The social responsibilities of writers and artists

FLYERThe following is part one of an extended talk given by writer and activist Ann Pancake on the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus in May 2016. The first recipient of the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, Ann stayed at a writing retreat on Maui at the invitation of the Mānoa Foundation, which administers the Lopez fellowship. Frank Stewart, president of the Foundation and editor of Mānoa Journal, introduced her at the May talk.

Frank has asked me to talk on the subject of the kind of social responsibility I feel that writers and artists have to place and community.  I’m glad he did so, because this question has occupied a lot of my thought for the past fifteen years or more.  Over those fifteen years, the ways I’ve thought about the artist’s responsibility to place has really changed.  Barry Lopez’s work has been one influence on this personal revision of mine.  Barry is a member of the old guard of environmental writers in the U.S, and he has always pushed beyond the premises and conventions of much American environmental writing, bringing to that movement a more radical vision.  The kind of visioning Barry has done in his essays, fiction, and talks, is, in my opinion, exactly the kind of thinking and imagining that contemporary writer and artists must do in response to the environmental and social crises of the 21st century—a century that I think asks of artists different things than the 20th century did.

I’m going to give you some of my own background because it will put into perspective how I’ve reached the conclusions I’ve come to.  I grew up in West Virginia, where my family has lived for seven generations.  West Virginia is a state in the heart of Appalachia, and it’s a place of vast natural resources and much human poverty.  In all national studies of indicators of things like per capita income, and health, and level of education, West Virginia usually comes in last.  We’re the poorest state; the state with the fewest people who finished college; the most obese state; the state with the highest drug overdose rate—the list goes on and on.  In a recent survey of the “happiest” and “saddest” states, West Virginia ranked as the saddest.  Guess who ranked as happiest?  Yes, Hawaii.  Many of West Virginia’s problems, like many of Appalachia’s problems, arise from its relationship with the industries that have extracted the state’s natural resources—timber, coal, and natural gas—since the 19th century.  The industries—first companies, now corporations—destroy the land to get the natural resources, and then take almost all the profits out of state, a familiar tale of colonization, only this is a colony within the Mainland U.S. borders.  I can say with impunity, without exaggeration, that the state government of West Virginia, since its inception during the Civil War, has been dominated by those same industrial interests—timber, natural gas, and above all, coal—in every branch and agency, including the regulatory agencies, like those that are supposed to oversee environmental health and worker safety.

Now I grew up first  in a small town in the coalfields in the central part of the state, later in an agricultural area farther north.  In the decade of my birth, the 1960’s, coal was booming, and stripmining was becoming the favored form of coalmining in Appalachia.  In other words, instead of digging underground for the coal, they started tearing off the sides of the mountains to get at it.  From the living room window of our middle-class home on the edge of Summersville, WV, I could see a stripmine, and by the time I was five, I understood stripmining’s destructiveness because my father explained it to me.  In this way, my environmental consciousness was forged before I knew how to read.  What I also witnessed as a middle-class child growing up in West Virginia was a level of poverty that I would not see again until I travelled in Southeast Asia as an adult.

I left West Virginia when I was 22, partly because I couldn’t find work in West Virginia, partly because I’d convinced myself I had to get out of West Virginia to be a writer because West Virginia had nothing interesting to write about.  About thirty years after my first exposure to stripmining, while I was teaching at a college in Pennsylvania in the late 90’s, I caught wind of a new form of strip mining called mountaintop removal.

With mountaintop removal, instead of just peeling away the sides of mountains, companies blow off the tops of mountains, sometimes up to 500 feet, using ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.  Then they dig with twenty-story high draglines to reach thin seams of coal.  The soil and rock that the companies blast off have to go somewhere, so it’s dumped in the valleys under the destroyed mountains, and those valleys usually have streams running through them, so the streams are destroyed, too.  No agencies are tracking exactly how many mountains have been mined this way, nor are they tracking the damage to the land.  There was an environmental impact study done back around 2002, and from that, we can estimate that at least 1200 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled in—this is probably a very conservative estimate—and approximately 500 mountains have been blown up.

As I learned about mountaintop removal in 1999, I forwarded articles about it to my sister, Catherine Pancake, a filmmaker living in Baltimore at the time.  She suggested that we go down to southern WV, film the devastation, and talk to some of the people suffering from it.  So in March 2000, we made our first trip down.  I went with the intention of helping Catherine conduct interviews.  And while I thought maybe I’d write an article about what we were learning, maybe some nonfiction, it never occurred to me that I would write a novel about mountaintop removal.

But then I started hearing people’s stories.  These were stories from men who had watched neighbors drown in flash floods; from kids who had been knocked out of their beds by mining blasts; from elderly women whose houses were snowed in coal dust from processing plants; from elderly men with crippling intestinal diseases from drinking poisoned water; from people whose dead relatives were being knocked out of their graves by bulldozers—I could go on and on.  Spending time with people suffering from mountaintop removal was one of the most profound experiences of my life.  As I was hearing all those stories, I started hearing in my head the voices of characters, composites of the people I’d been interviewing, and I found myself writing a novel about what was going on.

Now one might ask:  this is terrible, but what does a mining practice in Appalachia, a part of the country that has always been in trouble—how are Appalachia and its horrors relevant to Hawaii and to larger national and global issues?  Well…because I fear that without radical changes in how Americans live and choose how they are governed, Appalachia is looking more and more like America’s future.  If you want to see what America will look like after a few more decades of corporate interests controlling our federal government, look at Appalachia.  If you want to see what America’s environment will look like after a few more decades of a system that prioritizes profit over life, look at Appalachia.  As Barry Lopez himself said to me a couple years ago, “In Appalachia, what’s coming has already come and gone.”

Part Two