But before too long, the clouds drifted away and the sun came out. By the end of my visit, the sky cleared, and I was able to see the mountains. The Seattle horizon is hemmed in by mountain ridges on two sides, the Olympics to the west and the Cascades to the east. On a particularly clear day, there it is looming above the city like some strange cloud itself--The Mountain, Mount Rainier.
To be cradled in these mountain ranges and even to hike among them during my trip was a joy. I grew up spending a great deal of time in a much older mountain range, the Appalachians.
The Appalachian mountains do not have the ragged peaks and jutting cliffs of the Cascades or the Olympics. Time has softened them. They roll down the eastern United States more gently but no less majestically.
But there are forces other than time and gravity and erosion that are grinding down the ancient peaks of Appalachia. The song “Black Mountain Lullaby” is set on the stage of mountaintop removal mining.
This practice removes coal by literally taking off the tops of mountains. It isn’t just destructive to the scenery; it hurts biodiversity in a region home to ancient species of plants. These species can’t recover even when the landscape is revegetated. Waste from mining sites in the form of dust and coal ash contaminates the air and the water—North Carolina has had its own struggle with coal ash spills just this year.
And there is a human cost that often remains hidden. Journalist Chris Hedges went to some of the poorest communities in the nation to learn about it.
In southern West Virginia, he heard stories of land taken or compromised by mountaintop mining—family cemeteries overrun by giant bulldozers; homes coated in dust losing 90% of their property value; towns hemorrhaging their populations until they are all but abandoned.
He heard stories of persistent health problems both directly and indirectly linked to mining—cancer; kidney problems; respiratory problems; depression; alcoholism; drug addiction.
And then there are stories like that of Jeremy Davidson. Jeremy is the 3-year-old boy to whom “Black Mountain Lullaby” is sung. One summer night in 2004, a bulldozer working on a mountaintop removal mine dislodged a half-ton boulder. It ripped free of the mountain, tumbled downhill, crashed through the wall of the Davidson home, and came to rest in little Jeremy’s bedroom, crushing him to death.
It is easy to make the coal companies out to be evil villains who destroy the environment, ruin the health of those living on coalfields, and kill innocent children. Caroline Herring calls “Black Mountain Lullaby” a murder ballad.
But, of course, the man operating the bulldozer that night did not go to work with intent to kill. He was inexperienced and working under poor conditions. The problem of mountaintop removal mining is not so simple. The coal companies are the only employers left in southern West Virginia, and so to oppose coal is to oppose jobs in a time and place where people are desperate for employment.
Inevitably, the conversation about mountaintop removal mining and about fossil fuels in general becomes political. Even Jeremy Davidson’s case was politicized; after a settlement was made with Jeremy’s family, they were required never to speak of his death again in public.
Besides Jeremy’s death itself, this was the worst part of the story for me. In times of tragedy and injustice, we must be able to share our stories. The Bible teaches us that one of the most crucial parts of grieving and seeking change is lament.
We must tell the story of Jeremy Davidson; we must tell the story of those whose homes and bodies are destroyed in Appalachia; we must tell the story of people and companies who by greed or necessity blind themselves to the consequences of their actions; we must tell the story of those who have no choice but to work under conditions that endanger themselves, the earth, and those around them.
In the Bible, mountains are holy places. They are places of revelation and providence. They hold a special place in the story of salvation.
Novelist and West Virginia native Denise Giardina said, “The mountains that have been destroyed still exist in the mind of God. Wherever God is, those mountains are.” The mountains still lives in the mind of God. Jeremy Davidson still lives in the mind of God. And this broken world is healed and held in the mind of God. Let us never stop telling the story of the mountains until they and we are all made whole. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell