Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lost Mountain: a Book Review

Green Bean has been running an ongoing challenge for the last two months, asking bloggers to read ecologically relevant books. I missed the first month, but signed up for June. I read Lost Mountain by Eric Reece. The subtitle pretty much says it all: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness; Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. This is a terrible and wonderful book, simultaneously fascinating and horribly guilt inducing, one of the most depressing books I have ever read. It is well written and fast paced, a nightmare of outrageous proportions. Everyone should read this book.

In September 2003, Erik Reece hiked the ironically named Lost Mountain, shortly after the state of Kentucky issued a permit for its destruction, but before the miners showed up. He documented the natural beauty: the sassafras, the warblers, the liverworts. For the next year, he returned to Lost Mountain repeatedly, trespassing at no small personal risk, to document the unnatural horrors of strip mining, and the changes wrought upon the lands and waters. The meat of the book is organized in monthly sections, where the author chronicles his ongoing observations. The frontispiece to each section is the same, a photograph taken before Lost Mountain was mined, showing misty mountain wilderness. When you turn the page to begin each new section, you are confronted with an image taken that month, showing the changes. Before, after; before, after; each successive "after" is more and more horrifying.

Interspersed amongst the observations of natural destruction, Erik Reece documents the human side of this tragedy, the social ramifications Big Coal has on rural communities. He attends public meetings, and visits local educators, clergy, and families. A local activist takes him on a disturbing tour of her town, pointing out home after home where, "everyone in that house died of cancer."

He also speaks with state regulators and representatives from the coal industry, and sheds some light on the politics of coal. It is a dirty, bloody business. Corruption and cronyism seem to rule Kentucky. There might be environmental protection laws on the books, but there is no enforcement. Regulators who try to do their jobs are forced out of office, or worse. In December 2003, on the same day the author sneaks past the iron gates on Lost Mountain for one of many documentary hikes, a state surface mine inspector died after being found beaten and unconscious in his own home, his body mutilated by human bite marks. Big Coal does not take kindly to resistance.

This may not be a pleasant book, but it is necessary. We need to educate ourselves about where our energy comes from, so we can demand better. As I suspected, "clean coal" is not the answer. Not that coal mining can't be done in a more responsible, more ethical way; it can, and the author documents that as well, describing the methods and practices that don't poison the water, where native plants will grow again. It can be done, but it is not.

This leads me to my only small quibble with the book. There is a conclusion section at the end, which contain some great information and tries to provide hope--this is where the author describes reclamation done right. In my opinion, it is still the weakest chapter in the book. To be perfectly honest, I don't like the conclusion chapter because Erik Reece uses it to take what I see as a cheap shot at science. It's that same old, tired humanities vs. science argument, "Science without compassion, science without ethics, has given us the modern war machine, the industrial farm, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the strip mine." Dude... oversimplify much? It's not science that gave us those things, it is greed, it is the market, it is simple ignorance.

I accept my share of the blame: I am ignorant and I am complicit. Due to an abundance of hydropower and nuclear power, only 18% of the electricity in my state comes from coal. But I use electricity, and my utility buys coal. In reading this book, I became a little less ignorant, and a lot more motivated.

Back at our old apartment, we paid a little extra for green power, a mix of wind energy and small hydro. When we bought this house, it was one of the details that got lost in the shuffle of moving, and we ended up with the default conventional power. Reading Lost Mountain inspired me to pull out the utility bill hanging file, and re-enroll in green power. It will cost a few extra pennies per kilowatt, but it will ease my conscious, make me feel less complicit. I no longer support Big Coal.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The No Spray Experiment

My family often gets together this time of year to go strawberry picking. Dad was out of town last weekend, and we missed the start of the season waiting for his return. However, from conversations with growers during my frequent trips to the farmers markets, I knew that berries would still be available for the picking this weekend. Since the start of the local strawberry season, I have purchased four quarts from the two farmers markets I frequent, from three separate vendors.

The one farmer who got my repeat business uses no sprays. Her berries are not organic, as she uses conventional fertilizers, but she applies no herbicides or pesticides. And since there are no organic strawberries available for pick your own in my county, I suggested to my folks this morning that we try picking at the No Spray Farm. [There is an organic farm one county over, but I knew I'd never convince my folks to drive 40 miles--they are trying to be green, too.] They agreed it was worth investigating.

Picking at the No Spray Farm was a completely different experience from the larger, more traditional farms we have gone to in past years. The photo below, showing my family hard at work, was shot in the strawberry field. There were no obvious rows, rather the berries were scattered haphazardly amongst the towering weeds. Wildflowers were blooming and butterflies were flitting. Idyllic as it sounds, it was hard work. The berries were small, and much harder to find than in a typical field with tidy rows.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the fruit was ripe, but had not developed fully, with a rock-hard cluster of seeds on the bottom that are impossible to chew, and dramatically slow down the post-picking cleaning and chopping. [The seed pockets are so hard that attempting to cut through them often crushes the entire berry.] I simply avoided picking those berries, but it took a long time to get my two quarts. My family was not so patient, picking the seedy berries and whining about the time it took to find them. Step-mom announced she wants to go back to the sprayed fields next year.

The strawberry shortcake we made back at the parental house tasted just as good as any I've had from traditionally grown berries. In fact, to my tastes, it was a little sweeter simply from the knowledge that no pesticides or herbicides were used. Unfortunately, to the rest of my family, the no spray experiment was a big failure.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Curses, Foiled Again

Our city collects yard waste monthly in the summertime, and again after the Christmas holiday. The leaves, branches, and grass clippings are chipped and blended to make mulch, which is available for free pick-up. The only two cars I have ever owned have both been subcompacts, and I never figured out how to take advantage of the free mulch before--except the time last year when a neighbor took down a tree and chipped it, putting a "free" sign atop the mound in the side yard. Then I just walked down the street with my wheelbarrow. Oh, the memories!

This year, I got inspired. Why not use my county issued recycling bins? They don't transport a lot of mulch, but both fit in my car at the same time, and that's a big advantage. Unfortunately I timed my brief spurt of brilliance with an ongoing wave of storms. I did manage to get the marigolds planted (in front of the astilbes) and the first bin of mulch spread before the storms blew in. I thought I might put the rest on my tomatoes this evening after work, but we've had a line of storms passing through all day, complete with hail and tornado warnings. Purple on the radar! We don't get that often.

The mulch is going to have to wait another day. I doubt I could lift the water laden mulch bin now anyway.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Kinksy Winksy Machine

pencil drawing by SodaBoy

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Blah, Blah, Blah

I haven't sat down and blogged in so long I think I forgot how. Blank screen, blank brain. Duh. Maybe I should try bullets?

  • Part of my problem was that pesky heat wave. I don't operate well in that heat. We don't have any AC, and I don't sleep at night, and my brain stops working.

  • I have got two decent nights of sleep now, since the heat wave broke on Tuesday, but I am still feeling foggy, like I am operating on a deficit.

  • The cats were terribly depressed about the weather as well. We restricted their access to the outdoors and that makes them miserable, but when we'd let them out, they quickly realized how lame it was, and want to come back in.

  • I think I am still so obsessed about the damn heat because it is supposed to be 90 again tomorrow. Woe is me. Sorry... I'll stop now.

  • Moving right along, we met with a contractor this evening to get an estimate on having our siding replaced. He'll be getting back to us.

  • It was really nice that he even showed up. So far we've had four separate contractors either reschedule or just plain not show up. Do they think blowing us off will make us trust them? Or do they just not like money? I just don't get it. Seems like a bad way to run a business, eh?

  • Luckily, this guy was the third to show up, so when we get the estimates back, we'll have some choices.

  • The funny thing is, when we were out walking around and talking to the contractor guy, one of his competitors who already rescheduled once called back and left a message. He can't remember if he was supposed to come on Sunday or Monday. I'm sort of leaning towards don't bother.

  • Anyone have any good information or advice about siding to share? Things to look for, things to avoid, questions to ask, anything?

  • I'm really loving the farmers market again this year. I found a new pasta vendor, he makes ravioli from scratch, hand stuffing them. They are amazing. I bought three different kinds on Saturday and they were all gone by Tuesday. I can't even decide which flavor I like best.

  • Fresh strawberries are another reason to love the farmers market. They are an entirely different creature from the odorless styrofoam-like supermarket varieties. I'm hoping to get out and pick some myself this weekend.

I might not normally publish a post like this, but today I will, in interest of maintaining the blog and all. I'm glad that you all seemed to survive the heat wave with a few more brain cells left than me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Joining the Worm Club

I first read about Green Bean's May Be a Bookworm Challenge from Nadine over at In Blue Ink. The challenge was to read one ecologically relevant book during the month of May. I love books, and ecological books are right up my alley, but I had just started the 1990 unabridged/expanded version of Stephen King's The Stand, which clocks in at roughly 1200 pages, and I didn't think it would be right to sign up for a challenge I likely couldn't meet. I am not a big Stephen King reader in general, having only read two of his previous novels, but am a fan of apocalyptic literature, so there you go.

One could probably make the argument that post-apocalyptic stories are ecologically relevant, as they imagine futures we could very well end up with, if we don't make some pretty major changes. However, having just discovered Green Bean's blog, I wanted to respect the intent of the challenge.

Plus there are so many great books to choose from!

I finished The Stand last week, and this weekend starting reading Lost Mountain by Erik Reece. I have been wanting to read this book for a while to learn more about the evils of coal. I am so sick of hearing the greenwashing about "clean coal." How, I wonder, can coal be called clean when entire mountains are destroyed just to extract the stuff? I don't care how you burn it, destroying mountains and valleys is NOT clean. So I decided I needed to learn more about coal, and picked this book as a good starting point.

Imagine my pleasure to discover that Green Bean has extended the reading challenge through the month of June. And this time, when stumbling on the challenge a few days late, I actually happen to be reading a qualifying book? Good times. I'll let you all know how Lost Mountain turns out. Hint: it's not looking good for this mountain.