Wednesday, June 17, 2020

An Environmental Novel

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler
It has been 13 years since Shoemaker & Hoard released Ann Pancake's environmental novel, Strange as this Weather has Been. Bant, one of the main characters, is the source of the title. It was something people would say about current weather patterns compared to the past. "And I knew Lace (her Mother) believed the weather was linked to the rest of this mess, but I wasn't sure how." (101)

I recently read this book for the first time, never having heard of it! And I found it in a Little Library, not even looking for it.  How different it is from another kind of environmental report in which people are summarized in charts of numbers--victims, casualties, communities affected, risk calculations, amelioration in the case of accidents (so sterile and straightforward that one sometimes thinks a roll or two of wipe-ups will do the trick), remediation (to what?) and economic impacts. That report might be titled The Environmental and Economic Effects of  Mountain Top Removal (MTR) on...." 

The conclusion though would not be surprising. It can be done safely and with minimum effects, one often given with re-assurance through ads, community meetings, etc.. Company X is responsible and care about you, your children and the environment, etc.

Pancake focuses on the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly reality of a couple, their four children and a few others who live in West Virginia's mountaintop-removal strip mining country. Their first names appear interwoven throughout as chapter headings. We start at a much different scale. People with names and lives to live.

And what a story it is, one beautifully told. Pancake is a powerful and moving writer. Two characters are featured and serve to sew the novel and its characters and various threads together. Lace, a mother and her daughter Bant. At once the book is heartbreaking and sprinkled throughout with ineffable beauty of life in the hills. 

It includes a monster shovel (30 stories tall), the shovel large enough to hold a number of large haul trucks, massive draglines, slurry ponds, dams made of the rubble removed and floods. The descriptions of the latter, often a result of cloudbursts which create flash floods--black floods--on the remodeled mountain sides, have a realness that is frightening. You can feel them.

It is a story, too, of the budding and growth of environmentalists, most of whom have only a high school education or lack one but who have learned to read arcane company reports, newspaper postings, learned the chemistry of massive fish kills and the pollutants of the holding ponds high up in the mountains. One of them comments to Lace who wonders how they did this, "You'd be surprised how quick you can learn about something that's on the verge of killing you." (268)

There is a tension that often leads to domestic conflict between the men who work the mines and their fear of losing their jobs, not being able to put food on the table and being permanently blackballed--"'Coal's all we got here'"--and their wives who want a better life for their children, one that is safe, healthy and economically viable. This scars and/or tears some families apart.

And we learn about the all too familiar and cozy, at times backroom relationship between big coal, politics at all levels, sometimes ministers are a part, too are included. Some of these people are not fictional.

Why don't they leave? Power of place and I think closely related but hard to put your finger on, as Lace puts it, generations of "blood and memories," including how in hard times you can make a living from what the hills offer: veggies ( must mention ramps), nuts, berries, Christmas decorations. The family does leave for better pastures and opportunities but returns after a short and difficult stay, one that changes Lace and Bant.

I often find myself copying sentences or phrases and keeping them in a notebook. Deciding what to copy was a challenge. I soon began keeping page numbers as placeholders for sentences and phrases I liked and would use to take a look at when I finished. Here is a very small sample.

--The end times (Avery's) mother obsesses about won't arrive with a Trumpet and Jesus come back all of a sudden and everybody jump out of their graves. No. It is a glacial-pace apocalypse. The end of the world in slow motion. A de-evolution, like the making of creation in reverse. The end times are in progress right now, Avery is walking on them...(240)

--Our love for land not spectacular. Our mountains are not like Western ones, those jagged awesome ones, your eyes always pulled to their tops. But that is the difference, I decided. In the West, the mountains are mostly horizon. We live in our mountains. It's not just the tops, but the sides that hold us. (173)

--The sides of the hollow, as we got further in, more naked and scalped, more trees coming down, and up above mostly scraggly weeds, the ground deep-ribbed with erosion, and I told myself, yes, this is where the floods come from. From the busted ponds and the confused new shape of the land. From how the land has forgot where the water should go, so the water is running off every which way. That's all it is, I told myself, Lace is stretching things again. But after what I'd seen three weeks ago in May, I wondered if it wasn't as bad as Lace thought. (16)

At the end  of the book you find another reason they stay. An uncle says to Bant, "I've learned something about times like these. In times like these, you have to grow big enough inside to hold both the loss and the hope. (356-357)

The book is a result of considerable legwork: interviews and conversations with people in  southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky coalfields and, of course, research based on reports, newspaper reporting, articles and knowledgeable readers of earlier versions. 

Here is an organization the author recommended, a recent PBS video on mountaintop removal mining and also information about Ann Pancake. When I see these denuded hills I'm reminded of the stumps of clear-cut forests but these are huge table topped hills once the stuff called overburden is removed

I returned the book to a Little Library in the neighborhood, not to the one where I found it with the hope that someone else will read it.  I'd describe it as dog-eared if I could but my copy had been bitten by a dog, playfully I hope.Seemed like something a puppy might do.

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