In the part of Kentucky geologists call the Appalachian Plateau, hills surround the valleys and corral the clouds, mists that rise in great columns and spires and validate the name “Smoky Mountains.” There’s an unbroken history here not often fully told, but it’s best understood by those closest to it, those whose living lies beneath the ground.
Technically, the Great Smoky Mountains are a range of the Appalachians along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, but even among the coal-bearing hills the gray wisps settle and rise. They pour like water through passes, ride in white rivers upon the slightest breeze, then melt away under the sun like smoke from campfires of travelers long gone. This is coal mining country, mines that were and mines that are and mines that will be. Usually coal stories begin and end with mines that will be, or with mines that are, ignoring the third sort altogether, but that’s really where the best of the story is found.
Between movies and TV, we’ve seen no shortage of misrepresentations of things we’ve known through close association all our lives, skewed messages about the region we call home that spread their own brand of ignorance. When it comes to other places though, even those not far away, we can be just as susceptible. Coal mining is hard work, there’s no question about that. The men who do it put in long hours and long days. It can be dangerous, as can anything involving explosives and heavy equipment and the variable nature of the land. What it’s not, though, is a strictly grim occupation for people who don’t know anything else.
Visiting a number of surface mines late last week as part of an elk hunt, I didn’t see any heartless corporations damaging the environment, I saw generations of men on a job they cared about, working in a land they loved. Land tapped for surface mining is logged and mined, yes, then it’s replaced, reforested and restored. The companies call the post-mining process “reclamation,” but what it seemed to me was more stewardship than anything.
Like the game we take from fields we’ve prepared, these men are accessing a resource put in place by God and given us to manage. They pass their skills along from father to son, and they pass their love of the land along as well. It’s something worth seeing, and something they’d want you to see. Theirs is a stewardship practiced on a different scale, over a longer period of time, but the term fits it perfectly nonetheless.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.