Afterword from Missing Mountains:
We Went to the Mountaintop But
It Wasn’t There
BY WENDELL BERRY
At the end of a book
attempting to deal with an enormity so staggering as the human
destruction of the Earth, it is difficult to resist the temptation
to write out a "vision of the future" that would offer something
better. Even so, I intend to resist. I resist, not only because such
visions run a large risk of error, but also out of courtesy. A
person of my age who dabbles in visions of the future is necessarily
dabbling in a future that belongs mostly to other people.
What I would like to do, instead, if I can, is help to correct the
vision we Kentuckians have of ourselves in the present. In our
present vision of ourselves, we seem to be a people with a history
that is acceptable, even praiseworthy, a history that we are
privileged to inherit uncritically and with little attempt at
rectification. But by the measures that are most important to
whatever future the state is to have, ours is a history of damage
and of loss.
In a little more than two centuries—a little more than three
lifetimes such as mine—we have sold cheaply or squandered or given
away or merely lost much of the original wealth and health of our
land. It is a history too largely told in the statistics of soil
erosion, increasing pollution, waste and degradation of forests,
desecration of streams, urban sprawl, impoverishment and
miseducation of people, misuse of money, and, finally, the entire
and permanent destruction of whole landscapes.
Eastern Kentucky, in its natural endowments of timber and minerals,
is the wealthiest region of our state, and it has now experienced
more than a century of intense corporate "free enterprise," with the
result that it is more impoverished and has suffered more ecological
damage than any other region. The worst inflicter of poverty and
ecological damage has been the coal industry, which has taken from
the region a wealth probably incalculable, and has imposed the
highest and most burdening "costs of production" upon the land and
the people. Many of these costs are, in the nature of things, not
repayable. Some were paid by people now dead and beyond the reach of
compensation. Some are scars on the land that will not be healed in
any length of time imaginable by humans.
The only limits so far honored by this industry have been
technological. What its machines have enabled it to do, it has done.
And now, for the sake of the coal under them, it is destroying whole
mountains with their forests, water courses, and human homeplaces.
The resulting rubble of soils and blasted rocks is then shoved
indiscriminately into the valleys. This is a history by any measure
deplorable, and a commentary sufficiently devastating upon the
intelligence of our politics and our system of education. That
Kentuckians and their politicians have shut their eyes to this
history as it was being made is an indelible disgrace. That they now
permit this history to be justified by its increase of the acreage
of "flat land" in the mountains signifies an indifference virtually
So ingrained is our state’s submissiveness to its exploiters that I
recently heard one of our prominent politicians defend the
destructive practices of the coal companies on the ground that we
need the coal to "tide us over" to better sources of energy. He thus
was offering the people and the region, which he represented and was
entrusted to protect, as a sacrifice to what I assume he was
thinking of as "the greater good" of the United States. But this
idea, which he apparently believed to be new, was exactly our
century-old policy for the mountain coalfields: the land and the
people would be sacrificed for the greater good of the United
States—and, only incidentally, of course, for the greater good of
the coal corporations.
The response that is called for, it seems to me, is not a vision of
"a better future," which would be easy and probably useless, but
instead an increase of consciousness and critical judgment in the
present. That would be harder, but it would be right. We know too
well what to expect of people who do not see what is happening or
who lack the means of judging what they see. What we may expect from
them is what we will see if we look: devastation of the land and
impoverishment of the people. And so let us ask: What might we
expect of people who have consciousness and critical judgment, which
is to say real presence of mind?
We might expect, first of all, that such people would take good care
of what they have. They would know that the most precious things
they have are the things they have been given: air, water, land,
fertile soil, the plants and animals, one another—in short, the
means of life, health, and joy. They would realize the value of
those gifts. They would know better than to squander or destroy them
for any monetary profit, however great.
Coal is undoubtedly something of value. And it is, at present,
something we need—though we must hope we will not always need it,
for we will not always have it. But coal, like the other fossil
fuels, is a peculiar commodity. It is valuable to us only if we burn
it. Once burned, it is no longer a commodity but only a problem, a
source of energy that has become a source of pollution. And the
source of the coal itself is not renewable. When the coal is gone,
it will be gone forever, and the coal economy will be gone with it.
The natural resources of permanent value to the so-called coalfields
of Eastern Kentucky are the topsoils and the forests and the
streams. These are valuable, not, like coal, on the condition of
their destruction, but on the opposite condition: that they should
be properly cared for. And so we need, right now, to start thinking
better than we ever have before about topsoils and forests and
streams. We must think about all three at once, for it is a
violation of their nature to think about any one of them alone.
The mixed mesophytic forest of the Cumberland Plateau was a great
wonder and a great wealth before it was almost entirely cut down in
the first half of the last century. Its regrowth could become a
great wonder and a great wealth again; it could become the basis of
a great regional economy—but only if it is properly cared for.
Knowing that the native forest is the one permanent and abundant
economic resource of the region ought to force us to see the need
for proper care, and the realization of that need ought to force us
to see the difference between a forest ecosystem and a coal mine.
Proper care can begin only with the knowledge of that difference. A
forest ecosystem, respected and preserved as such, can be used
generation after generation without diminishment—or it can be
regarded merely as an economic bonanza, cut down, and used up. The
difference is a little like that between using a milk cow, and her
daughters and granddaughters after her, for a daily supply of milk,
renewable every year—or killing her for one year’s supply of beef.
And there is yet a further difference, one that is even more
important, and that is the difference in comprehensibility. A coal
mine, like any other industrial-technological system, is a human
product, and therefore entirely comprehensible by humans. But a
forest ecosystem is a creature, not a product. It is, as part of its
definition, a community of living plants and animals whose
relationships with one another and with their place and climate are
only partly comprehensible by humans, and, in spite of much ongoing
research, they are likely to remain so. A forest ecosystem, then, is
a human property only within very narrow limits, for it belongs also
to the mystery that everywhere surrounds us. It comes from that
mystery; we did not make it. And so proper care has to do,
inescapably, with a proper humility.
But that only begins our accounting of what we are permitting the
coal companies to destroy, for the forest is not a forest in and of
itself. It is a forest, it can be a forest, only because it comes
from, stands upon, shelters, and slowly builds a fertile soil. A
fertile soil is not, as some people apparently suppose, an aggregate
of inert materials, but it is a community of living creatures vastly
more complex than that of the forest above it. In attempting to talk
about the value of fertile soil, we are again dealing immediately
with the unknown. Partly, as with the complexity and integrity of a
forest ecosystem, this is the unknown of mystery. But partly, also,
it is an unknown attributable to human indifference, for "the money
and vision expended on probing the secrets of Mars ... vastly
exceed what has been spent exploring the earth beneath our feet." I
am quoting from Yvonne Baskin’s sorely needed new book, Under
Ground, which is a survey of the progress so far of "soil science,"
which is still in its infancy. I can think of no better way to give
a sense of what a fertile soil is, what it does, and what it is
worth than to continue to quote from Ms. Baskin’s book:
... a spade of rich
garden soil may harbor more species than the entire Amazon nurtures
above ground .... the bacteria in an acre of soil can outweigh a cow
or two grazing above them.
Together [the tiny
creatures living underground] form the foundation for the earth’s
food webs, break down organic matter, store and recycle nutrients
vital to plant growth, generate soil, renew soil fertility, filter
and purify water, degrade and detoxify pollutants, control plant
pests and pathogens, yield up our most important antibiotics, and
help determine the fate of carbon and greenhouse gases and thus, the
state of the earth’s atmosphere and climate.
By some estimates, more than 40 percent of the earth’s plant-covered
lands … have been degraded over the past half-century by direct
human uses ...
The process of soil formation is so slow relative to the human
lifespan that it seems unrealistic to consider soil a renewable
resource. By one estimate it takes 200 to 1,000 years to regenerate
an inch of lost topsoil.
And so on any still-intact slope of Eastern Kentucky, we have two
intricately living and interdependent natural communities: that of
the forest and that of the topsoil beneath the forest. Between them,
moreover, the forest and the soil are carrying on a transaction with
water that, in its way, also is intricate and wonderful. The two
communities, of course, cannot live without rain, but the rain does
not fall upon the forest as upon a pavement; it does not just
splatter down. Its fall is slowed and gentled by the canopy of the
forest, which thus protects the soil. The soil, in turn, acts as a
sponge that absorbs the water, stores it, releases it slowly, and in
the process filters and purifies it. The streams of the watershed—if
the human dwellers downstream meet their responsibilities—thus
receive a flow of water that is continuous and clean.
Thus, and not until now, it is possible to say that the people of
the watersheds may themselves be a permanent economic resource, but
only and precisely to the extent that they take good care of what
they have. If Kentuckians, upstream and down, ever fulfill their
responsibilities to the precious things they have been given—the
forests, the soils, and the streams—they will do so because they will
have accepted a truth that they are going to find hard: the forests,
the soils, and the streams are worth far more than the coal for
which they are now being destroyed.
Before hearing the inevitable objections to that statement, I would
remind the objectors that we are not talking here about the
preservation of "the American way of life." We are talking about the
preservation of life itself. And in this conversation, people of
sense do not put secondary things ahead of primary things. That
precious creatures (or resources, if you insist) that are infinitely
renewable can be destroyed for the sake of a resource that to be
used must be forever destroyed, is not just a freak of short-term
accounting and the externalizing of cost—it is an inversion of our
sense of what is good. It is madness.
And so I return to my opening theme: it is not a vision of the
future that we need. We need consciousness, judgment, presence of
mind. If we truly know what we have, we will change what we do.
Send it to the editor.
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