Such testimonials to the richness of the cove soils contradict the national stereotype of poor, farmed-out mountain hills. Codified in Soil Conservation Service maps, this stereotype streamlines industry's access to coal. "Breaking New Ground," the title of the A.T. Massey Coal Company's public relations video, is thus ironically apt. The film celebrates the vision of F. Morgan Massey on his retirement. Massey's vision, according to the video, led him to influence clean air legislation, to stake out a sizeable share of the low-sulfur coal in West Virginia and Kentucky, and to establish a "union-free" climate for running coal. This vision, stunningly Faustian in character and in scope, is radically trans-forming the forests of the central Appalachian plateau.
The decisions that shape the landscape on Coal River are made in offices scattered around the country in offices of the Rowland land Company in Charleston and Pittsburgh, for instance; in Richmond, Virginia, where the A.T. Massey Coal Company is head- quartered; and in San Francisco, where its parent company, the multi-national Fluor Corporation is based. The devastated landscapes and dying forests they are producing embody what Marshall Berman, in his book All that is Solid Melts into Air, terms "Faustian creativity.
There can be no finer example of Faustian creativity than mountaintop removal. Devotees of the method emphasize the creative as-pects of reclamation and the greater good achieved for society as a whole. "As a result of mining in the mountaintop method," explained Roger Hall, assistant director of thc state's Division of Environmental Protection, "you've actually developed a lot of usable land which has some future potential for industrial and commercial use." This potential is laid out in Greenlands, the industry's glossy public relations magazine. One reclaimed site is a hay field. Another is a state-of-the-art golf course. Another has garnered an award from Ducks Unlimited for wet-lands reconstruction. The Princess Beverly Coal Company recently won the state's Mountaineer Guardian Award for reclamation planting on this plateau that included Siberian crabapple, deer tongue, silky dogwood, and Chinese chestnut…all non-native species.
The net result is a geometric patchwork interspersed with forested hills, which Lyntha Eiler and I toured by helicopter in the company of Benny Campbell, a mining inspector for the state's Department of Environmental Protection. All around us on the horizon we could pick out the rocky ribbons of exposed highwall, the emerald green laminated beneath the green veneer of lespedeza (commonly known as "saw grass"), the electric yellows and greens of catchment basins, the bright black ooze of slurry ponds, the chevrons of rock-lined drainage systems, and the switchback roads crisscrossing the stepped impoundments holding the valley fill. A biblical text popped into my mind: "Let the valleys he raised and the mountains laid low."
The piece de resistance here is the dragline, a technological wonder ten stories high, equipped with a 53-cubic-yard scoop. One of these machines is nicknamed "big John." "You gotta see it," says Campbell. "It's a big machine that removes rock and spoil and overburden so that the machinery can get into the coal seam itself and load the coal out." We viewed the dragline in operation on the Cabin Creek plateau, briskly dismantling mountains that were almost immediately being reassembled into a patchwork of precision- engineered curves and angles. I wondered how much ginseng gets bulldozed. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (ClTES), the law provides for stiff fines and possible incarceration of anyone caught with green ginseng in their possession out of season. Does this law criminalize the off-season removal of ginseng by the ton, in a region that supplies more than half of the nation's annual wild exports "They're not harvesting it," explained Bob Whipkey, who monitors the harvest and export of ginseng for the state's Division of Forestry. "They're destroying it, but the law only regulates the harvest." Conversing with me in the Rowland Land Company's plush quarters in Charleston, David Pollitt and his uncle Howard emphasize their contributions to community life through jobs the company has enabled over the past century, the many leases it provides very cheaply, and its donation of buildings for schools and land for a housing development for miners. "People complain about absentee landowners," said Howard Pollitt with unintended irony, "but without absentee landown-ers, there wouldn't even be a West Virginia." The land companies belong to an association, the National Council of Coal Lessors, which employs a full-time lobbyist to protect its members against the regulation of fossil fuels that are threatening the forest both through localized destruction and the long-range transport of air pollution.
Cemeteries are sacred enough that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act bans mining within 300 feet of them. People with family buried behind the company gates are permitted to visit the cemeteries, which form an archipelago of tiny preserves in the shifting Faustian sea. Once a year, on Memorial Day, when the cemeteries are alive with descendants cleaning and decorating graves, the gates at the Sundial prep plant are left open.
On that day the descendants of Belle Wilson drive through the open gate to tend their ancestral cemetery at Shumate's Branch. They converge from Washington, D.C., northern New jersey, Ohio, and elsewhere to hold their annual reunion and to honor loved ones buried on "Graveyard Hill." Many who tend the graves were dispersed when the Armco Corporation closed the mines at Edwight in the 1950s. People scat-tered north and south, to Ohio, New Jersey, and back to Alabama. Belle Wilson took the lumber from the Church of God and built a new home 60 miles away in Switzer, in Logan County. Beyond honoring their loved ones, one reason the family returns year after year is to ensure the survival of the cemetery. Tending cemeteries thus becomes a way of maintaining a place on a precarious landscape, of staving off cultural disappearance. Tending cemeteries is a way of ensuring the survival of public space, which is essential to the survival of' the civic commons. "If the world is to con-tain a public space," wrote the noted political scientist Hannah Arendt, "it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only, it must transcend the life-span of mortal men. There are many stories of cultural survival on Coal River. I see this survival as the continual staging of reappearance, of counteracting in-dustry's message that nothing really happens here. "Massey Coal came in and said, 'You don't exist,"' John Flynn once told me. On the appli-cation for the Shumate Creek Refuse Disposal Area, there is no indication that it was ever settled and farmed. The reclamation plan, for "forest and wildlife habitat," includes plantings of gray dogwood, European black alder, autumn olive, and Japanese bayberry…nitrogen-fixing species that may set the stage for the eventual return of native hardwoods. Then again, they may not. The impact of mountaintop re-moval on the mixed mesophytic system has yet to be addressed, though it should be a matter for public debate.
As a social and cultural institution with roots in antiquity, the com-mons predates the idea of private property. The ongoing process of converting commons into "resources" began in England during the Enlightenment. There the social and environmental effects of destroy-ing the commons included irreversible deforestation, degradation of soils and water, homelessness, and the emergence of the world's first industrial working class. Missing in the national environmental policy debate is any recognition of the geographic commons and its critical role in community life. As the object that both unites and separates those gathered around it, the commons sustains the public sphere. Violation of the geographic commons annuls the civic commons. "They're taking our dignity by de-stroying our forest," says Vernon Williams of Peachtree Creek. Neglect-ing the value of the commons and covering up the human costs, we, like Faust, continue to forge our pact with Mephistopheles. ~
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