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In Mountain Top Removal, Which Side Are You On?

In Mountain Top Removal, Which Side Are You On?

In the 1940s, a tiny woman named Florence Reece wrote "Which Side Are You On?" She sang it at rallies throughout the coalfields to protest the severe suffering miners of the time faced-the unsafe mines, poor living conditions and unfair wages. It was the union's theme song, a rallying cry that helped workers organize and live a better life.
Mrs. Reece's song has stayed alive through many adaptations throughout the world, and recently it has returned to its origins in the coalfields of Appalachia. Here, as the mountains have come tumbling down, citizens have raised up this song as a protest to the job loss, water loss and sheer, enormous loss of mountains to a mining practice called mountaintop removal. In this form of mining, huge machines remove hundreds of feet of trees, soil and rock just to reach an 18-inch seam of coal. One mine is easily the size of Manhattan, and all of the mines together soon will be the size of Delaware. It is a destruction so vast that it is visible from the moon and impossible to imagine even when you see it.
I have seen these un-mountains, witnessed the skyline descend blast by blast, and I have sung "Which Side Are You On?" to protest mountaintop removal mining.
But the song is wrong, and so was I to sing it. There are no sides.
Sure, there are the haves and the have-nots, the coalmine operators and the environmental activists; the neighbors suffering from poor health, damaged houses, and ruined wells just because they live below these mines and the city-dwellers miles away ignorant of their sin as they flick on a light and siphon off more electricity, draw down the mountain just a little more. From this point of view, the sides are easy to see, the line in the soil well marked.
But the ground shifts, forces you to climb a little higher before the higher is destroyed, to get a good last look from a peak that won't exist in a few months. And from this new perspective you see that there is only one view, one sky, one sun, one earth. There are no sides.
Yes, we must speak out to stop mountain top "removal," to tell the world our mountains should be added to the endangered species list. And we should reconsider the innocuous term "removal." We remove a splinter from a finger with tweezers, we don't cut off the whole finger, and yet that wholesale butchery is what gets glossed over with this word "removal."
Whatever we call it, I can't protest mountaintop "removal" without also making changes in how I live-no one can. "Blow up the TV," sings John Prine, and I'd add the clothes dryer to that as well. Turn off the AC, use efficient light bulbs, and "eat a lot of peaches," as Prine preaches.
The citizens fighting mountaintop removal preach that we all live downstream and they're right, in part. This mining practice causes drastic flooding because the rain-retaining trees and topsoil are destroyed and the waterways filled in. Instead of a spongy layer of duff, nothing holds the water as it gathers momentum to wash out hollows, valleys, villages, and cities, the increased flooding literally affecting millions of people.
But we all live upstream also. We consumers and our demand for "cheap" electricity are the source of this coal-river. We don't want to know the origin of coal, or that we ignorantly pay to destroy mountains older than all of humankind.
Fifty percent of our electricity comes from coal. Every light switch, every dial on the air conditioner, every TV remote control bears the mark of our fingers. We are all guilty of cutting down the mountains and every time we fingerprint one of these switches, we book ourselves and all of our future generations to an impoverished life spent in a mountain-less prison of our own making.
There are no sides.

Jim Minick teaches English at Radford University, writes a column for the Roanoke Times New River Current and is author of Finding a Clear Path, a book of essays.

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service

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