Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: Something's Rising

I come from the flat land of Michigan so when I flew into Appalachia for the first time, I was taken aback. From the sky, those gentle old mountains looked like elders gently watching over the little valley towns beneath them. In grade school we were told that while the Rockies might provide the more stunning vistas, the Appalachian Mountains dwarf them in age. There’s something there that demands reverence, “respect your elders” and all that, but this imperative has gone blatantly unheeded by the perpetrators of mountaintop removal mining.

Coal mining has a long history in Appalachia, of course, but it’s only since the 1990s that mountaintop removal has become widespread. Somehow coal companies have managed to convince many folks that this sick practice is part of the respectable coal mining traditions of yore when in fact it destroys that legacy. The many local voices speaking out in Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal have devoted their lives to combating this myth and the practice of MTR at the risk of social stigmatization and in some cases, physical danger. Though their life circumstances are diverse, they share some surprising commonalities. The one I found most intriguing was the prevalence of a shy personality. These people weren’t born activists; they were forced from their very nature as demure people by circumstance. When loads of toxic mining waste is dumped in local rivers, when boulders removed by excavating machines crush little children while they sleep in their beds, when mountains are blown up before one’s eyes, well, even the shy get audibly livid.

“The canary in the coal mine” is an apt metaphor for what’s happening in Appalachia and in many other parts of the world where the promise of resource wealth never (surprise surprise) manages to cultivate the local economy or well-being. Sure some folks will get jobs and buy new trucks and TVs, but one day they’ll look around and notice that all the shops in town are boarded up and that they get sick when they drink the tap water. Renowned activist Judy Bonds’ blisteringly honest thoughts on the matter leap right off the page.

Every story in this book is heartrending, but I was particularly moved by steadfast witness of folk legend Jean Ritchie and the spotlight on despicable political maneuvering by Jack Spadaro. The voices here have different cadences and histories but the collective picture that emerges is undeniable: the slick promises of dirty fuel corporations should never be trusted, nor, sadly, should the politicians who essentially work for these companies instead of their constituents. Something has certainly risen by the time you finish this book: your own fury.

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