Prove your humanity

NOTE: This story originally aired April 24, 2015.

The writer Silas House grew up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. Through his novels and other writing, he’s described life in coal country through rich, complex characters steeped in history and tradition.

House grew up in a coal mining family and community. He says it was a culture unto itself—one of pride in the hard work of mining, and in providing energy to the country. But the environmental impacts weren’t hidden. When House was 11 years old, a strip mining operation began across the road from his family’s home.

“And for the next two years, that sort of took over our lives. You know, we breathed dust, we heard the blasts, we just—it changed that community forever,” he says.

LISTEN: Appalachian Writer on the Double-Edged Sword of Coal

The experience left a lasting impression him. He says it made him aware of coal’s double-edged sword: the industry brought his family out of poverty, but at the same time, his family and community paid a price.

In one memorable example, a coal company was mining so close to the family graveyard that they pushed his great-aunt’s grave over the mountain and into the creek below it. House says that’s where the seeds of his activism were sown.

In 2005, Wendell Berry contacted House and 14 other Kentucky writers to tour Eastern Kentucky and look at mountaintop removal sites.

“And I knew all about strip mining and I knew about deep mining, and I felt like I knew the coal industry pretty well,” House says. “But I really, even living amongst it, didn’t understand mountaintop removal, and how different that was, how devastating it was.”

Later, at a town meeting, dozens of people came to talk about their experiences with mining and mountaintop removal.

“And almost every one of them would end their testimony by saying, ‘Nobody will listen to us. Please, tell our story. And please get our story out there.’ And all of us sitting there felt like we had been handed this responsibility. And that we had to do something,” House says.

Some people from the region have thanked House for being outspoken on the issue. Others have called him a traitor. He says that characterization hurts, because he cares so deeply about Appalachia and has an abiding respect for miners.

“When I’m talking about being against coal, I’m talking about being against these huge corporations that, you know, don’t think about balance,” House says. “They don’t think about the communities that they’re harming. And for the most part, they don’t think about their miners, their employees, you know, it’s all a numbers game. And so, I always try to get at that complexity.”

House calls mountaintop removal a human issue, as well an an environmental one. He says many in Appalachia have been stigmatized by outsiders for their accents and cultural identity, and that coal has always been at least one point of pride for the region. He says coal companies feed into that mindset, and so anyone who questions the industry’s practices is attacked. House has even received  letters threatening his children. But they’ve had the opposite effect of silencing him.

“I think that it made me realize, really, I was speaking out because of my children, more than anything else,” House says. “Because I wanted them to have clean water, I wanted them to be able to, you know, be from a place that they could be proud of—that they could bring people to and it not be utter ruin. If anything, you know, it solidified my passion for the issue.”