An Author's Incredible Environmental Journey After a Coal Company Destroyed His Family's Ancestral Home and Land
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"The rape of Appalachia," wrote author Harry Caudill in his classic, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, "got its practice" in Illinois. Commercial strip mining dates back to my state of Illinois, where the first horses and scrapers opened the first surface mines in the 1850s. Over the next 150 years, steam-engine shovels and modern draglines have stripped millions of acres of farmland and virgin forests, across 20 states in the nation, leaving behind devastated moonscapes and polluted waterways.
Despite the passing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which regulates the impact of strip mining and monitors reclamation programs, the radical strip-mining method of mountaintop removal mining -- the process of blowing up mountains with massive explosives, and dumping the waste into valleys -- has destroyed over 500 mountains, and wiped out nearly 1.5 million acres of hardwood forests in the carbon sink of Appalachia.
TL: Your writing gives a lot of weight to this issue -- it's much more than an issue of energy or environmental concerns. You write, 'Eagle Creek, like most coalfield areas, had been the staging ground of a collective act of historicide: the murder of our history.' Explain what you mean by that.
JB: "Historicide" is the removal of people from their histories. Strip-mining doesn't only strip the land; it also strips the people and their heritage. In our case, the more I investigated the destruction of Eagle Creek and southern Illinois, I realized it wasn't just our family history that had been eliminated. The act of historicide also included 1,000 years of bones of the ﬁrst natives in the region, the modern Shawnee encampments and farms, the pioneering squatters and homesteaders in our family, and the slaves and coal miners in one of the ﬁrst settlements in the nation's heartland--all of which had been churned into ashes.
And there were a lot of secrets in those ashes--secrets that implicated the legacies of our American heroes Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Tecumseh, and labor leaders like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis. In the end, I found this act of historicide did not only serve an as indictment on our selective viewing of history, but also unveiled an important cautionary tale of how we were repeating the same injustices and errors of the past, precisely because we had erased our memory of this history. Coal had created a stunning anatomy of denial in every generation, including today.
TL: How did the discovery of coal in the area affect the Native Americans living there? Later, how did the exploitation of coal intersect with slavery?
JB: Coal has been entwined in the fate of Native Americans since the French discovery of coal among the Shawnee in Illinois in the 1600s. After a trip to England in 1786, where he witnessed the power of the coal-fired steam engine, Thomas Jefferson set out to discover America's large coal reserves. In 1803, Jefferson instructed explorers Lewis and Clark to note all coal deposits on their famed journey; that same year, Indiana governor William Harrison carried out Jefferson's Indian removal policy in the Ohio River Valley, in order to gain control of the vast mineral resources, including those in Eagle Creek.
President Andrew Jackson concluded Jefferson's policy with the Indian Removal Act, declaring that the nation would prefer the improvements of industry over "forests covered with a few thousand savages." To launch this new coal industry, however, the first American coal mines opened with African slave labor in Virginia in the mid-1700s. Despite the Northwest Ordinance forbidding slavery in the Illinois territory, black slaves were also legally used to mine coal and salt in Eagle Creek and the southern Illinois region through the early 1800s. My ancestors, as anti-slavery Baptists, fought the slave-owning coal companies in our hollers, and we've been fighting outside coal companies ever since.
TL: Coal companies seem to have cared so little for their workers (as evidenced by what the unions went through and the changes they were able to bring about) and yet they've also had a protected status in so many places because of the jobs they have provided. How do you reconcile those things now? How are people in coal country feeling now that the jobs are scarcer thanks to practices like strip mining?