Vanishing mountains - Word&Way

Vanishing mountains

(ABP) — Zeb Mountain, Turner Spur, Peters Knob, Big Fork Ridge, Millard, Cow Knob, Cherry Pond, Payne Knob — those are but a few names of the over 500 mountains from Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia that have disappeared from the face of the earth, never to return. Psalm 121 in the KJV begins, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” Not any more, at least in certain segments of Appalachia.

Graduate student Greg Griffey, a son of Appalachia, writes in his senior thesis at Wake Forest University School of Divinity: “Both strip mining and mountaintop removal are employed by coal companies in Appalachia to gain quick and cheap access to underground coal with minimum labor costs. Strip mining strips the surface of the earth, along with any vegetation it sustains. Mountaintop removal goes a step further by literally detonating whole mountaintops, leveling them to flat rock.  Both methods disfigure physical landscape, pollute water and streams, and destroy the natural environment. Both practices are the most recent and most permanent of a long line of Appalachian labor and resource exploitations that have driven ‘progress’ in the United States for centuries. “

Bill Leonard

Some things are just plain wrong. And mountaintop removal (MTR) is just plain wrong. It may have approval from certain corporations; Congress, local municipalities and some mountain folk, but it is still just plain wrong. Indeed, MTR is fast becoming a ghastly symptom of what is wrong with America: an abiding loss of identity politically, economically, communall, and spiritually.

In his prize-winning volume entitled Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 , Appalachian scholar Ron Eller comments:

“Appalachia endures as a paradox in American society in part because it plays a critical role in the discourse of national identity but also because the region’s struggle with modernity reflects a deeper American failure to define progress in the first place…. We know that Appalachia exists because we need it to exist in order to define what we are not. The notion of Appalachia as a separate place, a region set off from mainstream culture and history, has allowed us to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable dilemmas that the story of Appalachia raises about our own lives and about the larger society.”

In her groundbreaking study, Appalachian Mountain Religion , Deborah McCauley writes that Appalachia harbors a unique form of Protestantism born of “oral tradition,” the “centrality of religious experience,” and the “reality of the land.” McCauley concludes that “the mountainous terrain that is the Appalachian region has had enormous impact on its character, its texture, and its religious values.”

Building on the work of Eller and McCauley, Greg Griffey insists that: “By destroying the mountainous landscape of a geographical region formed millions of years ago, we are now effacing, and thereby choosing to forget, storied identities that have beckoned habitation, provided navigation through space, and evoked senses of rootedness in the mountains for thousands of years.” His thesis explores “the interconnectedness of place, the environment, and religious and cultural thought,” a communal network challenged by mountaintop removal in “tangible and intangible” ways.

These studies suggest that a dramatic symbol of the loss of American regional and religious identity is found in the environment. This clear and present danger has reached crisis proportions as forests disappear, streams and creeks are crammed with sludge, and mining continues to make the landscape bleak.

But in 21st century Appalachia perhaps the most sobering reality is the loss of the mountains themselves. Through MTR techniques, mountains formed over five million years ago have disappeared forever, their non-coal contents tossed into valleys, creek beds and hollows with devastating effect.

Eller writes that “with few exceptions” the promised economic benefits of mountaintop removal “never materialized, and communities were left with miles of deserted, treeless plateaus, poisoned water tables, and a permanently altered landscape.”

If McCauley is correct that Appalachian religious experience was shaped in part by the “reality of the land,” then the culture and religion of Appalachia may be vanishing because the mountains are vanishing. Appalachian religious communities embody the value and fragility of sacred space, the struggle to maintain it, and the identity crisis that inevitably results when it slips away.

Appalachians discovered faith up hollows, on mountain tops, by cold clear streams, and in deep lush valleys. They’ve spent years renegotiating that faith with strip mines and strip malls, slag pits and condominium complexes, polluted rivers and manhandled mountains. They mirror the world, moving as fast as it can to undo sacred space across the globe.

Today, the creature, not the Creator, “makes waste mountains and hills and dries up all their herbs;” the creature, not the Creator “makes the rivers islands and …dries up the pools,” (Isaiah 42: 15), questionable conduct with no end in sight.

So as the mountains continue to crumble, perhaps we’ll have to hedge out bets on Isaiah 72:3: “May hills and mountains provide your people with prosperity in righteousness.” Maybe not, O Lord, maybe not. 

Bill J. Leonard is a professor of church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. 

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