In the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky and patches just south of Pittsburgh, miners have done some of the dirtiest, most dangerous and demanding work there is, all the while fighting for every penny and benefit squeezed out of them by mine owners. But there is real pride in the work and the place. A strong sense of kinship among miners and mining families is just one piece of the puzzle that is the Appalachian relationship with coal mining, the land and the economies of mining.
After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales, was recently released by the West Virginia University Press. At a time when nuanced understandings of Appalachia have been in short supply and coal has become a shabby shorthand for political pundits, After Coal seeks to examine just what happens when industry goes away. What happens, not just to workers, but to cities and towns, to entire communities? How can the people not just survive but flourish?
“It started as a photography project, but ended up combining a lot of public engagement,” author Tom Hansell told the Current by phone from his home near Boone, North Carolina, where he teaches at the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University. “This project included a significant element of having public forums. Lots of photographs are involved, of course, as well as the documentary film and the book. I call it a documentary and community engagement project, which I know is a bit of a mouthful.”
Hansell immersed himself in coal country in Kentucky and West Virginia and he also spent time in Wales, where communities had likewise dealt with the the deleterious effects of coal mining and it’s decline. The book serves as a sort of conversation between Wales and Appalachia, with evocative photography and straightforward, graceful prose. Hansell writes that he hoped to find a magic bullet or magic formula in Wales. But that was not to be.
The one thing that he has seen work is listening to people on the ground.
“Back when I first started filming the documentary [around 2011], this kind of divisive dialogue was really present in Appalachia,” Hansell said of his experience. “Everywhere you went, people felt like they were forced to take sides — pro coal or pro environment. [That] really limits your options. If you think about pro-community, then you’ve got a lot more to work with.
“You hear people say that a lot. One of the miner’s I interviewed said, “I miss the men, but I don’t miss the work.’”
Just looking at statistics or turning on the news, it would be easy to be pessimistic. Cases of black lung and silicosis have risen in recent years. Large swaths of Appalachia still don’t have broadband internet. Unemployment rates are high, with parts of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, as high as 14 percent according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. The damage to the environment through hilltop removal and the defiling of water will take many years to fix.
But there is real beauty and strength in the region and the people. Hansell’s project got people talking and together they started asking what could they do to save these communities.
Increased local control of the land itself is a big issue for the area: anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the land in West Virginia’s southern coalfields are still owned by corporations headquartered outside the state according to a 2013 study by the WV Center on Budget & Policy. Where there is local control of land, good things are happening. In one instance, a former miner started a farmer’s market. A local health care provider now gives tokens to some of it’s patients to use for produce at the farmer’s market. They are essentially being prescribed healthy food, where the entire community benefits.”
What Hansell saw in both Wales and Appalachia is that there is strength in building community.
“We’ve been a lot more dependent on each other than we care to admit a lot of times,” Hansell said.
Tom Hansell will discuss the book, the movie and the photography project with Angela Wiley, a documentary film producer and librarian with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh at White Whale Books in Bloomfield on Saturday, Jan. 26th at 7:00 p.m.