Change – As Obama tries to gain his footing as president I wonder, what actually constitutes change? How much can a place change and how much does it want to stay the same? It would seem that in part the answer to this question resides in the where, the what, the who, and the wealth. I was born in Montgomery, West Virginia on the banks of the Kanawha River.
In this era of Obama, recession and full-scale environmental destruction, I wonder, what actually constitutes change and what kinds of change are we seeking? How much can a society, a place change and how much does it want to stay the same? It would seem that in part the answer to this question resides in the where, the what, the who, and the wealth. I was born in Montgomery, West Virginia on the banks of the Kanawha River. Although Montgomery is right on the border between Kanawha and Fayette counties, my birth certificate lists me as being born in Fayette. Today Montgomery is a shadow of its former self barely resembling the vibrant town I remember in my childhood. Then it was a hopping little economic cultural center that was the home of the West Virginia Institute of Technology (Tech), the Corner Drug Store and Brown Chevrolet. Tech not only trained engineers who would go to work in the coal industry but it also trained the nurses who treated black lung at the Montgomery General Hospital. Tech also created a small but vibrant intellectual and artistic community. There were not too many intellectual centers in that particular neck of the woods at that particular moment in history so this made Montgomery special to me as this was where I had my first inkling of the possibility of an intellectual-artistic life even though I don’t exactly remember that occurring. But others do and there are the stories. Growing up in West Virginia in the sixties and seventies, I felt that I had been dropped out of a spaceship and left to fend for myself. I was an alien freak.
West Virginia 1960
We are talking about the 60’s. I was born exactly in nineteen sixty. It was a good year, exciting things were on the horizon, labor unrest, the Beatles, anti-war protests. Hitchcock’s Psycho was released. West Virginia was completely under the rule of King Coal although at that time the unions were strong. This meant that the coal miners were making good money, enough to make it worth getting the black lung disease that killed them in droves. I’ve heard many miners say that they risked certain disease to provide better lives for their kids. Although my father was not a coal miner I did grow up in a family that worked in and around coal. A few still do, but over the years the face of mining has changed drastically, although the power that coal wields in West Virginia has changed very little.
21st Century West Virginia
During this last presidential election when “change” was center stage and on the tip of everyone’s tongues I contemplated how much a place can truly transform itself and what forms can these transformations take. West Virginia went for McCain/Palin even through it is predominantly a democratic state. Outsiders laugh and say that hillbillies are not only stupid but they are even more deeply racist. This is in part true but WV is also a place where class plays as important a role as race and it is deeply unfortunate that these two socio political positions can’t seem to come to an understanding with each other in order to create some real change. José Esteban Muñoz eloquently notes in his introduction to his book Disidentifications that “the social script depends on minority factionalism and isolationism to maintain the status of dominant order.” West Virginia went for McCain/Palin because WV is controlled by Coal and Coal wanted nothing to do with Obama. So in the place where they played the “Al Gore/John Kerry are going to take your hunting guns away,” card, this time they played race and jobs. The Friends of Coal knew that an Obama administration could potentially take the Bush imposed muzzle off of the Environmental Protection Agency. The coal industry transformed and portrayed potential governmental regulations (enforced by a Democratic administration) as a threat to coal mining jobs. Regulation would be inconvenient for the coal industry and big coal gets creative under pressure. For instance, have you ever heard the term, “clean coal”?
In bell hook’s book belonging, she weaves old and new essays together to paint a complex picture of race, power, environmentalism and spirituality in her home state of Kentucky. As eastern Kentucky is every bit as Appalachian as West Virginia, this is a book that I find myself identifying with much of the time. hooks continuously reminds me of the ways in which racism impacted her as my whiteness has both privileged and impacted me–she calls for a theorization and black critique of whiteness. I agree and would also add that there needs to be a better theorization of poor white’s and class and that this analysis must be done in relation to class and environmentalism.
I can remember the time when black people were not allowed in “white” restaurants. Once we were going to Virginia from West Virginia to visit my mother’s parents and Annie Martin was with us. We stopped at a restaurant to eat and they would not serve Annie because she was black. My mother threw a thunderous hissy fit but to no avail and we left without eating. I could have only been four or five at that time but I can remember being impressed with my mother’s rage and my own sense that this was a horrible thing and that it had humiliated Annie. I can remember her shame and I remember my own. Annie worked for my family. In retrospect, this makes me uncomfortable to say, as I now understand the racism that was embedded in this relationship. What I knew at that time was that Annie felt like family. I knew her and cared for her from the time I was born until she died only a few years ago. She also knew me and cared for me. No one in her biological family was able to be with her as she lay dying. Luckily my sister Anne was able at her bedside when she passed. Granted most of her kin were dead and Janie, the woman she had raised as her daughter was angry. Jane’s anger was likely because Annie devoted so much time to my family. It was only years later that I realized that she had ignored her own in this process. I was grateful that Annie didn’t have to die alone but saddened that I wasn’t able to be there to see her on her way.
I owe Anne Martin a debt for the care she gave me and I loved her like my own mother. She was there for me when my mother died and it was in her arms that I was first able to cry about that wound. Annie was there until my father remarried and my stepmother fired her. I had thrown a shoe at my brother who ducked-and well, the shoe hit my father’s wife. It was an accident (that it hit her instead of my brother) but she flew off the handle and was going to punish me by hitting me with the very same shoe that I had thrown. Annie wouldn’t let her. So the stepmother fired her. I couldn’t believe that my father allowed this woman whom I viewed a false mother, a usurper, and a bitch to fire Annie Martin for protecting me. I realized again that this was yet another humiliation delivered from white folk to black. I was nine.
From that time when I was 9 until I was forty-six I visited Annie in her trailer in Smithers, WV. I visited her every time I came home and somehow she always knew when I was coming. Even if I had wanted to I wouldn’t have missed my visits with Annie in her doublewide on the banks of the Kanawha River.
I was very grateful that my sister Anne was with Annie when she died. -bell hooks describes the terror that blacks sometimes feel in the presence of whites. It is institutionalized terror. I can understand that to the extent that I am able because when whites turn that anger on other whites who are different it can get ugly in other ways, different stories with different histories. But no one should have to die alone. I remember staying with Annie and her husband Ed in their little wooden shack in Longacre, West Virginia. All of the houses were painted with butternut yellow surplus paint from the company store. There was always the black tint of coal dust on the roofs. This black dust signaled business as usual and all of the houses in the coal fields are covered with it. Longacre was torn down sometime in the eighties. That was first time I had ever known of an entire town being torn down. Just erased, as if it had never been there at all. I had no idea that that was possible. Back then Longacre was a black coal camp town and it was hard scrabble poor. It was little more than a shanty town hastily constructed by Harwood Coal Company to house its black miners and their families while the mine was in operation. I loved it there but I look back in wonder thinking, why did my parents let me stay at Annie’s house and how did Annie really feel about letting me stay with her in the first place. I never saw another white kid in Longacre. It was literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Race was the major social division in those days. It still is.
At that time my father (and his brothers) ran a tool and machinery business that employed most of the rest of my family as well as quite a few men in the upper Kanawha Valley. Their business was called Marathon Coal Bit Company. Marathon was based on a throw away (replaceable) coal bit, that my grandfather had invented. Annie probably had no choice around my staying at her house if she were asked to watch me. I always felt perfectly welcome. I remember Annie’s tiny kitchen and that she had to heat up water for Ed to take a bath in after he’d come home from the mines. Even in the 60’s a lot of people were off the grid–as we’d say now-as the grid hadn’t quite reached many of West Virginia’s very poor yet. Now goes in and out of reaching them.
Ed Martin had amazing hound dogs, big boned Blue Ticks, Red Bones and Black and Tans. Ed’s dogs could sing. Listening to his dogs was my first exposure to operatic avant garde music. I can’t remember Ed being a hunter even though he had these beautiful hunting dogs, however, he loved to fish and could walk right out of his door to the riverbank and catch dinner. It was a special thrill to get to go fishing with Eddie Martin. When we caught a fish the world became a perfect place. Annie and Ed always had a beautiful garden with flowers and vegetables right behind their house. In California their spot would be considered prime real estate, but in Longacre bottom it was considered a slum. I remember the smells of cabbage and the coal dust on Ed when he would come home. There was also a slight metallic smell, like gunpowder. Maybe it was gunpowder as it was the coal miners who set the charges to blast the coal out of the guts of the earth. Parts of mining have been mechanized now which has led to massive cutbacks in the number of jobs in the coalfields. The increased use of strip-mining has further eroded job security and the radical form of strip-mining known as mountain top removal has enabled only a hand full of men to take a whole mountain down through the use of explosives and heavy machinery.
Annie’s Longacre house was tiny but it was well used and much loved. I can’t really remember exactly why Annie and Ed moved out of Longacre. Most likely Harwood Coal Company simply decided that providing housing for its miners was too expensive. Harwood declared what amounted to eminent domain. Big changes, like having one’s community torn down can happen in a day. Joan Didion describe this well in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Something that one might have thought would last forever is disappeared. This can happen in a day. The mining company owned all of those houses and they could do as they pleased. They still can. Annie and Ed bought a trailer with Ed’s black lung benefits in Smithers, the next town over. Although Smithers was right down the road, right down the river from Longacre it never seemed as tight a community as Longacre had. Ed eventually got black lung, all the miners did. After living in Smithers for a few years, their trailer caught fire and burned down. Ed died in that fire. Annie was able to replace that trailer with another where she lived by herself and then with her bother Bro until he passed and then she passed too.
It was during one of my most recent trips home that I heard the story of Lindytown. I got different versions from the artist/activists Jordan Freeman and Paul Corbin Brown. Lindytown was a little coal camp in Southern West Virginia. The families that lived there had done so for generations. Their houses and their stories were pretty much all they owned. Then Massey Energy bought up the entire town. No one was able to hold out. There hadn’t really been much reason to stay except that there was no place else that the folks in Lindytown wanted to go. They were already home and they had everything they needed. They liked it the way it was. There were the mountains until mountain top removal leveled them. Leveling the mountains meant leveled the values of the properties in the area. The truth for the coal companies is that having residents living in close proximity to mountain top removal mining is a down right nuisance. Local residents complain and just generally cause trouble for the coal companies. The best way to shut these hillbillies up is for the coal companies to take a two pronged approach. Destroy the land and water in the community and then offer to buy up as much land as possible. That clears the way to freely blow everything to smithereens without any witnesses around to complain about or report the mass destruction of the environment. In some ways the buyouts are really only a formality, as the coal companies already own the mineral rights to the land anyway. That means they own everything beneath the topsoil. The residents are living on borrowed time. Buying out the residents allows mining corporations to to remove whatever is on top of the topsoil to gain access to the thin seams of black diamonds underneath. In the case of Lindytown this included removing the residents. One old timer in her nineties had a heart attack as she was leaving her home and walking to the waiting moving van laden with a life’s worth of belongings. She died right there on the spot.
Earlier this year a huge gay rally converged on Washington D. C. to implore the first African American president to grant the gay, lesbian, trans and differently sexed communities equal human rights as those enjoyed by our heterosexual colleagues. I was impressed by how much has changed in my lifetime, as well as by how little has changed and where those changes are located. The ever shifting spaces between race and sexuality, religious beliefs and world views continues to move around and slide past each other sometimes even colliding. The media’s amplification of conservative voices and viewpoints of angry people who don’t care who their targets are as any matrix of change or movement away from bourgeois values, straight, white, male or corporate supremacy, simply throws these hysterics into further fits of paranoia and punitive action. James Baldwin’s writing explored the relationship of points along the scale of emotional rage and what hatred or systematic discrimination can do to a human being, I feel the change and I feel the stasis. I too have known the burden of hatred generated by the lash of discrimination and the lack of confidence in my own abilities afforded me by those who have also been held back, either by class, education, sex or the color of their skin. I know what it is like to feel another’s judgment projected onto my skin, my gender, my sexual preference, filtered through their own failures and desires. It has been a worthwhile study for me to observe how others digest the feast that life dishes out-who becomes bitter and who is able to navigate debilitating misfortune in order to continue to envision and help create, different possibilities for others, friends, loved ones, themselves and for those who will follow after us. Life can be unbearable and it is amazing that the will to live continues to persevere, even in those who have received the shortest end of the stick.
What a huge difference being seen and being heard and being taken seriously makes. The story, Sister Flowers illustrates this point, or at least the possibility of this point, beautifully. This story reminded me of some of my early mentors, people who took me under their wings for no apparent reason. Annie Martin would rank first or second on this list, as would my sister Anne. I needed massive emotional intervention after my mother died. I was seven. There is no agreement on the cause. Her death certificate listed the cause of death simply as heart failure but rumors persist that it may have been more complicated than that. Perhaps an accidental suicide or perhaps an intentional one. An autopsy was never performed and I’ll never really know as my father and almost all of her friends and family of her generation who knew her are dead now too. My dad thought it could have been an accidental overdose but he told me that he didn’t rule out intentional suicide. My sisters say no way, that she wouldn’t have done that on purpose. Annie Martin also said that there was no way it was intentional and she probably spent more time with my mother than anyone else. I can remember being a seven-year-old attending my mother’s funeral. It was held in the place where I was born. I don’t remember seeing her body laid out for visitation. I do remember that was January and it was cold, there were no leaves and I could see the mountains’ skeletal structure beneath the bare trees. James Baldwin is right in saying that children shouldn’t have to do such things as go to a parent’s funeral. But they do and they survive by standing on their little legs. Parents shouldn’t have to go to their children’s funeral either. In the case of my mother we were all there, her young children, her older children, her grandchildren as well as her parents and her brother. I remember them putting her into the cold ground, the same ground that my father was put into 21 years later. The same ground that my sister’s boyfriend Roger and my cousin’s fiancé Teddy were put into upon arriving home from Vietnam in coffins. I’ll probably be put in that ground too when the time comes. My grandparents were never the same after seeing their baby girl, their only daughter go into that ground. Montgomery Gardens is a beautiful place to pass the time although I recently discovered that there is a mountain top removal site hidden in the mountains directly behind it. That must be one of the nicer things about dying; you might just not care about such things at mountain top removal anymore.
West Virginia 2009
I first saw that mountain top removal site directly behind Montgomery Gardens during a recent fly-over in a chartered Cessna. As we made our way up the Kanawha River towards the Cannelton Coal Mine on the way to Gauley Mountain, we flew over the Montgomery Memorial Gardens where my parents and my father’s parents as well as all of my father’s brothers and their wives are buried. Recently, I was talking on the phone to my sister Anne and she reminded me that the cemetery had had a sale on gravesites a few years back. It was a two-fer (two plots for the price of one). Anne bought eight. She told me at the time of purchase that my partner Annie (a different Annie, Annie Sprinkle) and I could each have one. Somehow the topic came up again the other day and I was joking around and commented that 8 plots sounds like enough land to start another family farm or even a family resort. But these newly purchased plots are on in a different part of the cemetery than the part that has the familial STEPHENS headstone on it. I’d like to be closer to my parents but I guess I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I get to it. As for now, I’m secure in the knowledge that death brings us all closer together forever.
My partner Annie and I are collecting stories from people about their first erotic experiences with the Earth. I first knew that I was an eco-sexual on my early camping trips with my mother’s best friend Aileen and her husband Mattie. We’d hook up their trailer in the early morning hours and drive 30 miles up to Summersville Lake. Even though it was only a short distance away it felt as though we had driven almost to France. In the middle of the hottest afternoons they’d let me go skinny-dipping in the lake. That was not only thrilling, but just knowing that it was kind of naughty made it feel even more delightful. Then we would spend all afternoon fishing and at night we’d make a big fire and cook up some hush puppies, fried fish and corn on the cob. I was in heaven on those camping trips and I never wanted them to end. My feelings of oneness were boundless as the minnows nibbled at my toes and I peed in the water. I loved nature. I was nature.
I had eco sexual feelings (although I didn’t know that that was what they were) even before this camping trip- even when I was a very small child. The place that I felt most alive in my childhood was on my grandparents’ farm. My earliest memories are located in my grandmother’s tomato patch. She grew the most incredible tomatoes they were soft and juicy warm and absolutely forbidden unless she was serving them. I’m not sure why I loved her tomatoes so much. I just knew that they were a luscious gift and I reveled in their various shades of red and yellow and orange ranging from the big beefeaters to tiny tomatillos. They represented some kind of sun-drenched love that I both desperately desired from the people around me and that I deathly afraid of getting as I thought I’d most certainly just lose it again. I can still see the sun shining in the reds, yellows and purples of her tomatoes and I melt into these memories as I envision, revision my past. Each summer I plant my own perhaps more in memory of my grandmother than anything else.
I knew that I was an eco-sexual was when I found myself delighting in the dirt under my fingernails gotten from digging around in my grandfather’s earthworm farm at the age of four. I loved the rich, black loamy dirt that the earthworms made with their shit. I loved their slimy purple pink ribbed bodies when I picked them up. I loved them more, especially after I learned each individual earthworm contained both male and female reproductive organs. This seemed like a perfect way to be in the world, self contained, hermaphroditic, slimy and great fish bait.
After my mother died and after my father’s wife fired Annie I became emotionally feral. I wanted love but I was terrified. I maintained a protected emotional distance from other people well into my mid-twenties. But the earth, my grandmother’s garden and the creatures who made the dirt rich, the sky the water and the mountains held me tight. I was baptized in the dusky light of the cool Blue Ridge Mountains within the larger body of the Appalachians. These mountains were an unmovable presence that made me feel safe and they held me like an autistic child or a frightened animal that needs to be held, in a full bodied embrace that kept me from spooking at the slightest sudden move or emotional surprise. Temple Grandon discusses this full-bodied embrace in her hug machine which is designed to calm hypersensitive folks who are most often autistic.
As a kid I had several places where I stayed. I had my father’s home and later the home with my father and his second wife. I also stayed at my two oldest sisters’ houses. My sister Kitty, who eventually had four kids and my sister Anne who had one. There was also my grandparents’ farm in Virginia were I went as often as I could mostly on the weekends and during the summer. And then there was Annie’s. As a kid I had the luxury of roaming the woods, the fields and the lazy streams of waters that marked our farm and trickled down the mountains to the rivers below. On the farm we had three fresh springs that you could drink straight out of. We also had two ponds that my father had built as a crazy money making scheme. He thought that by keeping the ponds stocked with bass and bluegill that he could sell fishing rights to the locals. In other words, local folks were supposed to pay us to fish in these ponds. The only problem was that these folks had other places to fish for free. I don’t believe that my father ever made a penny from his ponds. However, this suited me just fine as I had those ponds all to myself most of the time and I loved to fish. I was a loner, even at a young age, and I was just as happy fishing by myself as I was with my grandfather, my father, or my brother. We often had fish for dinner. I preferred the bass to the bluegill because they were bigger but I was happy with whatever I landed. These fish were sweet and tasty. Eating them felt right as they came from our land as did the vegetables and the yearly steer that we slaughtered. We knew the woods where the venison that family friends would bring by at Thanksgiving came from. It seemed normal to know exactly where one’s food originated. I have no idea where most of it comes from anymore.
My dad was a traveling salesman. I don’t know why but he would embark on his crazy building projects which became especially interesting when he decided to do so from scratch. One would think that he would know how to make things, as the family business was a machine shop. But my father couldn’t hammer a nail in straight if you paid him much less turn anything on a lathe in the shop. However, he could sell you your own shoes while you were already wearing them. Watching him do this to first time customers was probably where I learned how to do performance art. My father had no business building anything except his business. It was always slightly painful to watch him try but the same was true when he would sing in church. He could not carry a tune if you were to pay him but he just belted out those gospel hymns as though the louder he sang, the better his chances were of getting into heaven. My father did know how to engage everyone else’s knowledge to his best advantage. The day came to build the raft on our pond and luckily he got the neighbors to come over to help too. That represented no small effort, as one had to drive two miles up a rutted gravel road to even get to our place. But the neighbors instinctively knew that my father building a raft on our pond with his two kids could have easily ended in disaster. By this time my grandparents had gotten too old to manage the farm themselves and had moved to Madisonville, Kentucky in order to be close to Uncle Bob Marshall, their remaining living child.
To say that my father’s second wife and I did not like each other would be a vast understatement. It got to the point where she and I couldn’t even be in the room together without getting to what James Baldwin describes as pure rage. Mine had a different source and different flavor than Baldwin’s, but in its full glory rage is rage. That was one thing my father’s wife and I shared, we both had it. So to create a break in the household tension my father would take my little brother and I to the farm on the weekends where we were set free to do whatever we wanted and there was no fighting or arguing. It seemed like we had escaped from prison.
My father only knew how to cook chili and milkshakes. So, when we would go to the farm in Virginia with my dad he would feed us all weekend long on one big pot of beans, canned tomatoes and hamburger plus as many milkshakes as we could stomach. On Sundays we went to the little white-framed Dinwiddie church, which was in snuggled in the bend of Snake Creek Road right after you turned off U.S. Route 58. The church was about twenty yards up from where our farm road intersected Snake Creek Road so we could walk to church if we wanted. I loved walking to and from the service on dirt road to our farm. I can’t remember if this church was a Presbyterian church or it might have been Methodist, but I know it wasn’t Baptist because we sometimes went to the Baptist church in West Virginia and there was no food afterwards only the distinct knowledge that I along with everyone else in the congregation was going to go straight to hell.
The really important thing about this church wasn’t God, it wasn’t the music either because they all sang like my dad. The important thing about this church was the food that was served after the service. Each Sunday, as long as the weather held, there was an outdoor harvest feast with so much food laid out on long tables that the tables would sway under the weight of the apple pies, the rhubarb pies, strawberry shortcake, fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, fresh tomatoes, onions, ramps in the spring, cornbread, watermelons, watermelon rind preserves, peach cobblers, blackberry, cherry jellies and apple butter, homemade biscuits, and white bread. Going to this little church was my father’s way of feeding his babies something other than chili and milkshakes. Not that we weren’t happy with his culinary specialties but I think other people disapproved. Many in the community; Flora Gardener, Esau Nester, Paul Blankenship, Ward Dalton, Ned and Kitty Sue Chitwood, had all loved my grandparents and my mother, but they were not exactly certain about what to do with my grandparents’ son in law and his two orphaned kids. So they fed us after church and this was their way of showing us their love although really I had a feeling that it was their love for my grandparents and my mother projected onto us through food. Theirs was a kind of generosity that spoke of the best sides of Christianity.
The woods and water of West Virginia held me and comforted me. I would often go out by myself and just play in mountain streams. The mountains are my blood. This is why I am compelled to return to them on a crazy Quixotic project to try to save them. How to explain this to my queer art world friends? Sometimes I think that no one in their right mind would want to go back there as it is a hard place on many, many levels but it is a hauntingly beautiful place as well and I feel a strong pull. The mountains are calling me back because they need my help. It’s really a kind of turnaround as fair play. The mountains helped me when I needed them. Perhaps the most important thing that the mountains gave me was the ability to engage my imagination and my creativity on a moment’s notice. Life in the woods was always a game of mysterious shadows, noises, hide and seek, or of finding one’s way back home. I can still envision the shapes of other things embedded in the objects around me, especially at night. I still occupy that space between believing or not in ghosts, depending on the inexplicable qualities of the sounds I hear. I can still find my way home in the woods.
It was easy to cross between the material world and the spiritual world growing up in West Virginia. All sorts of inequalities, cultural, racial, economic and environmental, surrounded me. They were not hidden as well as they are now. When one can’t account for the sheer magnitude of unfairness and inequality in the world and as I didn’t have Marx to explain how the magical qualities of capital works, magical thinking became very useful. Even now and maybe especially now I wonder how thick or thin, how transparent or opaque the veils between the spirit world and the material world really are. The same is sometimes true with the spiritual world and the artistic one. Nonetheless, I was allowed and enabled to exercise my imagination freely and wildly as a kid roaming the mountains of West Virginia and the farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I think that this was the greatest gift my family and my place of origin gave me. It has been the thing that throughout my lifetime has allowed me to get to the next level while fully enjoying each step of the process, even when they were painful as long as I could see beyond the immediate present. Navigating the woods and farmlands as a child helped me learn to travel the world without being afraid of getting lost because I know that I know how to move in the right direction.
Eco Sexual II
When did I become an eco sexual? I think I was born an eco sexual. So many elements have gone into the making. Hiding in the cornfields, the barn, hay fields. Grass on bare feet. Running through fields of alfalfa right before haying was completely an erotic charge and if you laid down in the tall grasses no one would know where you were. It as an entirely private space where fantasy could abound. Laying in a ripe hayfield with a stalk of alpalpha between my two front teeth studying the clouds, watching their formations, letting them carry me away. That was a beautiful waste of time. In those moments I melted into the earth. I was nature. I was eco-static.
I spent a lot of time swimming. I’ll still jump in water any time I have an opportunity. I love water in all of its forms. And the water in West Virginia and Virginia was excellent. On the farm we got our drinking water from a well but often just drank out of the springs that fed the animals’ watering troughs. I find the whole bottled water industry revolting. As a kid I never really minded sharing food or water with other animals. I’m still guilty of sharing my meals with my dog. My partner pretends that we shouldn’t feed the dog from the table but I catch her doing the same when she thinks I’m not looking. I think that I would have been very happy to be an animal in my family. There was a way that we gave our dogs more affection than we did each other. Even the steer that we slaughtered each year for our meat supply was afforded some dignity. We were taught to care for and respect all animals and I still carry that lesson with me. In large part, this is what I find so upsetting about mountain top removal. I imagine those blasts consisting of 1000 metric tons of explosives that are used daily to expose the thin seams of coal in order to give the coal companies cheaper access than more labor intensive methods would provide. That is over 1,100 tons of explosives a day. Some have estimated that this blasting is equivalent to 1000 Oklahoma City bombings. DAILY. As far as I am concerned this is domestic terrorism. The people of these regions suffer terribly. The animals don’t have a chance. What kind of democracy is that?
As I was saying, I love water. West Virginia’s water was featured a few weeks back on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. In a heartbreaking picture, there was a West Virginia kid with his mouth open showing a mouthful of fillings that had to be put in because the water that he was drinking had destroyed his teeth. Well actually it wasn’t the water it was the pollutants in the water that were causing the damage. These pollutants include such heavy metals as mercury, lead, arsenic, and selenium. Whole towns downhill (and in West Virginia towns are all downhill) from the mining sites have had their water supplies destroyed. There is ample documentation of folks drawing a glass of water that looks like it was taken from the New York City sewage system. There are elevated cases of brain cancer as well as a multitude of other kinds of cancer that are afflicting the residents of the southern West Virginia coal fields where mountain top removal is being practiced. It is unsafe to fish in 90% of the state’s rivers and streams yet the permits keep being rubber stamped by the Environmental Protection Agency as quickly as they are submitted. These days this is very quickly as the coal industry is beginning to get the drift that this kind of evil, arrogant and unforgivable/unforgiving behavior has got to stop. IT HAS TO STOP!!!! What really killed me about the New York Times article was the fact that I used to play in those streams. I used to fish in that water. And when I swam, that water literally held and nourished me. How in the name of any kind of justice can the US Government allow this to happen to our mountains? Even Obama has not stepped up to the plate on this one as much as he could. He is touting this incredibly asinine idea of “clean coal.” There is not, there never has been, nor will there ever be any such thing as clean coal. Coal is dirty and that is all there is to it. Perhaps the corporations who are making billions of dollars, literally billions of dollars off of this beautiful black rock think that it could be clean because they have never, nor will they ever, go to the Southern Coal Fields of West Virginia and see just how dirty coal really is. Coal is surrounded by environmental devastation and poverty at its source.
I mean I knew growing up that West Virginia did not hold any opportunities for a queer feminist artist like me but I had no idea how badly those who stayed would fare. West Virginia is the home of so much poverty and now rampant environmental damage, all the while the coal companies, Massey, Arche, Peabody, Clinchfield, Island Creek are making record profits. They are wrecking havoc on the earth at a scale that has never before been possible. Even in the late 70’s when I left I would never have been able to image the vast scale of these mining operations. The landscapes that they leave behind look like Hieronymus Bosch’s painting except that all living figures have been blasted out of the frame. The essence of evil lingers on these raped and flattened wounds. Mountain top removal is creating a world that is uninhabitable for animals, human beings, plants water or any other living breathing bodies. It destroys everything in its wake. It is destroying the water sources that supply much of the eastern seaboard’s drinking water as well as the valley between the continental divide and the Mississippi River. What are these corporations thinking? One lawyer for a coal company even proposed a plan to depopulate the southern coal fields of West Virginia. This is basically a plan for genocide, a way to move all people out of that area so that the blasting can just proceed unabated and uninterrupted. Big money inspires murderer. Business as usual.
A large part of the reason I’m getting my PhD is to fight this fight against Mountain Top Removal. This is really the driving force behind my quest for a higher degree. I need to sharpen my mind and elevate the signs of power around me in order to engage the global corporations that are taking my mountains down. Although I am a huge supporter of activism and I’m getting to the point of understanding why people engage in radical activism, the thing that most interests me is the challenge of somehow using art to set up some kind of system that will out-think the corporate villains in this story while helping the people and the land that is affected. This is a long term project but that doesn’t scare me. I’m in the fifth year of a seven-year project and this has been good training. I love durational art and as I face the more than half way mark in my life (unless they come up with some ridicules way to circumvent death) I realize that I am most interested in meaning and the creation of meaning in life. In the spirit of sharpening my mind and looking at linguistic models, semiotics, phenomenology, post modernism and post, feminism et al I’m going to use what I learn in this program in order to create a performance that will stop mountain top removal.
I love flying even though I’m scared as hell of it. Somewhere in my primordial mind I don’t believe that planes can fly. My beliefs do not seem to phase the planes at all, and as I fly a lot, so far so good. It’s pretty crazy to be flying almost all of the way across country to then hop on a little Cessna in order to tour the southern coal fields of West Virginia. I’ve done this for a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there while hanging out the window with a camera. It is especially crazy in that I am doing this project which I would like to think has a foundation in my desire for bringing some kind of ecological healing to the Appalachian Mountains. My carbon footprint probably trumps my good-hearted intentions trip by trip. But I do know and feel that spreading the word about what corporations are willing to do to make a buck (or billions) and to make it fast is useful and necessary knowledge. Most people I speak to in the lectures that my partner and I give have never heard of mountain top removal coal mining. I’m happy to spread the word.
I’m beginning to both see and feel how people adopt a crusade-or maybe it is more like how a crusade adopts a person. I’m beginning to feel like a down home preacher in the church of the mountains/for the mountains. I just want to save the mountains or at last slow down their destruction in the name of love and justice
As I mull over the implications of considering my mountain work as both a spiritual practice as well as an art practice, I kept thinking of this Peter Adair film I saw in SF last year. The film, “Holy Ghost People” is about a little Pentecostal church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Scrabble Creek is up the hollow from Gauley Bridge. Gauley Bridge is up the Kanawha River from where I grew up. The Gualey River meets the Kanawha River to form the New River at Gauley Bridge. All of my sisters and my brother went to Gauley Bridge High School. I was reminded of this fact a couple of years ago when Annie and I were visiting and my brother came up to hang out. Somehow we ended up riding around in his new red truck. When you drive down off of Charlton Heights where my sister lives you tee into US Route 60. My grandmother Stephens’ house sits on that corner. At Route 60 you are faced with a choice. You can go right or you can go left. If you go right you follow the river west through Alloy, Boomer, Smithers and on to the turn for the Montgomery Bridge that takes you into Montgomery. If you stay on Route 60 west you will eventually get to the capital of Charleston. But we went left towards Gauley Bridge, in fact we went up Gauley Mountain. Our first stop was at the notorious Mystery Hole, which advertises that, “The reason you should see it is to believe it.” Housed inside a Quonset hut the Mystery Hole is the subject of artist paintings. It even has an entry in the book, Roadside America. Although they raised the price of admission from one dollar to five it was still worth it to see the HE-SHE closet, balls rolling up hill, chairs that would hold our weight with only two legs on the ground and other gravity defying phenomena. As with all great museums, the Mystery Hole has a killer gift shop containing local treasures like coon skin caps, old-timey mountain bull roarers, hand carved tops as well as Mystery Hole stationary and postcards. After defying gravity to the point of exhaustion and taking in a little shopping, we decided to feast our eyes on the sweetest sight around. We cut over to Route 16 to Hawk’s Nest State Park and drank in the natural beauty that permeates this overlook. The view from Lover’s Leap to the New River Gorge is simply breathtaking. The mountains roll down like thunder to dip their big bodies into the beautiful but treacherous waters of the New River. The black iron railroad trestle that bespeaks commerce, travel, ways out and in, conjures up images of a time long past. A past that has been portrayed as pastoral and folksy yet if one knows the inside historical trauma one knows that this past was bloody with mining deaths and union organizing in the face of massive labor exploitation. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world and always feels like a pilgrimage to go there but I am also always aware of the ghosts.
Especially at Hawks Nest and on Gauley Mountain where from 1927 until 1931 Union Carbide Company blasted a tunnel straight through a mountain of almost pure silica. Mainly African American laborers were used to clear the debris after the blasting. Union Carbide’s goal was to produce cheap hydroelectric power by diverting the river and in the process they also created mass graves many of which remain hidden in the mountains somewhere between Gauley Bridge and Summersville. But our tour was not over. As we headed back down the river we hung a right on Route 16 into what is left of downtown Gauley Bridge. We climbed the hill where Anne’s husband Scott grew up, the home of Walter and Louise Harless. Walter was a grouch but Louise was a generous woman whom I loved as one of my favorite elders. She ranked slightly behind Annie Martin and she always resented that I would always visit Annie and sometimes not visit her. Of course Annie would always call her and tell her that I had visited. Louise had the biggest smile radiating from behind her false teeth although she had seen much suffering in her own life as well as in the lives of others. Walter Harless’s father was Doc Harless.
Doc Harless tangled with Union Carbide by alerting the federal government that the men digging the Hawks Nest tunnel were dropping like flies from silicosis. Rumor has it that the local Sheriff would beat sick men who weren’t able to get up and go to work on time as their lungs were so ravaged from breathing in the silica dust that they could no longer breath much less work. On the way back from the tunnel construction site, this same sheriff would load bodies on his wagon and haul them to the unmarked burial sites where they were unceremoniously put in the ground. This held true for black or white bodies but the gravesites were segregated as though the dead would practice miscegenation. Doc Harless performed autopsies on several of the men who died working on the tunnel. He used to keep their lungs in jars in his basement and study them to try to find out exactly what was causing their rapid deaths. The company was pushing to get their tunnel completed before they got caught much less had to admit, to the murders that they were committing. Other doctors from further outside the region had never seen conditions like this they confused silicosis with tuberculosis. This seemingly let Union Carbide off the hook. Doc Harless was really the only doctor in Gauley Bridge and he did not accept that tuberculosis was the cause of illness; he knew it was breathing the silica. Silica is the principle component of glass. Breathing silica is like breathing particulate glass. It shreds the lungs and even moderate exposure to it can cause immense and permanent damage. Those men in that tunnel didn’t have a chance. When Doc Harless presented his findings to the Senate Committee on Heath and Safety they only gave him a six minute audience. Simultaneously Union Carbide made it known that the Sheriff had been instructed not to investigate or press charges if anything were to happen to the good doctor or his family. Doc Harless moved his to Parkersburg until the digging was done. In 1938 Muriel Rukeyser wrote a haunting book of poems about what has now been labeled one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the US. She entitled it, “The Book of the Dead.”
But getting back to the ride, we drove past Gauley High, the source of mythological stories about beauty pageants and basketball championships. Rivalries abounded between family members and friends for various affections. Many of these things happened almost fifty years ago but my sisters can remember them as is they were yesterday. Who would have guessed that that rambling brick building perched high up on a steep hill could hold so much sweaty adolescent desire and nostalgia. But even my brother had a story or two to tell. Gauley Bridge High School was shut down for lack of students. Now no one would even buy the building if they had the money as it has a mold problem. Even without the mold I can’t imagine what anyone would use it for. There is nothing going on in Gauley Bridge that would make it worthwhile to go into debt for a building of this size. We kept driving up Scrabble Creek. I didn’t really know where we were going. The sides of the mountains moved closer together as we drove further up the hollow. Finally we reached our destination, the old Gauley Bridge High School football field. Although obviously it was still in use for something or other did it look worn down. I had a real moment of sadness for a place that had been dying for a long, long time.
As we got out of the truck and walked along on the ragged grass Marshall pointed across the rollicking creek and said, “see that building over there, the abandoned one. That used to be the old Pentecostal snake handling church.” In that moment I felt a distinct chill as I had heard rumors growing up about such a congregation but I had never known where the church actually was. Annie immediately wanted to walk over and go right in, even though the floors had probably long rotted out. She loves ecstatic rituals and this one seemed especially appealing to her. Me, I’ve seen the Holy Ghost spirit descend on people and never really leave them alone again. I’m not sure that I want to play in that sand box. My brother went on to describe that he was taking a sociology course in college at West Virginia University. His professor showed an old black and white film and my brother notices that the beginning seems very, very familiar. This intrigues him and as he is paying greater attention to the film he starts to recognize landmarks that are specific to Gauley Bridge and even more specific to Scrabble Creek. Marshall realizes that the “Holy Ghost People” has been filmed coming up to and right across from his football field. Furthermore he recognizes many people who are in the movie/snake handling church are parents of his friends. His has a look of wonder as he described watching the film and realizing that all of this powerful, powerful ritual, trance, ecstatic activity was going on right across a thin strip of water. He had had no idea that people he knew were involved. We managed to get Annie back in the truck without having to go to the church-and then back to my sister Anne’s.
My family has a strong oral tradition. They like to talk and tell stories, especially around the dinner table. We got back to Anne’s house flushed with the day’s activity. Annie was especially keen to tell Anne about the snake handling church but Anne knew all about it and she was not impressed. She said that they all knew that Elza O. Preast was the head of the church because he dressed like a loud-mouthed lawyer and drove a big Cadillac with a license plate that read JESUS. This was highly noticeable because it was long before most people had even heard of vanity license plates much less had any. Although snake handling was illegal, because there have been several cases of people dying from the poisonous bites, Elza O. Preast made no attempt to hide his affiliation and calling. I was well aware of the class differences that were ingrained in the communities where I had grown up. My family and especially my sisters were firmly middle class and they intended to keep it that way. However going to public school in West Virginia meant that I rubbed elbows with everyone else in the economic spectrum from the poorest hillbilly to the wealthiest industrialists’ kids and the schools I went to were a mix of black and white. Even though my sister is a very kind woman, she does not want to be in any way shape or form associated with snake handlers as those folks are mainly from the poorest mountain families. They are so poor that anthropologists can’t get enough of studying them under the guise of searching out trance states and liminal moments. Even Richard Schechner mentions the film “Holy Ghost People,” in his textbook on performance studies.
But my sister was having none of our romantic notions about snake handling and furthermore she went on to tell a chilling story about Elza O. Preast calling Doc Harless to come up to his house and help his wife deliver her 6th or 7th child. When Doc Harless got to the house Elza Preast led him back to the bedroom where Mrs. Preast was laying in bed in labor surrounded by 3 or 4 copperheads and rattlers. The doctor told Elza that he would be happy to attend to his wife but the snakes would have to go. At that point Elza told the doctor that if his wife and the newborn baby were righteous then the snakes could stay where they were and do them no harm. Doc Harless said that there was no way he could work under those conditions. He made his appeal one more time to no avail and so he left. Later, the woman was bitten and died of snake poison. No one seems to remember what happened to the child. I could not even make a story like this up if I wanted to. My sister was disgusted and used this as an example of the hubris of Elza O. Preast as well as a tale of how screwed up women’s lives were in a poverty based fundamentalist culture. I hope that Elza Priest’s wife died in some kind of ecstasy that transported her beyond her suffering although dying of snake bit poisoning is supposed to be horribly painful and I can only imagine that dying in childbirth would be as well. I find the whole thing fascinating even though it scares and repulses me. I too am enthralled by ecstasy states of being. They transport me both backwards and forwards at the same time. Speaking in tongues, Glossolalia, I love that word in that it truly sounds like what it is-a song. Maybe it is a song for the mountains.