Thursday, June 9, 2011

March on Blair Mountain - Day 4

There is a war going on in the coal-fields of southern West Virginia. We can feel it in the dichotomy of support and anger the residents of Boone County have given us. As we have walked along these windy and often quiet roads, the cars that have passed have often been full of people quietly giving us a thumbs-up, or thanking us for doing this. By my estimation, these folks have outnumbered those on the other side at least two-to-one, which has surprised all of us. While many of the homes have the near requisite “Friends of Coal” signs in the yards, there are many that have signs of support – knowing that there outward displays will likely bring quick ire and possibly more from their neighbors. For this we are extremely thankful, as we know it is extremely difficult to show any level of support for this march at all, and thus most of those who wish MTR.

Today we had an especially brave woman host us for lunch in her back yard – which we learned was the very same spot where the marching miners stopped for a meal 90 years ago, hosted by this woman’s forebears. And given the attitudes of her neighbors and the reception we have received in general this was a courageous step taken by a woman who cherishes her family’s role in creating our local history.

You see, despite the gracious nature of the community on the most part, there remains a hidden power fighting us. The Mayor of Madison may have set aside fresh water for us on a hot day, for which were very thankful, but no none in his county would suffer us on their land that night. We have not yet had a camp-ground or farm willing to allow us to camp. We have had first and second options for each night cancel on us at the last minute, and we recognize the extreme pressure the coal operators have placed on them to not work with us. And this is a signal that the fight will not end this Saturday, when we march up Blair Mountain and demand it be placed once again on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a fight for the communities of southern WV, for the space to create a clean economy with local, sustainable jobs. And for the jobs that will remain in the mines to be safe, and union, and not requiring the tops of our dear ancient mountains to be leveled, ruining our water and air. This is a fight that has been waged since the first commercial mines opened up in these hills. It got bloody 90 years ago, and we march to preserve that history for all generations to come. And just as importantly, we march to preserve our communities so that there ARE generations to come in these towns.

I pray for the day that the quiet souls in these towns who wish they could march with us will find the grace from God to rise up and demand a better way of life for themselves, as some are doing today. I know that day is coming, and a brighter future is on the horizon for our southern coal fields.

The March on Blair Mountain

The Road to Blair Mountain, Boone County, West Virginia – one of the many places in this country where justice seems to go to die.

After weeks of negotiated agreements, last night the side of the law came down against the side of right and morality when the Boone County commissioner forced approximately 300 participants in the March on Blair Mountain off of the county land at John Slack Park. This happened around 9:30pm, after the camp had been pitched for hours, dinner was still being served, and many marchers were looking to bed down for the night after an 11 mile march.

I hold no anger at the men in drill sergeant hats and spiffy tight uniforms for forcing us to find somewhere else to sleep. I know they were only following orders. Many of them may hold a misunderstanding of what we are trying to accomplish on the march. We are not out to completely end our nation’s addiction to coal. What we are trying to do is make a stand against mountain top removal — the most destructive and apocalyptic form of coal mining ever devised — and preserve Blair Mountain as a symbol of the battles and struggles in people’s lives which have taken place in the name of this form of coal extraction. I am sure that there must have been at least a few officers who felt terrible about the orders they were asked to carry out.

You see, we are a good people here in the southern mountains of West Virginia. Lack of abundant opportunities has forced many of us to make terrible choices, between working on a mountaintop mine, or leaving the state for good. And for so many of these kind-hearted and hard working people, leaving just isn’t an option. Some rise up to fight that status quo, and many more get tugged along in the current, caught in the black, poisonous waters that flow down from the strip mines of coal field politics.
Despite the efforts of some behind the scenes powers, this march will go on. We are going to Blair, deep in the heart of Logan County, West Virginia. We are rising. And we will meet our fate there – not in Racine, not in Madison, not in Boone County.

And I look forward to the day when someone, like my dear brother-in-law, who was born in Madison, doesn’t have to make that choice to leave or stay, or to have to choose to obey the letter of the law and follow orders given by a shadow government owned by King Coal.

Monday, September 6, 2010

It's All About the Climb

I have a little button on my backpack: “I Heart Mountains” it says, with a beautiful vista of my Appalachian home, blue and gray ridges fading into the horizon. I spent countless weeks of my childhood summers in the mountains of West Virginia, fishing, hiking, playing camp games with other summer campers. The soft rolling slopes of Appalachia with her ancient green forests 300 million years old, speak to me wherever I am. I believe I have a deep-rooted Appalachian Soul.

I believe in climbing mountains. The big ones on the horizon, the huge monsters of rock that pulled Americans westward with slogans such as “Pike’s Peak or Bust.” I myself have climbed a few of the really tall ones, planted my small mental flag on the peaks of maybe eight or nine, and have stood on ranges around the world, from the American Rockies to the Peruvian Andes, the foothills of the Himalaya in Central Asia, to the glaciers of the Southern Alps in New Zealand. Each has its own challenges, its own history, and its own paths to the top. But it is the Appalachian song that plays in my heart.

The view from the top can be breathtaking but I believe in the serenity to be found at the top of a mountain. Those few moments when you can swear you can see the ocean, so far below, so many thousands of miles away. But this is not why I climb.

I believe in climbing mountains. I think that the climb itself is worth much more that the respite you get at the summit. So often, you approach a peak only to have to give up the climb, due to rain or lightning, to circumstances beyond your control. So you head back down, and resolve that one day you will try again.

But it’s not only physical mountains that we climb. During my year in Iraq in the US Army, the men of my unit climbed up a steep slope of impossible missions every day and every night. I don’t know if we ever reached the top of that peak, but we got better, got closer, on most days. Looking back, I am not even sure that we had a peak to reach even if we could have. And I guess that is one of the keys to what I believe.

Back home in West Virginia, we have a different climb ahead of us, not up the mountains we have so effectively neutralized, but up out of the cycle of poverty and economic malaise that has engulfed us for the better part of a century. Out of a past mired in violence and misunderstanding. I believe not in a city on a hill, but a people on a mountainside, struggling ever upward, eyes to the sky, and hands reaching back down to help those below.

And I believe that being from West Virginia, our nation’s Mountain State, we know how to climb.

(this post has been published by This I Believe... here)