No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains
Till the man from the Northeast arrived,
Waving hundred dollar bills,
Said I’ll pay you for your minerals . . .
— You’ll never leave Harlan alive, Darrell Scott
The mountains haven’t belonged to the mountain people for a long time. Not since the coal and logging interests first waved those hundred dollar bills. Since then, those interests just been tradin’ it back and forth.
So what of the mountains not belonging to the people? I doubt that that offends many folk. But it offends me. I guess the part that bothers me the most is when people see the land, and especially the mountains, as a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit; as a repository of minerals or timber to be extracted at any “reasonable” cost; as the perfect spot for a shopping center or a new subdivision; or as a new retirement development. Anything other than a land to be revered and preserved or even a homestead to be passed on from generation to generation. But it also offends me that those same companies imported labor that the land could not sustain unless coal was king.
Lord knows, the mountain land, apart from the few highland meadows, isn’t worth for much as most people think of land. Farming? Not really. Most of that would be in the bottom land. And thankfully the non-mining interests have retained some of that. Well, except for the land where we now have the shopping centers that killed the towns.
But now, a hundred or so years after the first greenbacks were waved, is it possible for the mining and logging interests to revest the property in the people? If it were, how would it be done? Maybe it’s like unscrambling an egg and just can’t be done. Or would be just darn hard. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.
Is it just me, or doesn’t it seem to reek of bad karma for people to have generated their own wealth on the backs of thousands of miners, and this after “taking” their land. Or enticing people into a region which could not support that many people but for coal, and then abandoning them to that place that left them with no alternative livelihood when coal went bust. Or, and I’m afraid that I’ll be pissing off a lot of my friends and family, then there are the lawyers who made money representing miners’ black lung cases, or the doctors who worked for the mining companies or even the hospitals. Or the landlords who rented shacks to people who couldn’t afford to leave the mountains to make a better living when coal went down. But meanwhile, no one was stopping the mining. I mean, doesn’t it just seem ridiculously wrong? So, I’m just thinking that maybe they are ready to buy back some good karma through revestment and for working to reestablish a sustainable population base.
- Donation to a land trust of the land and/or mineral interests by the mining, logging, landlording companies/families.
- Endowing with those funds a foundation, which would also be the repository for the purchase prices when the people buy the land. The Foundation would support a return to traditional mountain ways: for mountain arts and crafts through small business loans; for sustainable energy sources for the county, including grants for personal solar and wind generation; for loans for small (size-capped) farmsteads (that is, no factory farms or chicken houses).
- County-wide covenants on land use, i.e., no uncontrolled subdivisions or highways peppered with shopping centers. Now that’s an oxymoron — shopping “centers” that spread out for miles and killed the original shopping center, the downtown. Hmmm.
- Cap on county population based on studies demonstrating sustainable population.
Well, I’ll stop there for now because, frankly, I don’t have any more revestment ideas this evening. And I truly apologize to those families, including my own, who mined coal or benefited from coal in the past and whom I have offended. I am just hoping that we can put coal away as an artifact from a bygone era that has outlived its usefulness. Like a toy covered by lead-based paint, we’d find a new paint, wouldn’t we? Or would we say that the lead-based paint maker provided jobs, that the harm was being exaggerated, and that our children should just stop chewing on the toys?
The companies paid little for the land when they first acquired it. They’ve more than made their money back. It’s time for revestment.