Monday, July 14, 2014

The Religion of Coal

I usually avoid religion in my posts since it is such an inflammatory subject. At the same time, I cannot help but be disappointed in those who appropriate coal mining as somehow being Christian, or that coal itself was put here by God for us to use.

“If God didn’t want us to use coal, he wouldn’t have put it there!” a lady says to a gathering of environmentalists. But what if it wasn’t? How could a loving God who spent so much time creating life place something here that would cause so much harm?

In the early days of coal mining thousands of men and boys lost their lives every year in the darkness of a mountain. The owners of the coal mines were ruthless and full of greed, paying as little salary as possible and turning coal miners into slaves through company script and hiring mercenaries to maintain the status quo. The coal was shipped off where it would be put to use making steel in massive mills polluting entire cities and causing children to suffocate with asthma. The steel mill owners, like the coal company owners, were full of tempestuous greed, treating their workers in much the same ways as in the mountain coal camps. The steel made by coal and the electricity that came later gave rise to even more massive cities where
people's hearts become hardened, where people fall further and further from the teachings of Christ. Coal was even used to build thousands of war ships, tanks, guns, and other instruments of evil wielded for greed,  spilling the blood of the poor and innocent the world over.

Even today the economic systems of modern convenience built upon coal disconnects us. Cell phones replace handshakes and friendly conversations. Televisions numb us and even entertain us with violence, taking place of evening chats on the front porch with neighbors and building a love for them.

The world coal created is one of immense wealth inequalities, casting billions into extreme poverty and starvation as the industrialized and wealthy nations build even larger cities and wage war for more resources, more wealth. The people living in these wealthy nations drive their cars to churches erected with steel and powered by coal to hear about the salvation of God, the learn how to save their own souls. They concern themselves with their own comfort, their own bank accounts, voting to wage war against countries without knowing the facts, believing what the people on television tell them.

Today production is preached in the coal fields, "more" is the new gospel. Blind eyes are turned to the places that coal is extracted, cleaned, and used--places where thousands succumb to  sickness. Places where God’s true creation is destroyed.

How can coal have come from a loving God?

God provided us with everything we need on this Earth. Did we truly need coal? Perhaps those few people in Appalachia that had a family mine to heat their homes could be justified, but every single ounce of coal that has been mined thereafter has been for profit, for the love of money and a lust of power.

What if coal has been one of our greatest temptations?

I do not fault coal miners who felt they had no other choice, who were mislead into thinking they were doing a service to the world. After all, in many company towns, the church was built by the company and the pastor was paid by the company. In many cases, coal miners were slaves to the economic systems put in place by coal companies and their politicians. But to intentionally be blind to what coal mining does today, to ignore the suffering it causes, and to do it for the love of money, how can that be seen as anything other than committing a sin? To stand in front of a bunch of environmentalists who often make no wage, who grow their own food, who live far from their own families to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and who give so freely of their hearts, how can anyone preach to them that God put coal on this Earth for us to use? How can they wield hatred towards them? Whose side are they on?

Matthew 6:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

1 Timothy 6:10

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after , they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Hebrews 13:5

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have : for he hath said , I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.

Matthew 19:21

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast , and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Present Day Coal Mining: Dishonoring our heritage.

Drive into the central Appalachian coalfields and you’ll see dozens of vehicles with stickers such as “Friends of Coal,” “Coal Mining our Future,” “Friends in Low Places” etc. I am not entirely sure when the change came, but sometime in the last fifteen to twenty years the ultimate goal of coal miners has gone from working to give future generations a better life outside of coal mining, to ensuring they have no alternative but coal mining.

This is the most disturbing part of Appalachia’s decline to me. Our forefather’s pride and heritage, their struggles through decades of abuse from the coal industry, has all been forgotten. Their lessons, such as putting needs before wants and finding happiness in simplicity, has been replaced with unbelievable short sightedness. The once modest home of the young Appalachian coal miner has become anything but. The basic beat around, ride to work truck has become a tricked out diesel with rims or a sports car complete with a "Friends of Coal" license plate. 

Of the many things lost in the past two generations, humility, compassion, and the willingness to listen and think critically has been amongst them, but I cannot fault the newest generation of coal miner entirely. Much of their shortcomings in these regards came from a childhood that didn't contain the most important lessons--especially when it comes to our history and the problems of debt.

Today, coal miners have a long list of justifications for what they must do for a living, much of which revolving  around what money has to tell them, “Life can’t be lived without nice things,” “A strong economy is the most important future we can give our children.” Sadly, the voices of our past are diminished beneath the modern day “necessity” for all things shiny. Children are no longer shown how to raise their own food in the family garden. Few know the enjoyment of looking forward to and finally tasting things that come into season. The wonders of watching how much a simple seed can give you has been lost. Instead of a vocabulary of greasy beans, bantam, or kennebec, children instead learn wages, mortgage, and war on coal.  How long has it been since a coal miner built a canhouse?

The old ways of looking down the road for the next big challenge, then doing what one can to weather it has been given up for “live for today, who knows what tomorrow will bring” attitude. For those of us who still look towards the future, we know what is coming. It is as easy as looking to the past. Boom and bust, poverty and sickness, all while coal company owners live on wherever the water is clean and their is easy access to the private jet. .

Forgetting our history, supporting the coal companies, destroying our mountains, polluting our water—now that is what I call dishonoring our coal mining heritage.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Appalachians, Freedom, and Kindness

I've heard it said that Appalachian people started moving to the mountains to find solitude and freedom. I try to put myself into the place of those early pioneers, many of which were Scotch-Irish, brought to the new world as indentured servants. I try to think of what their choices were after being victims of classism, sentenced to lives of  deplorable living conditions and near starvation.
 Is it hard to believe that they enjoyed the freedom given to them in those rugged, untouched mountains, that they preferred living in a state of nature similar to that which was described by John Locke or Jean-Jeaques Rousseau? 

I do not pretend to romanticize this past. There were times in which terrible circumstances tore from those settlers every shred of happiness they could muster in the wilderness. Justice may have been wrongly and cruelly served where passion struck hearts overpowered logic. Yet, I do not believe they lived in utter destitution and misery, for if they did, they would have made different choices.

It is this choice that defines Appalachia and the people within it. Those early pioneers and the many subsequent generations were not imprisoned there. Nothing prevented them from moving back to the cities and farmlands back east, or from venturing further west with the expansion. The people of the Appalachian Mountains stayed, choosing to continue their simplistic lives together, forging the underlying familial values and a sense of generosity that largely defines the region even after war and industrialization brought greed and violence back into the hearts of many.

Shucking Corn Till Sundown - Walt Curlee
Scarcity of land and political motives divided people. Company script and paychecks began replacing gardens. Television replaced evenings spent on front porches or sitting around the kitchen table with neighbors.

Even then people still tried to stick together as society forced them apart. The labor movements were born in the mountains, born from those people still fighting for freedom.

Egoism is the means by which many search for false happiness these days, each relinquishing themselves to the will of the economy. The society our ancestors fled from three and four hundred years ago has infiltrated every hollow, every ridge line, every creek. The kindest of people have turned to hardness against their neighbors in search of paycheck after paycheck.

Life has become hard for those of us who still cling to the old ways. We were taught that someone's worth should be based on their generosity while it seems the rest of the world is taught to base their worth on money. We were taught to look for the goodness in others while the rest of the world is being taught to "do unto others before they do unto you." 

Our happiness is being robbed by the ill will of others, by selfishness, by the callousness taught to children in a world of "take what you can get." And still we cling to those old ways, we hold onto that glimmer of hope that people's hearts will soften, that people will think not in terms of what they can do for themselves, but what they can do for others. Though it is easy to take the hurt we so often feel and lash out with equal venom, we instead choose to transform it into a deeper sense of love--a means of cherishing who we are and where we come from.

Here's to forgiveness...and hope.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Upper Big Branch Remembered

Has the pain subsided? Have the families of the Upper Big Branch victims found peace? Have they  experienced a day in which they miss their loved ones any less?

The following is an emotional account from the family member of an Upper Big Branch victim.

For politicians, today is just another day to "honor" the victims. To speak words they hope will bring them more votes in the poles. A day to skirt upon the dangerous edge of consoling the public without crossing the line and losing campaign contributions from the coal industry.

The watered down safety legislation following the disaster, legislation that does everything but give coal miners the power to shut down a dangerous operation without fear of job loss, is evidence that nothing has truly changed.

The hearts of the coal company executives  are still as cold as the marble inscribed with the names of the fallen, a monument that it my eyes, does little to honor the men they sacrificed for profit, so much as it reminds me of the heartless greed of their "business." 

For me, this anniversary calls to question what has happened to our Appalachia.

What has caused us to support politicians who support one industry rather than work towards a future in which families will never again have to face such anguish at the hands of coal companies who only think in terms of profit?

What has happened that people are more willing to support campaigns like Friends of Coal rather than come together to build a better future for our children?

Let us continue to pray for those who are walking to the gravesides of their loved ones.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Coal is all we've got"

My father has bothered to tell my brother and I on more than one occasion, "I wish I had've got you
boys more when you were growing up. A lot of the guys at the mine were buying their kids new four wheelers and things. They'd buy bass boats, and campers and take their families to the lake every weekend, but I just couldn't bring myself to go into debt like that." Naturally our response has always been, "We didn't need that stuff anyway." And we didn't.

A lot of my parent's thriftiness came from common sense and being raised in hard times. Even during the best years of coal mining it wasn't uncommon for the mine to shut down for a few months. They knew it was better to put a little money back in case times got tough rather than spread themselves to thin.

It also gave them the advantage of standing up to the company when miner safety became a problem or the company was trying to cut benefits without reason. Without a massive amount of debt, my dad could go on strike and stand up for what's right--not just for himself, but everyone that worked at the mine. Imagine if the men at Upper Big Branch had that right.

Today it's a bit different. I've seen way to many diesel pickup trucks with Friends of Coal tags that tell me all I need to know about the newest generation of coal miners. You could always tell many of the older coal miners from the younger just by looking at the parking lot of the coal mine I worked at. The older coal miners drove beat-to-hell pickup trucks and cars, while many of the younger miners rolled up with $30,000+ pickups. And the spending didn't end there. I'd hear about their houses, sports cars, vacations, motorcycles, expensive toys for their kids. I'd just shake my head.

I'd sometime ask if it wouldn't be smarter to buy cheaper vehicles, smaller homes, and put a lot of the $50,000+ a year back into savings? I'd often hear excuses such as, "You only live once." Further argument was futile.

I can never understand why today's coal miners fail to look beyond the immediate future--why they don't realize that being dependent upon one skill set, and one industry, is setting yourself up for failure--is putting your family at risk?

I hate it when I hear coal miners say, "Coal is all we've got!"  Whose fault is it?

There's an old saying, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." Somehow, that saying has been lost among many people. Every coal miner would have been serving themselves and their families well if they, in the time they were making good money from the coal companies, put more effort into putting themselves through training in a different skill set, not to mention voting for politicians who would have worked to bring job alternatives to the mountains. Of course, the training part is difficult because coal companies often work miners on rotating shifts, 1st shift for a week or so, 2nd for a week or so. I wondered if they didn't do it on purpose just to keep coal miners from taking advantage of going to college or being trained in different skills.

From day one in the mine, I began paying double payments on the only debt I had, a 10 year old used pickup truck I purchased for half the price of a new one. It was my only debt. We inherited the old home place and spent the last six years using tax returns to put a new roof on, install new plumbing, new doors and windows, remodel the kitchen and bathroom. Our car was a 10 year old Subaru and when we decided to get a new car (a mistake I know), we at least got a small Corolla and kept the payments low. Not only that, we already had the money in the bank saved up to buy it outright. We didn't because it made more sense to take advantage of the 0.0% financing, rather than deplete our savings in one purchase.

I did these things because I had remembered the times mad dad was laid off. I wanted first and foremost to be prepared for the inevitable.

When the big "surprise" comes that the coal market is taking a hit and mines are being shut down everywhere, who should really be blamed for the financial woes of coal miners across Appalachia?

Well, it's happened and continues to happen. What's worse is that no one seems to be the wiser. You can tell by how many Friends of Coal tags are out there on the roads and how many coal miners are quick to point fingers to a "War on Coal."

It's hard to get folks to realize what is going on. I've tried. It's even harder to get people to change their way of thinking. Something major has to happen for someone to change and often times its more of an adaption than a change.

How long will it take to turn things around? I have no idea, but in the mean time I have to wonder how much more damage will be done to Appalachia and how many more generations will have to leave before everyone realizes the need to bring in different jobs--to stop propping up the coal industry as being the almighty saviors of Appalachia.

There are a lot of people with some amazing ideas out there. I think it's time everyone starts listening to them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

For Our Children

For thousands of coal miners whose sacrifices have spanned multiple decades, the point of going to work in the mine everyday was to provide their children a chance at a life they could not have. They did not work to spoil their children, but to see to it that cold and hunger did not take from their happiness. They worked to give their children better opportunities in life, opportunities they hoped would not leave them broken down and gasping for breath.

What has occurred in the past 10 years to cause coal miners and their families to want anything different? Why have so many people changed from wishing their children never stepped foot in the mines to putting "Coal Mining Our Future" stickers on their vehicles?

It seems to me that if we wanted a better future for our children, we'd be fighting for change in the mountains. The health of my children is important to me, and I'm sure it's the same for any loving parent out there. Why is it then, that people back home have such a hard time accepting the health problems being caused by mining? Why are they fighting so hard for jobs that will take their children's health instead of fighting for jobs that could provide a cleaner, healthier future for them?

I went into the coal mines to give my children a better future, and I left the coal mines for the same reason.

Now I'm speaking out about it. Does that make me a bad person? Does that make me a hypocrite?

Monday, March 3, 2014


                Growing up on Georges Fork, coal trucks were a part of life. They rumbled up and down the road every five to ten minutes starting from 6:00 in the morning and continuing until 6:00 in the evening. From our doublewide perched on the hillside, we could hear them coming, jake breaking into each curve all the way down as far as Jimmy’s truck shop. Paid by the load and not by the hour, drivers hurtled their tractor-trailers loaded with 50 tons of coal up and down our narrow road. When we were old enough to take our bikes to the road, Mom made us wait until well after 6:00 when the sun had fallen below the western ridge and the threat of us being caught beneath the 22 wheels of a coal truck were gone. Still we kept our ear to the wind, listening for a truck that got held up, or a day the tipple was kept open late. 

We had to have CB radios in our vehicles to avoid being crushed by coal trucks as they sped up and down our narrow road, including our bus driver. The truck drivers named the dangerous curves where passing another truck was impossible: “Volkswagen,” “Horse Shoe,” “Meat House,” and “Trailer,” to name a few. They were named according to small landmarks, like the Volkswagen beetle parked at my grandparent’s house, or the small meat shop owned by my cousin and great uncle.
                We contended with the dust they’d bring up and down the roads, chunks of grey mud caking the undercarriage, falling down and being pulverized to fine dust beneath their wheels and drifting as clouds onto the homes of my family. My grandmother took to draping old towels over her porch chairs rather than having to wipe them down every time someone came for a visit and my uncle purchased a pressure washer to keep his porch floor and vinyl siding clean. Those living nearest the road with little ones petitioned the county to enact a 25 mile an hour speed limit down the road. Truck drivers didn’t like the idea that three miles of their thirty mile journey would be slowed down. They began issuing threats to those who’d been most vocal about it, blowing their horns every time they passed by their houses. The county eventually installed a speed limit sign and the first night it was up, someone cut it down and threw it into Glenda's yard, one of the mothers who'd fought hard to get it. It was a shallow victory though, coal politics saw to it that the speed limit was never enforced.

                                How many tons of coal left our hollow in those trucks? How much money? Load after load, for over fifty years. Now the minable coal is gone. There hasn’t been a mine down Georges Fork for 15 years, and there won’t be another.

                The ridges that surrounded Georges Fork have been torn to shreds, the large holes punched into the sides drain out acidic water and whatever chemicals were left behind. The forests are dissected , grass and brush still the only things covering hillsides nearly forty years after reclamation. Many of my generation have left the hollow, finding few reasons to stay without good jobs. The once well-kept home places have been rented out, falling into disrepair, their renters and owners having little time and energy to accomplish much after working long hours to scrape out a living.
  Many of those whose fortunes were made bigger down Georges Fork do not live nearby. Gilliam is a billionaire and continues to fly in his private jet, living five hours away in Charlottesville, enjoying the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. The owners of Paramont eventually created Alpha Natural Resources, 3rd largest coal company in the United States following their merger with Massey Energy. They live in Bristol, miles away from the mountains they laid to waste. The Lamberts still live somewhere closer by, their humble beginnings and ties to family still holding them to the towns they love, their money able to shield them from the problems caused by coal mining and natural gas production.

                Our wells are contaminated, our springs turned into mine drainage. No thought was ever given to the people who would be left with the mess. Georges Fork is only one place, one familiar lifelong home amongst thousands of others left to ruin in the wake of “business”, of American Progress.

                And so is the story of Appalachia, the story of billions—trillions—of dollars of natural resources leaving our mountains, heaved from the Earth by the broken backs and choked lungs of our families. For our love of home and our love of family, we have been made dependent upon outside interests—made slaves to others comfort and luxury.