Op-Ed

Coal strips a culture, not just forest and hills

From left, Sen. Ray Jones, Rep. Leslie Combs, Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford, Gov. Steve Beshear, Kentucky Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini and Rep. Keith Hall spoke with reporters after the latest flash floods ravaged Pike County.
From left, Sen. Ray Jones, Rep. Leslie Combs, Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford, Gov. Steve Beshear, Kentucky Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini and Rep. Keith Hall spoke with reporters after the latest flash floods ravaged Pike County.

In Pike County, the belly of the beast of Appalachia, both the landscape and the politicians are impervious, and the people are nervish, a word mountain people shamelessly made up to add severity to an existing word.

After the serpent brought us knowledge, we do not make up words much nowadays and run the risk of running out.

The mountain people are nervish over fashion issues. First, what do you wear when they make you sit all day in the courthouse door with a big sign saying you shoplifted at Wal-Mart? If you dress up too much, like for church, you run the risk of not being considered a valid shoplifter by passersby. If you wear a halter top, you run the risk that people will not notice the sign.

The second biggest fashion issue, and this one seems to be coming up a whole lot, is what do the impervious wear to inspect, empathize, declare and promise help to those who have lost relatives or their stuff to high water, unheard of and unexplained merely by the amount of rain?

The governor can't wear a big suit and Italian shoes to mud slides, and you don't want to look stupid in a raincoat like some Cape Cod oysterman. Do you wear a regular shirt, unbuttoned at the top, risking a photo-op for a neck flap, or do you get one of those blue denim cowboy shirts with snap buttons like Paul Patton used to wear when a coal company had put a few hundred out of their homes.

We have a pattern now, and all of us not homeless get over floods and mud slides pretty quick. The governor flies in, a graceful helicopter gliding over thousands and thousands of acres of denuded artificial mesas, which hold water about as well as a kitchen table.

He is surrounded at all times by a gaggle of impervious local officials, who insulate rather than inform him.

In our routine post-disaster production, the governor declares a disaster, sort of makes if official. In flood stories pre-written like obits, the media will show some humble woman being thankful for being alive, even though she now owns nothing.

The next day, the best in people comes out. Good people will donate, and that makes you feel pretty good about a flood. There will be heart-rending film of cheap trailers now mangled, houses in the road, three feet of mud in the kitchen. Thank God the Oreos were on the top of the cabinet.

The last act of our outdoor drama is to promise to build back bigger than ever, to just go on.

Not one syllable, nary, as Happy Chandler used to say, a jot or tittle, will be devoted to asking whether a really big rain, an act of God if there ever were one, would have caused all this without the aid and assistance of a mining process that removes a spongy forest floor and leaves the impervious, its slough being spilled rapidly into watersheds whose headwaters are giant fills of inner earth.

If that question was asked by the governor, the answers he would gather from those with him in photo-ops would be lies. The simple answer, sir, is that water runs faster off a table top than it does off a table top with some dishrags on it.

The fact that Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia and other places are in the throes of the worst environmental disaster in American history, and people outside the area do not know the extent and fullness of it, is sad.

Our private and public media treat strip mining as though for every minute you devote to reporting it, you have to allow some public relations guy an equal minute to lie, lies which the media cannot challenge in a sound bite.

Extreme weather is now an every-year thing. Every year is either the rainiest, hottest, coldest, driest or something, and that is not caused by strip mining, but by the burning of its product, which if left in the ground long enough will turn to diamonds.

If our culture gets washed and hauled away, can it be restored by donations?

After the mountains are removed, let's make up one more word to name our place.

We'll call it Perfidia.

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