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Tom Chaney: R729: The new canary

Tom Chaney. Of Writers and Their Books. Book Review by Tom Chaney R729: The New Canary a review of the book by Erik Reece, Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness -- Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia First printed 24 September 2006 in the Hart County Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney: -R728: Roots of local music. Lynwood Montell

By Tom Chaney

The New Canary

Erik Reece calls the cerulean warbler the most beautiful songbird in North America. It nests high in the canopy trees within the undisturbed Eastern broadleaf forests. Across Appalachia its population has plunged seventy percent since 1966.

"It is no coincidence," says Reece, "that these forty years have also seen the most extensive destruction of Appalachian forests by strip mining." He calls the cerulean warbler the new canary of the coal fields referring to the practice of deep miners who once carried canaries into the mine. When the canary failed to sing, the air was bad.

The silencing of the warbler's voice tells of a much larger problem in paradise.

Those of us who nudge our thermostats up in the winter or down in the summer fail to be aware of the environmental cost of our comfort. The premise of Reece's book Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness -- Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia [2006, Riverhead Books] is that mountaintop removal in Kentucky and the rest of the Eastern coal fields is an ethical travesty of most serious moment.

To make his point Reece selected one mountain -- ironically named Lost Mountain in Perry County, Kentucky. He documented its destruction from September 2003 through September 2004 -- one year to undo the creative work of 350 million years. Peaks and ridges vanish. Trees and topsoil are tumbled over the edge to clog the waters of Lost Creek down below. The warbler's trill is replaced by the shriek of the bulldozer and dragline.

"Instead of excavating the contour of a ridge side, as strip miners did throughout the '60s and '70s, now entire mountaintops are blasted off, and almost everything that isn't coal is pushed down into the valleys below. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that at least seven hundred miles of healthy streams have been buried by mountaintop removal ... and hundreds more have been damaged. Blasting on the mine sites has cracked the house foundations of valley dwellers and polluted thousands of family wells. Creeks run orange with sulfuric acid and heavy metals. ... Wildlife populations have been summarily dispersed. Entire ecosystems have been dismantled."

The mixed mesophytic forest -- the most diverse ecosystem on the continent -- is being destroyed. "It is the rain forest of North America, and it is failing fast."

It would be wrong to say that only the coal companies are at fault. Reece develops the idea that we are to blame as a society for treating our land as a "resource" to be used for comfort and profit rather than an Eden in which to dwell -- all parts in harmony.

It is not a new idea that we live in a highly mechanized world with an artificial environment. Thinkers such as De Tocqueville and Thoreau have warned us. Reece reminds us:
"It has been well documented, most recently by psychiatrist Peter C. Whybrow, that while Americans are four times more affluent than during the '60s, we have shown no measurable gain in happiness. In fact the opposite is true: We are more depressed, more medicated, more frazzled than at any other time in our short history. The more we are anesthetized by material wealth, the farther we stray from our biophilic selves. We move from house to garage to car to work to mall to gym to house again with little regard to our ancestral homeland -- ancient savannas at the edge of vast forests."Wendell Berry observes in the Foreword to Reece's book that we know little about the new destruction. In part this is because it is hard to see it. Coal companies do not publicize what they are doing aside from touting a few efforts at "reclamation" resulting in scrub pasture where once the forest was.
Our ignorance persists because it is a painful lesson to learn.

"To know about strip mining or mountaintop removal is like knowing about the nuclear bomb. It is to know beyond doubt that some human beings have, and are willing to use, the power of absolute destruction. This work is done in violation of all the best things that humans have learned in their long dwelling on the earth: reverence, neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, love."

Reece has given us a troubling look at the violation of those things. In the epigraph to the book he provides an ominous suggestion of a future from the Gospel of Luke [3:5]: "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low." Mature forest to bleak desert in the space of one year.

As he points out, we all live downstream from Lost Creek.

But he gives a glimmer of hope -- not in the attitude of those who waste a mature forest for a little coal -- but in the hope that our"sense of kinship among all living things can [not only] be explained scientifically through molecular biology, it will be a force for change, a moral force, if it is understood by the individual. ... [I]f a desire to change the way one consumes limited resources comes out of an inner conviction, a deep feeling of conscience, then it is not too late for a real transformation of our culture."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-09-25 06:30:25
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