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Why do we watch silently as a great American landscape is erased in pursuit of coal?

A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness
by Erik Reece
Riverhead Books, 250 pp., $24.95

reviewed by Fenton Johnson

Reporting on eastern Kentucky for the New York Times Magazine in the early 1990s, I spoke with John Tate, an engineer with Cypress Mountain Coals and the mining employee locals identified as the region's most environmentally conscious strip miner. Tate offered familiar arguments in support of strip mining: the taxes it returns to local governments, the flat land it creates for economic development, a description of golf courses and Canada geese occupying lands once home to nothing more than hardwood forests and native species. Then his voice took on a religious fervor. "We're leaving the land far better than it was prior to mining," he said. "I have tremendous faith in the power of technology. I believe in Pollyanna. I believe in Horatio Alger."

Fifteen years later, Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness presents a passionate and long-overdue look at what Pollyanna has wrought. From September 2003 to September 2004 Erik Reece ignored "No Entry" signs to hike the flanks of Lost Mountain, which opens his book as a fine specimen of North America's oldest and most ecologically diverse forest environment and ends it as a harsh, blackened tableland. Step by step Reece chronicles "mountaintop removal," common throughout the Appalachian coal fields, in which energy companies blast and bulldoze forests, topsoil, and bedrock -- labeled, with no apparent irony, "spoil" -- into the adjacent valleys in order to access the coal underneath. Federal law requires that these denuded moonscapes be "reclaimed," but that process generally involves little more than the planting of non-native grasses. This flat grassland is prone to subsidence and often leaches toxic minerals into groundwater and streams.

Lost Mountain compiles an impressive array of statistics and history refuting energy companies' contention that strip mining benefits surrounding communities. In 1991 company and government officials told me that the region needed only better roads and more flat land to blossom. Now modern highways reach almost every county in Kentucky, and mining has flattened vast acreages, but the region remains as poor as ever. Counties with the greatest concentrations of strip mines are consistently among the most distressed. The majority of the taxes paid on the mined coal never returns to the region. Nearly half of Kentucky's streams are too polluted for drinking, fishing, or swimming, with mine runoff the leading culprit. As for reclamation, Reece documents how large energy corporations create shadow companies that post the bond the law requires, strip the land, and then disappear, forfeiting the bond money -- usually inadequate for any meaningful reclamation -- as the price of doing business.

Reece quotes the Kentucky essayist Guy Davenport, who once wrote that "distance negates responsibility." Corporations headquartered in faraway cities extract the wealth and vanish, leaving local communities "with cracked foundations, a contaminated creek, poisoned wells, and steep slopes that pour down mud when it rains." Even environmentalists can seem complacent about the destruction of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Reece identifies Tampa Electric, praised in a recent OnEarth article for its single clean-burning coal gasification plant, as "one of the most negligent mountaintop removal outfits in Appalachia." He writes, "A nation of editorialists can get exercised about the environmental consequences of drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve, but the much more destructive effects of mountaintop removal seem nowhere near their radar."

Lost Mountain portrays the complicity and duplicity of both the energy companies and the government in this destruction, but as Reece takes pains to point out, coal companies are only servicing consumers' demands. Electricity consumption in the United States has risen 70 percent in the past 20 years, as our desire for electric-powered gadgets has soared and suburbs filled with inefficiently powered homes have continued to sprawl.

"Who is destroying the mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia? It isn't the coal companies. It's us," says Richard Olson, director of the sustainability and environmental studies program at Berea College in central Kentucky. Under Olson's direction, the college created Ecovillage, an energy-saving student housing complex intended to make the school less dependent on coal. Unlike reclamation, Ecovillage addresses the root of the problem -- our unthinking presumption of cheap, unlimited energy.

In 1963, Harry Caudill's landmark book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, brought about the first great wave of national shame over the rape of Appalachia. That book owed its impact less to facts and figures than to the power of Caudill's writing, which was motivated by outrage and grief. Reece backs his arguments with numbers, but he too is most successful when he writes from the heart. Consider his early encounter with the mountain, forested by an evolving mix of oak, beech, and hickory: "Three different communities of highly diverse trees would eventually agree on a silent charter about how best to inhabit these elevations. But that's not going to happen here." Less than a year later, he records a very different scene:

[T]he entire eastern ridgeside . . . is gone. All of the vegetation has been shaved away and a dozer has cut a long scar all the way up to the summit. The oak-pine forest that once surrounded the mountaintop is now a narrow strip of trees. What was once a gently sloping ridgetop is now a long vertical rockface, dropping hundreds of feet and jutting out over the gray shelves below.

Reece is a preacher's grandson born in a storytelling state, and he illustrates his points as often with anecdotes as with statistics. He portrays the heroic work of Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector Jack Spadaro, whose whistle-blowing in the investigation of a catastrophic coal slurry spill in 2001 brought him into conflict with Bush administration appointees and led to his demotion and transfer. We meet Teri Blanton, one of the local activists behind the Stream Saver Bill, introduced in the Kentucky legislature to force companies to protect the watersheds in which they mine. Although the proposal faces a stiff battle from the coal industry, it holds promise because it takes as its constituency not the voiceless mountains but the residents of downstream cities -- with votes and money -- whose water originates (and is polluted) in mine country. "You're not an outsider," Blanton tells Reece. "We all live downstream."

We all live downstream. In his conclusion Reece recognizes the hope that lies in embracing this truth. He makes clear that laws and regulations, although prone to failure at the hands of corrupt officials, are important in providing the possibility of recourse in the courts. More persuasive is his argument that we must come to a religious -- or, if you prefer, philosophical -- understanding of our place on the planet. Rather than continue creating irreparable problems, then wringing our hands when they resist our solutions, Reece suggests that we learn from Aldo Leopold's advice to "think like a mountain." In this case that would entail more widely applying the lessons of Ecovillage, which teach that a healthy culture and a healthy planet begin with each of us, in a life "based not on commercial influences but on a more direct, intuitive combination of knowledge, passion, and responsibility." Lost Mountain describes both legislative and philosophical solutions, though by now the outcome of depending exclusively on government or corporate agencies is sadly evident. Both science and history underscore the message of our wisdom traditions: The earth will return to us exactly as we have sowed, and any culture that so carelessly violates it has earned its fate.

Living Green
Open Space

Reviewed in this Issue
Lost Mountain
The Weather Makers
American Green

The Wild Indoors

Diorama of an Alaskan brown bear
Diorama of an Alaskan brown bear

Before the age of television and the Internet, the sight of a wild beast in its natural habitat, free from P. T. Barnum's shackles, was known only to the few who could afford grand expeditions to faraway lands. In the mid-1800s, Barnum's fanciful American Museum in New York City was considered to be among the finest natural history collections around; for 25 cents visitors could see a live whale and Tom Thumb, too.

Barnum took his show on the road in 1868, and from the cultural void emerged the American Museum of Natural History. Since then its habitat dioramas have captivated visitors, including Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 established the first national bird refuge after seeing one of the museum's early bird exhibits. Windows on Nature (Harry N. Abrams, $40) celebrates such displays for their beauty, their educational value, and their role in inspiring a conservationist spirit. It tells the tale of great field scientists and artists who contributed to each diorama, including that of the Alaska brown bear, shown here in final form and partially complete. And yes, the fur is real: Taxidermists played an important role in the institution's history, though by the 1950s the museum had stopped sending out expeditions to capture animals for its splendid collection, engagingly captured here in both words and images.

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Fenton Johnson is the author of Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks (Houghton Mifflin). He was born and raised in rural Kentucky.

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council