The Last Patch of Green Earth
Buttermilk, in addition to being a very fine staple in a meal (at cow temperature, preferably, with cornbread crumbled in it to accompany a bowl of soup beans), is also the name of my hound. He looks just like it, the most beautiful creamy yellow color, with soft curls that remind me of the foamy bubbles that collect at the edges of a milk pail.
Buttermilk has been with me a decade, my constant companion. I know him better than I have known any human, and he surely knows me better than anyone. I call him my thighbone; we sleep alongside one another and we don’t like to be apart, not one bit. So, as he goes wherever I go, he went home with me to Eastern Kentucky in September for a visit.
A mixed visit, since we did happy, poignant stuff, like reopen the Paramount, a glamorous old movie palace in Ashland, for movie showings (I chose It Happened One Night for the kick-off film). We walked around my beloved Bellefonte Country Club, where my Ciminella grandparents were long-time members, and reminisced about the glorious, carefree fun of those childhood days I spent with them (I would do daredevil dives into the deep end for my Papaw to watch from the seventeenth hole). My Mamaw Ciminella took me to the club every day, and what a contrast it was from her raising on Black Log in Martin County (later the site of the disastrous spill that loosed 306 million gallons of toxic sludge into the Tug Fork River).
Buttermilk and I went to Inez, too, where we visited my great-grandparents’ house. I had never been there before, yet I drove straight to it without any directions, guided by something strongly intuitive inside me. Perhaps I was orientated flawlessly by the loving descriptions spoken over the years by my Dad and cousins. My photographs of the creek bottom and the mountain behind their small house have diaphanous, milky orbs all over them; my sister says these are signs of angel activity.
Then we went over to Pike County, and it was there that I was glad I know my dog so well. We had been enjoying a long day’s worth of poking around the hills, stopping with my heart full to bursting in front of the Dalton mailbox (which still bore Mamaw’s maiden name), and sometimes just to pausing to weep at the beauty and the ineffable connection I feel with those sacred mountains. I long ago stopped trying to explain why I, or any hillbilly, love them so. I just do. We just do. Stop asking. It does not need to be, nor can it be, explained.
So when we got to Island Creek in Pike County to look at a typical (although rather small scale) mountaintop-removal coal mining site, I was prepared to use my nasal, piercing call to bring my baby back home to me. Surely he’d be off, as he invariably is, exploring and scouting.
Buttermilk is a runner; that dog can cover thirty miles in a half day, easily, if I let him. He is sure and swift, and never met a vertical ridge he couldn’t scale in fleet-footed, gravity- defying style. In 2007 I was crawling to summit a slippery outcropping in British Columbia, the culmination of a long and viciously difficult hike, and there was my Buttermilk, standing at the top looking down at me. I had seen him splinter off left to use a deep crevasse, one impassable to me, to bound to the windy top. “What took you so long, Ma?” his waving tail asked, as he watched me heave myself up, before he ran off again.
Yet at Island Creek, when we got out of the car, he didn’t move. He didn’t run. He didn’t explore. He didn’t sniff. I swear, he didn’t even hike his leg. He didn’t even look at me to ask my permission to take off. He sat at my right ankle, looking with me at a desolate graveyard that had been, only weeks before, a pristine, breathtaking vision of ancient biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and mountains so old that geologist have settled for calling their age “deep time.” We were at a funeral, and he knew it, perhaps even better than I, and his incorrigible need for running was instinctively curbed by sorrow.
I know full well that animals experience grief. And Buttermilk did that day. Why would he want to run over the empty spaces, corpses of what once were hills? There is nothing to celebrate there, to sniff joyously, no wee creatures to gleefully harass. They are all dead, everything is dead, either blown to bits of rubble or lying in chaotic shambles, such as old-growth hardwood trees unceremoniously strewn in loose piles or simply gone, gone, gone.
It reminded me of the first time my husband took me to Culloden, Scotland, where English forces crushed the Highlanders and Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. I was memorizing a Blake poem, but as we approached Culloden I sensed that Dario was becoming irritated with me and didn’t want to help me retrieve verses that still eluded me. I set aside the poem, tuned in to where we were, and felt the horrible, solemn grief that comes when visiting places where massacres have occurred, places where things so unspeakably unfair have occurred that they stifle life even today. I was as yet unfamiliar with the events of 16 April 1746, but I knew I was in a wordless, sad place that drained my own spirit.
This, I know, is what happened to Buttermilk on Island Creek. He may not have known about the coal company or its illegal mining and lack of permits, or about the arrogance of permit variances, or about twenty-story draglines and explosives so volatile they must be trucked in separately; about busted unions and exploited workers, collapsed wells and contaminated water, overloaded coal trucks and eroding roads. But he knew desolation and he knew death. He knew what he needed to know.
There is environmental genocide in our mountains. It is happening on a scale that is unfathomable, that is difficult to overstate and scary to try to portray. I just got off the phone with my mother, telling her that I have to read Silas House and Erik Reece, Wendell Berry (whom I nag Governor Beshear to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he should have won two decades ago) and Van Jones. If I don’t, the denial in our society can make me feel crazy. I know what is happening. I know how shockingly outrageous it is. And yet one is made to feel like a lunatic for speaking of it: out of touch with reality like a fringe conspiracy theorist, because such things “are simply not possible” and “no one would really let that happen” and “the companies would never do that” and “our government would stop it.”
Um, I say, actually the government is, um, complicit. Um, Chief Justice Roberts? Yeah, the one on the Supreme Court? Uh, he overturned everything that came in front of him in favor of the coal companies. Um, President Clinton, who is my pal and whom I overall like very much, was a total nightmare on this issue and screwed Appalachia mightily. And, yeah, this fragile little thing called Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is all, and I mean all, that stands in between ancient mountains and their annihilation in less than three years. One is made to feel mentally unstable for describing such things.
Yet, they are true, all too true. Bill Clinton has repeatedly said doing nothing during the Rwanda genocide in 1994 is the single greatest regret of his presidency. Yet here at home there is full-blown environmental genocide and collapse happening, and we are doing nothing. Naturally I accept that I set myself up for ridicule for using such strong terms, or perhaps outrage from human victims of slaughter, but I do believe in the profound interconnectedness of all life, and I agree with Einstein’s assertion that “you cannot pick a flower that you do not disturb a star.” Is it not genocide when millions of acres of 280 million-year-old mountains in the most biodiverse ecosystem in North America—a forest that seeded our continent after that last ice age and contains genetic material that is beyond any value humans can ascribe it—is completely destroyed, and all the animals therein? If it isn’t, then what is it? Bare minimum, we should not be doing this to the mountains, much less to the people of Appalachia ravaged by this murderous practice.
After looking around Island Creek a good long while, Buttermilk and I got in the car and went to the last patch of green earth left in that hollow. We had Sunday dinner on the ground, and my soul felt the commingling of mirth and despair. A proper dinner on the ground: I love it when I live out the words of my favorite bluegrass songs. As I ate, I remembered my Great Aunt Pauline of Little Cat Creek, over in Lawrence County, and her cooking. If I could magically have any meal in the world, it would be her fried chicken dinner with buttermilk biscuits and blackberry jam. And I remembered conversations during these meals, conversations I didn’t really understand at the time, about coal mining, a really scary kind of coal mining where they just strip everything God made off the surface and discard like it’s trash, and then they leave and the earth is raw and rain falls and everything erodes and slides around dangerously because the rocks and roots and all the clever design of nature is messed up so nothing holds and people are buried in their homes. And then I remembered Aunt Pauline and Uncle Landon agonizing over her decision to sell a bit of her land. She loved her home, loved her mountains. I’ll have to talk to my Great Aunt Toddie, her sister, to get more of the story of what-all happened. I fear what I may learn (or remember), but I know my people are not immune to the poverty my home is unfortunately famous for. After all, the War on Poverty was declared not far from Mamaw’s own front porch.
This particular day’s story drew to a close. Buttermilk and I drove home to Ashland, stopping for a milkshake in Paintsville and then taking the long way, via small two-lane roads with numbers, not names. At least not names printed on any map. But folks around here, they know they names. Of roads, of mountains, of trees, of fascinating wildflowers that grow only here. They know because it’s home, a home that is under siege.
They know because it’s disappearing in apocalyptic destruction while we just cut our lights on and off, or stand in front of the open fridge debating between yogurt and cottage cheese, having no idea our electricity comes at such a price, a price that is simply incalculable—as incalculable as 280 million years of natural forces that birthed the mountains.
When Buttermilk and I got back to my godmother’s house, he promptly ran off on a wild tear. I assumed my mountain woman stance, in a dress and barefoot, a hand on one hip, a way of being as natural to me as breathing. I hollered mightily for him so my voice could carry across the creek bottoms, up the ridges, and out over the mountaintops. I was sure the alarm of my voice would wake every neighbor, and I knew that my voice must transcend my beloved home to ring out past these ancient hills to the entire world if these mountains are to nurture and comfort another generation.