though the coal companies’ position is very well represented. I’ve kinda become the point man on it just because a lot of it was really timing. There are a lot of people like Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth here, but for the last few years the mining’s been so bad, you know, have to mow their grass wearing respirators, their family members are getting killed by these illegally overweight coal trucks, they can’t bathe in their water. It’s gotten so bad that it’s this, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” sort of attitude. We know the coal industry is so powerful, we know they’ve bought off the politicians, but we’ve got to do something. I think when I came on the scene that was the attitude.
And so I think what the Harper’s piece did was it gave people something they could hand someone else and say, “This is what I’m talking about, this is what I’m mad about.” And then with the book, because it has the power of Penguin Press behind it, there’s a lot of distribution, and so it’s kinda given me this little platform to stand on and say to radio stations in Dallas and Oregon and all these urban areas, the rate at which you use energy is directly related to what’s happening in the mountains where I live. And it’s funny, because I’ve done about 50 radio interviews and they’ve almost all been with urban areas far away. I think the book’s done that; it’s finally put the issue on the map nationally, a little bit. It’s still not as on the map as it needs to be.
LEO: That’s been one of the major problems forever, not just with mountaintop , but with the poverty issues you talk about a lot in the book, they go back so far, just this disconnect and what it means.
ER: It’s kinda like, after Lyndon Johnson came in the ’60s, everybody kinda turned their back on Appalachia. It’s not West Coast, it’s not East Coast, so you have undereducated poor people who have no political representation and so they’re very easy to exploit. The coal industry figured that out.
LEO: Bill Caylor once told me that mountaintop removal is “sustainable development,” a reference to reclaimed mine sites where things like golf courses and pastures are developed where mountains used to be. “In 50 years, you will have use for this land. You cannot use the steep hillsides.” Would you care to respond to that statement?
ER: What did he call it? Sustainable? Sustainable for what? It’s not sustainable for the two-thirds of songbirds on the Cumberland Plateau who are in decline. It’s not sustainable for the people who live around these mine sites that have the health problems, who have to drive on these dangerous roads. There’s so many ways to respond to that question, because I’ve looked at 50-year-old mine sites that have been quote “reclaimed,” and there are no trees on them, there’s no water on them; it’s still just nothing but grass growing in rubble. The idea that you would replace a mixed mesophytic forest with a monoculture is an extremely arrogant thing to do. You can build a golf course up there, even though nobody in Eastern Kentucky plays golf, and you can even put houses up there, but to call that sustainable development — if nobody wants the real estate, it’s not real estate. There’s so much abandoned mine land now that the federal government doesn’t even count the acreage. There are some flat sites where — there’s the Wal-Mart, there are some strip malls. Sure, a little flat land is good in the mountains. But to have so much flat land that you could move the city of Louisville and put it on the top of a mountain, that’s another matter, because you really have destroyed an entire ecosystem.
An alarming rate of destruction
LEO: You talk about there being two ways to think about mountains: as something to be conquered and something to be revered. What is your sense of how society at large thinks about a mountain?
ER: Obviously right now we think about it as something to be conquered, at least as Americans we do. Though mythologically, the mountaintop has always been where laws came from, where wisdom came from. Many indigenous cultures would go to the mountaintops because they thought they were sacred. There has been historically a reverence for mountains — I think we see it in Eastern art and some Western art.
As Americans, we never seem to — we’re contradictory people because we do protect wilderness and we do pass environmental laws, and yet we don’t seem to have that spiritual connection to the land that you see in a lot of other cultures. And so it becomes very easy to treat it as a natural resource. I think as Americans we lean more toward the idea that it’s something to be conquered, though it’s interesting because when I go around and show people pictures of this, their response is, “My god, that’s awful. I didn’t know that was happening. You can’t tear off the tops of mountains. It’s just not right.” You have this visceral response that it’s just not right. So I think we still, on some archetypal level, feel that mountains are something to be revered.
LEO: What about how society thinks of a person who reveres mountains?
ER: Part of the problem of the environmental movement is, all you have to do is call somebody a tree-hugger and you’ve immediately alienated them, they have no political clout, they have little public power. That’s one of the things that’s interesting to me about this bridging with mainstream Christians — those people cannot be alienated in this culture.
I think what has to happen is we have to get past this idea that someone is an environmental-ist. Because everybody’s an environmentalist — we all breathe air, we all drink water, it all comes from the same place. This idea is that an environmentalist is somebody who’s over there and we’re over here, and the reality is it’s one environment, it’s one planet. We are destroying it at an alarming rate. I think what’s going to have to happen very soon is everybody’s going to realize that on some level they’re an environmentalist, even if they don’t care at all about mountains. They want clean water, they want clean air; they don’t want hurricanes ripping the roofs off their houses every year.
LEO: One of the concepts you refer to a number of times is the idea of forest intelligence and the natural economy. Can you talk about that just for a minute, and also how that relates to the traditional American human economy?
ER: A strip mine causes erosion and a forest prevents erosion; a strip mine contributes to the release of carbon in the air and a forest sequesters carbon from the air; a strip mine creates polluted water and a forest naturally cleans water. And so everything that an industrial economy can’t do, a natural economy can do, and it does it for free.
In New York City, rather than build a hugely expensive water purification system, they reforested the Catskills instead, and it was much cheaper. Now the Catskills are going to clean the water for free. So you have a natural economy that does all of these things that we don’t tend to value. You have an industrial economy that creates all these problems, yet when we think about progress we think about technology. We don’t think about the idea that moving towards a more nature-based economy is moving forward. When people like Wendell Berry put these positions forward, they get called anachronistic or naïve or old-fashioned or living in the past. But the reality is, that kind of thinking about conservation, about alternative energy, is a conversation we’re going to have to have in the very near future if we’re going to make it into the 22nd century.
That’s why I think the idea of natural intelligence is important. And I also think it has religious connotations that people can relate to, whether they’re creationists or evolutionists. Ecology, in a way, you can say is a mystic — everything is interconnected. That’s just a rule in ecology, that everything is interconnected. You can talk about it in a scientific sense or you can talk about it in a spiritual sense, but you’re really talking about the same thing. I think that’s an interesting angle to pursue.
LEO: Yet here we are: You cite one statistic — more than 2,000 square miles of Appalachian forest will be eliminated in the next decade. That’s a staggering figure.
ER: Yes. They’re saying now — it could be more, it’s increasing more rapidly. They’re saying by 2010 the size of the state of Delaware will have been mountaintopped. If you’ve seen it from a plane, you realize that statistic is right-on. If it were here and there, not many people would be concerned about it. But the one little mountain I wrote about, Lost Mountain, is just a microcosm of what’s going on across Central Appalachia. And the fact that we’re turning such a biologically diverse broadleaf forest into something that just looks like the desert is staggering.
LEO: You also talk about the terminology of the coal industry — words such as reclamation, overburden, fill, flyrock, spoil — as “Orwellian slipknots.” What are those words meant to represent, and what do they actually mean?
ER: Well, they’re meant to obscure and obfuscate what’s really happening, like all of the rhetoric that comes out of the Bush administration is meant to do. It’s like the term “collateral damage.” You say collateral damage because you don’t want to say innocent, dead children. It turns something into an abstraction rather than explaining concretely what it really is, which is why I call it Orwellian.
Overburden is a forest, it’s topsoil, it’s everything that’s part of a watershed. But if you turn it into a rather comic euphemism and call it overburden, then it just sounds kind of benign: It’s like, well, it’s a burden to the coal. We need to relieve the coal of the burden of this forest! (laughing) Flyrock’s another comic book term. This is the thing that children have been hit with because of the blasting. These are all just phrases that are used to obscure what’s really going on.
The human economy of coal
LEO: Talk about the shell game that some of these coal companies — or maybe all of these companies — are playing to shirk their responsibilities to “reclaim” mine sites once they’re finished.
ER: Basically what happens is, a coal company has to put up bond money before they start stripping so that if they go out of business or whatever happens, that bond money will be used to reclaim the site. But an anonymous source from the Office of Surface Mining told me that the bond money is never enough to do the reclamation, and the companies know this, so a lot of them will simply mine the site, go into bankruptcy and then forfeit the bond. That way they can — because they’re incorporated — they don’t have to lose any of their assets, they can simply take those assets and start up a new coal company, call it something else, and they’re back in business again. What happens is there’s never enough money to reclaim these sites. On a federal level, the Abandoned Mine Land Fund is — the federal government wants to hold onto that to pay down the deficit, and so that money doesn’t get released to reclaim these abandoned sites unless there’s imminent danger. If it looks like a boulder’s about to roll, they’ll reclaim it. Otherwise, they don’t.
LEO: How do they continue to get away with this?
ER: The coal industry makes huge contributions to mainly the Republican Party. Republicans nominate very conservative judges for the Circuit Courts. When a case was brought against the National Mining Association saying we should be able to seize their assets if they declare bankruptcy, the 4th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the industry and said you don’t have the right to seize their assets. That’s what really frustrates people: You would think it’d be enough to have the law on your side, and even when you do have the law on your side, you can’t get it enforced, or — as an example with the Clean Water Act — a key provision of it gets rewritten to allow the companies to dump waste into the streams.
It seems to me that, it’s like the scene in “Hotel Rwanda” where the Don Cheadle character says, “Nobody’s going to come help us.” We have to shame people into doing the right thing. I think it’s almost the same thing with this: the politicians and the coal operators have to be shamed into doing the right thing.
LEO: One statistic you cite is that mining accounts for 4,000 jobs in the 30 counties of Eastern Kentucky, which is 130 jobs per county. That seems really small compared to the rhetoric they’re using.
ER: I think that’s the reason the counties that have the most surface mining are the poorest counties, because surface mining does not bring jobs. It takes jobs away from underground miners. As we saw in the Sago tragedy, you risk your life going underground to mine coal in this country, and you’ll get black lung if you live. Neither seems like a particularly good employment opportunity.
What’s going to have to happen, ideally, is that the conversation shifts, and we start talking about reforestation as an industry. This idea that we need coal, that coal is the only option, and that industry will follow coal; all of those things are lies. Industry won’t follow coal. When the coal is gone, it’s gone. All you’re left with is a completely toxic environment. I really think things like the Appalachian Reforestation Initiative and the idea that the new jobs are going to be in alternative energies and in cleaning up the environment, I think once you really start thinking about the true cost of coal in terms of the environment and peoples’ health and global warming, you realize this is not cheap energy. This is very expensive energy. And alternatives — the technology’s there, we know it’s there, but this is the energy that gets millions of dollars in subsidies, not alternative energy. We need to have this very quick shift away from that kind of thinking.
LEO: You also suggest the possibility that coal companies are keeping Appalachia poor — that seems pretty obvious — but that it was designed this way. You don’t go all the way and say it’s a conspiracy, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it is. Do you believe that it is?
ER: What I do in the book is I try to show examples that make it look obvious that it is. I quote one activist, Terri Blanton, who says, “They kept our schools poor. They kept us poor. They kept other industries out” so that there would always be this cheap labor for coal. It does look like, there wasn’t one person who sat down and said this is what’s going to happen, but it does seem like — we know this is a very manipulative, intimidating, powerful industry that’s used to getting its way. There seems to be a lot of evidence that the companies and the industry really has kept the people poor and kept the people thinking coal is the only answer.
LEO: How do you think coal companies perceive the people who live in Eastern Kentucky? One gets the idea that they think they’re a bunch of rubes.
ER: There was — I can’t remember what coal company it was — a coal executive wrote that internal memo saying we need to get Hispanic peoples working the mines, because Eastern Kentuckians are just a bunch of drug-addled lazy people. The industry talks proudly about miners when it’s in their interest to do so, when you have a mine disaster or that kind of thing. But the industry has never willfully done anything to make the conditions of miners better. It’s always been unions or activists or environmental groups doing it. I think there’s this real feeling that life is cheap in Appalachia, and that’s why MSHA doesn’t enforce the law, that’s why you had Sago. It’s this idea that these people are damaged goods, they’ve dumped garbage at their headwater streams, they run straight pipes into their streams; they’ve already shit in their own backyard, so why not go in there and strip it? Yeah, there are isolated groups of people who, because they’re so poor, have had to do that. But there’s also massive amounts of people who hunt these mountains, they’ve gathered ginseng and herbs here their entire life. There’s this rich tradition of the independent freethinking mountaineer who’s not a rube at all.
LEO: Let’s talk about Sago for a second. That’s really gotten some of these issues on some people’s radars who may have not been thinking about them before. For my part, I think it’s a little sad that it seems to take something like that to get some national recognition, some kind of tragic storyline.
ER: It seems like that’s the American way. When you have an overloaded coal truck killing a person here, here, here, in isolated cases, it doesn’t make any national news, but when 12 people die in one place, that makes the national news. What it’s shown is how corrupt the Bush administration has been in terms of putting in places of regulation people who come from the industry, have no interest at all in regulating the industry, in fact have an interest in deregulating the industry, and so things like Sago happen. What I’m hoping comes out of Sago, if we can keep it in our consciousness long enough, is to have a real conversation about conservation and alternative energy.
What Sago really shows is that the way we mine coal in this country is just criminal, it’s unhealthy, it’s not a sustainable economy or industry. One thing my book has given me the opportunity to do is have this little platform where I can say to people, go buy five compact fluorescent bulbs, buy an Energy Star refrigerator if you can afford it. Do these things that will really cut your household’s use of and dependence on coal. The other thing is, there just has to be this push very soon for sustainable alternative energies.
LEO: Part of the irony in the idea of buying these light bulbs and Energy Star appliances is that it actually does save money, where I’d say the majority of Americans, the altar they worship at the most is their wallets. Yet people still seem to be resistant.
ER: And the other irony is that it’s not even inconvenient — the refrigerator’s just as good, the light’s just as good. This whole thing that Americans are lazy and dependent on convenience — you can still have your convenience and that sort of thing. There’s just been such resistance by the fossil fuel industry, to keep people from realizing that an Energy Star refrigerator can boost your efficiency by 96 percent. That’s just amazing. Why wouldn’t you buy that? Or why wouldn’t you buy a filter-less hot water heater that doesn’t heat the water all the time but just when you’re using it? It’s just common sense. I don’t know if it’s because we as a nation are resistant to change. I think a lot of it is just the way the industry has manipulated politicians and the public into just business as usual.
To be continued …