Like so many writers before them, Silas House and Jason Howard believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. Both men grew up feeling the effects of coal mining on their families and the land, and today use their craft to fight mountaintop removal mining. Mountaintop removal is a controversial method which blasts off the tops of mountains to access the coal beneath, and while House and Howard strongly oppose it, their backgrounds help them understand the complexities of the issue.
“I grew up directly across from an active coal mine,” said House. “Most of the men in my family worked in the mine. On the one hand, it was good, because it provided a living. On the other hand, we had to put up with environmental devastation and pollution. It’s a really complex issue.”
Today, Silas House lives in Eastern Kentucky with his two children. He is writer-in-residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate and the author of several books, among them, The Hurting Part, Two Stories, A Parchment of Leaves, Clay’s Quilt and The Coal Tattoo.
Jason Howard lives in Berea, Kentucky, and works as an editor and freelance writer. His newest book, We All Live Downstream, is a collection of writings.
“I grew up next to the railroad tracks in a former coal camp in Bell County, Kentucky, which is on the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia border,” said Howard.
“My paternal great-grandfather was murdered in the mines as a result of his support of unionization. His name is the first listed on the Coal Miners Memorial in Harlan County. His son, my grandfather, was also a miner.
“My maternal great-grandfather went into the mines when he was 9 years old, driving a mule team. He worked in the Harlan County mines during the union wars of the 1930s, and he eventually died of black lung. My family’s stories of these ancestors marked my childhood as much as the coal miners I grew up around, as much as the creek that ran by my house.”
As adults, House and Howard have been engaged for years in a battle against what they call the “ugliest form of mining.”
“We carried signs. We marched. We spoke,” said Howard. “We even sang in an environmental protest band called ‘Public Outcry.’”
But ultimately they decided to raise their voices through their writing. Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal is a collection of feature-length profiles of Appalachian activists who are fighting mountaintop removal mining.
The authors’ focus has been on Kentucky, where the most destructive mining is done, but both are quick to point out that the damage is much more widespread.
“The ash spill in Kingston happened because of mountaintop removal mining,” House said. “They were burning mountaintop removal coal.
“In addition, Knoxville is downstream from the really bad mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Most of the major waterways in the South are downstream. It’s not just an Appalachian problem—it’s an American problem and a global problem.”
Fate seems to have brought the two men together. They met in Washington, D.C., where House was speaking about one of his books and Howard was the reporter who interviewed him. Then they met again at an Appalachian Writers Workshop, and their passion against mountaintop removal mining forged the friendship.
Pellissippi State Community College is bringing the two co-authors of Something’s Rising to the college Monday, Oct. 12. The community is invited to hear House and Howard read from and discuss their book 10:45-11:45 a.m. in the Goins Building Auditorium at the Pellissippi Campus on Hardin Valley Road.
The free event is part of the college’s 2009-2010 Common Academic Experience. Storming Heaven, the novel by Denise Giardina of a coal company’s impact on a early 1900s West Virginia town, is the corresponding Common Book. It is required reading for all freshmen and the centerpiece of the Common Academic Experience, which brings special speakers and activities related to the book—including House and Howard—to campus.
For more information about the event, call the Pellissippi State English Department at 865-694-6708. The public also is invited to take part in the next event in the Common Academic Experience. “Appalachian Coal Families,” a roundtable discussion, takes place 12:50-1:50 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, in the Goins Building Auditorium.