Telling the stories of Appalachia and its people has always been part of Shirley Stewart-Burns’ life, whether in words or music.
She is best known for her “Bringing Down The Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities,” the only academic book on mountaintop removal. The book is used in college classrooms across the country, she noted, “including history, political science, sociology, English and law school classes.”
Additionally, Stewart-Burns is a co-editor of “Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal,” the companion book for the major documentary, along with numerous journal articles and book chapters.
She is also a section editor for the “Encyclopedia of Appalachia.” As the expert on Appalachian communities, she worked with hundreds of professionals and scholars over the decade it took to complete the resource.
“I have always been a writer,” she said. “I could read by the time I was 3, and I was writing poems and little stories by the time I was 6. My daddy was a wonderful storyteller, so I grew up hearing verse.
“Writing, really, is storytelling on paper. I received an excellent education at Matheny Grade School and then Oceana High School. They provided me the communication skills I needed to excel in my writing profession. These skills are an absolute necessity when writing academic books and articles. When asked why I write, it’s because it is what I have always wanted to do.”
Stewart-Burns grew up in Matheny, in Coon Branch Hollow, the only daughter of Neely Stewart, a coal miner who was also a well known area gospel singer, and Cora McKinney Stewart, a homemaker known for her quilting skills.
“To this day, people still come up to me and tell me how they remember how good my daddy was.
“(My mother’s) family was the first to settle on Barkers Ridge, where many of them still reside,” she explained.
“She is one of the best people I have ever met in my life, so I am very grateful to have been blessed with such great role models as parents,” she said.
Stewart-Burns also has two brothers, Rick and Allen, who both still live in Wyoming County as does her mother. Her dad passed away in 1988.
“There are so many memories of growing up in Wyoming County, it is hard to pinpoint just one. If pressed, I would say it would be Christmas Day 1981. This was the day that my daddy returned home from having his first open- heart surgery.
“When I saw him, I was so happy,” she recalled. “He looked very pale, but very happy. I stood back and watched as my grandmother gently grasped him to her, patting his head and cried. He hugged me next, and I felt such relief and happiness.
“From about the age of 5 until about the age of 10, during the summers my mom, myself, our neighbor, and her daughter had a ritual of at least one to two times per week.
“We would walk across a swinging bridge, cross the school lot and end up at Mrs. Adams’ 5- and 10-cent store. Sitting up on those high stools and twirling around was a big treat, as was the cold drink and candy that always resulted from those trips.
“The memories of those walks, the soft summer wind and the absolute state of being carefree that so frequently accompanies childhood, have stayed with me all these years,” she said.
Stewart-Burns believes where she grew up and the people of the area, along with her parents, have all influenced her work and the person she is.
“I grew up wanting to know why things were the way they were and had an innate curiosity,” she explained. “I have always, always been a champion of the underdog. As I proceeded with my education and saw how frequently Appalachia, and West Virginia in particular, was maligned, it became even more apparent that I had grown up as a member of a region that was the ultimate underdog.
“I wanted to know why things evolved the way they did at home, how we got to where we are now. In order to do that, I had to study the history. My parents instilled in me a love of the land and the people of Wyoming County and southern West Virginia.
“No matter where I have gone in life, that has stuck with me, and this love of the people and places of home led me to want to study the area and write about it.”
Stewart-Burns identifies herself as “an author and a historian.”
“I am a professional consultant for various documentary and book projects. I love seeing the final product of something that I have often worked years to complete. There is a sense of accomplishment — and just sheer relief — that I cannot adequately put into words.”
However, just as in any profession, there are frustrations.
“The aspect of my work that I like the least is the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry,” she noted. “I am a writer by nature, and once my part of the project is completed, it can sometimes be very frustrating for me to deal with the marketing side of the industry.
“That, and the publishing industry, can be very slow, so it can be difficult to stay motivated on a project from the time it is written to the time it appears on bookstore shelves,” she said.
In five years, Stewart-Burns sees herself continuing the same work.
“I will continue to write and research and to do what I can to facilitate a level playing field for the people of the region,” she added. “I also will continue to write and record songs about the region and pursue various avenues dealing with my musical interests.”
She has two CDs, including her debut release, “Coalfield A Cappela,” with songs “rooted in family stories and the history of the region …”
“Coal Country Music” is also a companion to the documentary and includes her “Leave Those Mountains Down,” along with songs performed by Kathy Mattea, Bonnie Raitt, Tom T. Hall, and Willie Nelson.
“I inherited my daddy’s gifts of singing and songwriting. I may be a bit biased, but my daddy sang better than anyone I have ever heard,” she emphasized.
With her work keeping her so busy, Stewart-Burns relaxes with the same activities.
“Not only is reading and writing my vocation, it is also my hobby. So when relaxing, I tend to curl up with a good book, or write prose, or work on new songs.”
Through her work, Stewart-Burns’ name is becoming synonymous with mountaintop removal, a surface method of extracting coal from mountain summits by blasting the top away, then “re-stacking” the mountaintop. The excess, often carrying toxic byproducts of the process, is placed in nearby valleys and is known as “valley fill.”
“I didn’t find mountaintop removal,” she said. “Mountaintop removal found me. I kept noticing changes on the landscape on my frequent trips home, and I kept noticing more and more strip mines — larger than I had grown up seeing — becoming more and more visible.
“I started researching and found out that many of these large strip mines were the result of a mining technique called mountaintop removal. This was in the mid-1990s. I began reading everything that I could get my hands on — federal laws, scientific studies, news stories and the rare journal article. I have boxes of information that I have accumulated on the topic. At that time, there were no full length books that dealt with the topic.”
While her books figure prominently in the increasing information about the issue, “it is the people’s stories that I am most interested in,” she emphasized.
“I realize that not everyone will agree with my point of view on this topic, but I am more than willing to hear others’ points of views if they are willing to open up to me.
“Dialogue is very important in resolving any contentious issue. I am interested in hearing people’s stories and not talking points from either side.
“The way I see it, the people for and the people against this practice have everything in common if they would but listen to one another; however, there is currently little dialogue between the two opposing sides of this issue. They have different outlooks on how best to achieve a future that realizes our region’s full potential.”
And, she wants justice for the people of the coalfields.
“It is my fervent hope that the people of the southern coalfields, who are dearer to me than anywhere, will at last receive social justice,” she emphasized. “I am looking forward to the time when the people of the coalfields have more job opportunities from a variety of vocations and when people of the coalfields can rest in the knowledge that they have clean drinking water and safe environments in which to raise their families.
“Mainly, I want the people of the coalfields to have the same opportunities that the people in the urban centers have.
“As a professional historian, it is my role to educate people about what is happening in their communities; specifically, the history behind why certain things are allowed to happen.
“If we understand what has happened in the past, then we can have a better understanding of the present and our future.”