Letter to America: Dear West Virginia

By Laura Jackson Roberts

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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.

Your daughter,




Laura Jackson RobertsLaura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in West Virginia. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Brain,Child, The Museum of Americana, the Erma Bombeck humor site, Defenestration, and Animal, among others. She is a graduate of Chatham University’s MFA program and rescues homeless dogs in her spare time.
Read other Letters to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.

Header photo of West Virginia by Anthony Heflin, courtesy Shutterstock.

  1. Not enough silly emoji tears to cover those that fell down my face as I read your beautiful writing and wailing. And I thank you for your gift. I live on the knife’s edge everyday as I fight this devastation with every thing I can think of and fight the idea that we will lose. I’m not even a native but I’ve been here over a quarter century and I revel in its exceptional beauty everyday, more exceptional every day as it is threatened with destruction. But on that knife’s edge also sits the absolute must of stopping this destruction, stopping it here and around the globe. If we lose WV, what hasn’t yet been lost, it will be too late to save anything else. Until I see that happen, and even then I’ll fight to heal it somehow, I have to believe that the tipping point of awakening is just over the trees and before the coal dust falls on Jefferson County, light will have shown that it’s already too late for those that want more darkness, and they will have to go home. And their home ain’t WV. I hope you find higher mountains and kinder laws as you need to, but I also hope that you’ll be able to come back home to WV because the only dark allowed here will be that that illuminates the stars.

    1. Thanks, Sharon. I know that knife’s edge so well. Your words are beautiful, too. And as long as I am able to hold a pen, I’ll keep fighting for West Virginia.

  2. I am sitting here drying tears as I look out over Franklin, this dying little Eastern Panhandle town just a few hours north of the coalfields.

    So much of what you say resonates so deeply. And let us not forget our many generations of ‘saviors’; the preachers and big city missionaries, the academic idealists, the tourists and bureaucrats, climbers and hikers, boaters and sportsmen and journalists who never saw more than their own preconceptions and stereotypes.

    They, too, have made this, my adopted home, what it is today.

    I look at the shining faces of my granddaughters, ages 2, 5, and 6, and my love and pride are deep waters over and undercurrent of anger, sadness and fear.

    I want so much for them to know this place as I have known it for the last 30 year’s, to find a future among these folded mountains and along these flowing rivers, with neighbors and family whose roots run through the black mountain soil, through the farms and forests.

    But day by day I watch hope fade like a dream, for in West Virginia, there is no future, only the past, repeating itself again and again.

    Godspeed, wherever the road my lead you.

    1. Michael, I’m sorry you’ve had to dry tears. I’ve shed so many for this place. In fact, my husband and I bought some land in Franklin last year. Our hope was to build a home there, in the shadow of North Fork Mountain, and spend our later years wandering between red spruce and brook trout, in the deep quiet of Pendleton County. I do hope your grandchildren will know this place as we do. It’s worth fighting for, and I intend to continue even in the knowledge that it will likely break my heart, whether here or from afar.

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