Razing the Mountains

Is this the climax of our human civilization? The peak of our societal development? Or the desecration of life itself?

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Mountaintop removal is perhaps the most harrowing phenomena of the Anthropocene era.

Mountaintop removal (MTR) or ‘strip mining’ is a practice whereby mountain ridges and peaks are dismantled with explosive and pushed downhill using drag-line machines to expose and extract the underlying coal. This practice is used to make the production of coal more economically efficient, as less labor is required to extract higher amounts of coal than other forms of mining. However the low economic costs do not account for the steep environmental, social and health costs, or externalities, of the process.

Strip mining is used for the extraction of various minerals (especially coal) worldwide, but there is a highly concentrated usage of the practice within the Central and Southern Appalachian Mountain region. Specifically, MTR occurs in the rural regions of West Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Myriad literature has been published describing Central Appalachia as an ‘environmental sacrifice zone’ – a resource rich mineral colony, exploited to supply energy to surburban homes and cities along the East Coast.

The mining industry has always exploited Appalachian people and land, however, MTR has brought the damage to new horizons (while lowering the horizon line itself).

The reality of strip mining is that it is unsustainable. Coal is a nonrenewable resource, and the contemporary method used for its extraction causes irreversible scarring to the landscape, and damage to the health the surrounding environment and communities. Ironically, the practice began to be used largely in response to an amendment to the EPA’s Clean Air Act in the early 1990’s which called for the burning of low-sulfur coal. Low sulfur coal releases less toxic emissions when burnt than coal with a higher sulfur content. However, this type of coal sits at higher elevations within the Appalachian mountains, and can only be accessed efficiently through mountaintop removal.

The result of this policy change has been the utter decimation of a region. Once reaching as high as the Alps, the Appalachian mountains comprise the oldest existing mountain range on the planet. With it’s long geological and evolutionary history, the region is home to the most biodiverse ecosystems in the United States. According to World Wildlife Fund, “more than 158 tree species can be found within the region,” as well as many species of animals which are endemic, or unique to the area, and now endangered.

What took 480 million years to develop has taken roughly thirty years to bring to ruin. Through the removal of foliage, topsoil and hundreds of feet of rock, called “overburden” or “spoil,” from ridge lines into the valleys below, MTR causes irreparable damage at all elevations of mountain ecosystems. The toppled spoil, otherwise known as “valley fill,” has buried and choked out miles of precious head water streams in the Central  Appalachian region. These streams provide habitat to diverse aquatic life and are essential for watershed health. Toxic coal slurry, a by-product of washing and chemically treating coal, also poses a serious threat to the rivers and watersheds in impacted areas.

Heavy metals deposited into the soils beneath impoundment dams (where the coal slurry is kept) pollute the watershed, rendering streams uninhabitable to aquatic life and endangering the health of local residents who depend on local water sources. Wells and homes near strip mining sites are frequently damaged as a result of tremors and rocks sent flying by the blasts. Blasting, as well as the consistent traffic of eighteen-wheeler trucks transporting coal from the mine sites to nearby coal refineries and power plants releases large amounts of airborne dust and pollutants which are detrimental to the health of locals to the region. This issue is compounded on a regional scale by the emissions produced from burning coal for electricity.

While the rural people of Central Appalachia face the direct externalities of strip mining, with high rates of disease and mortality, they receive less and less of the economic gain. Decreases in overall coal production, combined with the mechanization of the mining process, has led to a decline in local employment within the industry. Because of the region’s extraction based economy, there are few substantial employment opportunities for locals outside of the coal mines. Most people in the region work menial jobs with a low income.

Central Appalachian communities have experienced subjugation to poverty and exploitation for generations. The poverty and unemployment rates in the region are high, and the wages and salaries people receive are low comparative to the rest of the U.S. Also, the rate of higher education within Central Appalachian communities is low. The struggles that rural Central Appalachian folk face are compounded by the expansion of mountaintop removal operations.

Through lucrative processes, coal companies frequently acquire rights to the minerals underneath peoples’ homes, using them to force people off their land and expand mining operations. Also, coal companies hardly face legal repercussions for the damages done to peoples’ property under the protection of copious amounts of legal red tape. Historically, the EPA has failed to penalize coal extractors for the damages done to the environment. More information about these topics can be found in Erik Reece’s Lost Mountain.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this issue is how few Americans are aware of it. Despite the US populations’ heavy dependency on electricity from burnt coal, few are aware of the environmental and social costs due to the geographic isolation of the Appalachian mountains where coal is mined. Even driving through coal country, one might not see the strip mines because of the clever (and perhaps thoughtful?) choice to keep mining operations out of sight from the roads.

In January 2019, a friend and I drove from Asheville, North Carolina to Kayford, West Virginia to visit and photograph the strip mines. We felt a need to witness mountaintop removal first hand. The following photo journal documents what we saw:

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A small strip mine on the way to Kayford.
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An eighteen-wheeler carrying coal.
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A chute sits over the train tracks and loads coal into train cars. A strip mine is above.
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Coal silos at the entrance to an MTR site.
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A man made stream (?) coming down from the artificial ridge line.
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A surface mine overlooking a lagoon (maybe an impoundment dam).

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A stream running blue by the base of an MTR site.

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Truck traffic at the entrance to a large operational MTR site.
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Large machinery driving along a distant ridge line. Small blasts release large plumes of dust.
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Looking into the ‘belly of the beast.’
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Coal silos at the edge of a WV town. The church sign reads “Jesus Saves” in the image of a cross.
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Kayford Mountain “reclamation” site. The following photos are also of Kayford Mountain.

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Pine trees planted sparsely as part of the gov’t mandated “reclamation” effort. Homes along the wooded ridge line (to the left) are part of the Stanley Heirs Park, founded by Larry Gibson as part of a “land trust holdout against [MTR] mining” (Atlas Obscura) at Kayford Mountain.
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A single-species of exotic Asian grass is hydroseeded onto strip mines as part of their “reclamation.”

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Fossil?
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Coal.
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Me photographing on top of Kayford Mountain.

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The car gives perspective on the scale of the strip mine.
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“We are the keepers of the mountains. Love them or leave them. Just don’t destroy them.” Quote by Larry Gibson, founder of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, painted on his home at Stanley Heirs Park.

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A coal refinery along the Kanawha river.
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A memorial for 29 miners who died in a blasting accident on one of the strip mines.
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A closed down strip mine in Sundial, WV.
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The old Marsh Fork Elementary school (now closed), located at the base of the Sundial MTR site.
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A view of the Sundial strip mine from a nearby farm.

Sources:

https://www.worldwildlife.org/ecoregions/na0403

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/stanley-heirs-park

24 Hours in Linville Gorge

Linville Gorge, located in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina is known generally as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Being part of the Appalachian mountain range, the mountains which stand on either side of the gorge are some of the world’s most ancient. The Linville River, which carves it’s path Southwards down the base of the ravine, was named Eeseeoh by Cherokee Indians. This has been translated to mean “River of Cliffs.”

My short hike took place along the Eastern side of the cordillera, from “Wolf Pit” where I parked my car North to “Table Rock,” a popular hiking destination where one can see out over the surrounding country at 360 degrees. Having arrived late on the first day, I only hiked to the “Chimneys,” a few miles short of Table Rock. The morning after, I awoke early to catch the sunrise and hike Table Rock before retracing my path South to where I began the day before.

The following photos were taken from different orientations throughout my 24 hour journey through the Linville Wilderness, viewing the gorge laterally to the north and south, as well as looking west to the mountains across the gorge, and over the low-lying country to the east. Enjoy!

Radical Roots Permaculture Farm

Radical Roots is a high-production farm located in Keezletown, VA. They produce hundreds of pounds of fruits, vegetables and herbs per week on only five acres of land, supplying vendors at two farmers markets and serving many CSA members. Although they have USDA Organic certification, they surpass the organic requirements by growing food using sustainable practices that will ensure the future fertility of their plot of land.

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Varied Tomatoes
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Varied Peppers
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Varied Greens

I had the opportunity to visit the farm in late July during the height of the growing season. Upon arrival I was met by Adam, the crew leader who I had acquainted with previously at the Burke farmers market. He walked my friend and I past the lagoon at the entrance of the farm to two of the long strips where they were growing head lettuces. There, I encountered four apprentices working hard prepping beds for planting a second or third round of chard. After joining in on the work for a half hour, we stopped for lunch. We walked together to the central gathering ground of the farm, located between the house of the farm owners and the lodging for the apprentices. The table there was set with bowls of salad, sauerkraut, hummus, and other homemade dips. Dave and Lee, the owners of the farm came out to meet us for lunch. Everyone sat together; we talked and laughed as we ate the delicious meal prepared with ingredients from the farm. Dave told me about how the farm started as a homestead built by him and his wife, Lee, and continued to grow overtime as they increased food production and starting hiring people to work on the farm. Amazingly, they didn’t need to expand their property over the past 10 years of increasing fruit and vegetable production.

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Herb Garden and Gathering Grounds

Before returning to work, one of the apprentices showed me the herb garden out front of the apprentice house where they grew and harvested herbs to dry for tea mixes. I spent the afternoon spreading organic compost, seeding plants and observing the different parts of the farm with Adam. Adam showed me some of the aspects that make Radical Roots a sustainable farm. They use handheld and handmade tools, including soil tillers made by hand by a friend using recycled materials. The farm was set up with many permaculture design elements. Rows of contoured beds were lined up for growing head lettuces, herbs, peppers, melons and cutting flowers. Some of the rows weren’t in use or only had cover crops growing to fix the nutrients in the soil and get turned over as biomass. The garden beds were separated by lines of fruit trees, including Asian pears and apples that were there to catch runoff from the beds. The farm has three to four green houses where they start seedlings and grow hundreds of vine tomatoes, cherry trees, eggplants and other warm climate fruits. They amend the clay soil that’s so characteristic of Virginia with compost from organic, local sources.

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Adam Working the Tiller
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Contoured Rows and Fruit Trees

At a certain point, my tour of the farm became self-guided. When I reached the north side of the farm, I looked past the fence and was shocked at the stark contrast of the farm next-door. On the other side of the fence there was a wide expanse of barren land with a few cows grazing on short, yellowing grass, and past that were two extremely long, white buildings. Upon inquiring about the other farm to Adam, he explained that it was a corporate factory farm where millions of chickens were raised. He said that commercial corn was brought in by big trucks every week to feed the chickens. He also told me of the horrendous smells that emanated from the neighboring farm when a heavy rainfall would cause the manure and waste to leach.

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Neighboring Farm
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Closer Look

Sadly, the farm I saw beyond the fence is the spitting image of many farms across the United States and in countries throughout the world. Huge factories are constructed to rear billions of chickens, pigs and cows. Lands are deforested to make space for commercial crops, which are produced relentlessly with chemical fertilizers. Cows are brought into the land to graze after the land cannot produce crops any longer. And in the case of overgrazing, the once fertile and rich soils become barren and dry. In an ecological world increasingly affected by anthropogenic activity, we need to rethink and rebalance our systems of agriculture. We have to produce enough food for the people of today, but we need to ensure that the Earth can still produce food for the children of tomorrow. That’s why Radical Roots sets a superb example for sustainable farming: they utilize both intensive and regenerative farming practices, producing an outstanding amount of fruits and vegetables on land that is kept fertile with organic supplementation, seasonal rotation and rest.

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Looking out to the Blue Ridge

Ecuador Semester 2017

During the fall semester, I joined with Kroka Expeditions, a farm and school based in New England, for a work-study program to Ecuador. Initially, we lived and worked on the domestic farm studying ecology, practicing Spanish, and preparing our expedition skills while forming friendships within the group. After a month and two expeditions – one by mountain bike and the other by canoes – we departed for Ecuador. Through travel and upon arrival, we were immersed among Spanish speakers who helped my Spanish comprehension flourish quickly. After only one week living on the farm in Ecuador, I told one of the Ecuadorian students that I’d learned more in the week than during three years in Spanish class (yo aprendi mas aqui que en tres anos de escuela) – although studying Spanish in school surely helped.

Despite a fair amount of botany, ecology and literature assignments, we spent much of our time working on the farm – in the gardens, working with cows, horses and cuyes (Guinea pigs)  to create our livelihoods. The farm is designed to use permaculture (permanent agriculture) principles that mirror the requirements for Organic farming. We studied permaculture throughout the duration of the program, observing the practices used at all the farms we worked on and applying the principles to other aspects of human life.

As we traveled between farms and throughout Ecuador, we got to witness the diverse cultures, landscapes and ecosystems present there. We biked on ridge lines, down valleys and through cities. We hiked through rainforest and tall grass lands. We climbed up cliff faces, rocky mountains and snowy glaciers. And we paddled down ever flowing and changing rivers. Whether at one of the several farms we stayed or on an expedition, food overarched everything else – it created our community while nourishing our bodies. Through food we found a great connectivity to the Earth we traveled and the people we encountered.

Connectivity was the core aspect I took away from the experience. I discovered connections between global communities and across languages. I studied the connections between human activities and climate change. Especially, I felt the connection between myself and the Earth; through planting corn and beans with bare hands and feet, harvesting and preparing fresh ingredients from the gardens, eating and excreting, and composting the waste that returned minerals to the Earth. I observed similar natural cycles reflected in the cosmological understandings of the Ecuadorian Quichua people. Their agricultural calendar defines the flow of life, correlating with the cycles of the moon, of the seasons and of the harvest.

To travel opens opportunities to develop understanding, awareness and empathy for others – for their struggles, their livelihoods and their world views. Developing those feelings bridges gaps, making the world more united and the individual more fulfilled. To travel is the most powerful way to learn.

Below is an online slideshow of pictures from the experience:

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/e/2PACX-1vRxoM3nON-33pZikH00UUAQQB4BVNBpoDoqoiMJHvShgZFbyqXELHJGXqsLtL5k2t_JdXTeetAUvEYQ/pub?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000

Summer 2017 Harvest

“Living food creates lively bodies, lively minds and lively spirits.”

My gardening experience this summer was a sample of self sustenance. Although my garden produced maybe 15% of the fruit and vegetables I ate and a good 75% of my spices and herbs, it was a taste for what it means to grow, harvest and eat food at home.

For me, gardening is the act of fulfilling a relationship with the Creation. A magical strength comes from within the seed of a plant, and the gardener learns to control and respect that strength. Power enters the hands of the gardener when they oversee this magical process, and the gardener ultimately reaps the benefits.

The scents and flavors of sun washed fruits become increasingly intense as they ripen to their peak. Melons and tomatoes fill with juice until they drip or burst when cut open. The satiety of these fruits that are left to ripen without being rushed  is something tangible upon their consumption. The nutrients and energy passed on to the consumer from fresh picked, garden grown foods instills a liveliness that washes away all lethargy and sickness. Thank you sun, Earth, air and water for helping these plants grow.

Early Summer 2017

My first summer of gardening, and I’ve fallen in love. Every time I go out to garden in my backyard, it’s a breath of life. I love to work with the plants, but for the most part, it’s the plants that do the work. I set up garden beds, prepared the Earth for them, watched intently as seeds sprouted to young saplings, but now, I just water them as the plants shoot upwards to reach the sun. These photos are an early account of my garden’s growth.

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My tomato/cucumber garden bed
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A young cucumber plant
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Flowering “grape” tomato plant
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Intricate tomato leaves
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Melon seedlings
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Young red pepper
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Budding banana peppers
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Oregano
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My herb bed, with a flowering dill plant
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Bolting chard
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Young Catnip plant
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Lemon Verbena, or Cedron, as they call it in Spanish
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“Rewilding” or naturalizing my backyard’s lawn
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A young morning glory vine

Change the Food System

The Problem

To grow mass amounts of one type of food, commercial farmers use pesticides and herbicides to kill insects and weeds, and fertilizers to increase yields. This is required because there aren’t the checks and balances present in nature that keep the soil healthy and monitor the abundance of pests and weeds. However, runoff of agrochemicals and fertilizers is the greatest cause of water pollution, leading to ocean dead zones and water acidification.

Commercial farming demands a high rate of deforestation to clear land for raising cattle or growing crops. There is a low rate of forest regeneration, as soil is often eroded or degraded until the point of infertility. Practices like slash and burn used in Brazil by illegal cattle ranchers releases high amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s estimated that 80% of tropical deforestation is caused by agriculture, and 11% of GHG emissions are due to deforestation (not to mention the 15% caused by agriculture itself). Habitat loss, decreasing biodiversity, and displacement of local peoples are all consequences of land use conversion too.

These two aspects of commercial agriculture are sufficient to demonstrate the negative impacts that it is having on our Earth. Regardless of our viewpoints regarding the current health of and the importance of the environment, it is important to discuss  more sustainable alternatives.

The Solution

It is my belief that homesteaders and local farmers are able to greatly impact our future. Whether they grow food for self sustenance or for sale, these types of farmers can help lower the environmental footprint of our modern food system.

Homesteaders operate by growing their own crops and hunting for their own meat. Thus, these people have a decreased reliance on commercially grown foods to feed themselves and their families.

Local farmers operate on a smaller scale, meaning that less land is used to grow food, and fewer miles are traversed to bring the food from the farm to the marketplace. Since their is a decreased amount of time between harvesting the food and selling it, farmers don’t have to use preservatives or plastic packaging to keep the food fresh. Also, less energy is used for refrigeration. Because smaller amounts of food are being grown, less land has to be cleared, and the rigorous farming practices used by commercial farmers can be avoided.

How It Works 

Farmers markets provide a network for local farms to connect with the community by selling their produce. Frequently, produce at the farmers market is cheaper than at the grocery store. Locally grown food is also healthier, since it is picked at its peak, sold fresh, and doesn’t require the same treatment as foods in the supermarket.

In a country led by consumerism, the easiest and most efficient way to make an impact is by making the right choices about how and where you spend your money. By buying food at the farmers market, you are not only putting money into the local economy, but you are also supporting farmers who will ensure a more sustainable future for our country and for humanity as a whole.

-Griffin