Lost Mountain

Riverhead Books.
New York. 2006
250 pages. $24.95

The removal of entire mountain tops merely to extract coal is such a staggering idea that it’s often presented in religious metaphors – to move a mountain, after all, is an act most often associated with religious texts. The environmental devastation wreaked by mountaintop removal is so immense that it’s difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, it’s a grim reality in much of the southern highlands, as readers of Appalachian Voice are well aware. The facts about mountain removal are well documented on the Appalachian Voices website.

Erik Reece, a creative writing teacher from Kentucky, writes about the process of mountaintop removal from a highly personal perspective. Noting that the ironically named Lost Mountain was slated to have its top sliced off to nab the coal inside, Reece decided to spend a year romping through the creek and hillsides of Lost Mountain, producing a blow-by-blow account of how a mountain is destroyed. As Leslie Resources blows the mountain up and fills the adjoining valley, Reece surreptitiously documents the entire process.

Lost Mountain is a presented as a series of anecdotal chapters, each a personal account of how Leslie Resources systematically destroyed the mountain. Reece documents his own impressions and feelings, offering statistics and facts as necessary to illustrate his points. Pages are filled with observations about the flora and fauna that fill this rich ecosystem. He also gets to know many citizens who live near the mountain, and the narrative flows with historical and personal accounts of how coal companies have ruined the lives of numerous folks throughout the region.

At times, Reece’s first-person style brings to mind nature writers such as Annie Dillard. He peppers Lost Mountain with literary allusions, citing poets Robert Frost and Wang Wei. In a particularly effective allusion, he observes that public hearings for complaining about coal safety and environmental impact are “a drama of grand futility straight out of Franz Kafka.” At other times Reece brings environmental writers like Edward Abbey, evoking Rachel Carson and Thoreau to make his points.

The history of Appalachia is darkened by the number of extractive industries that have blatantly removed the region’s wealth, leaving the countryside and its inhabitants much worse for the wear. Mountain top removal is but the latest example of this, albeit arguably the most blatantly egregious. To understand the impact of modern technology’s ability to undo what nature has spent millions of years creating is a daunting task.

In many ways, Lost Mountain is as much about the personal, human costs of mountain top removal as it is the environmental costs. As Reece presents it, the personal and environmental costs of mountain top removal are inseparable. To alter the land is to alter the lives of the people who live on it, and Reece’s greatest achievement is how he illustrates this point and drives it home.

With Lost Mountain, Erik Reece has created a powerful narrative that presents the human and environmental impact of mountain top removal in compelling terms. It should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the impact of mountain top removal on Appalachia and the people who live here. In his foreward to Lost Mountain, Wendell Berry lauds Reece’s work as “a superb job of reporting” that is “by far the best account of mountain top removal and its effects.” This reviewer heartily concurs.

Gene Hyde is a librarian at Radford University.


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