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Tear That Mountain Down

Friday, September 11, 2009

I'm delighted to tell you that Bird Watcher's Digest has a downloadable pdf version of my latest True Nature column, "Tear that Mountain Down" on its web site. I've written about mountaintop removal mining in previous blogposts, but this is a full treatment with photos. Click here to read it.

I'll give you a teaser:

It's tiny—barely 5" long—and it's hard to find, hard to see, and getting harder to add to a life list. The pose you have to strike to see one is standing, head thrown back as far as it will go on your shoulders, neck aching, peering up into the branches of an oak, watching for motion. And when you finally spot it and hear that maddening, hurried zur zur zur zur zur zreeee? coming out of its thin black bill, it doesn't look blue like it does on the field guide page. All you can see is a white belly and a thin black necklace, and you can't see even that for long, so quickly does it hop from twig to twig. Unless—unless you happen to be looking down on one, as I have for a couple of blazing moments, maybe twice in my life. Then you get a shot of the pure heavenly blue stretching crown to tail for which the cerulean warbler was named, and it all becomes clear why a minuscule bird should bear such an angelic title.

Cerulean warblers like rich deciduous forest, heavy on the oak, with rich soil and steep slopes. Ceruleans like mountains and clear-running streams. And in that habitat preference, which puts their center of abundance in Appalachia, is most of the reason it's getting so hard to find a cerulean warbler to check off your life list. The mountains that ring with warbler song, that have towered over Appalachia's streams and rivers since they first pushed up out of the ancient seabed, are being rapidly and systematically, if not cleanly, removed. Ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil explosives are pushed into their flanks, detonated; a huge cloud of earth and rocks shoots skyward; trillium and bloodroot, salamanders and box turtles along with it.

It is the vegetation that defines West Virginia for me, the riotous tangle of so many different trees, shrubs, vines, and wildflowers; ferns, mosses, and liverworts springing from the rich, wet soil, dripping with sweet rain. West Virginia has grown wild like this for eons, and the evidence is compressed in layers in the shale, not only in the fine handprints of ancient ferns, but in ebony lines and layers, the compacted growth of millions of years of plant life. And in the kind of irony that only humans can create, we obliterate the living, breathing plants to get at the black, oily, compacted ones, the ones we like to burn as coal.

Read on...

and forward it to your friends. We must stop the coal companies from tearing West Virginia and all of Appalachia out from under its inhabitants.


This one is important folks. No matter how you come down on the energy debate, mountaintop removal mining is an horrendously destructive process. The damage done is NOT reversible. Yes, there will be something, eventually, that looks like a mountain that is covered by trees, but it will not be the same incredibly rich ecosystem.

West Virginia only has one sustainable resource--it's pretty. Once the coal companies move on--and they will move on--there are no jobs, there is no more coal, and there is absolutely no pretty.

It is shortsighted indeed to grab a decade, or even two, of cheap energy at the expense of eternally destroying the ecology and the economy of an entire region.

Call and write to every politician you can--it's time to shut this devastation down.

I'm "Anonymous" because I don't know how not to be on this program. My name is John Wheatley

Thanks for caring and your post.

There is no reason, other than greed, to do this to a wonderful planet. Much of our mercury comes from coal as do other pollutants. This is not a viable alternative energy. It is nothing more than malicious ecosystem distruction.

In the northeast we have our own threat. They are called BioMass plants. These "alternative energy" facilities burn our forests to make elelctricity and heat. It doesn't sound so bad except they use unbelievably large quanities of wood. Many knowlegable people are very concerned about ecosystem destruction, forest loss, and pollution form these facilities.

They are not as bad the problems coal country faces, but one could draw a few comparisons.

Thanks for your involvement in a worthwhile cause.


I had a question for you non-related to this but about your trip to Guyana. Please email me at

While I recognize (even if I don't get) that some people out there may not have the same appreciation for nature that all of us here do, and acknowledge that many of the mine workers are probably poor and this is their only employment option, what I don't understand is how the people who are responsible for these operations can continue to destroy people's lives with a clear conscience. Or maybe their concience isn't clear - in which case, how do they live with it? On a larger scale, how is it that we, as a society, are able to turn a blind eye to the fact that our current energy habits and production methods are unsustainable? We'll be in for a terrible shock when the stuff does eventually run out, and people will ask why we didn't see it coming, when the truth is that we *did* see it coming and just chose to ignore what wasn't convenient for us. I get so angry when I think about how humans (mostly, though not exclusively, men) have raped the planet for their own satisfaction. Passenger Pigeons are a good example of wasteful abuse of resources ending in tragedy.

I'm so glad the pdf is available! My ecology class will read it this semester as we talk about the "value" of ecosystems. Don't worry...I value it the same way you do...intact!

Coincidentally, I received an email from the Sierra Club today, stating that "the EPA announced Friday (9/11) that all 79 mountaintop removal permits submitted by the Army Corps of Engineers would likely violate the Clean Water Act. ... Now the Army Corps has 60 days to review and revise their proposals...." They ask citizens to thank the EPA for their decision. Perhaps some of your blog readers will be inclined to do so--I believe there is information on the home page about this.

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