Reece (English/Univ. of Kentucky) spent 2003–04 closely observing the sickly, strip-mined reaches of a mountain in Kentucky’s Appalachia; his book stands witness to its devouring.
In the old days of contour mining, excavations were carried out along ridgelines. Now the name of the game is mountaintop removal: Blast the high ground to smithereens, scavenge the detritus and plow the waste into the valley below, like so much toxic dust swept under the rug. Reece chronicles these ecological scalpings in anxious chapters written with an eye for abiding, catastrophic imagery. He does not lack material. Once a superb mesophytic forest habitat with an abundant diversity of species, a crumpled and intimate landscape of weathered peaks rich in flora and fauna, the region now resembles the buttes of the American West; pretty as they are in Arizona, they are deeply alien and a sign of trouble in the East. Creeks run orange with sulfuric acid and heavy metals; wells are polluted; the foundations of local homes have cracked; and the local population suffers from illnesses obviously related to the poisoning of the environment. Union protection for workers and citizens is a laugh, government oversight under the Bush administration is a travesty: The current Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Steven Griles, is a former coal lobbyist. Orwell and Kafka in their bleakest moments would have felt right at home in Appalachian Kentucky, mired in corruption and class warfare. Reece appreciates the need for some common ground, but is there no way, he asks, that the local economy can sustain itself without destroying the cerulean warbler and the very skyline?
A portrait of coal country as stark and galvanizing as Harry Caudill’s classic Night Comes to the Cumberland (1962).