a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Two thousand miles east of the Pacific Ocean in the Great Lakes region of North America, the stars were blotted out. Smoke from September 2020 wildfires on the American west coast traveled like a film over the sky, like a color gel over stage lights changing mood, except there was nothing clear about the change of color. The September sky was tinted white with particles we could not see. We were blanketed beneath ash, wondering what it all meant as we watched the red ball of sun rise and descend each day.
For me it was an eerily familiar scene from my childhood in the largest coal mining valley in the world located in northern Appalachia. At the top of our hill on summer evenings, I could look out from where I stood on the East Mountain over the great, deep valley to see the West Mountains. In a white, seemingly clear sky, I could see the red-orange ball of sun slip behind the faded bluejeans color of those mountains. That was in my teens, the early 1970s, when ecology, the Environmental Movement, and the Clean Air Act had begun to open up our vision of connectedness; when our skies opened up to simply being white above faded mountains.
More than hazy memory or haze above mountains, my memory takes me to the fall of 1964 when I was in first grade. All of us children in our city of Scranton, Pennsylvania walked to neighborhood schools, castle-like stone and slate structures. They were edifices of 19th century belief in the power of education to bring the immigrants of my valley into common language and values to be Americans. I remember the six-block walk on sunny days over dark gray slate sidewalks as the sound of shoe leather slapping in a gathering of children from all the houses heading to our school. We became a river of tributaries of all the children from the neighborhood’s blocks. I remember how beautiful the falling leaves of autumn were – many-colored red and yellow, splotched – how they felt waxy to the touch. We cradled color in our hands that blazed a contrast against the gray ubiquitous houses and roads, the white-and-gray sky.
But overlaid on those scenes under a white sky was a much darker scene. Smoke was ever present in our air, not just because every house and industry burned anthracite coal year-round to maintain the stoker furnaces to heat radiators and water, or that the power plants producing the electricity burned coal, but the thousands of waste coal piles accompanying each coal breaker where the coal was processed, the five-story-high culm dumps, had caught fire. In our narrow, deep mountain valley, the smaller mountains of broken slate and coal burned by day and by night.
By day those conical culm piles as tall as our downtown buildings looked like festering wounds: burning rusty-pink ash hills. Raindrops hitting them drew sparks of many colors. At night, if we had cause to be driving past burning culm dumps lining the river, we would see ghostly blue flames running up and down and around the waste coal, as if the culm was alive with demons. Worse yet, the mines beneath our feet, the seams of high-energy hard coal, were also on fire, and in some neighborhoods of our city, smoke rose up through the streets, through the backyards, and into basements.
As a six-year-old, I knew that this was the way the world was. Buildings and streets sometimes collapsed as the wooden braces holding the ceilings of mines beneath them rotted and let go. Everyday life was riddled with smoke and sulfur and terror and reeked of the rotten egg smell. Creeks and our Lackawanna River ran orange. Just as we had to accept whatever tasks our elderly Irish teachers set us to as we sat in our ornate iron-and-wood desks permanently bolted to the wooden floors of each classroom, we had to accept that we were the place that produced the coal for the rest of the nation, and this is how we had to live. Breathing smoke.
There are memories of that time and place I am now able to make sense of, to give voice to. Here’s the one that keeps coming back to me from first grade. I am walking the slate sidewalks to school. It is night, and it is raining. All of the streetlights are on, and I can see lights in the houses I walk past. The colored leaves are pasted to the black, wet, slate, and it is slippery to go downhill in our leather shoes in the pouring rain that doesn’t seem to end under this night sky. It is raining, and it is hard to breathe.
But now I realize as I look back into this memory it isn’t night, after all.
It is day. A fog has capped in the smoke of the valley, and day has turned to night. Everything is blurry and dark.
What I didn’t know then was that the smoke and the rain enveloped us in sulfuric acid – acid rain. It saturated our air in concentrations that caused paint to peel from houses and cars; created holes in clothing hung on laundry lines.
I remember something about being at home a lot that fall and winter, frequently ill with a cough and infections. I remember looking at enormous-sized Life magazines from the 1940s collected and stored in our attic. I couldn’t read them. All I could do was turn pages and look for the very few advertisements colored with ink. The pages were huge and glossy, and beneath their glossy sheen, the paper had yellowed from our poisoned air.
I remember, too, how my firefighter father began collapsing, and all too frequently spent time in the hospital under an oxygen tent. How he was not home very much from all the sickness he experienced.
Like many stories of families in times of illness, in our family, we were left on our own – although I have to imagine in our valley of 150,000 people there were many families believing they had to get through it on their own, never once naming the responsibility of the coal producers because the assembled population of immigrants and their progeny was there to run the industry of coal. No one would dare question what sustained our valley.
In my adulthood I read the article “The Fog” by Berton Roueché from The New Yorker, September 30, 1950. It is an elegantly written, terrifying piece of journalism documenting what occurred in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 when a temperature inversion in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania created a blanketing fog capping in the smoke from the coal- and coke-burning steel mills and the many coal-burning locomotives. Over a six-day period, 2,000 people were struck down, and 20 died. It’s this visual image of the locomotive that gives me the shivers:
At about eight-thirty on Friday morning, one of Donora’s eight physicians, Dr. Ralph W. Koehler, a tense, stocky man of forty-eight, stepped to his bathroom window for a look at the weather. It was, at best, unchanged. He could see nothing but a watery waste of rooftops islanded in fog. As he was turning away, a shimmer of movement in the distance caught his eye. It was a freight train creeping along the riverbank just south of town, and the sight of it shook him. He had never seen anything quite like it before. “It was the smoke,” he says. “They were firing up for the grade and the smoke was belching out, but it didn’t rise. I mean it didn’t go up at all. It just spilled out over the lip of the stack like a black liquid, like ink or oil, and rolled down to the ground and lay there.
Though the coal burning locomotives of the many railroads of our valley had gone the way of the dinosaurs by 1964, the descriptions in the piece were all too familiar to me: the darkness. The coughing. People in their houses struggling to breathe. No state or federal government action to rescue the people in our valley – or even admit what had happened.
Now in a new millennium, when teenagers and adults read and act out Steam Punk, I recoil. I believe they imagine the plumes of smoke in Miyazaki’s animations from steam-powered retro-Victorian machines as innocuous. They forget – or never know – the hidden realities of coal used to produce it: land on fire; skies occluded from smoke; people gasping for air. Their fictional steam does not include carbon dioxide released, replacing oxygen and changing the Earth’s climate.
The news we received this fall about out-of-control wildfires in the western United States was presented as if these events are whims of nature. As if fire suppression and lack of careful zoning has played no role. As if climate change brought on by burning fossil fuels such as coal has nothing to do with it. The results of our choices and our inactions to preserve environmental integrity is a travesty of denial.
All I see is connection. The deadly smoke from our coal mining and coal burning valley was part of the original industrial engine. The ethos that enslaved our valley sent smoke and ash out across the world. It kept the burning going. What happened to us in our coal-driven reality had a cause and could have been eliminated with the choice, above all, to protect environment.
Because of the will of the people in my country in the early 1970s, clean air and clean water became a priority. With the Environmental Movement and the beginnings of a Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, we looked forward to a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We began designing solar and wind installations. In my native valley, coal mining diminished. Mines were flushed with a slurry of coal and water to put out the fires. Construction workers were hired with federal dollars to level the massive culm dumps and end the burning. And with the air free of smoke from the fossil, coal, we could breathe.
Now in an era of both recognition and denial of climate change, I think of the people on the West Coast of my country, who struggled to breathe; faced complete destruction of their homes and way of life. I feel a resurgence of sadness and anger born of devastation and denial.
We need to recognize we are part of this Earth; of its climate. Fifty years ago we redefined Environment and began a new direction toward the work of renewable energy. Just as it took the will and work of the many to create an industrial revolution, we, the many, can use will and hard work to build a new way of life – one that doesn’t include fossilized fuel or thinking.
We need to clear the air of stale and acrid words. It is time to end the burning so we can again see the stars.
Trained in fluvial geomorphology, Catherine Young worked as a national park ranger, farmer, mother, and educator. Her ecopoetry and prose is published in journals nationally and internationally, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. Rooted in farm life, Catherine lives with her family in Wisconsin. Her writings and podcasts are available on her website.