by Alix Webb
Today (Friday, Jan. 12) I saw a site I will always remember – one of the few mountaintops in the area not owned by large mining companies. I think that all of us (46+) on this trip will remember witnessing the horror of this process together – the conclusion of our time together in Appalachia proper this week. One member of our group asked our host on this mountain-top, “What is the difference between strip-mining for coal and mountain-top-removal?” He thought for a few seconds an the said quickly, “Well, I guess strip mining is about taking coal away from the mountain . . . and mountain-top-removal is taking the mountain away from the coal.”
Larry took us from his property – the peak of a rolling West Virginia mountain that his family has lived on for 200 years, covered in trees that are certainly lushly green in the Spring (465 more acres used to be in their care, before unable to read, they signed them away for “a dollar and change for per acre”) – to a place he calls the Gates of Hell. The Gates of Hell are at the edge of this remaining mountain. Literally, the edge. As you look over a mountain ledge, you see – the death of mountains. You see rock, stripped. Bombed and blasted for the visible slim black seams. Blasts that bend the nails backwards in Larry’s home on his peak. You see 15 men (3 shifts/day) who in three years will be able to turn a mountain, one of the many in this ancient range that is now ceasing to exist, into piles of rock. I watched dump trucks carry dusty gravel from what was left of a top, down to the side of a ragged shelled out crevice, lift, and empty, a small avalanche of shards.
It takes 3,000 years to create 3 inches of top soil. It takes top soil to grow trees. It takes trees to create top soil. And as there are neither, the Gates of Hell bear witness to a vast land once recently green, once free, once tree-covered, once alive, now stripped, devoured, destroyed so that truly, according to all research, nothing will grow on it again.
I thought of the passages of Ruth we have been reading this week. I thought of what choice she had to make. The choices of women without. I thought of loosing a homeland.
I thought of the soup kitchen and food bank I visited on Wenesday where in the poorest district of OH, cars begin to line up the street at 4AM for the beginning of the handing out of the boxes of food staples at 8AM. Where on food bank days, in a period of two hours, 750 families stand in lines down the block to receive their packages. Where breakfast and lunch are made for 500 Head Start children every day. And from which 100’s of packets of food are sent home on Fridays with children who won’t have enough food on the weekends.
I think of my talk with a woman who lived on a ridge outside Philipi, West VA. She is native mixed-heritage as are all of “her kind” (as she calls her surrounding family) who are the inhabitants of this ridge. I thought of her story of her mother dropping dead in front of her last year at 42 years old when she’d come to visit her daughter in the air force – so proud of the only person on the ridge to ever achieve such a level of education and position.
I thought of her stories of the poverty of her people today. Of her own struggle to find a job now that her tour is done. I thought of driving with her through the hills seeing the land and the homes that her family has lived in and on for 100’s of years. The river she body-rafts down every summer with her mother and sons. Her favorite place in the forest. The way she knew just what to do in the projects when a woman she knew there (as our group filled out surveys with residents) was in serious distress – drool hanging out of an alchoholic, epileptic mouth.
I thought of all the facts and stories and people and lives of this week.
And I thought about something that has been bothering me for some time. For some time, I have struggled with the concept of evil.
I fear the term. I have fought against the idea that it exists. I am quick to anger at the way it is used “lightly” though with such terrible consequences when applied to ideas, people, children, an nations.
I have wanted to fight with people for using it to apply to any of these things. I have stated that I do not believe in it –truly.
But today, I think I have realized another mind. Looking at the brutality of what has been done to this ravaged mountain – to a whole horizon of ancient land.
I don’t know what else could hold and embrace all the things witnessed by each of us this week in this terribly abused region – Appalachia – and all the unimaginable wrongs witnessed last year in the Gulf Coast, and all the unexplainable wrongs of Wards Island at the beginning of this trip, and of the growing poverty in this world that surrounds us daily.
For me, it takes something this enormous – the sacrifice of this mountain range – to hold for me all these terrors, all of this grief and rage, of millions of lives and millions of years. And in its being held so that I am able to consider it at this Gate, I realized that I may believe in and have witnessed evil – truly – in this world.
Evil that others will assault with a grace that for me is also held when six of us – two from Appalachia, three from Union, one from Columbia University School of Social Work, some brown, some white, some men, some women, all human, stand together deep in the hollers of a ridge on a snow-covered bridge surrounded in the beautiful roaring sound of a rushing river, sunlight, and a peace and perhaps joy in being there together. In what I believe was the hope of coming to know one another and the possibility of hoping together.
I leave this place thankful and thinking of strength to stand at the Gates of Hell an to stand on the Bridge and to enter them both completely...and then to step forward.