“Read and be inspired” Courtney Cazden, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Kayford Mountain

From Out of the Classroom and Into the World

The following section comes from Chapter 6: “A Way of Feeling into Another’s Life.” It juxtaposes scenes from a postwar and current “long trip” for educators.

Ducktown, Tennessee, 1948-1951;

Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, 2006

THE STUDENT SAID “We went from springtime, normal, lush green, growing, vital countryside, gradually into death.” The memory evoked a visceral response in this student and in almost every student who participated in the post-WWII trips. She was describing their gradual progression from the lushness of the TVA into Ducktown, Tennessee. The copper smelting plant there was still working and belching out smoke. When it rained, it turned to sulfuric acid. It was as though the land had been flayed alive, leaving a red raw wound that stretched endlessly. It felt like they had landed on the moon. They could not believe the devastation; “it was terrifying.” Nothing grew there. A student remembers seeing nothing but a broken down fence “looking like it was sticking up from a bald man’s head.” The students knew they were there to see the “opposite of taking care, a way of doing business, grab what you can, eat up the land, don’t regulate.” By comparison, what the TVA had achieved looked “like a miracle.”

When I saw Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, I felt like I was reliving the post-war students’ experience of Ducktown. It was on the 2006 long trip to mining areas of West Virginia.... We witnessed how the lives and fates of people living in coal regions are still tied intimately to issues of coal mining. In Appalachia, mining coal in deep tunnels dug into the earth is only one form of mining, considered by many coal companies as outdated. A current method, described as “more efficient,” is more insidious—mountaintop removal. This method goes beyond strip mining, which removes the earth around the perimeter of mountainsides. With mountaintop removal, the top of an entire mountain is blasted away so the coal could easily be excavated. When the coal is depleted, the company moves on to the next mountain. This method is decimating the Appalachian Mountains, wreaking havoc on the environment; poisoning the water supply; and destroying people’s health, homes, and way of life. At the current pace of mountain top removal, the land affected soon will be larger than the state of Rhode Island. Already, 1000 miles of streams have been contaminated by the chemical-ridden, blasted, and scooped-out topsoil and rock, which has contaminated the water table.

As part of that recent trip we met with Larry Gibson, who is the prime mover of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, an organization that works with other organizations to fight mountaintop removal. We visited Larry at his home on Kayford Mountain. The family cemetery, close to his home, showed us that his family has lived on or near Kayford Mountain in West Virginia for over 200 years. An environmentalist described Larry as a man who casts a tall shadow, and we learned why. At great personal risk, he is fighting the coal companies by refusing to sell his land to them. He is the last holdout on Kayford.

Larry showed us a model of how Kayford was being destroyed layer by layer to reach the coal. Then Larry led us to the mining site. We slowly walked through the loveliness of his side of the mountain—covered in spring’s first green all dotted with red bud—until we came to a clearing that overlooked a scene I’ll never forget. We had walked into a vision of hell, a scene from Dante’s Inferno. We saw three trucks in the distance. Though each carried 100 tons of coal, the vast scale of the scene dwarfed their massive size. And though the excavator was as large as a square city block, it appeared as a speck. Many people once lived there. The area had been blessed with a wide diversity of trees, flowers, fish, animals, and other creatures. The Appalachians have been considered the nation’s rain forest.

I helped plan this trip and had researched mountaintop removal. I had read the National Geographic feature article on the very sites we would visit and the people we would meet; read books on the topic; seen striking aerial photographs of it on the Internet; had spoken by phone with community activists, environmentalists, lawyers, and public officials, all of whom are fighting mountaintop removal; and had seen a documentary movie about it. None of these prepared me for the enormity of what Larry Gibson showed us on Kayford Mountain.

As I stood before that panorama of devastation, Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s belief that direct experience is “smiting” really hit me, how it was a world apart from hearing or reading about someone else’s experience, and what she meant was right before me. I realized that this is what Mitchell had wanted, for children and their teachers to learn from their own unfiltered experience in the world. On Kayford Mountain, suddenly the “inconvenient truth” of irreparable environmental damage became real and personal and horrifying, and I saw how education on all levels had to embrace environmental consciousness as a mandate. Through being there and meeting those courageous people, I am connected to those people and their struggle. Just as with the student teachers of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, our circles of knowing, caring, and commitment had enlarged. Even though we came together for a short while, our lives had touched.

Read excerpt 1.