Friday, February 12, 2010

What's Left of a River Runs Through It

There was an old homestead in southwest Virginia, not far from Haysi.  Don't know where Haysi is?  Well, it's near Clinchco.

The Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River runs past Haysi.  Some folks joke that the town was named for a fellow named "Sy" who had a flatboat that he'd pole across the river, ferrying passengers for a small fee, before they built the bridge.  "Hey, Sy!" they'd call from the opposite side, and he'd pole over to fetch them.  Actually "Haysi" is the combination of the first syllables of the surnames of two merchants who pretty much founded the town.

Haysi was surrounded by lush forested mountains.  Fellow named Corb grew up there, in that homestead halfway up the mountain, in a clearing made by strong hands and a sharp axe two generations before Corb was born. Started as a one-room cabin.  Over the years they added two or three lower rooms and an "upstairs" sort of dormitory bedroom for Corb and his six brothers.

Like most of their neighbors in that hardscrabble country they were poor, but they didn't know it.  They hunted, fished, coaxed vegetables and feed for a few livestock out of the rock-pocked hillsides.  Everyone worked dawn to dusk -- Corb said his Momma hoed a field of corn the afternoon of the evening his brother Guy was born.  Brother Ralph said it wasn't Guy, it was me was born the day Momma hoed all that corn.

Corb's generation mostly moved away from Dickenson County to find more prosperous lives, but "home" was always that green, rugged mountain country of southwest Virginia.  The farflung descendants of the man who made that clearing and built that cabin went "home" every summer for an old-fashioned country feast and lots of fiddlin' and pickin' and dancin'.

They'd swap stories that began as sort of true but became bigger and better whoppers with the passing of the years.  Remember what a sharpshooter ol' Aub was?  He could kill two squirrels with one shot from his .22!  Remember when Ralph and Cooger got into the still  Pros kept up in the holler?  Those boys got a lickin' they wouldn't forget when they staggered home drunk as skunks!  Remember when the Haysi basketball team consisted of Corb and four of his brothers and they whipped teams from schools four times their size? Remember. . . .?

There were riches to be had from that hardscrabble country, but it took big corporations with big profits to get them out.  Deep mining extracted most of the best coal.  Those of Corb's generation who stayed home in Dickenson County did so to work the coal.  Woody drove a coal truck over those steep, twisty roads and wound up with a bad back.  Others went down into the mines and died of black lung.  Or in one of the periodic explosions.  "Once again in West Virginia," a lyric journalist named Winfrey wrote, "there is frost on the mountain and blood on the coal."

After the coal was gone there was methane left in the mine shafts and the big coal companies learned to drill for natural gas, too. They could put wells on your land whether you wanted them or not.  State law.  Most of the time your royalties got held up in a mysterious state fund that never sent out any checks.  A road to a gas field took out the old homestead, and Pros's lovingly handcrafted house of wood and stone with the cold stream running underneath to keep the hand-churned butter cold.

But the forests remained, and the rugged mountains where the seven brothers once whooped and ran and played and hunted and fished and didn't know they were poor.

As fortunes were made pumping natural gas out of the rugged green mountains, the median family income in Haysi was $25,781.  In Clinchco it was $23,750.  The national median was more than $44,000.  One in four families; one-third of the total population; and 40% of those under age 18 lived below the federal poverty line while fat cats somewhere counted their millions and bribed politicians to look the other way while they ignored OSHA safety regulations and EPA anti-pollution laws.

The poor people of Dickenson County still had the Big Sandy and the streams that fed it, like Fryin' Pan Creek and Skillet branch. They had the green rugged mountains and they had strong family bonds with those who'd gone afield in search of prosperity but still came "home" at least once a year.

Even then,  there remained riches to be stolen away.  Paper corporations clear-cut those forests of old growth pine and deciduous trees that housed the squirrels ol' Aub could pick off, four or five with a single shot, from his .22, trees that were there long before Pros made his little clearing halfway up the mountain.

And huge new machines could literally scrape off the tops of the rugged mountains to extract the remaining coal. Red Onion Mountain,  one of Cousin Kay's favorite places, is a barren moonscape now. And they keep drilling new gas wells and building new roads and sending no checks.

With the trees gone there was nothing to prevent the bilious remains of mountaintop removal from tumbling down to pollute Fryin' Pan and Skillet and the Big Sandy. The few fish that survived  weren't fit to eat, the squirrels had no trees to frolic in and old-timers who came back didn't recognize "home" any more.

                  * * *
Someone cares.  It's called the Dogwood Alliance and it has a growing number of partners in the effort to hold corporations responsible for the rape of what's left of "home" in the Appalachian South.

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