Can art be an effective harbinger?

How do you talk about something that cannot be reclaimed? Many parts of nature can regenerate over time. Mountains cannot. On a recent plane trip, I came upon the exact topic with which I have been wrestling for the past few months — mountaintop removal (MTR). My latest linocut, No Atonement for Arcadia, imagines a place that is deeply loved and valued by humans, and is in danger of annihilation.

Large topography
©Elizabeth Busey. No Atonement for Arcadia. Reduction linocut. 25 x 40 in, ed of 17.

The true cost of MTR

In the Appalachian mountains, most of the coal that is accessible using underground mines has been extracted. Coal companies, in the hunt for low sulfur coal, have turned to MTR. The seams of this coal are thin, necessitating removing 99 meters of other rock to obtain 1 meter of coal. Removal means blasting and hauling rock, and then dumping this material in existing streams.

Words like reclamation are used in the mining world to talk about what to do with non-active mines. These are places that are supposed to be redeemed, if you will, for the greater good. MTR causes a toxic scar on the earth that will never been healed. I had seen evidence of MTR on Google Earth, but saw it first hand as I flew into Virginia’s Dulles Airport. My brain at first thought I was seeing a golf course, but then realized it was raw, exposed Earth.

Actual mountaintop removal in the mountains of West Virginia.
Actual mountaintop removal in the mountains of West Virginia.

An area the size of the state of Delaware has been flattened, and over 2,000 miles of streams and headwaters have been buried. Here is where I object to the word reclamation. Nothing about this practice can ever been redeemed or fixed. The earth cannot regrow. It cannot re-sequester the silica and heavy metals that have now been released into the atmosphere and the waters. These materials have drastic health consequences for surrounding communities.  You can read about the work of Indiana University researcher Michael Hendryx regarding the devastating health effects of MTR here.

Can we forsee our folly and stop it?

How can I make art that challenges us to a dialogue — and reminds us of the beautiful, nurturing natural world that is so in peril? Underneath No Atonement in Arcadia is a block of seven fingerprints. Even as the colorful layers of topography were created with transparent ink, the fingerprints interrupt the scene. The ink does not lie the same over these marks, it moves and is unsettled.

Lino block with large fingerprints.
Seven fingerprints are the first layer of the linocut.

We should all be unsettled by MTR. In 2017, the Trump administration suspended federal government efforts to study the health effects of MTR. The tiny streams in these mountains flow into larger watersheds, so the impact won’t just be in small mountain communities. MTR provides very few jobs, and instead brings destruction, pollution and disease.

Sometimes the tradeoffs of human activity are just too serious and too final to be soundbites in yet another campaign speech. We must talk about this.

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