“On the last day of the world,” wrote W.S. Merwin in his poem “Place,” “I would want to plant a tree.” Over the last few months, I’ve often felt like that last day is hastening toward us.
The Trump administration and the Republican Congress are pushing us ever more quickly toward an uninhabitable world by rejecting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his regulation of tailpipe pollution and by replacing — in the words of Kentucky activist Mick McCoy — government watchdogs with guard dogs from the fossil fuel industry.
Ten years ago I marched with McCoy and thousands of others as we surrounded the Environmental Protection Agency in D.C., shouting: “EPA, do your job!” We wanted tighter protection of Appalachian streams from the strip-mining waste that was causing irreversible health problems for families living near those streams. And under the Obama administration, we got that in the form of the EPA’s Stream Protection Rule. But it came far too late, and under the Congressional Review Act, Trump quickly tossed it on the slag heap just as he proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget. Now if McCoy and I were to revive that D.C. march, we’d have to chant: “EPA, keep your job!”
So what to do? Like many people, I have struggled to figure out an appropriate response to the Trump presidency — a way to personally, collectively and productively move forward. I always return to the same question: how can despair and frustration get converted into something positive and useful?
I’ve done my share of marching, and I’m sure I’ll do much more in the coming years. It will be crucial. But alongside that physical resistance that shouts No, I wanted to find a complimentary and affirmative course of action. That searching led me back to a place I’ve often gone — the left-behind strip mines of Eastern Kentucky.
On Earth Day, April 22, a collective of creative people organized under the banner Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation will gather on one such former mine — to plant trees. As these saplings grow, they will sequester carbon to fight climate change, up to 22 tons of carbon in one tree’s lifetime. They will prevent flooding that has been greatly exacerbated by strip mining. They will purify air and streams, hold soil in place and provide habitat for 250 different songbirds whose populations are in decline throughout the Cumberland Plateau due largely, again, to surface mining.
Anyone who has seen aerial images of mountaintop removal mining knows what a scar it has left on the land, and by extension on the people of Appalachia. Groups involved in reforestation efforts are now beginning to heal those wounds. The nonprofit organization Green Forests Work (GFW), which began at the University of Kentucky in 2011, has planted well over a million native trees on degraded mine sites and is generously funding our initial planting. For future events, we hope to partner with many other groups across Kentucky, including schools, churches, clubs and anyone else who wishes to become involved. (I can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Together, we as citizens can do the work that the Trump administration and the McConnell Congress will not to fight climate change and clean our own state’s air and water. As a writer, I am inspired by Merwin’s 40-year project to plant 3,000 indigenous palm trees on 20 badly abused acres around his home in Maui, Hawaii. Together we, in one day, hope to plant 5,000 trees on 10 acres of strip-mined land in Eastern Kentucky. And that will only be the beginning.
Six of our state’s finest writers — Silas House, George Ella Lyon, Bobbie Ann Mason, Bianca Spriggs, Richard Taylor and Maurice Manning — will come together for a reading at Al’s Bar at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 15, to raise funds for further plantings, travel expenses and other operating costs. Proceeds (a $5 donation) will also help establish Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Another poet, W.H. Auden wrote, “A culture is no better than its woods.” This country’s thirst for “cheap” energy in the form of coal has ravaged the mountains and forests of Eastern Kentucky. It is time to begin the hard but rewarding work of creating a culture that is worthy of its woods.
Erik Reece is the author of five books of nonfiction, including “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness” (Riverhead).
Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation
7 p.m. Saturday, April 15
Al’s Bar, 601 North Limestone, Lexington
Short readings by Kentucky writers, music by Warren Byrom, Ron Penn
$5 at the door