Seems there never was a time when, growing up in the upper Cumberland Plateau of East Tennessee, I didn’t smell the dust from coal trucks passing by our house on their way up the mountain. Now when I go back to visit the old home place and family, I see the mountains that were stripped while growing up are today being scalped away at the top.
I remember one tree that remains to this day. Somehow that tree has hung on through the years at the crest of a mountain that had been clear cut then scalped and attempted to be reclaimed. I look at that tree, barely hanging off the crest of the mountain, and I see it as a reflection of the people who settled the area and whose descendants still live there. A people whose ancestors appreciated the land for what it was at face value, not for what lies beneath it. That tree, with its roots at least 100 years old, barely hanging on at the top of that mountain, surrounded by destruction, blasting, and digging at its roots, has somehow managed stay put in a place where no other tree could live.
My father always had a deep appreciation for the mountains and streams that rose and flowed in our little cove. He, like that tree, hung onto his roots through the great migration out of the mountains and raised four children in an old “camp house” that was left as rental property once the mining companies took what they wanted and left.
We were satisfied living there. Although we had no running water except for the rushing creek below our house, we still had the mountains and hills to run and play on, family nearby to visit, Sunday dinners at Grandma’s, and those ever so thrilling hikes up and down the mountains and creeks.
Absentee landowners have somehow managed to continue taking what they want from those mountains at any cost, with no regard for those living and buried within them. Is it because they have never lived there and have never had to rely on them for food or shelter and cannot appreciate their serenity and isolation? Or is it because they have never experienced the inner beauty that actually lies beneath them? Beauty not in the form of coal, gas and oil, but for the actual livelihood they provide in their natural form.
A few community and family cemeteries are all that remain of the hardy mountain families who pioneered the area. Access to these areas is now restricted due to mining and logging. There are still times that you can visit and see those who went before you. How peaceful they rest in a place where they hung on to their roots.
They managed to stay put throughout their lives like that tree at the top of the mountain. Throughout its entire life it has been surrounded by clear cutting, strip mining, blasting and now removal of its very foundation. Yet, like the pioneers of the region and those who stayed behind after the great migration of the 1950’s, the tree manages to somehow stay put. Should the tree have been transplanted during its early life so as not to see and experience the misery of living in that environment? Or should its lifeline now be severed so that it can rest peacefully with the other pioneers?