Whitesburg KY

Jobs don’t justify the leveling of our region’s mountains

There are plenty of people in the mountains who, if you paid them $60,000 a year, would rally in Frankfort for beating your grandmother with a stick if she won’t give up her pills.

It is not hard to populate a rally in favor of leveling mountains. You can rely on all those making big money leveling mountains, abetted by the bought and accompanied by those aptly labeled by Harry Caudill in a courtroom on the banks of Troublesome as “mindless oafs.”

Wendell Berry witnessed the birth of that wonderful phrase and taught it to a gathering of oafs of a more mindful sort on the steps of the statehouse on Valentine’s Day. His talk that day was as low key as it was fierce, as clear and flowing as pre-progress mountain water.

Unreported, ignored by the newsy set in favor of where the gambling halls would be, Berry gave the best speech ever given in public by a Kentuckian, words of elegant and powerful beauty that will be read with Thoreau and Emerson by college students long after the mountains are gone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had not been writing long when he asked the same question Berry asks: “Who owns the landscape?”

Is the landscape owned by those employed in the stripmining business? If every man, woman and child in coal country has a good job leveling mountains, does that give coal companies the right to control the landscape? Just who do these coal miners think they are that they can use up the landscape of their region forever just for the sake of a good job?

That’s like killing the cow just so you can have roast beef tonight, or making hush puppies out of your seed corn. Somebody needs to stand up to these miners and their politicians.

If somebody asked one of those I Love Coal types two questions and got honest answers, this mountaintop removal thing would be over with real quick: Do you want all, 100 percent, of the mountains in coal country to be torn down, and if not, what is going to stop that?

The people at the Stream Saver Rally were mostly known to me and are the most intelligent, best informed and levelest headed people in our state, and if idea and reason have a chance this thing would also be over real quick. But Berry is weary of idea-combat, which has yielded only regulation. Regulation legalizes sin. As Berry said, you cannot regulate an abomination.

In lieu of a battle of public relations, Berry offered himself into whatever army of civil disobedience his listeners could muster. He warned that the penalty for acts that interfere with coal can be severe. Widow Combs could lay down in front of a bulldozer and only go to Hindman jail. Do it now and you will be facing federal guidelines and a judge vetted by the coal business.

My father was a Baptist preacher, but I don’t think he really got saved until he heard a tape of Berry’s essay about farmers. While listening, my father cried and got pardon for what he thought was his own failure as a farmer.

As a moralist, Berry has had great value. As a protector of the landscape of his beloved state and its uplands, his words have been as in that humanless forest where the tree fell. He is too smart not to know that, and so late in life, having saved my father, he now needs to save himself and to do so will need to be more like the Widow Combs.

Larry Webster is a Pikeville lawyer. This column appeared in the April 6 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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