The Smoke Rises

Every so often, at the intersection of US Route 19 and US Route 60, where I live, they start cutting trees down again.

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it; it’s just another time for a column of smoke to start up; I know they have to do it between June 1st and September 30th, or between January 1st and February 28th (or 29th). But it seems like it happens every couple of months.

Realistically, it’s probably happened three times since I moved here. The rest of my anger about burning (burning, burning, burning) stems from the pollution of the clean winter air that picks up whenever the wind blows from the west. It brings the smoke of the neighbors’ wood-burning stove to aggravate my allergies, and I get to be annoyed about it.

I know it’s how we’ve always done things. I know that for a lot of people, burning wood for heat is a necessity. I even understand that there’s something luxurious about a roaring fire and a cup of cider. But I’m tired of the trees coming down. It’s always possible that whoever is clearing forest is doing so for a good reason. Maybe the community vegetable co-op is expanding to serve more people. Maybe someone is building a community center or a small business. Maybe there will be jobs, and money flowing into this little stretch of highway.

I think it’s far more likely that the now-mighty Dollar General has decided that to drive thirty minutes without passing one of their stores is unacceptable.

Living in West Virginia, there’s a delicate balance that you hold on your inside. You hate the place, but you love it. You want to run away, but you can’t imagine ever being happy anywhere else. You care deeply about the people around you, yet their habits and desires and outlooks are often reprehensible. You want to pick up the litter, but you don’t want to see how many needles you’ll find.

I’m allowed to say these things. I’m from here. Other people, people from Ohio or New York or even Kentucky, would not be. I would fight them about it.

My heart hurts for my home, though. We’re adrift in a sea of conflicting desires and goals. The coal interests are slowly dying, the furnace of our ferocious extraction cooling over a generation as those who saw only the benefits of the industry die, and those who have seen the damage and have had to live with it our whole lives grow into the lawmakers and public figures of the 21st century. West Virginia has the perennial problem of exploitation. It has ravaged our land for centuries. First it was timber, then coal, and now we jump at every opportunity for a boom. We get high on economy, and we crash into depression moments thereafter. We allowed a natural gas pipeline to carve a gash through the middle of the state because we knew that for five years, the fossil fuel money would pour in again. But those who have studied history (those, like myself, who have been privileged enough to have the time) know that it won’t last, that it never lasts. We know we will sink once more into poverty, the pipeline another hit of heroin for us to survive on until we all move away and the few stragglers die.

This is the bleakest view I could be taking. I could be looking at the tentative steps a few people are taking toward entrepreneurship. I could be talking about the growth of WVU’s Institute of Technology in Beckley after the merge took place a few years ago. I could mention the strong tourism economy that we’ve been living on for the past decade, or the success of the nearby restaurants that are doing good and interesting things. There’s light. There’s some hope. But there’s an amorphous enemy arrayed against our future, trying to suck the marrow out of the bones of these ancient hills.

Smoke goes up all the time here–not like the wildfires in the west, the catastrophic destruction of a mishandled and abused wilderness–but instead like bloodletting. We are bleeding ourselves because we think we will be paid for it. But no one that we want to benefit from our sacrifice can afford to buy it.

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