When Mountains Were Mountains



Fact: In all of the world’s major religions, there is a mountain allegory.

Do you remember when only faith could move mountains and mountains stood almost as high as heaven? Our voices rang out joyful-joyful hymns of adoration for mountains and vales, and for the glory of our heavenly king shining over the mountaintops. I thought the sun was the eye of God, and the closer I could get to that eye, the closer I could get to salvation.

Do you remember learning that the Appalachians were the oldest mountain chain in the world? When I read that in my schoolbooks, I thought it meant that God made the Appalachians first, and that they were the inspiration and model for all the mountains that came after. I didn’t know that their age meant they were full of coal. I didn’t dream that there were people greedy enough to only see the mountains as standing in the way of cheap energy.

Fact: Over 80% of the world’s fresh water originates in mountain streams.

Do you remember when love was river deep and mountain high? Back then, it felt like love was the only thing that could come close to the magic and magnitude of faith, and only the deepest rivers and the highest mountains could come close to the power of love. This was before 502 mountains lost their height to the coal companies, and now we wonder why love doesn’t seem so powerful anymore.

Do you remember the first time you saw a mountain? I thought to live on a mountain would be like living at the foot of God’s throne. Their tree-covered elevations were all the proof I needed of God. I thought the crisp mountain air inflating my lungs was just what love would taste like. I waded in mountain streams, shrieking at waters so cold they burned, and I marveled at how I could see all the way to the bottom. And I was ignorant about how the same air would cause lung cancer, and how those trees would fill in the streams, and how the clear waters would turn orange with rust and toxins.

Fact: Extraction abuses by the coal industry have destroyed more than 1,000,000 forest acres and 500 mountains, and buried over 1,000 streams.

And do you remember when corporations thought they were people and people thought they were God? So the coal companies moved mountains and blew off their tops until they were shorter than the Statue of Liberty. And then they filled in their streams with so much rubble, even faith can’t move it anymore.

And do you remember how they taught us that mountain people weren’t closer to God at all? That they were just Deliverance and incest, tooth decay and moonshine, front porch rocking chairs and sawed-off shotguns? Because they weren’t like us, it was okay to buy the mineral rights to their lands for coal-dirty half-dollars an acre, and because they weren’t using the coal, it was right for us to use it instead.

Fact: The Massey Coal Company regularly brings in revenues of around $1 billion annually, yet the region in which they mine is one of the most impoverished in the nation.

 And do you remember when they advertised the moonscape-bare mountaintops as “flat, buildable land” that would stimulate the economy and help fix the “poverty problem” in Appalachia? Somehow, they forgot to advertise that they caused the “poverty problem” in the first place. Somehow they forgot to advertise when they built toxin-filled slurry ponds above elementary schools, or when the Holiday Inn in Hazard, Kentucky, began to sink, or when the Big Sandy Federal Penitentiary was nicknamed “Sink-Sink.” Somehow, they forgot to advertise when 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson died by a thousand-pound boulder that crushed him while he was sleeping, or when Debra Burke took her own life because of flash floods and wrecked foundations and starvation—and the coal company wouldn’t even reimburse her for the garden her family depended on for food. They just advertised that the people of the mountains were “sludge” on our nation’s economy and should just move away.

Fact: A theological school of thought that can be traced back to St. Augustine preaches that we are all responsible for caring for all of God’s creation, including the earth.

And do you remember when we lost our faith? Was it when dynamite moved mountains that faith wanted to keep put? Was it when prayer couldn’t stop the mountains being turned into shrapnel by bombs that explode with the power of Hiroshima every week? Or was it when we stood on those bare moonscapes that were once ripe with the most varied ecosystem in the world, and we realized that the world was ending and we didn’t know how even God could find us in the wreckage?

And do you remember the first time we saw a topless mountain? It looked like its soul was sucked out and discarded for a thin vein of coal, and we understood that God didn’t blow up those mountains—we did.


Karyl Anne Geary is an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech Community College. She is the founder and workshop leader of the Rojong Yoin Writing Community in Louisville and is also working toward an master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction at Spalding University. Her essays and poetry have been published in the Stonecoast Review, the IUSoutheast Review, New Southerner, and the Barbaric Yawp. She is currently at work on a few projects, most notably a collection of essays about growing up in Kentucky and another collection about healing from personal trauma while simultaneously working with child trauma victims. She blogs at karylannewrites.wordpress.com.


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