Appalachians Speak Out (part 1)

posted by Josh Ran

Yesterday, we met with Judy Bonds from Coal River Mountain Watch who won the Goldman Prize for Excellence in Protecting the Environment in 2003. During our visit at the Coal River Mountain Watch office, the phone rang constantly and people kept coming in to ask Judy questions. She’d already done two interviews that day and said she was a little brain dead, but it was clear she was used to telling her story and had it ready anytime someone was willing to listen.

Judy told us about how she was the eighth generation of her family to live in Appalachia. She told us about how Appalachians have a tradition called “tending the commons,” which meant taking care of the hills and the hollers for the common good. It was a traditional practice for people to help spread ginseng seeds (and other medicinal herbs) so that the “’seng” would propagate on down the mountain. Someone had a question about this on my last blog post, and yes, according to Judy there were absentee landholders who did hold legal rights to these lands and ultimately sold them to the coal companies. When the coal companies put up fences everywhere, this practice (and the abundance of ginseng) was brought to a halt.

West Virginia still grows half of all of the ginseng currently sold in the world, but the incredibly lucrative plant isn’t nearly as prevalent as it used it be. Appalachia is also home to many other medicinal herbs, including black cohosh and goldenseal. There’s a real treasure trove of herbs that grow at higher altitudes on the mountains that are being destroyed. In addition, Appalachia has more than 150 different types of trees – it’s the seed source for many varieties of trees in North America.

Judy told us she was working as a waitress when they first started blowing the mountains up. She told us about Appalachians’ connection to the landscape and told us that walking through the holler makes you feel like you’re being hugged by the mountain. She described walking through the holler with daughter, while her grandson played in a nearby stream. Suddenly, her grandson called out “What’s wrong with these fish?” and held up a dead fish in each hand. Judy immediately started yelling “get out of the water!”

That’s when it clicked for her that, if the fish were being poisoned, the land and the people must also be experiencing some serious side effects. Since then, she’s been speaking out against the destruction of the Appalachian landscape and culture.

It hasn’t been easy for her. Since she started this work, her life has been threatened and she’s been run off the road so many times that she won’t drive with her kids in the car. Despite the incredibly stress and constant threats to her property, her family and her life, Judy isn’t going to quit. She’s fighting for everybody’s life and health, and for the culture they share.

I was also very moved when Judy told us how much she appreciated RAN’s work to stop mountaintop removal. She said that the corporate campaigning to cut off the financing, our support for local actions and our efforts to raise the profile of the issue beyond Appalachia were all helping. I was very glad to hear that, but I left feeling such a deep sense of awe and appreciation at everything this woman and Coal River Mountain Watch are doing to protect their homes, their communities and their culture.

The t-shirt I got at Coal River Mountain Watch sums it up so well: “Save the Endangered Hillbilly: Stop Mountaintop Removal.