When I was young, I’d often go out and sit on the back porch of my parents’ house. Usually, I’d take a book with me, and I’d lose myself in fantasy worlds or history, enjoying that unique meeting of pleasures: of turning pages, of breathing in clean country air, of being in the sunshine while wandering in distant realms.
I loved those evenings, and even though I eventually moved away to New York, every time that I came home I’d make a point of going out on the back porch at least once during my visits back to West Virginia to enjoy the outdoors. It was a way of getting in touch with my rural roots, of simply enjoying the pleasures of life outside of my newfound city living.
Unfortunately, even before I’d gone to graduate school I’d notice that things began to change. Traffic was picking up on the rural road that my parents lived on, spurred on by the oil and gas boom that was beginning to sweep over Appalachia and West Virginia in particular. I didn’t think much of it at the time, though I did feel a slight pang when I’d go for a drive in the country and see oil and gas wells springing up everywhere, along with all of the deforestation and other environmental damage that always accompanies their presence. It was bad enough, I thought, that West Virginia had to put up with the depredations of the coal industry. Now, we had to put up with this, too.
Then, I moved away, and my concerns about the gas industry and traffic were pushed to the back of my brain by the hurly-burly of graduate school. And yet the gas boom continued apace, and each time that I came home I saw more and more signs of it. The roads were starting to crumble from the relentless pressure of the enormous trucks and the increased volume of traffic, the big trucks threatened to run me off the road with alarming regularity, and the noise outside of my parents’ house was becoming unbearable.
Needless to say, my time reading on the back porch was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. How could I possibly enjoy that when, every five minutes, there was a truck barreling down the road, its engine break grumbling? How could I recapture that bit of peace, when it suddenly seemed as if there was as much traffic on this country road as there was the nearby interstate?
Obviously, this has caused me no small amount of frustration, but it’s more than that. I feel as if a very important part of my past has been stripped away from me. Somehow, I’d allowed myself to believe that there was something unspoiled about my home, that somehow it would remain untouched by the rush to procure more fossil fuels to slake our nation’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst. I should have known how delusional that was — I’d already seen ample evidence of the way that the fossil fuel insists on exploiting Appalachia (and Appalachians) as much as possible. I’d seen the way that the coal industry had ruined my grandparents’ supply of fresh spring water, seen the way that they’d stripped the mountains of their archaic beauty, seen the way that they cared as little for the land as they did their employees.
And yet, I’d thought that somehow that wouldn’t come home to my parents place, to my home.
These days, when I return to see my parents, I don’t spend a lot of time on the porch. There are just too many cars and trucks zooming by, the noise a constant distraction that shakes me out of whatever reading I happen to be doing (and, if you know me, you know that it’s sometimes very hard indeed to shake me out of a good reading experience). It makes me sad, thinking about all of the times that I enjoyed the back porch, taking that peace and serenity for granted. Had I known how soon those pleasures would be taken from me, I daresay I would have enjoyed them more self-consciously.
And it’s more than just the shattered peace. It’s also the shattered beauty. If you’ve ever driven along a West Virginia ridge in the evening, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I describe the way that the vistas just seem to take your breath away. You’ll be driving along and then, when you look out your window, you’ll see the green hills rolling off into the distance. It’s impossible not to feel that you’re in the presence of the transcendent.
Unfortunately, these days you’re just as likely to see broad strips of land that have been cleared of their tree cover, leaving ugly brown furrows, sometimes with pipes sprawled atop them. If you happen to be driving along at night, sometimes you’ll see the glaze of lights from a well pad, sometimes so bright that they obscure the stars. It’s a devastating piece of industrial modernity thrust brutally into the eden of Appalachia.
The tragedy of all of this is that it’s not new. West Virginia, and Appalachia more generally, has always found itself caught in the uncomfortable space between the past and the future, never quite sure which direction it should go in. The lure of fossil fuel money has all too often induced people in West Virginia — who suffer from an extraordinary amount of poverty — to sell their beautiful landscape in exchange for money. Unfortunately, as those ruined vistas and shattered evenings make clear, the cost may be too much.
To be perfectly candid, most of the time I wish that the bottom would fall out of the fossil fuel industries and that, as a result, West Virginia would at last have the chance to move out from their shadow. Though I know that that is unlikely to come in the near future, I still hold out hope that someday, somehow, we’ll be able to put those shattered evenings back together.