The Act of Writing: Speak and Bear Witness

By Erik Reece

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I did not go to eastern Kentucky looking to get mauled by bulldozers or pummeled by rocks that rain from the sky when mountains are blown apart. In the beginning, I went to the broadleaf forests of central Appalachia—the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America—to write poetry. More specifically, I would drive from my home in Lexington, Kentucky, to Robinson Forest, a 15,000-acre woodland in the eastern part of the state. There I would spend days and weeks living in a chestnut cabin, meandering along Kentucky’s cleanest streams and up some of its steepest slopes. It was John Clare, I believe, who said he didn’t write his poems, but simply found them lying in the fields. Wandering the mountains and streams of Robinson Forest, I amused myself by thinking that poems would come just as easily to me. And why not? I had retreated into just about the deepest pastoral seclusion one can find in the state of Kentucky. In another culture, in another time, these magnificent oaks might have constituted a goddess’s sacred grove. Certainly some semblance of the muse had to be hovering over my shoulder.

This essay is forthcoming in The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, edited by Sean Prentiss and Joe Wilkins (Michigan State University Press, 2014). It appears here with permission of the author, editors, and press.


In this collection, 16 essential contemporary creative nonfiction writers reflect on whatever far, dark edge of the genre they find themselves most drawn to. The result is a fascinating anthology that wonders at the historical and contemporary borderlands between fiction and nonfiction; the illusion of time on the page; the mythology of memory; poetry, process, and the use of received forms; the impact of technology on our writerly lives; immersive research and the power of witness; a chronology and collage; and what we write and why we write.

Learn more now.

I knew, of course, there was a terrible machine rumbling at the outskirts of this woodland garden. When I was a kid, my great-grandparents owned a clothing store in the nearest town, Hazard, and when we drove down to visit them I could see along the roadside the great gashes that bulldozers had cut into the mountains. I knew what strip mining was, and I knew it was thought to be as inevitable to eastern Kentucky as poverty and kudzu. Few people questioned it, and as I said, I hadn’t gone to Robinson Forest looking to cause trouble, or to get into any. Just the opposite, in fact. I was hoping that the inscrutable spirits of the natural world might still my own restless, urban nature. Like Transcendentalists of the 19th century, I believed—and still believe—in the power of the great god Pan. And if a hot July afternoon found me lying flat on my back in a shallow stream, then that was all the baptism I needed.

All of that changed in 2002. While staying in Robinson Forest that summer, I spent some time with a group of wildlife biologists who were reintroducing an elk herd into eastern Kentucky. But as I would come to learn, these were not the eastern elk that had been hunted to extinction in 1867. These were Rocky Mountain elk, shipped in from Colorado, and because of that, the unnatural landscape of a strip mine looked much more native to them than the dense forest preferred by the original eastern elk. Which is to say, I ended up spending far more time wandering around strip jobs than I ever thought I would. But by then, no one really used the term “strip mining” anymore. It seemed like everyone, particularly environmentalists, had started to call the practice “mountaintop removal.” And from what I was beginning to see, the new label was far more accurate, even if it sounded misleadingly clinical. This wasn’t the auger mining of my childhood, when only the sides of a mountain were cut away. Now coal operators where mixing ammonium nitrate and fuel oil together to literally blast to pieces the entire summit of a mountain and dump everything that wasn’t coal into the streams and rivers below.

One day after tracking a young elk herd with the wildlife biologists, I climbed to the top of the fire tower in Robinson Forest. I had done this many times before to watch the sun set and the fog move in. But for some reason, on that day it struck me that Robinson Forest was an island of life surrounded by the deadest, most barren landscapes east of the Mojave Desert. Standing at the top of the fire tower, I suddenly understood that I could no longer write about the untrammeled beauty of Robinson Forest without also writing about the forces at work to destroy it.


That has become a kind of creation story for me. Any success I have had as an “environmental writer” (a term I don’t particularly like) came because of what I experienced standing at the top of the fire tower and what I did after I climbed down. Specifically, I went to the Office of Natural Resources in Frankfort, Kentucky, and started perusing permits for mountaintop removal jobs. The bound permits were all about 15 inches thick and written in a dense, impenetrable language. I could make little of it. All I knew—and I knew this only intuitively—was that I had to write something about the perils of mountaintop removal. But I wasn’t a mining engineer, I wasn’t a biologist, I wasn’t a lawyer, I wasn’t a regulator, I wasn’t a legislator, I wasn’t a hydrologist, I wasn’t an activist. I wasn’t even a journalist, unless you count the music reviews I wrote for my college newspaper back in the late ’80s. In short, I possessed none of the expertise that seemed necessary to understanding the complexities of MTR. But then, haplessly flipping through one permit, I pulled out a map. It showed, with a perforated line, the original contour of a mountain. Then with two flat lines, it showed what the peak would look like after coal operators lopped off its top. In the space between the flat lines and the jagged, perforated lines were two words in capital letters: lost mountain. At last, here was something I did know how to do—perceive irony. If the coal operators had their way, they would decapitate Lost Mountain, and it would be, well, lost. Not lost in the sense that it couldn’t be found, but lost in the sense that it could never be recovered. It would be rendered irretrievable, destroyed, killed. Sitting alone among those sagging shelves of permits, I suddenly knew I would write a book called Lost Mountain.

Beyond my attenuated sense of irony, I thought I had two more things going for me. I was a pretty good observer of detail—I had learned that from my mentor, Guy Davenport—and I could tell a decent story. Given that I could claim no expertise on the subject of strip mining, I decided I would simply try to tell, through direct observation, the story of one mountain. I would climb it at least once a month for a year, and I would recount, firsthand, the story of its destruction. Having seen the permit map, I knew how the story would end. It would end badly. But I didn’t know—and due to the steep contours of the mountains and the secrecy of the coal industry—hardly anyone else knew, what happened between the felling of the first tree and the rooting out of the last block of coal. So I went to see.

Though I worked hard to learn from journalists I admired, I didn’t want to write a journalistic account exactly. Instead I tried to approach Lost Mountain the way I had first entered Robinson Forest: I wanted to see the flora and fauna with the eye of an amateur naturalist and the disposition of a Romantic poet. I wanted to create a portrait of Lost Mountain that might stir certain feelings for the place, a sense of affinity that went beyond some abstract idea that preserving abstract “nature” is a good thing to do. Even though I knew it was too late for Lost Mountain, I wanted to show, as clearly as I could, what was being destroyed and why other Appalachian mountains should be preserved.

But to create such a portrait of Lost Mountain, I obviously had to see it up close, and that meant I had to trespass. (A few years later, I heard the president of the Kentucky Coal Association tell a group of students that I had set a terrible moral example for them.) I had to sneak past the mine gates or up the backside of the mountain. I had to dodge the omnipresent white pickup trucks that signified mine foremen or supervisors. And I had to try and not get hit by detonated debris that the industry rather benignly calls “flyrock.” I suppose one could call this the work of an investigative reporter, but that’s not really how it felt. Instead, I understood myself to be inscribing a tombstone, as Edward Abbey said of his book Desert Solitaire, and I wanted it to be a grave one indeed, a weight that, in Abbey’s words, could be thrown “at something big and glassy.”

At the beginning, I took a lot of field notes, sketching the tracks of deer, raccoons, turkey, and foxes. I explored the rich ecological communities that lived in and around the capstones of Lost Mountain. I watched and listened to ovenbirds and wood thrushes flitting through the understory of the mountain’s oak-hickory canopy. Once, by mistake, I even picked up a copperhead— thankfully, a cold and lethargic one. I often did these things on the backside of the mountain, where the headwaters of Lost Creek come alive. One spring day, I was standing in deep, damp shade, writing the words “spotted trillium” in my notebook, when an explosion shook the entire mountain and I fell, startled, into Lost Creek. And that, as much as anything, represented the sorry contradiction I wanted to capture—North America’s most biologically diverse ecosystem being blown asunder by the forces that power our culture of acquisitive convenience.

I eventually got to know Lost Mountain so well that I could be standing, unnoticed, about 30 feet from a bulldozer that was busy scraping away one of its sandstone spurs. Hiding behind a large chestnut oak, the last one left before the ridgeside plunged into a cratered pit, I could make out the tattoos on the driver’s arm. And usually, at the end of the day, after the dozer had shut down and the strip miners were gone, I would sit on the large capstone at the top of Lost Mountain and take it all in. The Carolina wrens and red-eyed vireos would start singing again as I sat in the quiet of late afternoon and tried to get my head around what I was seeing. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the sign of a good mind is that it can hold two opposing thoughts at once. But I could never do that up on Lost Mountain. I couldn’t let the industrial thought that was destroying this place sit beside the ecological thought that said the mountain knows what it’s doing, and had been doing it for a few billion years before someone with opposable thumbs got around to inventing a D-11 dozer. I decided that more important than holding in mind two irreconcilable thoughts was seizing on one of those thoughts and turning it into words, into action. In the end, I can say that my experience on Lost Mountain turned me into a Jamesian pragmatist—someone who believes a thought isn’t really worth having unless it can be converted into an act of conscience.


Is writing such an act? I think it can be. I wouldn’t call what I wrote about Lost Mountain a strict act of advocacy or activism any more than I would call it a strict act of journalism. But 70 years ago in “The Land Ethic,” which is to my thinking the most important piece of 20th century American nonfiction, Aldo Leopold set down the guiding principles for how we might resign our roles as conquerors of the natural world and instead become members of a land community: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This clear and profound distinction between right and wrong, between the ethical and the unethical, can carry us quite far when it comes to thinking about acts of conscience (what is mountaintop removal if not the ultimate act of dis-integration, in-stability and ugliness). And any writing about the land and its people that proceeds from Leopold’s premise will be such an act, and it will likely inspire other acts that take many other forms beyond writing.

One of the great embodiments of such a writerly act of conscience took place 80 years ago, not far from Lost Mountain. In 1931, coal industry gun thugs surrounded the house of a union organizer named Sam Reece, hoping to ambush him. They waited all night. Reece never came home, but inside the house, his wife Florence tore a page down from a wall calendar, and huddled on the floor with her children, she wrote the 20th century’s most famous union song, “Which Side Are You On?” Written to the tune of the traditional ballad “Lay the Lily Low,” the song takes on the brutal Harlan County sheriff J. H. Blair, and the violent men he deputized to kill union miners. The last three verses go like this:

They say in Harlan County,
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man,
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab,
Or will you be a man?
Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance,
Unless we organize.

Then comes the chorus, which simply repeats the question of the title over and over: “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?” I’ve sung that anthem at many rallies, often with verses updated to reflect the contemporary struggles of the coalfields. One of the song’s many virtues is clarity. It says that one side has the power and one side does not. And, unfortunately, the latter is the side of conscience. So the only way to take hold of the power wielded by the coal operators is to act—to act together, to act on principle, and to act in public.

Thus the composing of “Which Side Are You On?” was a solitary act that has inspired great acts of solidarity. Writing is a solitary act—but it’s only the first act. What comes next is what really matters. However, personally, I have never been all that comfortable with the second act. I’m a solitary person by nature and not much of a joiner. Yet still I’ve come to see the nonfiction writer’s solitary act as important to the greater cause—really the only cause—of decreasing cruelty and increasing sympathy. In that service, nonfiction writers can perform two fundamental tasks that are unavailable to the writers of fiction. Like Florence Reece, we can bear witness and we can call for change—for an end to injustices.

It is precisely on this subject of bearing witness that I find John D’Agata’s recent writing about the genre of nonfiction so malicious and inept. D’Agata argues that nonfiction must serve the greater good of art, and therefore reality can be altered in the name of art. But to elevate reality to the level of art is one of the fundamental tasks of the nonfiction writer, and to say it cannot be done honestly, as D’Agata claims, displays an astonishing lack of imagination as well as an equally unflattering amount of arrogance and pedantry. But let’s put aside the either-or nature of this line of thinking. The real problem here is that such an attitude robs nonfiction of it greatest strength and virtue—its ability to bear witness and the veracity that comes from that act. To admit that one only has a passing interest in representing reality is to forfeit one’s moral authority to call that reality into question. That is to say, I have no right to call mountaintop removal an injustice—one in need of a new reality—if I cannot be trusted to depict the travesty of strip mining as it now exists. To play D’Agata’s game is to lose the reader’s trust, and without that, it seems to me that the nonfiction writer has very little left. Writers of that persuasion can align themselves with Picasso’s famous sentiment that art is the lie that tells the truth, but I have no truck with such pretentiousness. The work of the nonfiction writers I most admire is telling a truth that exposes a lie.

This makes the nonfiction writer a close cousin to the documentary filmmaker. The documentarian’s images are vitally important, especially to a cause like mountaintop removal where everyone needs to see a mountain being blasted to rubble. But the written word works on the brain in ways very different from, though complementary to, the visual image. If the visual image is more immediate, more visceral, the word provides the reader with the time and the space to linger, cogitate, and wrestle with the implications of what was just said. The reader invests in the work of prose in a way that is often more deliberate and more engaged than with film—which may explain why the brain is most active when reading than at any other time, except dreaming.

I’ve been called a dreamer quite a lot since writing Lost Mountain. Only in this context, the term usually means that I’m someone who is used to losing. And that’s true. For the environmental writer, losing is simply an occupational hazard. But the appropriate response to Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” is not, “I’m on the side that’s going to win,” but rather, “I’m on the side of conscience, empathy, and affection.”

Because my last name has the same unusual spelling as Florence Reece’s (with a c instead of an s), people sometimes ask if I’m related to her. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to prove a family connection, but in any case, that’s the side I’m on—the side of Florence and Sam Reece, the side of the mountain, the side of the men and women who are dying because the air and the water around Appalachian strip mines isn’t fit to breathe and drink. If that’s the losing side, then it simply means there is more work to do, more words to get down. The prospect doesn’t depress me. I’m well aware of Aldo Leopold’s warning that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” It is a world of wounds, but we are not alone. The solitary act of creative nonfiction writing leads to the second act of solidarity with readers who are willing to bear witness through the writer’s words—who are then willing to act.



Erik Reece is the author of An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God and Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, which won Columbia University’s John B. Oakes Award for Excellence in Environmental Journalism. He is completing a book called Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Kentucky.

Mountaintop removal photo by Vivian Stockman / Flyover courtesy is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.