Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most revered American essayists and lecturers and the man at the helm of the Transcendentalist Movement of the mid-19th Century, was reportedly fond of the Appalachian Mountains. In fact, he once mused: "Here among the mountains the pinions of thought should be strong, and one should see the errors of men from a calmer height of love and wisdom."
But Emerson could have never predicted how fate would torment that calmer height. Nor could he have ever known that two Santa Cruz women--not men, in fact--would use another form of creativity to spread the word about bucolic Appalachia--all in effort to help save it from complete annihilation.
Maybe it's best not to get ahead of ourselves just yet. Let's begin by frolicking in the 1870s, shall we?
Behold the West Virginia portal dubbed Ansted, which was founded as a mining camp near Gauley Mountain. (If the Santa Cruz Mountains made love to some breathtakingly beautiful, wildlife-rich and river-friendly hillbilly Earth, their offspring would be Gauley.) Ansted was aptly named after the English geologist David T. Ansted, considered to be the first person to discover coal in the area's lush mountain regions. The area eventually became an integral part in the Appalachian coal economy but, as is always the case, leave it to a coal baron to really spice things up. Enter: William Nelson Page. Page, who hailed from one of the "First Families of Virginia," made Ansted his lair.
The area flourished. Hail coal.
Flashforward to the 1970s and things were certainly prosperous, especially for Massey Energy Company, which celebrated a milestone: 50 years in business. In many ways, the next few decades would prove to be even more fruitful for Massey, which also operated A.T. Massey Coal Company, among other subsidiaries.
In 1992, Don Blankenship entered the picture, being crowned president, chairman and CEO of A.T. Massey Coal Company. He helped fuel Massey's triumphant growth and, in time, it would become the fourth largest producer of coal in the United States and one of the largest coal producers in Central Appalachia, raking in more than $2 billion annually with Arch Coal as its chief competitor.
Rising profits spawned advanced technology, too. Was it fate or perverse timing when somebody followed through with a curious thought: Why continue with the traditional methods of mining coal, which requires hiring and overseeing a significantly larger workforce, when explosives and high-tech machinery can simply remove an entire mountaintop? It was only a matter of time before the two behemoths--Massey and Arch--would be joined by CONSOL Energy, International Coal Group, James River Coal Company and Patriot Coal, among others, to participate in something that would forever alter the Appalachian Mountains, its ecosystems and its people: Mountaintop Removal--also referred to as Mountaintop Removal mining, or MTR (visit gtweekly.com for full details).
Since the mid-1990s, coal companies have pillaged the Appalachian mountaintops in West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky--although some reports note that MTR was taking place in some form back in the 1970s.
Considered to be a kind of surface mining, MTR typically involves the mining of the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. Coal seams are removed from the mountain and the removal of the land, known as "overburden," above the seams, is then discarded. It may seem like an arduous process--lush forests, ones that survived The Ice Age, are removed and burned--but once areas are cleared, thanks to the use of explosives, approximately 400 vertical feet of a mountain can be removed to reveal the underlying coal seams. As for the excess rock, or the soil loaded with toxic mining byproducts, it is traditionally dumped into neighboring valleys in what is referred to as "holler fills" or "valley fills."
In 2008, 16 years after Blankenship took his post at Massey, Beth Stephens, an interdisciplinary artist, activist and a professor at UC Santa Cruz, was flying home to visit her family in West Virginia. As the plane soared above the Appalachian Mountains, where she was born and raised, Stephens looked out of the window of the plane and was shocked by what she saw.
"When I looked down at the mountains, I noticed that something was very different than anything I have ever seen," she says. "And I realized that the mountains had been ravaged. I didn't know what it was. It was horrible."
That was also the year that Stephens and her partner, artist/sexologist Annie Sprinkle, were in year four of a seven-year art project called Love Art Lab. Inspired by Linda M. Montano's "14 Years of Living Art," it found the duo producing interactive performance art weddings in national and international communities. The projects, which became their response to "the violence of war, the anti-gay marriage movement, and our prevailing culture of greed," were hailed as one-of-a-kind symbolic gestures in protest and the execution of the work--incorporating the colors and themes of the chakras--generated headlines, if not momentum, for their artistic endeavors, workshops and talks. But that 2008 performance art wedding in the forest in UCSC was a turning point for the duo, too. The wedding attracted 500 people and had a significant environmental slant--the couple decided to "marry the Earth," vowing not only to love it, cherish it and become more environmentally conscious stewards of the planet, but to also do what they could to shift the metaphor from "Earth as mother to Earth as lover."
Perhaps it was that shift that inspired Stephens to not ignore what she had seen from the plane.
"I didn't really know the full extent of it," Stephens says of the MTR devastation she spotted. "I had known about strip mining but I didn't know about Mountaintop Removal. The corporations figured out that they could use earth-moving machines and explosives to remove the land above these thin coal seams and extract the coal seams without using very much labor; without having to take all the precautions that you have to take with deep mining. It's a much faster and easier way to mine coal. But it's brutal to mountains and the environment."
After the West Virginia excursion, Stephens was compelled to do something. She began with a photography project, but didn't feel that that would reach enough people. She wrote about it, but hit a creative roadblock. Could she disseminate it well enough for the masses?
"It felt to me that a film could reach more people than these other art forms that I was using," she says.
So ... why not make a documentary? Perfect. And why not bring Sprinkle into the fold? It seemed only fitting, after all. Sprinkle had appeared numerous times on camera before and after the couple's fourth wedding, they had officially deemed themselves "ecosexuals."
Now, about that ...
In an effort to create a more mutual and sustainable relationship with the Earth, the artists have decided to "collaborate with nature," noting that they "treat the Earth with kindness, respect and affection." In their "Ecosex Manifesto" (oh, just breathe, it's only seven passages, nothing to roll your eyes about and certainly not as brutal as MTR)--they note, in part, that they are ecosexual activists and will help "save the mountains, the waters, the skies by any means necessary, especially though love, joy and powers of seduction."
One particular sentence stands out: "We will stop the rape, abuse and poisoning of the Earth."
By 2010, Stephens and Sprinkle had officially embarked on the filmmaking process, with Stephens directing, sharing a producer title with Sprinkle. Grants were applied for; crowdfunding was considered. Now, several years later, after much collaboration, the fruits of their creative loins are alive and ready for reviewing. It's called Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story. The documentary has its California debut in early November and more screenings are being planned.
If you have been reading carefully, two things may be happening to you. 1) Wow, you might be saying, this is not an average "blog" post--it's well over a thousand words, what the hell do I do? Keep reading. It may be considered "old school" to wax beyond 140 characters at this point in 21st Century America, but trust me, it won't kill you. 2) If you've read between the lines carefully, then you might suspect this: something very provocative might just be rising like a phoenix above the unwashed, and, let's face it, complacent masses.
Let's get this--um--straight: Can a couple of feverishly creative civil rights advocates/internationally revered lesbian performance artists cum ecosexuals successfully raise the level of awareness about the devastating effects of MTR and, in the process, force Big Coal to bend over and take it like a .... and see the dawn of a dramatic sea change?
It's looking that way. One thing is certain: Thus far, the journey getting there has been downright provocative.
WHAT ECOSEX HAS TO DO WITH IT
You're a flower and a bee has come to you. What do you say?
Beth: "Are you pollen-amorous, too?"
Annie: "Ooh ... take my pollen, you sexy bee!"
It's about 2:30 p.m. and in the Boulder Creek, California, home Stephens and Sprinkle share, Sprinkle is clearing the table of the abundant lunch spread she created: tortilla miso soup, roasted vegetables--the most voluptuous beets around--brown rice, greens, and mouthwatering portions of baked yams.
Over a glass of piping-hot chai tea, Stephens and Sprinkle open up more about their ecosexual journey and how Gauley Mountain suddenly became the biggest star in their current artistic odyssey.
"I had this thought the other day: You know, when people destroy a mountain, they don't really know the consequences of what they are doing," Stephens says. "And it seems so arrogant to me to destroy this huge entity without really caring what the consequences are. And that is the thing that really mobilized me to try to do something."
Sprinkle is a well known author/artist/performance artist/sexologist whose work in sexuality spans 40 years. She went from being, among other creative things, a prominent adult film star to sex educator and now has a doctorate in human sexuality. For her, working alongside Stephens on the Goodbye Gauley Mountain felt like a natural evolution of the work they have been doing as a couple--and as artists--for more than a decade.
"Beth and I are creating this ecosexual revolution and through our art projects, even outside of the film, we're developing the idea of making the environmental movement more sexy, fun and diverse," she says. "We're doing this by eroticizing nature, nature fetishes, and changing the metaphor from Earth as mother to Earth as lover ... in an effort to make a more mutually sustainable relationship.
"So, for me, personally, ecosex is the new sexual frontier. And as a sexologist, combining ecology and sexology, we created a new field of research called sexecology."
Since becoming ecosexuals, the couple has traveled nationally and internationally to spread the word ... as it were. From Ecosex Walking Tours and theater art performances to lectures, wedding gigs and various workshops and symposiums, they seem to be striving to not only connect individuals more deeply with themselves, but also to the planet they actually inhabit.
"Part of the challenge in the work that we do is that there's a lot of prejudice against anything that has the word 'eco,'" Sprinkle notes. "Like, it's going to be boring and 'granola' and the term 'tree hugger,' it's like a derogatory phrase, like the word 'slut.' So this is reclaiming those words as a positive thing. But there's also a lot of prejudice for people who enjoy nature, sex and sensuality. Even the [environmental] activists have a problem when we come out there and talk about sex."
"Mixing sex with ecology is the thing that we've done that is unique," Stephens adds. "At times, it's gotten everyone mad at us."
"Or engaged a lot of people," Sprinkle is quick to add. "You know, I couldn't access nature as 'mother,' but as soon as I shifted the metaphor to lover ... our 2008 Green Wedding was a turning point. The very next day, after we made vows to love, cherish and honor the Earth, we started caring more about the planet. I think we're trying to give ecosexuality more of an edge."
As the three of us sip and savor the chai, Sprinkle goes on to explain why she feels, at times, the duo has met with resistance, and why, perhaps, the topics of love and sex remain somewhat challenging to embrace.
"Society, in general, is averse to birth, death, sex--anything to do with the body," she says. "We try to ignore it. Aging. The bloody birth. Sperm."
"You know, we don't consider ourselves gay anymore," Stephens chimes in. "We're ecosexuals now. And anyone can be an ecosexual."
Sprinkle's take? "It's much more inclusive. When I say something like, I am gay, I feel like I am alienating a huge numbers of people, where, in ecosex, who doesn't love the sky, the water? Some people don't feel a sexual connection with nature, but most people feel some form of pleasure. Often it can be a spiritual nourishment; they can't feel it on a sensual level, but most people, you prompt them long enough and yeah, they've straddled the hot tub jets or masturbated with the hose ..."
"... or in the sun, or have gone skinny dipping," Stephens says with a smile. "Surfers are big ecosexuals."
"When you make love with a person--or fuck a person, really--you're having sex, mostly, with water, stardust, minerals," Sprinkle asserts. "People are part of the Earth. They are not separate from the Earth. So, this film is a very personal family history [of Beth's] and a history of a certain place, but it also has a lot of universal principles."
Stephens sets down her chai. "Appalachia Is a very stereotyped place," she says, her tone turning serious.
Overall, the women boast very eclectic--you think?--yet embraceable, somewhat soulful dispositions. But the idea that Stephens' home may not be seen in the most positive light seems to truly disturb her.
"You mention the word Appalachia, and right away people go, 'Deliverance.' And it's really maligned," she says. "I believe, with Big Coal there now, there is a way to make it so undesirable that it's just fine to destroy it. And I think about that place as a sacrifice zone."
GOODBYE GAULEY MOUNTAIN
You are soil. And the rain has fallen on you. And you are wet and dirty. Who would you like to first step on you today?
Beth: "Annie. She has cute little toes. So, Annie, our dog, Bob, and deer."
Annie: "A bear. Big bear paws. But a butterfly would be nice. A bunch of butterflies. A few thousand monarchs to tickle me.
Goodbye Gauley Mountain chronicles Stephens' trek back to her home in West Virginia. There, she begins a deeper investigation of MTR, its effects on the area, and, to a greater extent, reveals what some locals, including former miners, are doing to help stop it. She used the name Gauley Mountain in the film's title as a universal name for all of the mountains that are being destroyed by MTR.
"It just happens that Gauley is the one I love the most and have the most connection to," she says, noting that the documentary is not literally about only Gauley Mountain.
What it is, however, is a bold homage to a part of the country she had grown up loving, and as it traces the couple's love, activism and struggle to save a family's home base, it rather fittingly climaxes with their wedding to the Appalachian Mountains.
If directors Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock had a love child it could very well come in the form of Stephens. Surprisingly effective in its execution--especially for a first-time filmmaker--Goodbye Gauley Mountain is equal parts heartfelt, haunting and provocative. It is one of the most captivating environmental documentaries to come out this year.
"I had never made a film before so I had no idea how labor intensive or complex it was," Stephens admits. "I was the quintessential idiot going into this field I had known nothing about. It really was a process of unfolding."
Stephens never wrote a script for the documentary. The only question that she consistently asked people was, "Tell me about your love for the mountains."
Not only did the film "unfold," as she says, but there were curious moments of serendipity. During initial filming in West Virginia, they met a man named Jordan Freeman, who just happened to be a graduate student in Community Studies at UCSC. Freeman became the doc's cinematographer.
Meanwhile, Stephens had been working simultaneously with a producer named Mari-Lynn Evans, who had just completed the compelling film, Coal Country, and was also behind the well-received HBO film The Appalachians. Evans offered Stephens footage of MTR explosions, which the filmmaker was also going to include in another project, Blood on the Mountain, due out next spring. Animation by Hannah Matzner added a distinctly unique touch in several sections of the film as well.
Along the way, Stephens' personal connection to the region continued to generate insights about the life she had in West Virginia before moving out West. One of five children--she has three older sisters and a younger brother--her family has been involved in mining since the 1600s. Her grandfather and his five sons moved to West Virginia from Cornwall, England, at the end of the Depression and started Marathon Coalbit Co., which was eventually run by her Uncle Henry. The family's machine shop, which serviced mostly underground lines, was sold in 1981--long before MTR became so widely practiced.
A young queer woman, growing up in a man's world, she learned how to "make do," as she says in the film.
Having grown up in Gauley's shadow, the realization that explosives and significant earth-moving equipment had been used to demolish more than 500 mountains and destroy more than 2,300 miles of streams, which have been covered over by the "overburden" (soil, trees, rocks, plants and animals), was sobering enough. But, to also discover that, by most accounts, MTR's damages stretch even farther--increased cancer rates, birth defects, asthma in children and the local community being forced to drink undrinkable water that, in some reports, has led to the rotting of teeth, almost felt too much to bear. Add to that the political toll MTR has on families--the threat of living down the hill from dangerous sludge pond impoundments, for instance--and the situation came to be very dire.
"When I was growing up, it was very clear that there were Christians who were fabulous and would take in somebody who didn't have food," Stephens reflects. "The community things that happened there would blow your mind--the kinds of things that were extended to people. But now, with the polarization of the right and the left ... And you put that into the pressurized system of pro-coal and anti-coal, you have a volatile situation."
"I think organizations like Friends of Coal would say they're creating jobs, electricity and adding to the community," Sprinkle adds. "And that coal keeps the lights on, but somebody pointed out, 'you know, you don't go around saying, coal, you are my friend.' They [the coal companies] are expert marketers--and they take all of the money out of West Virginia."
West Virginia is the second-biggest coal-producing state in America, after Montana, According to sourcewatch.org, more than 152.4 million tons of coal was mined in 2006. Above all the brouhaha, however, is a lush mountain paradise with what was once a thriving ecosystem.
"Now, imagine the Santa Cruz Mountains," Sprinkle muses. "How many mountains are there? Let's just say 200. Imagine you destroy half of them; you just cut them off, and all of the chemicals flow into the rivers. So, imagine the San Lorenzo River being filled with mountaintop. All the fish die, the animals have no place to live. Bears that have been hibernating starve to death. They die--if they survive the explosions."
But on some level, Stephens wanted to do more than just reveal the horrors of MTR. "I am so tired of West Virginia being maligned that I really wanted to show what a beautiful place it is and what a loving place it can be and why it is worth saving," she says. "I honestly do think this is just one example of what we're going to be seeing a lot more of if we don't demand that we change our sources of energy, and the way we allow corporations to destroy things that we love dearly. That's really what this film is about.
"I can say that it's about West Virginia, but it's really about something much deeper. It's about human destiny."
You are a mountain whose amazing curves can be admired by astronauts in space. What do you call yourself, what do hope grows on you, and what animals would you love to play on you?
Beth: "I'd call myself Green Velvet and I would love for blackberries, ginseng, honeysuckle, oak trees, maples, pines, locusts, black walnuts, mountain laurels, dogwood, beach trees, Queen Anne's lace, May apples, poison ivy, sassafras, goose berries, rhubarb, wild strawberries, mugwort and lots of sexy lichens, moss and mushrooms to grow on me. I'd also love to have squirrels, black bears, salamanders, robins, cardinals, deer and elk, bobwhites, whipoorwills, fox, badgers, raccoons, black snakes, field mice and skunks play on me.
Annie: "I'd like to be two mountains, a pair, instead of one mountain, as breasts have been a focus of my work for 40 years. I'd be called the Grand Tetas, and I'd want people to massage me with their feet; lie on top of me; stroke mtr6and caress me. Animals? Deer, bear, trees with birds, lots of furry little creatures."
Back in 2008, the same year Stephens first witnessed the MTR devastation, Massey Energy was fined $20 million for violating the Clean Water Act. Not long afterward, in 2010, its safety and ethical procedures were put into even more serious question in the fallout of the Upper Big Branch Mine debacle in 2010, which resulted in the deaths of 29 mine workers.
Remember Blankenship? In addition to being ousted for contributing millions of dollars to the Republicans and The Tea Party Movement--much brouhaha there because the entities typically favor Big Coal--Blankenship had his corporate wrists slapped for being, in a sense, responsible for allowing the worst mining disaster in decades to happen. The tragic event was caused by a methane-fueled blast, something that was so intense that it killed miners more than a mile away.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which reportedly did a thorough investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster, called it "entirely preventable."
Enter Dave Hughart, a former president of a Massey subsidiary. Hughart began cooperating with the government. He revealed the person who had alerted him to impending mine inspections and to keep some reports hidden, was actually Blankenship. A public uproar ensued and Blankenship was forced into an early retirement in 2010, losing the tight grip he had on the company he had operated for 28 years.
His retirement package was worth more than $80 million.
In January of 2011, Massey Energy was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources for $7.1 billion--in cash and stock, according to Bloomberg. "Massey shareholders will receive 1.025 Alpha Natural shares plus $10 cash for each share held, the companies said in a statement yesterday," the media outlet reported. "The bid values Massey at $69.33 a share, 21 percent more than Massey's price at the close of trading Jan. 28. Massey has $1.63 billion in debt, according to Bloomberg data."
In the meantime, a U.S. Attorney in West Virginia, R. Booth Goodwin II, has boldly gone where few men have: the high road. Goodwin has been scouring Massey's corporate enterprise, claiming that beyond the managers who supervised Upper Big Branch mine, there was a much broader conspiracy taking place--one led by "directors, officers, and agents." Apparently, by basing his prosecutions on conspiracy charges rather than, say, violations of specific health and safety regulations, Goodwin can pluck more individuals off of Massey's corporate ladder. Thus far, he has convicted four employees including the Upper Big Branch supervisor whose admission that he disabled a methane monitor and falsified mine records was met with outrage.
Meanwhile, Arch Coal, which also uses MTR, continues to supply more than 15 percent of America's coal, according to most analyses. Its annual revenues hover just above $1 billion, earning it the title (in most circles) of the nation's second largest coal producer. Not to be left out: CONSOL Energy, which recently forked over more than $5 million in damages for their MTR practices in West Virginia. Other top dogs, like Patriot Coal and James River Coal Company, in addition to Massey, make for the nation's top MTR companies, accounting for more than half taking place in the United States.
At this time, Massey Energy is not conducting MTR on or near Gauley Mountain.
While the nation's southeastern states--Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky--where the Appalachian Mountains rise have been hit hard by MTR, other priority regions for "coal resources," which activist groups like Mountain Justice note could supply a major part of the nation's energy during the next few decades, include: the Illinois Basin, the Gulf Coast, the Colorado Plateau, and the Northern Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.
On that note, a number of activist groups, like Mountain Justice, continue to emerge--Radical Action for Appalachian People's Survival (RAMPS), iLoveMountains, Earth Justice among them. And, like Stephens and Sprinkle, the groups strive to raise the level of awareness about what's unfolding.
Ever the eco patriot, politico Robert F. Kennedy, who Time magazine named one of the "Heroes for the Planet" for his success helping Riverkeeper rally to restore the Hudson River, has also even voiced his concerns about MTR: "Mountaintop removal is the biggest environmental battle of our hemisphere. You can restore the Hudson River in perhaps a hundred years. But you will never, never, get these mountains back. This is truly a crime against every human being in the world."
On the legal side, back in April of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit's decision to uphold the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's legal authority to veto a mining permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seemed to suggest the beginning stages of a sea change many hope would happen in Appalachia. Baby steps? Perhaps. That decision reverses a lower court's contrary ruling and is considered a significant blow to Big Coal's ongoing attempts over the years to thwart the EPA from shielding communities from MTR's ripple effects.
Something else to note about the EPA. Last year, it estimated that two decades of mountaintop removal has most likely destroyed or damaged nearly 12 percent of the forests in the states affected, and that rubble and waste will have buried more than 1,000 miles of streams.
"We grew up surrounded by the mountains," Stephens notes. "All of the mountains were special to us. What blew my mind about mountaintop removal was that I always thought those mountains were so strong that nothing could destroy them. I was wrong."
"I think when you really fall in love with Earth as a lover, then you're more inclined to stand up for it," Sprinkle adds, circling back to ecosexualism. "If somebody is about to rape, abuse or hurt your 'lover,' you are going to stand up for your lover. You're going to throw your body in harm's way. Was I prepared to do that before I became ecosexual? No. Probably not. I wasn't that connected. It starts with making the connection."
When asked what, if anything, people near and far may be able to do should they want to help prevent MTR, Stephens quickly says: "We can keep our eyes on legislation. And I think people can refuse to participate in the corporate destruction of the world. That's something."
She pauses. "You know, my childhood was absolutely honed by growing up in the woods and being in nature, and not having the kind of video games and malls to go to and things like that. I had books to read and woods to play in. That really formed the person I am.
"I am an artist. When I do something, I make art. That's my something.