Hollowed Ground

Spring, like many things in the Coal River Valley, is a lesson in patience. The mountains’ steep spines cast shadows over the hollows and delay the season’s early growth. Buds sprout along the ridges first, inking their way toward the peaks. May apples emerge, and the beeches and maples open their leaves, thin and limp, to fill the spaces between the evergreens—hemlock, low, prickly holly, and the rhododendron that crowd the mountain’s base. Then edibles push through the leaf layer: fiddleheads, quick to uncurl into ferns; morel mushrooms the locals call “molly moochers”; ginseng root, dug later in the season and sold to Chinese retailers for a high price; and ramps, pungent onions gleaned by the thousands and fried up for community gatherings—the Appalachian version of spaghetti dinners.

I learned all this from locals like Chuck Nelson and Wiley, who, since the day they could shoot a gun, followed their fathers into the woods to track deer or wild turkey. Like most of the people I met in the Valley, they prided themselves on knowing the woods, and they loved the land for what it gave them. They had lived in the Valley their whole lives, as had many generations before, tracing back to the escaped indentured servants who settled the region. They seemed to cling to their ancestry like many first-generation Americans—or anyone, for that matter, who feared their roots could be forgotten or misunderstood.

There was a good deal of truth to their fears. On Sundays, when the mines were closed, my housemates and I would take four-wheelers up onto Coal River Mountain to visit some of the strip sites. The way up was narrow and rocky, edged on both sides by briars and old-growth trees. At the confluence of two ridges, we’d turn south, past an abandoned log home, and emerge into a clear-cut forest and then the craterous mine. Hundred-foot walls of rock rimmed the basin above us, layered with foot-high seams of coal. The mine had left a coarse, gravel surface, sprouting with boulders and dry grass. Below us, the ground dropped off into another walled basin, filled with sludge and dammed at its end by a loose, rock embankment. Whatever had been there before—trees, topsoil, homesteads, cemeteries—wouldn’t grow back for a very long time.

I’ve walked out onto many more strip mines since this one, and each time I do, I think of a remark my friend made when she came to visit me in Appalachia. This place, she told me, looked war torn, as if artillery had erased the stories once embedded in the land. I had lived in other places similarly stripped of their cultural and ecological memory; even in Vermont, 19th-century settlers had leveled the woodlands once inhabited by the Abenaki to build and heat their homes, opening the sparse land to grazing and erosion. On the topsoil that remained, the woods grew back, a little unhealthy, scattered with new artifacts—saw blades, wall stones, oxen yolks, maple taps, plow teeth—the kinds of souvenirs hung over mantels and propped among flower beds.

Some argue the Southern Appalachians will recover just as well. Companies, by federal law, must put back the mountain to its “approximate original contour.” But that’s after they’ve buried the topsoil under the bedrock. It’s like felling a tree, plucking off the buds, carving out the core, and nailing it back to the stump. It’s the sort of work that can’t be undone.

Nor could I ignore it. My own tap water ran black on mornings after a hard rain, swirling with sediments washed into the Coal River from the mine above Rock Creek Hollow. When the air was right, I could feel the blasts. In the midst of all this, I found my neighbors’ resilience most remarkable. I went line dancing more out of a need to hear the light-hearted banter than to learn the steps. I attended public hearings on new mining permits to see Chuck Nelson and other locals make their case. Many times they were cut short by facilitators from the state environmental agency or harassed off the podium by Massey men and women.

Some days, I tried convincing myself that the Valley was like my own home, a small gravel-mining town on New York’s Rensselaer Plateau. It looked similar, anyway: twisted mountains, hardwood forests, silted streams, and defunct trailers scattered among neat, brick houses. But my relief, in the end, came from knowing I would soon return north to finish school.

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