We spent Friday, and Saturday morning, at the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) in Mullens, West Virginia. This is a town of about 2,000 in the heart of coal country. We saw a few flat-topped mountains on our way in, as well as machinery ticking away, and coal cars heaped full of the dusty black stuff. Mullens was a “railroad town” which used to be a hot place in the thirties and forties, or so the rumors go – if you’d go there on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t be able to walk through the streets, for so many people were packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder, partying. Needless to say there are more abandoned buildings than crowds these days; ever since coal became a mainly mechanized business, the jobs have dwindled. These days there are only 800 mining jobs in a county of 20,000, where the coal and timber companies combine to control the use of over 85% of the land. The result of this corporate control of land is a systematic approach to controlling the livelihood of the residents of Mullens. In the early mining days, the coal towns would literally forbid gardening – so that the residents would be completely reliant on the company store and hence unable to strike. Today’s methods are less overt but no less effective. As a result of the lack of public control of their land, Mullens’ freedom has been hidden behind an invisible veil of corporate non-accountability.
RAIL is working to bring freedom and hope back to Mullens through various community projects. The projects are headed up by Jack and Rebekah. Jack arrived two years ago, funded by a grant “to start a farmers’ market.” He found there were no farmers... (dramatic pause).... so instead his work shifted toward local agriculture. We saw the fruits of his labors... they do indeed now have farmers’ markets, supplied from folks’ backyards and several small community gardens. These gardens are on slots of land as small as 1/8 acre, squeezed between roads, rails, and the river, shaded by the hills to end up with only a few hours of sunlight per day, and subject to frequent flooding due to the devastation of logging and mining. Due to these constraints the local agricultural practices more resemble urban gardening, trying to grow as much food as possible on the tiny scraps of land they have.
The rivers and creeks were greatly polluted. This is not just because of the effects of logging and mining, but also because of a “build ‘em cheap” philosophy on the part of those who developed the land, ever since the earliest mining days. Even today 65% of the houses in the area lack septic systems, and dump straight into the streams. The bacterial count is astronomical, yet some folks still fish in the streams.
In such a heart breaking setting of poverty, long lines at the food banks, environmental degradation, and lack of economic options, it was encouraging to see so many good folks working to create a local economy. It was also great to have a little guitar and banjo jam session before we left, and to lift our spirits through music, from traditional bluegrass to a very nontraditional fun new composition we started – to express our own feelings. Rebeckah, another RAIL intern, sent us off with her beautiful little demo CD to listen to in the car, which kept our hearts aching as we drove away.
A Letter from our heart,
Thank you Rebekah, for the words on your CD allowed all our emotions to flow…
My Heart is crying as we leave your beautiful land. I cry because of my great sorrow and pain for what has happened to you and because of my great disgust of what will happen to you. The people of your land, more so the people of Mullens, Love you. ….I can’t hold back the tears anymore… they have begun to stream down the contours of my face. My emotions are raining. I have never seen so much beauty while simultaneously experiencing so much pain.
The World Must Know...People Must Know!
Our Land is bleeding and our people are covered in the green hue of Mother Earth’s blood. One must ask why but the answer is far too disheartening and far too destructive for one person to swallow. As we move closer to the realization that our perpetual state of denial is killing us, individuals are standing tall in a fallen forest of despair. As we continue on this path based upon a superficial existence and the ideal of short-term gratification, our land and her inhabitants are dwindling.
But there is Hope, there is Spirit and there is Jack and Rebekah! Thank you Rebekah, Jack and the community of Mullens – you all are truly amazing. You have shown me that in the face of overwhelming destruction, sorrow, and despair, the hope and optimistic persona of the human spirit will continue to prevail.
So West Virginia, as I put my heart on paper on your behalf, my tears are streaming down my face, so pure and true like your rivers used to be. As I write, my blood flows between the chambers of my heart allowing for the support of my body... as your clean and pure soil used to be the vital blood of the animals that existed on it. In the wise words of Mr. Doomsday, “the land has been ruined in historical time, but its recovery is now in geological time.” The Stewards, the shepherds of your land have failed you and your inhabitants. Our time to attempt to do what is just and equitable is up, we now must put back our faith in you – as it should have been since the beginning.
By Blain Snipstal and Talitha G Phillips
cross-posted from http://presbyterian.typepad.com/foodandfaith