The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

Our Way of Life

Recently I made a mistake.  I did not resist the urge to leap into a Facebook back-and-forth about the coal industry, the environment, and most importantly, the economy.   You don’t have to be a native West Virginian to be troubled by what is going on, but I am both native and troubled.  Status update soundbites can never give justice to the dynamics and complexities of West Virginia’s agonizing, heel-digging resistance to even talking about life outside the colonial economy of coal.

We need to talk about one thing above all others, and that is how seemingly impossible and yet absolutely necessary it is for our state to stop defining ourselves by a fading economy.  I saw a quote today on the side of a building, it said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”  Eleanor Roosevelt said this, and it is used in a wide range of human circumstances.  West Virginia would do well to take these words to heart.

I am unaware of any other industry or profession where people are not expected to do what everyone else has to do, and that is figure out how to be employable in more than one field.  It’s extremely difficult, but we all have to do it.  Some people talk about coal miners as if they are some unique category of people who never have to adapt and figure out how to be relevant in a changing economy and find new work, ever.  Underneath that way of thinking is a condescending attitude that they aren’t like everyone else because they aren’t smart enough or tough enough or modern enough or something.  It drives me crazy because just the opposite is true. 

If you want tough and adaptable and curious and indomitable, you want a West Virginia coal miner.  These folks eat my fears for breakfast, and negotiate circumstances so deadly day after day it would finish most of us within 24 hours.  There are families in West Virginia that go back generations who are built on the genetic and character codes of this kind of work, so please, don’t condescend to them.  Ever.  Not even for a vote.

The trouble is, while West Virginia’s future rests on the cannot-be-defeated nature of miners, what it does not rest on is out-of-state coal companies.  This post is not about coal companies, but most people are aware that their reputations are much less glowing than the reps of miners themselves.  Let’s leave it at that.

In my Facebook comments, I compared the dynamics of the economic transitions ahead of us to the shock to the Old South with the end of plantations where the production was almost entirely from a system of slave labor.  That was not a wise thing to pop up in a few lines in a real-time conversation, because it is so easily misunderstood.  In no way am I comparing slavery to coal mining.  I do believe, however, that there are valid opportunities to see West Virginia’s economic issues through the lens of the Old South if one can stay focused on the transition problems.  I maintain they are relevant and potentially useful in bridging the gaps in public dialogue around us every day.

The language similarities are striking when thinking about comparisons between the Old South agricultural empire and West Virginia’s extractive industry economy .  Threats to “our way of life” are common cries.  People bring up their family trees, how long their family has been part of a work culture, and how the nation depends on the product to survive.  Patriotism and morality are questioned.  Families and friendships are strained and in some cases broken.  Some people talk about the President of the United States as if he is an enemy of the state, and there is constant pressure to not say the wrong thing so as not to be labeled disloyal — to what, take your pick.  You risk being disloyal to your beloved state and the commitment and even sacrifice of generations of miners if you question anything about the impact of the coal industry, and you risk being disloyal to your own children’s health and well-being for a few bucks if you don’t chain yourself to a tree. 

Something’s gotta give.

It starts with talking about one thing with a laser sharp focus: The New Economy.  No one stopped needing food and fibers when abolition became law, and no one is going to stop needing electricity when mountain top removal and even coal mining itself is no more.  We must focus on what we need, and how we will continue to get it through new methods that meet the new information we have about the destructive contamination inherent in coal mining.  Really smart people I’ve known all my life are turning a blind eye to what everyone outside of West Virginia knows without even trying — coal ash, mercury poisoning, degradation of streams and elimination of entire ecosystems are poised to do more than inconvenience a few fish.  Even the most stubborn person out there has got to know in his or her heart that this is insanity.

We need to stop letting the coal industry define this debate.  The WV Coal Association has one of the nicest, kindest men you will ever meet as its spokesman, and it does not matter.  Personalities need to disappear from the conversation.  I started by saying I am a native West Virginian, and that comes with a big guarantee — I will never give up on this place.  I do everything I can to keep the conversation on a high level, but also on a level that matters.  At the end of the day, in the Old South it did not matter, not even a little bit, how long anyone ran their farms a certain way.  It needed to end, and people needed to have a higher vision for what they could do, how, and why.  It took a Civil War and the near end of this country for people to get a clue.

Let’s not make the same mistakes.