Dear West Virginia
Dear West Virginia,
I am your child.
I was born on a green hill under a flower moon in May, in a land so old the trees don’t remember their parents, in a place where the earth once folded and bowed as warring continents crashed into each other, retreated, and crashed into each other again. I was born from the dust of ancient mountains, of a river that has flowed north for 300 million years in the same cradle. I was born of sandstone and quartz, of a windswept front where blueberries ripen and gales batter the spruce trees until their branches can only grow towards the rising sun.
West Virginia, everything I am is your blessed gift. I grew up with my feet in the streams and my hands in the soil, in places where the world’s light is so absent I could see every star in heaven. I believed this was a place where good people pulled fish from wild cataracts and loved their gentle god. I knew I belonged here, and you gave me a song to remind me that I did. Your essence took shape inside the coil of my chromosomes.
It’s not easy, here. Many of my generation sought better lives in places with higher mountains and kinder laws. But I stayed, and I passed my genetic code on to my sons and taught them to love you, too. I taught them that West Virginia is worth their devotion. You are of this place, I told them, and it embraces your ancestors in the graveyard up the street.
West Virginia, we’re used to adversity. We came to you an age ago, hardscrabble highlanders, ferocious and stoic. We dug for coal, bathed in its sooty dust, mined and hauled and bled for its worth. We brought it out and barely touched it before men who knew better took it away and sent us back down into the darkness again. And no matter how many generations lost their lives in deep and lonely passages to rock or flame, a company dollar was never enough to buy our freedom from extraction. Mountaineers couldn’t be free, and we grew used to our subjugation. We honored the black flesh within our own breathing bodies because coal was blood and blood was coal, and both were West Virginian.
But our blood isn’t worth much these days, and one by one, the mines are shuttered in the name of clean water and deep, struggling breaths, things we have waited a century for, things we so deserve. We wonder who we are, now, without coal, and in this moment when we might finally understand our worth as a place and a people, our great leaders once again invite men from other lands into our hollows.
They’re here for our shale, now. Keep your dirty coal, they say—look at the mess you’ve made of your home. They tell us we’re lowly and sad, that only they can rescue us from our backward existence—thank God they got here in time. No one wants your folded earth and tumbling rivers, they say. The cure for your misery is not the stewardship of the land but its dominance, the continued extraction of its resources, and the burning of its flesh in our furnaces. The cure, they say, is plastic. A petrochemical revolution is coming.
You’re sitting on top of something special, the President assures us. We’re going to capitalize on West Virginia’s future, the governor squeals. When people think of West Virginia, they’ll think of petrochemicals. We’ll drill for them, crack them into plastic in our new factories, store them in your soil. The potential is endless, the sum is $84 billion.
You’ll be happier when we’re drilling, they tell us. We must take from West Virginia what she owes us. And we must take from you what you owe us for being so lost in the love of your state that you’ve fallen into this wretched poverty. You’re the poorest, the fattest, the stupidest, they say—how humiliating for you. Let us give you the tools to beat this place that has so wronged you back into bloody submission. Let us show you how to take from her all that is good, all that your god put into her over the eons, and when we leave—and we will—we know you won’t mind holding onto our toxic dregs. Don’t worry—we’ll inject them deep beneath your feet, out of sight and mind, and we’ll pay you a little something for your trouble, so you can finally feed your kids. Sorry about the tumors, they say. But not really.
Our government has sold us to the highest bidders. It’s happening again, and it doesn’t have to. We could fight this. We could scream that we don’t need injection wells and cracker plants, that we are worth so much more than 84 billion dollars. We could vote for our lives. Instead, we hug one another at the tenuous promise of jobs and shake off environmental and health warnings. The water will be fine, we tell ourselves. The air will be fine.
We will be fine.
I’m ready to leave you, West Virginia, because it won’t be fine. My children can’t grow up with their feet in poisoned streams and their hands in radioactive soil, in places where the skies hide behind a cloud of industrial emissions. I can’t live in a cancer alley, and so I’m looking to places with higher mountains and kinder laws. When I think of you, I will remember the rustle of your summer leaves and the scent of Eastern hemlock. I’ll remember how my bones sang when I stood on Spruce Knob, how my pulse raced on the Gauley River in the golden light of October.
Even as I write these letters and essays of protest, I imagine the moment I will cross the border for the last time, how my heart will fold in upon itself. I wonder if it will know how to beat anywhere else. I wonder if my children will understand why I’m taking them away, if they will love other places as deeply as I have loved you. The pain is so piercing that I take a breath, and for a brief moment decide to stay and risk their bodies and their futures for such a burning love of my home.
But I love them more than I love you.
Dear West Virginia, let me thank you, on the eve of your energy revolution, for the life you gave me. Thank you for your red spruce and your endless green ridges. Thank you for your spring peepers, thank you for your stars. Thank you for your tiny silver trout. I wanted to die in these mountains, someday, an old, wizened woman. But I don’t think it would be old age that would end me in your new petrochemical hub. I think it would be sickness. I think it would be sorrow.
I’m sorry. I cannot stay.
Header photo of West Virginia by Anthony Heflin, courtesy Shutterstock.