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Appalachia's Future Depends on Listening to Our Neighbors

An Incident on a Road in Mining Country

by REBECCA PARK

I read with interest Travis Crum’s article in Tuesday’s Charleston Gazette. He reported that before a mountaintop removal protest turned into a deadlock of loud opposition, the mining supporters and those who want an end to mountaintop removal had some “healthy, civil dialogue” and “respected” each other near a mine site last Saturday.

I had a similar experience that day. I found myself on a road where a coal miner said I had no right to be.

He stood in front of my car with an iron pipe. I rolled forward and he stepped up to my bumper. His wife and child sat in a four-wheeler 20 feet away. I knew I was on a county road but exactly where on the county map were we? Then a young man with a knapsack walked in from the other direction and the man with the iron pipe turned on this newcomer. I left my car and stood between them. For the next two hours we stood in the sun waiting for the law to arrive.

Earlier, a sign at the ice cream stand said there would be a mining protest and a counter-protest in the area, but I had passed two state police cruisers long ago and believed they were escorting people away. Thinking the hoopla was probably over, I thought I might enjoy a rare day by myself in the country.

I had always wondered what I would say if someone accused me of being a treehugger. I am very guilty of loving trees. Moments before I had been admiring the hemlocks below the narrow gravel road.

I also love the hard-working people who run heavy equipment, so again and again I have found myself on the middle ground of this conflict. Turns out there was plenty of shared territory in this microcosmic stand-off: The young man whose presence was so offensive is at the bottom of the economic ladder–a manual laborer; the man with the iron pipe is a miner with fresh memories of bad treatment under Massey Energy; his retired-miner father who moved in and out of this scene is against mountaintop removal, and both families–grandparents, parents and three good-looking boys–live off the grid using a combination of wind, solar and fuel-powered generators.

My thoughts from teetering on the balance of possible violence that day?

We are never going to move past being consumed by hate until we resolve to listen to our neighbors’ concerns.  Every sentence that we utter that begins with “They believe..” or “They think..” does two things: It paints real people as cartoons to be ridiculed and despised, and it makes us deaf to the stranger’s needs and heartfelt desires.

I found out later that the action against mountaintop removal took place 100 miles away. This young man said he was camping with the protesters, but for whatever reason he had not gone to the protest. He said to me this was the first time he had walked that road in the daylight. He had been walking this place in the dark, walking silently, a stranger in the hills we love.

When he was confronted by the man with the iron pipe, he quietly apologized for offending the landowner. When the wife said they had been insulted by protesters, he said he was sorry that had happened, that she did not deserve to be insulted like that. He affirmed his support for a man to be able to feed his children. He listened, I listened, and I began to hear the angry landowner, the miner, giving voice to his frustrations. “Things should never have gotten like this,” the miner said.

For a moment I believed that I had wandered into a scene and saved a young man from violence. But as I think back, he was in complete control of himself and, through active non-violence, he was in control of his situation.

The gift I received in all this was not that I saved someone, but that I bore witness to how a quiet Christ-like person such as this young man was, could transform an impossible situation into something productive.

At our worst in working out the future of Appalachia, we are manipulated by the most greedy, depraved operatives; our ears are stopped, our hearts full of violence. At our best, we listen and think without malice; we combine talents and work to create a harmonious future full of the best that we are as Appalachians and Americans.

Standing in the sun on that gravel road, teetering, waiting, we became real people to each other. We asked each other and listened to each other around the all-important question:

How do you want this to turn out?

If you are interested in the future of our land here in Appalachia you are invited to meet with our group in Charleston–the “Little Old Ladies who Love Our Land.” We meet on Tuesdays to educate ourselves and create a plan of action. Write to LOLwLOLwv@gmail.com for more information, or write to receive our weekly emails.

Rebecca Park lives in West Virginia.