More Dispatches From The Coal War

photograph via The Rural Blog

On Wednesday The Rural Blog shared the above image and it’s story: this week a coal industry golf event in Prestonburg, Kentucky was adorned with this billboard-size reproduction–paid for by “an anonymous donor.” It’s in response to Ms. Judd’s comments to The National Press Club last month, when she described Mountain Top Removal practices as “the rape of Appalachia.” The Rural Blog’s discussion of both this event and her preceding comments also features video links to her speech, as well as local media reports of Kentuckians’ reactions. 
The site-specific nature of the billboard is in reference to a comment made by Judd (a self-proclaimed hillbilly) about the very golf course hosting the event, which was built upon ground reclaimed and reshaped after a mining operation. Ms. Judd told the assembled journalists “I’m not too keen on reinforcing stereotypes about my people, but I don’t know many hillbillies who golf.” As someone who has golfed a few times on a reclaimed golf course near my hometown, I’m less sure about that: I prefer those manicured sloped to the unreclaimed gaping pits which moat our family farm on three sides. Yet, this much is true of the reclamation ground in my home county: very little other than fairway greens and shallow pastures can be sustainably grown on them. 
The more universal regional issue here, if you read through The Rural Blog’s analysis and peruse online comments, is to some extent an argument of outsiders vs. insiders that permeates so many issues in rural arts and culture, from the debate over extractive industries to the field recordings of John Cohen. Is Ms. Judd really a “hillbilly,” really a “Kentuckian?” Does her acting experience give her any purchase to criticize an industry that is providing jobs and services to local economies? Why should people who live far from the hills of Appalachia (and reap the benefits of Mountain Top Removal everyday) feel as if they can impose their politics and their philosophical standards upon these communities? 
To argue against Mountain Top Removal and ignore the regional, cultural and economic dynamics of this debate is to propagate a such an insider – outsider binary that only ensures that the practice will continue. This is an instance where the rural communities devastated by this practice need their urban counterparts to not only help them, but, even more importantly, to understand them. Ms. Judd seems to speak to this in a recent blog post from OnEarth, a news site for the Natural Resources Defense Council:
The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest in North America; they may well be the oldest mountains in the entire world.  Peaks and ridges so ancient that geologists call them – rather poetically, I think – “deep time.”  Mountaintop removal only happens here; on no other mountain range in the United States would it be allowed to happen.  Indeed, it is utterly inconceivable that the Smokies would be blasted, the Rockies razed, the Sierra Nevadas flattened – that bombs the equivalent to Hiroshima would be detonated every single week for the past three decades.  The fact that the Appalachians are the Appalachians makes this environmental genocide possible and permissible.
The emphasis here is my own: as a country we would be well-served to examine our relationship and dependence on Appalachia. Though part of the most powerful democracy in human history, so much of mainstream America’s relationships to this place is of a nearly-colonial nature–we extract it’s resources while avoiding commensurate investments in the region, and we obscure Appalachia in either a media blackout or in ugly and abiding stereotypes. You can read this between the lines of the online commenters arguing that Coal Keeps The Lights On!: they resent the opinions of folks from the outside urban (and, for the sake of the analogy, imperial) centers. 
The first step forward should be recognizing that the people from the Appalachian region have good reason for this resentment. The second step: think about how we can invest in communities, how we can propagate sustainable local economies in place of this extractive industry. We can I Love Mountains, No More Moutnaintop Removal and Appalshop to learn more this facet of the discussion.
Wendell Berry has for many years been arguing that our investments in the environment only succeed when we are equal caretakers of our communities and our families. The sad companion piece to the ugly bit of billboard above is this news, also reported on The Rural Blog, The Daily Yonder and elsewhere, that Mr. Berry is removing his archives from The University of Kentucky.