To Save Something Beautiful: A Conversation with Erik Reece -
Interviewer: Jeremy Jones
Interviewee: Erik Reece
“Where once there were jagged, forested ridgelines,” writes Erik Reece for Harper’s magazine, “now there is only a series of plateaus, staggered grey shelves where grass struggles to grow in crushed rock and shale.”
Kentucky-born poet and essayist Erik Reece went to Robinson Forest in Kentucky, intending to write poems and to expose his students to some of the most diverse wilderness in the United States. To write about the forest he loved, he discovered, he must first write about the forces working to destroy it. He must first expose the radical practice of strip mining called mountaintop removal.
A year of hopping fences, infiltrating restricted areas, nestling in trees to shoot photographs resulted in LOST MOUNTAIN: A YEAR IN THE WILDERNESS, a book that describes in painful detail the systematic stripping away of a mountain.
In the winter of 2007, Reece and I discussed Robinson Forest, activism, and his next book.
Jones: How does a book on mining start with a trip to a forest?
Erik Reece: Robinson Forest is a 10,000 acre contiguous forest, given to the University of Kentucky by timber baron E. O. Robinson in the '20s, after he had logged it. So today it is a second-growth forest, but the species diversity has remained as rich--60 to 70 different trees--as it was originally. That is to say, Robinson Forest is an example of the mixed mesophytic--the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America. And the streams of Robinson Forest have been tested as the cleanest in Kentucky. So my original goal was to let my writing students experience simply being and hiking and writing in such an amazing place. But if one climbs to the top of the fire tower in the forest, one sees that it is surrounded by mountaintop removal strip mining--flattened grey plateaus that stretch as far as the eye can see. I've spent a lot of time in that fire tower, contemplating these two economies--the forest economy and the industrial economy that threatens to destroy it. So I suppose my decision to start writing about mining and coal began up there in that lonely tower. It is a bit depressing to realize that one has to write about something as ugly as strip mining because one's purpose is to save something as wild and beautiful as Robinson Forest.
Jones: Each summer, you spend time in Robinson Forest with students. Has your relationship with the forest changed as a result of introducing it to others?
Erik Reece: When I lead hikes through the forest, say with high school students, I try to convey the importance of natural systems and the importance of a natural economy. In Robinson, the watersheds are sequestering carbon, purifying streams, holding back erosion, preventing flooding, providing species habitat—all for free, as it were. I try to show visitors that a forest has a natural intelligence, an incredibly complex logic. It’s logic is the opposite of a strip mine--which causes flooding, erosion, species loss—and therefore the forest is something we should approach with humility and reverence. It is, in a very real sense, a classroom.
Jones: How has the physical landscape of Robinson forest impacted your inner landscape?
Erik Reece: The forest slows me down. There are few “distractions” there—no cell phone service, no TV, no stereo. I don’t have to look at billboards or ugly fast food architecture. I can try to enter what E.O. Wilson calls the “naturalist’s trance.” And I begin to develop, or rediscover, what Wilson calls biophilia, an innate affection for the flora and fauna of the physical landscape. It’s hard to explain really how the inner landscape changes to reflect the physical landscape. But when the two meet, as in the Chinese poetry of the T’ang Dynasty, incredible poetry can emerge. I’m not saying that’s the case for me. But when subject and object meet, come together, and in a way dissolve, within a piece of writing, that is something you can trust. That, I think, is why the ancient Chinese nature poetry still seems so powerful to us today. The Zen teacher Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” In the forest, the boundaries of the ego dissipate somewhat, and those two landscapes, the inner and the outer, begin to merge.
Jones: How do you use your emotions--love of the forest, anger, joy--without creating a piece of writing that can be easily dismissed as just another piece of tree hugger propaganda?
Erik Reece: I think you have to just trust your story. Story conveys so much power by itself. We are a people—a species—who invented the story around a fire pit thousands of years ago (Paul Shepard suggests that the art of dance came from us trying to mimic the movement of the fire’s flame) and we have been telling that story ever since. So I think the old writing workshop maxim of “show, don’t tell” comes into play here. As a writer, I don’t have to get angry, or at least convey my anger, about a little girl killed by an illegally overloaded coal truck. I just tell her mother’s story the best I can.
In LOST MOUNTAIN, I tell the story of Florence Reece, who wrote perhaps the words most famous union song, “Which Side Are You On?” on the back of a wall calendar when gun thugs had surrounded her house back in the ‘30s. That song has galvanized protest movements around the world. “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?” Movements need songs and boots. It’s inspiring to march past the Kentucky Coal Association with a couple hundred people, singing “Which Side Are You On?” Of course, having said that, bad art is not inspiring, and a lot of bad art has come out of activism. Sometimes earnestness, or over-earnestness, can kill a work of art.
Art, it seems to me, has always had an uneasy relationship with didacticism. I’m thinking about how a really understated song like Jean Ritchie’s “The Cool of the Day” has still played a powerful role in the fight against strip mining, the fight for better stewardship.
You write for a lot of different reasons: celebration, remembrance, reflection, and many other things. With LOST MOUNTAIN, I’ve come to see that writing is a form of activism. I’ve always known it conceptually, but when a member of Congress calls you up and wants to have dinner to talk about your book, you realize that it has become a political object, a political tool. And when the coal industry announces that it will spend $2.5 million on a PR campaign defending mountaintop removal, you realize, as Wendell Berry says, that “you’ve raised the level of perspiration” among powerful people who are not used to not getting their way.
For some writers, poetry is a form of activism too. But for me personally, the poem is the place where I remind myself what I’m fighting for. It’s a prayer, in some sense, that calls up back to the world. It’s a way of belonging. One might paraphrase Thomas Merton to say that nonfiction is communication, and poetry is the realm of communion where the natural world, man and his God come together and are held together by what Heidegger called the “gathering principle” of the Logos.
Jones: Why aren't more people enraged by what is happening to the forests and mountains of Eastern Kentucky?
Erik Reece: Several reasons. One, it is a very remote place, with steep ridges and winding roads. It’s hard to get too. Two, it isn’t east coast or west coast, so the media stays away for the most part. Three, it’s happening on the TOP of mountains, where it is out of the way and hard to see, unless you’re in a plane. Four, there’s this idea in the American consciousness that mountain people are violent hillbillies—damaged goods. Why not take advantage of them and their land. And in reality, American corporations have always disposed of their toxic waste in places were people are poorest and have little political representation. Finally, I think we in this country have “corruption fatigue.” There is just so MUCH to be enraged about right now, that mountaintop removal is just one more item on the list. What we have to show people is that all of these things are interconnected—we’re in Iraq because we have no real vision about fossil fuel or a sustainable energy policy. Regulatory laws aren’t enforced in the mountains because politicians have been bought off by coal companies and coal lobbyists have been installed as regulators at the Department of Interior. There is a DIRECT connection between the Jack Abramoffs of the world and mountaintop removal. This is what we have to make more people understand.
Jones: You were student of Guy Davenport's. What impact did he have on you and your work?
Erik Reece: Guy taught me the craft of writing. He taught me to think on the sentence level, to try and balance every sentence. It’s the opposite of the Hunter S. Thompson approach. Guy said to me once, “Prose is infinitely condensable.” His essays are 20-page distillations of language that read like prose poems. That’s what made him such an amazing stylist. I learned as much from just reading Guy as I did sitting in front of his fire and talking to him about writing. Everyone should read GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION.
Jones: In recent years you have gotten to know Wendell Berry, but you have been reading and teaching his work for quite some time.
Erik Reece: I’ve admired Wendell from afar for years, decades. I never had the guts to approach him until Guy’s funeral, of all places, where he thanked me for writing “Death of a Mountain,” the Harper’s article. Since then, we’ve gone birding together on his farm, and gotten to know each other a little. In this country, we’re used to thinking of writers, for some reason, as irresponsible drunks—the John Berryman school. But Wendell gets up every day and does good. It’s an amazing thing to think about. Here’s a guy who improves his land, or stands up for a cause as his daily work. That’s just what he does. It’s like breathing for him. In addition to that, he’s so unimpressed with his own reputation. And he loves to laugh, he loves to tell jokes. But as to his influence, I think Wendell has done all of the heavy lifting over the last 30 years in terms of these issues that everyone is now talking about: globalization, conservation, local economies. I feel like the rest of us are just writing footnotes to Wendell’s work.
Jones: Can you tell me about the new book?
Erik Reece: I think of the new book, working title AN AMERICAN GOSPEL, as a sequel, in a way, to LOST MOUNTAIN. In the conclusion of that book, I wrestled with the problem of why so many Americans do not, or cannot, see the natural world as God-given, a gift, a spiritual presence. My grandfather and father were Baptist ministers, and they never preached about the environment. The worst abusers of air and water and land are often the same people who push hardest for prayer in schools, the hanging of the Ten Commandments in public, etc. For me, it comes down to where one locates the Kingdom of God. Is it before us, as Luke 17:20 says, or is it in some afterlife. If the later is true, then there is no reason to be good steward of the earth. It's "fallen" anyway. But if the former is true, we might have a lot of explaining to do to a Creator about why we--one species--have decimated so much of the Creation and are driving to extinction one species every hour. So anyway, the book is part memoir, about my family and its uneasy relationship with fundamentalism, part intellectual history that traces a subversive "natural religion" throughout American history, and part polemic--my own ranting about how to radically shift our thinking about the Kingdom of God so as to get our grandchildren into the next century.