"Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness -- Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia" is almost as hard to read as Michael Haneke's Austrian film, "Funny Games," is to see.
There is horror upon horror. Smash, cut, break, wound. The mountain is helpless, tied down; no one is going to rescue the mountain.
In the midst of green and gloriously wild Kentucky, there is this unspeakable cruelty, this abomination going on: "All I could see below me was a long gray flatland, pocked with darker craters and black ponds filled with coal slurry. It wasn't just here and there -- the desolation went on for miles. The tops of the mountains had been blasted away with the same mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel that Timothy McVeigh used to level the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City."
We are going to watch this happen at Lost Mountain in this book -- a brutal attack, exactly witnessed by Erik Reece, who lurks in an adjacent woods looking through binoculars at the terrible scene. Dozers knock tree after tree over, churning up the forest surface. Big ugly trucks toil in and out, streaming exhaust. The creatures who live on the mountain are dead, dying or escaped. We've already met some of them -- a cerulean warbler, a flying squirrel, a Carolina wren. John J. Cox's excellent black and white photographs show you the mountain, excavated, bleeding, ripped open, prostrate.
Long title, lean book.
"Lost Mountain" is a documentary, a personal narrative, a natural history of the Lost Mountain ecosystem. It's also a social history of Appalachia, an evaluation of its modern political significance, and always always a green threnody.
It works very hard getting it right. You will learn what spoil is, and the names of agencies and mining companies. Leslie Resources is the corporation that decapitates Lost Mountain, cuts it open.
You will attend hearings. You will get the arguments of the company guys and the locals. You will get the green argument in its classic utterance.
Reece is a green guy and this is a green book.
William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist, drove people in the Jacksonian period crazy because he was never off his subject. He was always in the news, always insisting they look upon it and see it, that awful thing, the manacle.
Greens are sort of modern day Garrisonian abolitionists. They are always in the woods with their binoculars. They understand media. They witness. They sue. And they never relent in their vigilance.
A color photograph of dead Lost Mountain is on the cover of the book. Reading the book, you will groan, page after page, and you will wonder why this horrific mountain killing can not be stopped.
The mountain, after all, is a sentient being. Or so the greens have it. "The forest knows what it's doing." Know your mountainside; know its air and water, and let your forest be.
I do not want to look at Scajaquada Creek, though it is my creek. I can't bear any longer to walk along its shore.
I have abandoned it. Last time I was there it did not know what it was doing.
Neil Schmitz is a professor in the University at Buffalo's English Department.
A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness
Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia
By Erik Reece, Foreword by Wendell Berry
Riverhead, 251 pages, $24.95