A new economy takes root
in the shadow of Big Coal
HIGH ON A HUNDRED-ACRE plateau in Mingo County, in the heart of West Virginia’s devas- tated coal country, Wilburn Jude is learning to grow lavender on a field of broken stone. In the near distance, bulldozers are sculpting an Appalachian peak — once part of the oldest mountain chain
in the world—into a gargantuan symmetrical terrace you could
see from outer space. O= to the right, companies are using explosives to blow the peak o= a second mountain; they’re harvesting
coal that will likely be shipped to China for steel production.
The ground Jude is standing on is itself utterly shattered: as
far as he can see, there is nothing but crushed sandstone and
jagged shards of shale. The ground is not really a plateau at all,
but the sheared-o= remains of another decapitated mountain.
Where Jude is standing, there used to be five hundred vertical
feet of rock. He’s not standing on the “shoulder” of a mountain;
he’s standing on the exposed insides of a mountain.
Coal mining has been in Jude’s family for four generations.
A hundred years ago, his ancestors were tangled up in the Mate-wan Massacre, a shootout between miners and coal-company
detectives that left eleven people dead. But as the industry has
become increasingly mechanized, the jobs have dried up. Where
a mine may have once employed hundreds of miners, they now
hire thirty or forty, mostly to work heavy machinery.