O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My Heav'n, my home, forevermore!
PART I: TOWARD THE TRANSMONTANE
By his own memory and description, Edgar Page Stites wrote the hymn “Beulah Land” in 1876. When the chorus took shape, he was overcome, he recalled, and fell on my face. The song describes the borderland of heaven, thick with corn and wine, from whose mountaintops the speaker can clearly envision redemption, so close he is to its fulfillment. Despite the hymn’s popularity, Stites’s reward would be saved for glory: I have never received a cent for my songs, he wrote. Perhaps that is why they have had such wide popularity. Beulah is a land of refreshment on the outskirts of heaven for John Bunyan’s Pilgrims, who rest there for a season, still yet to cross the River of Death, but already within sight of the Celestial City. It’s a marginal hinterland of forever birdsong, everlasting flowers, and unending light, as though heaven had overfilled with wonder and some majesty had spilled down the mountain, taking shallow root in its soil. The poet William Blake mapped his own Beulah in moony shades & hills, a dark, sleepy cloud between the land of suffering and eternity, free from dispute and contradiction. Blake’s Beulah is a kind of hollow heaven of pleasant numbness.
They all got Beulah from the Bible, of course. In Isaiah, it’s the new name God gives to Jerusalem when the Jews come home from exile. Now that their hometown is restored and their oppressors fallen, they receive all kinds of promises from God about how life would go from then on out: Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate; but thou shalt be called Hephzibah and thy land Beulah; for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married,according to the oracle. And later in the passage: Surely I will no more give thy corn to be food for thine enemies; and foreigners shall not drink thy new wine, for which thou hast laboured.
Almost heaven. That’s what we call our home, here in West Virginia. The Almost of our Heaven is both a space of longing and of possibility, that forever resonance in which we’re caught, between ceolum and infernum, enchantment and collapse, these booms and busts we have come to read as our given, not chosen, inheritance. The systolic and diastolic pulses, writer Mary Lee Settle would say, of the mountain kingdom. This throbbing mechanism has raked lines in our state’s face and plants hunger in a memory of fullness. Within sight of the promised land, but cut off from its fulfillment, we look out across these formerly Endless Mountains.
It can be hard to find a home in Beulah, within its history of colonizing, romanticizing, missionizing, extraction, and resistance. When I returned to West Virginia, where land is both cheap and dear, I came home to see it through its death throes and be a part of building its new life. I was living in Richmond and dreaming of the Transmontane when I decided to move back to the place whose fierce love I’d never gotten over. I’m from the Kanawha Valley but chose to live an hour east and a county over in Fayette, on the New River Gorge, which I’ve always known as a place of divine beauty, though blood runs through the first memory it planted in me. I was five years old in 1987, standing on the steel arch bridge that spans the canyon, when I watched a BASE jumper crumble on the rocks and rapids below, running red. When I found out years later that one of my ancestors was the first to ship the New River’s mineral wealth by rail to market at the beginning of the coal’s boom times, I felt out of place in my own blood. Upwards of 35,000 people lived in the gorge then. As I walk by the river today, I explore their lifetimes in the stony ruins that stud the woods. I record the news and the histories of Fayette County in the local paper and on the radio, shuffling through layers of bygone and becoming. And though I can afford very little in the way of real estate, I search unceasingly for land and homes on websites and drives through the hills.
I am sitting in the general offices of the old New River Company, famous for its White Oak Smokeless Coal and Coke, in the former glory of the City of Mount Hope, at a slab of wood where clerks at the company store once cut bolts of cloth for miners’ wives. Now I cut audio tape there at the little production studio I’ve set up in the wood-abundant, window-gaping corner office. By the time Ebersole Gaines, the company’s president and one-time leader of the National Coal Association, suffered a heart attack and fell to his death at the head of the stairwell outside my office, in 1954, the New River Coal Company was beginning its decline from automation, strip mining, and the advent of the diesel locomotive. The water tonight in the old building spouts its alarm in yellow and orange. I put it through the filter to minor effect and open a can of shitty beer. Next door, three dogs run in the mud yard of a brick mansion that’s seen better days. A federal floodplain buyout along the creek turns the tatters of coal camp houses to empty lots. Along Main Street, the windows of the old institutions are dimly reflective, a church with its pronouncement Our God delights in impossibilities!
Mount Hope and towns like it across the coalfields have seen decline since the 1950s. Within the overall falling-off there have been spikes of prosperity, but now is not one of those times. The recent layoffs and mine closings would be viewed as another predictable bust, except for some indications that this time may be different. After a century and more of extraction, Appalachia’s coal seams are thinner and harder to mine, markets shift west to the vast surface mines of the Powder River Basin, or the oil and gas boom fracturing the Midwest. The writings of climate change are on the wall and, at least under the current administration, old coal-burning power plants are being retired and emissions standards tightened domestically. Clean water every day becomes more precious. The coal industry’s estimated $40-million-per-year media campaigns (“War on Coal,” “Friends of Coal,” “Faces of Coal”) that polarized Central Appalachian communities on the coal issue during election season wind down, for now. Among some activists and residents, there’s a growing hope that the hour may have finally come for systemic change in the coalfields. In some circles, money and energy transfer from protest of industry practice to what is being called transition, a term for how we get to whatever we’ll become after coal’s monolithic exit.
At a regional communications convening we talk with one another about what we are calling it, this new space. As we fill the word with notions of justice, equity, progress, education, healing, and movement-building, I can practically hear the phonemes creak under the weight. I vacillate on the turn in rhetoric. On the one hand, transition would seem to freshly embody the decades-long call for economic diversification in the coal fields of Central Appalachia, and many of my tightest-held dreams for home. And yet its success might ultimately involve the monumental unraveling of entire systems, institutions, and cultures. Most suspect, it implies an inertness that downplays our ongoing adaptation.
There is no beginning to this history, but one place to start is with salt.
As the freedom day approached Booker T. Washington’s plantation in Hale’s Ford, Virginia, the slaves felt its nearness, and the singing in the fields grew clearer, louder, and more frequent. As the spiritual leap of the songs grew each day closer to a freedom of the body in this world, Washington wrote, the songs gained truth and grace. But in the hours following emancipation’s announcement on the steps of the plantation house, the wild rejoicing turned to gloom, as the great responsibility of freedom descended. For the first time, the emancipated felt the weight of the necessary work to be done, the enterprise of finding a way to live that was at last their very own: building the institutions that had so long denied them access, acquiring a house, making a living, taking care of family. The elderly, especially, struggled to understand how they fit into this new world. The first step for them was finding a name.
When animals seek salt based on true bodily deficiency, we call this the expression of salt need. Mom used to tell me about the Great Buffalo Lick, where the deer, elk, and bison came yearly to balance their internal chemistry in the Upper Kanawha. I imagined solid riverbanks of hard white, their hooves’ taut crunch, their tongues along its tiny jaggednesses. But that’s rock salt, and the lick was more like a briny mire, a couple hundred feet across and just at the river’s edge, wide enough to accommodate the buffalo herds that rallied there in the summer before heading toward the thick Ohio grasses and the cane breaks of Kentucky. Three miles upriver from the Great Buffalo Lick was the Burning Spring, a puddle of rainwater where bubbling gas could be lit, burning and burning until the rain or wind snuffed it out, as freely as spirits, and nearly as difficult to extinguish, George Washington wrote. When Washington, one of the region’s earliest and most prominent white land speculators, heard of the bituminous spring, he acquired it, along with 30,000 acres straddling the Kanawha River. There is no richer, or more valuable land in all that Region, he wrote in his will. Multiple sources say Washington gave, or meant to give, the spring to the public forever, as a natural curiosity. But the grant was never recorded, and the land eventually sold.
Before the war, Booker T. Washington’s stepfather, Wash Ferguson, was leased from his Virginia plantation to a salt manufacturer at Kanawha Salines and lived semi-independently among the caustic smokestacks that had grown up around the Buffalo Lick and Burning Spring, with an industrial workforce of thousands, side by side with poor migratory whites working hell jobs on their way west, drinking and playing spots in shanties with men like Jeff Bell, a.k.a. The Conjureman, a.k.a. Cuttin Box, a.k.a. Tilt Hammer, saving up a little by working Sundays and heading home once a year at Christmas. About half of the 3,000 enslaved blacks in the Kanawha Valley were leased from plantations elsewhere. Slave leasing rates there were 150% of the going rate, plus hazard pay, due to the danger of the work but also the greater likelihood of self-emancipation.
The native people needed salt too. Their game sought the salt, and they sought the salt to cure their game, and it had been that way for a very long time. The lick was a place of feasting and plenty of work, making salt. Mary Draper Ingles did so here in 1755, a captive of the Shawnee in the Transmontane. The stolen relics of their life there—arrowheads, a tomahawk, a match coat composed of thousands of tiny, brilliant-colored feathers—now reside in the basement caves of the British Museum, where the writer Mary Lee Settle discovered them circa 1954.
The first commercial salt furnace came online at the licks in 1797: two dozen small kettles with a flue underneath, a chimney at one end, and a fire at the other. The men drove huge hollow logs into the mire, climbed down inside, and hoisted the brine up in buckets. Iron gave the salt a red tinge and a reputation as a powerful preservative of meats. Orders for that Kanawha red salt came from Porkopolis, the meatpacking city of Cincinnati, and the War of 1812 was good for business too. By 1815, Kanawha Licks comprised fifty-two furnaces, whose owners would form the first cartel in U.S. history two years later in an effort to control the price and quantity of salt. When all the trees for miles were gone, burnt up in the furnaces, the coal mines at the mouth of the licks were put to industrial use.
The first written character that Booker T. Washington understood was the number 18, painted on the side of a salt barrel at Malden in the Kanawha Salines. It was his stepfather’s number, so he grew to know its importance in long days at the salt-packing house. As a child, Washington started work at four o’clock in the morning and devoured sounds from books: ab, ba, ca, da. Sometimes he messed with the clock in the packing house so he could spend more time in school. In the coal mines that fueled the furnaces, he often wandered scared and lost in the maze of blackness, imagining the life of a white boy with absolutely no limit placed upon his aspirations and activities.
The Confederate Army had salt need. When they advanced on the Salines from the east in 1862, the retreating Union forces destroyed what they could of the works as they withdrew to Ohio with a train of the valley’s black refugees stretching sixteen miles. The Kanawha River held a wild flotilla of handmade sailboats so thick you could practically walk across the river by stepping from one to the other. The salt industry began its bust in the 1850s—shifting markets, war, flood, and emancipation—but coal picked right up where salt left off. After too long a silence, recent historic markers in Malden acknowledge the black presence in the area, a first step toward the admission that salt was only possible because slaves could do the killing work of industry. One source has it that the name of the Kanawha Salines was changed to Malden—the name it bears today—because of a whipping post in town: The negroes, when speaking of whipping called it getting mauled. After being whipped they called it Malden.
Industrial gas wells were a new thing under the sun. The first was drilled by accident in 1815, at practically the same spot where the West Virginia capitol complex now sits, by a man boring for salt brine with little luck. He told them all he’d strike salt, or drill to hell in trying. Instead, a powerful gas flow burst into a column of flame, a chimney of hell sending up warning. Upriver, a 500-pound drilling augur shot up out of a pocket of gas like an arrow out of a cross-bow, and a 150-foot geyser of saltwater erupted from the ground. A sudden lightning bolt struck the Burning Spring on a cloudless day, flooring and dazing the three salt workers who stood marveling around it.
William Tompkins was the first to figure out that you could harvest the gas for saltmaking, thus gaining a cheap energy source and cutting costs. When the Kanawha was renamed Old Greasy from the bittern and oil and brine at the Salines, like any sensible salt baron, Tompkins withdrew from the sacrifice zone. In 1844, he brought his family, and the persons whose names and ages he recorded in his business diary, ten miles upriver to a farmland basin in a grove of cedars at the crossing of two creeks. The slaves, who by 1860 numbered fifty, ages one to ninety-three, built a house there of red brick they formed and fired on-site, and it was called Cedar Grove.
A hundred years after William Tompkins built his salt empire, and at the very same spot, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. produced the first synthesized ammonia from air and water, triggering a domino effect that led to the manufacture of methyl alcohol, antifreeze, nitrates for explosives, and fertilizer, plastic, rubber, and nylon. Today, just upriver from the DuPont Belle chemical plant you’ll find DuPont Middle School, which sits on top of the Burning Spring, now capped in concrete and scrub grass with a monument erected by the West Virginia Oil and Gas Industry in the shape of a rusting flame. The plaque on the monument in front of the school shows figures in a pit-like space, staring at each other. A deer at the Great Buffalo Lick stares at a Daniel Boone figure with a long rifle; the Daniel Boone stands staring at a man with a loincloth and mohawk, who has his back to the viewer and stares at men harvesting salt in logs; and beyond them all, in the distance and towering above, is the chemical Oz—the cooling stacks and flares and pipes and holding tanks of the Kanawha chemical industry, still burning today. Salt, gas, coal, and the river.Evacuate and shelter in place, I remember the drills during elementary school in the Chemical Valley.
I cast my salt need to the Internet. A sponsored link provisions me with a list of local resources: Frito-Lay on Apostolic Church Road, Smith’s Corner Packette on Stanaford, and Save-A-Lot Food Stores in Oak Hill. Until recently in West Virginia, drugs mixing the effects of methamphetamines and cocaine were packaged as “bath salts” and sold on a kind of gray market in convenience stores. Pure bodily need doesn’t explain the human drive to consume salt beyond physiological necessity. This salt-drunk condition and its resultant diseases stem from what is known as salt preference. Though not fully understood by the scientific community, it appears that salt preference, rather than need, drives salt intake in humans. The Town of Cedar Grove’s map reveals salt need where Bufflick Branch meets Kelly’s Creek northeast of town, at Ward. At the licks where game once gathered, a pipe releases something gauzy into the blue February sky. Columbia Gas Transmission’s Bufflick Compressor shimmers, freshly painted. A public service announcement on the shed reads Know What’s Below.
No writer inhabited the intellectual space of boom and bust in Beulah more so than Mary Lee Settle, who catalogued in volumes of historical fiction the tensions that have shaped this territory since the beginning and earlier: the wars and rebellions, the abuses and kindnesses, the dictatorial and democratic turns of mind. She put it all down in the Beulah Quintet, five historic-autobiographical novels spanning over 300 years in the Transmontane. It’s the story of Beulah, modeled on the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, where Settle was born in 1918 and imagined this way: The gentle place rested, with a creek like a lifeline running through it, as if God, sickened by the magnificence of the huge trees and the mountains, had lain down in mid-creation, and gone to sleep awhile. And of Mary Lee Settle’s baronial mountain family, who once claimed vast tracts of abundant forestlands and rich bottomland along the Kanawha River, where the New meets the Gauley, twists, industrializes, opens its banks, and merges with the Ohio. It was there that she would find the headwaters of her life’s work.
Among the Quintet’s family genealogies—Lacey, Cutwright, McKarkle, Catlett, Pagano, and chattel slave—are flashes of Settle’s blood ancestors who made their homeplace in the small river basin at Cedar Grove. William Tompkins, the salt baron who moved his family there to escape the skreeking of the salt works he’d help construct downriver, was Settle’s great-grandfather. Like Yoknapatawpha County in The Snopes Trilogy or Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Settle’s Beulah was the product of intimate familiarity with a particular place and its history and an infinite capacity to imagine it differently than it was.
The Beulah Quintet courses west from Great Britain, across an ocean, joining the rivers of Virginia to cross mountain landscapes and generations, an obsessive search for the language and roots of American democracy, a dredging up of buried history, and a wrestling match with the meaning of freedom. Throughout its pages, Settle struggles to understand the lost significance behind words like liberal, equality, republic, and commonwealth, and the habit by which the oppressed come to imitate their oppressors. The balance between us, she would say: the Beulah Quintet.
Characters don’t know it, but they wade thigh-deep above radical breaks in the riverbed of time. Settle placed each book at a seed point in history, just before a major social transformation where “we,” in the present, look back on historical subjects and see “their” world about to flip over: before the impossible had become possible and the unthinkable, historic fact, she wrote. She read through stacks of period writings, taking no notes, to learn her subjects’ language, to hypnotize herself into a past-present state that she inhabited, writing history, she said, like a contemporary novel. Recorded history is wrong, Settle said. It’s wrong because the voiceless have no voice in it. It becomes official history. I thought in terms of writing good, honest history . . . when they say one and three-quarters people arrived on such and such a day as indentured servants to Virginia in 1774—I gave them a name, and a place, where they did come from. And a place, where they did go to.
Despite a National Book Award, a couple Guggenheims, teaching stints at fancy schools, and her founding of the PEN/Faulkner awards, Mary Lee Settle’s oeuvre lays fairly cool in the American canon, alive mostly on the syllabi of regional courses, “Voices from the Hills” or some such. West Virginians, even ones from Cedar Grove, real-life Beulah, have a curious degree of amnesia about Settle’s work. Various explanations have been offered: Settle chose an unfashionable form (“historical fiction”), her writings didn’t fit in minds already full of popular beliefs about Appalachia, her heady books had too many characters and plots, the publishing industry failed her, or she got hated out of our history by the coal elites to whose class she “belonged” and then betrayed with her leftist people’s history of the coal fields. Proudly classed a premateur anti-fascist on her official dossier, Settle served in the British Navy in World War II as a signals operator and daily dodged buzz bombs as a writer at the U.S. Office of War Information in London, a major pivot in her life and thinking. That was after a childhood trailing coal booms and busts in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky with her father, a mining engineer; after the dilettante days of acting and modeling in New York; and before the writing days had begun in earnest.
Prisons, the first book of the Quintet (though the third written), opens with the unseating of the English crown and follows two of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers, the speakers, or “agitators,” of their company, to their execution against a stone church in Burford, England, in 1649. One of them had joined the Leveler Movement for egalitarian power reform after seeing his nobleman father kick people off the family estate to build a lake for his hunting buddies. (These “enclosures” were common in England and drove some of the dispossessed to what would become West Virginia.) The agitators were carrying a message to Cromwell that said they refused to fight the Irish: We have waded too long in a sea of human blood. A woman’s rootlike hand clawing at Beulah’s wilderness opens the second book of the Quintet (and the first written), O Beulah Land. The hand belongs to Hannah Bridewell, a London prostitute deported to the Virginia colony and taken captive by natives because she settled too deep in the Endless Mountains’ folds. The book follows white colonists turned colonizers through marriages and years of war with native people in the decades preceding the American Revolution, as vague overseas governments dictate terms.Know Nothing brings us to an antebellum mountain plantation as large-scale capitalism, modern industrial extraction, exploitative labor, and eventually the Civil War seize the valley of Beulah. The Scapegoat tracks a single day of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike during a period of unionization wars at the heels of the twentieth century in Cedar Grove and its surrounds, when mining families, paternalistic coal barons, hired guns, do-gooders, and agitators like Mother Jones vied for power and reckoning. The final novel of the series, The Killing Ground, pulls the curtain back on the Quintet’s process of creation as we meet Hannah McKarkle, the fictional author of all the books, who comes home to Beulah to mourn the killing of her brother in a jail cell by another man. A vastness of perceived class divisions separates the two men, though they are blood kin. Hannah is compelled to find out why the blow was struck. The answer to that question is the Beulah Quintet.
Old decisions, old quarrels, old disguises were my inheritance. To honor them, recall them, present them, and to admit my love, is to cast them off at last, Mary Lee Settle wrote in the poem that opens her autobiography. Settle most likely heard the hymn “Beulah Land” from her mother, Rachel Lee, and Rachel probably sang it at the Old Brick Church in Cedar Grove, a small chapel constructed in 1853 by the slaves of her great-grandfather, William Tompkins, with the same brick they used to build his home. Mary Lee attended the church’s centennial celebration in 1953, just as she began to write the Quintet, and sang along to “The Old Brick Church,” a hymn written especially for the congregation: Oh, the dearest spot on this earth to me is the church of my childhood days! Gospel songs and hymns, we would often sing: “Beulah Land” and “Amazing Grace” . . . I am recording the hymn within the hymn as it is sung in the Old Brick Church on Thanksgiving evening of 2013. Upriver, the coal-fired power plant generates and conducts; downriver the chemical plants twinkle on the salt-bearing earth, and it’s that deep kind of November night when bones feel close to the skin. The echoes and descendants of Settle’s characters in the Beulah Quintet are looking at me and my shotgun microphone like we’re a couple of natural curiosities. Despite the Mayberry/Mordor dissonance that envelops the great mineral ghost of present-day Cedar Grove, the church body inside recites their thanks.
Like Mary Lee, I went to the town digging for some present truth in the past, and knocked on the doors of ten women, up to a century old, who agreed to talk about their lives in Cedar Grove. All of them pay their hearts to the town in some way or another, filling their lives with service to a place where community ties are being severed by a fading industry that once drew its people close in solidarity. These women are and were the societal glue of Cedar Grove, the storytellers, the visionaries, the caretakers, and the advocates for the powerless. I asked them about home. I needed to know how we got here, and how we get out of wherever “here” is, without having to leave. What’s behind the boom and bust? What stays? Where did they see potential for restoration, and what did they think would happen in the future? I hoped that the women would offer some insight for current times, when a quarter of the town’s population lives below the poverty line, and a female’s median earnings are $11,284 (compared to $30,417 for men, who take higher-paying jobs in natural resources, construction, and maintenance). Like many formerly bucolic American small towns these days, Cedar Grove has its bewildering struggles with addiction, crime, joblessness, and a malfunctioning education system. I’d been covering some of these issues for the newspaper, but those leads only got me so far. I needed to dig deeper.
Mary Lee Settle’s 1998 memoir, Addie, begins: An autobiography that begins with one’s birth begins too late, in the middle of the story, sometimes at the end. It’s really about her grandmother, Addie Lee Elswick, a country girl who got one of the first divorces in the county and then married into the aristocratic Tompkins family in the 1880s. The book is an accounting of the rise and fall of the Tompkins, the extraction economy’s ebbs and flows, and the stripping of the Kanawha Valley. Addie’s world changed radically when she was nine years old in 1872: The coming of the railroads and the opening of the coal mines in the Kanawha Valley were as violent a change to the farmers of Addie’s childhood as the great industrial revolutions were to earlier Americans. We are seeing something like it in our own lives, and are now once again in a frightening economic upheaval, this time requiring intelligence, a new language, more delicate skills, instead of the once-proud working man’s muscular strength. John Henry has been replaced by a fourteen-year-old computer genius in a garage, Settle would write.
Addie is how I got to Cedar Grove.
PART II: THE WOMEN OF CEDAR GROVE
In the early days of spring, three women stand around an old well on the back porch of Cedar Grove mansion, amid constant birdsong and beeping of coal trucks. One bends down and looks into the water. You can see your picture down there, says Peggy Coleman, the town’s reigning historian at eighty-two. The women look down into the shining black circle, breathing in wet earth, fresh masonry, and each others’ perfume. Spring up, O well, within my heart, says Shirley Stennett, fifty-five, into the well. Water, property, the fallen state of Cedar Grove: Shirley’s view of a lot of life is Biblical. Her strawberry blonde hair is swept up on the crown of her head, and she wears a fiery orange blouse and rimless spectacles. She and her sister, Patty Thurmon, sixty-four, grew up here in town, the children of a coal miner and a Polish woman whose impoverished childhood in nearby Ward had instilled a propensity for taking care of beggars and orphaned children. When the sisters bought and began restoring Mary Lee Settle’s ancestral home thirteen years ago, its original water source was capped and dry. But it’s lately rebuilt and recharging, for the two women a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s refreshing influence in their dreams and prayers, where their hometown blooms back and thirsts no more.
I’ve been coming to Cedar Grove for the past two years, working on an audio documentary about all this, barreling down the Midland Trail from Fayette County to the valley every so often to sit and listen to the women here talk. They were easy to find, like the keepers of any small town’s stories and doings—anyone can point you to them. Gracious and trusting, they invited me, in some cases unannounced, into their homes, spoke into a recorder, and then told me who to go look for next.
On this day, near the beginning of the project, Shirley and Patty tour me around the grounds of the Tompkins mansion, which they operate as The Haven, an end-of-life care facility for the valley’s residents. The brick plantation colonial is more pretentious than its surroundings—more Old Virginia than West By God—a bulwarked exception to the Jenny Lind construction of cheap, quick, and drafty. Passed down through the Tompkins family until now, the circle of its domain has been reduced to three acres by divisions of inheritance and conversion to cash. The wide lawn with its rose bushes once encompassed the dusty, rumbling coal-hauling facility across the street. It does not seem to me a coincidence that this house, which sheltered one of the valley’s wealthiest capitalists, is now occupied by caretakers. Shirley is telling me that in scripture cedars represent wealth, dignity, stability, and strength. Shirley found the name for her business at a prayer conference in Branson, Missouri, where she heard these words: I have called it to be what I intend it to be: a Haven. In the Bible, when a place is special, says Shirley, God often renames it.
I follow the women around with my sound-recording equipment, mining for verbal diamonds.
It is our hope to replant . . .
Poverty is a form of bondage . . .
Everybody drank from the same dipper . . .
I’m awkward. I give erratic instructions, then trip over my own dictums—I’ve never really done this before. I ask perhaps an inappropriate number of incoherent questions about funerals, murders, and suicides, feeling for a rune, a guidepost, a dark guarded secret that will help me negotiate the maze of stories I’ve stepped into. The women are kind to take me seriously, and their intelligence and wisdom shine through when I hold the mic up to their stories of the house, the land, and especially the water.
Peggy’s mother was baptized up to her neck in Horsemill Creek, fed by fresh springs that bubbled out of the hills. Now, the women say they wouldn’t feel safe to play in it. Numerous mountaintop removal sites flank and drain into the Kanawha River near Cedar Grove, including Bullpush Mountain, the very first in our state’s history, permitted in 1970. Its trumped up post-mining development plans (a new town! schools! churches! medical facilities! NASCAR!) never materialized, but a coal-waste dam containing more than two billion gallons of slurry did. The Dunn Hollow impoundment hovers, glistening blackly, on the mountaintop above the nearby town of Montgomery.
Patty and Shirley’s eighty-five-year-old father, Stacy Ellis, takes me up Horsemill Holler one afternoon on a four-wheeler and shows me the old mine openings and production line of Cedar Grove Collieries, a company the Tompkins boys once ran unsuccessfully as a worker-owned co-op in coal’s early days in the Valley. I’m riding in the seat normally reserved for Sassy, Stacy’s minute, ancient poodle. Vegetation has swallowed most evidence of human activity here. When he was a young man, Stacy delivered groceries up this holler to dozens of households crowding the creek and scaling the steep hillside—coal camp houses that had sprung up where slave shacks once sat. At the base of the mountain, Stacy shows me where he used to pick Shawnee greens for his wife when she was still alive, and berries he’d take to his Hungarian friend for making wine. As we wind further up the holler, I remember it was here that Mary Lee Settle’s grandmother, Addie, used to steal away alone for spells to gather wild honey in a veiled, wide-brimmed hat, like she was going to church in the woods: The path got narrower, until at the end of the hollow, where it turned up between the wild trees toward the top of one of the little mountains, there was nobody, only the silence of the woods, the faint run of the creek on days when it had rained, and the hum of wild bees. The spot still hums today, only with a different kind of energy production—my microphone captures the perpetual rush of a gas pumping station nestled at the head of the holler. The creek beside it runs milky white and low. Stacy climbs up on the front of the vehicle to weigh it down as we bank steeply up to the ridgetop, where gas company roads and pipelines and ATV trails and surface mines stretch all the way, it just about feels, to kingdom come.
Because both sides of Kelly’s Creek were leased to a coal company, Mother Jones stood in the middle of the stream near the Tompkins House as she distributed union cards to the miners in 1902. Addie, her coal operator husband, and all of their children were gathered for dinner in the Big House, Cedar Grove mansion, around a table shipped there by flatboat from Cincinnati. By then, the former plantation of the salt baron William Tompkins, Addie’s father-in-law, appeared on deeds as a tract of coal land, and was the site of nearly forty working coal mines. The family discussed the union agitator, who wanted to hold a meeting on the Cedar Grove property. Addie’s husband refused—he was the owner of a coal mine, after all—so she asked, Do I own the bull field outright? Yes, he politely told her, since he had turned over some property to her for financial reasons. Then Mother Jones can use my bull field for her speech, Addie declared. And Mother Jones did. Five years later, Addie’s husband was run over by a train—1907, the year a panic swept the nation and the cash dried up in the valley. The remains of his flesh on the tracks covered with coal ashes. It was the most fitting burial he could have had, his granddaughter would write.
On Punkin’ Hill in 1918, the sleeping body of Serena Martin stirred when her milk flowed. Under paling stars, in the board and batten house, her baby cried up in its belly and Serena awoke and began nursing her child, readying for the day. Serena walked down the hillside, crossed the railroad tracks, the field, and entered the Tompkins House through the back door of the kitchen, where most of the women in her family worked at one time or another. Upstairs, the infant Mary Lee was splitting her navel with wails of hunger. Her mother couldn’t feed her (a nervous condition), and it was Addie who finally lifted the starving child up and brought her to Serena’s breast.
I’m hearing the story from Serena’s daughter, Carol Martin Saunders, born in 1921. She sounds mad as she tells it because she thinks Mary Lee Settle never knew the truth of who fed her—but Settle did, and she wrote the scene in Addie. We are sitting on Carol’s couch in her family’s house on Punkin’ Hill, which was constructed of boards that literally built the union in West Virginia—the Martins allowed striking miners evicted from company houses to build on their property on the condition that the family would keep the materials when it was all over. We’ve been adding on, putting on, ever since, says Carol. When I return months later with a box of cookies to interview her again, she thinks I’m selling something and firmly shoos me away.
Above the Tompkins House on Beemer’s Hill, Serena’s niece, Katherine Caves Atwater, nine years old in 1921, watched from her front porch as coal miners poured out of Ward holler and marched through Cedar Grove on their way to the climax of the mine wars on Blair Mountain. Addie, too, was watching; when one went down in friendly fire, she brought him into the Big House and summoned the town’s black doctor. This time, instead of inciting the uprising, Mother Jones tried to discourage the miners from marching, sensing failure. There is never peace in West Virginia, because there is never justice, Mother Jones would write in her autobiography, published five years before her death in 1930. Injunction and guns, like morphia, produce a temporary quiet. Then the pain, agonizing and more severe, comes again. So it is with West Virginia.
Down on the Kanawha River in the late 1950s, the artist Paula Clendenin—who would later capture the valley’s textures and totems in abstract painted works—waited for the end of salvation with the day’s supply of Kool-Aid and a towel. The wait for a swim would be interminable—the black church and the white church were doing their baptizing in the river that day. (The black church was her favorite, because of their songs.) Every year at least one person died on the river too. At night, she would stand on the riverbank and listen to the sound of the firemen throwing hooks from their boats, dragging for the body. It was very quiet except for the crying. Dying or being born again, she tells me.
Paula was raised by her mother and grandmother in a little house beside the coal tipple that interrupted the family’s conversation every few minutes with its violent shaking. They later moved into the old slave quarters behind the Big House, with its rumors of tunnels to the river, where every so often a woman in blue, glistering like a hologram, walked back and forth across the second story porch before slowly fading out. Paula concluded that it was someone from the early generations, and noted with interest the color and quality of light that shone through the figure.
Paula didn’t know she was poor until The Saturday Evening Post told her so in 1960. “The Strange Case of West Virginia,” their cover story about John F. Kennedy’s stop in Cedar Grove during the presidential primary, featured photos of the weathered houses and rusted-out cars whose textures Paula had, until then, found so transfixedly beautiful. Just a year earlier, a reporter for The Nation had stood in the center of town, taking notes. A group of men swept the streets to work off the water bills they couldn’t afford. The town’s undertaker gestured to the men and told the reporter,We’ve reached the point of no return.There’s going to have to be a change somehow—and soon. That night, writing up his story, the reporter concluded that the Appalachian South stacks up as an underdeveloped region, which produces citizens incapable of realizing their human potential in the complex 20th century. The United States declared its War on Poverty five years later.
With a mixture of love and sorrowful consternation, Peggy Coleman tells me about the Cedar Grove of today—which her childhood self wouldn’t recognize, she says—as she waits for her daughter to bring her a sausage biscuit. Peggy wrote about gossip and black lung for the Montgomery Herald back when it was a people’s paper; now she writes about her yesterdays and collects old photographs of town that she arranges in slideshows on DVDs, scoring them with pop country hits. She sits in boiled-egg light in the chair she always sits in, in the kitchen where she cooked when the coal company still owned the house. When they sold out, they offered the houses to the mining families who lived in them, and a big truck came and moved the house down the holler from Ward to Cedar Grove, because Ward was essentially over.Peggy’s Kitchen, reads the sign on the refrigerator behind her. Peggy Coleman is hungry, but not too hungry to talk: What are we going to do when coal goes away? A lot of the men that worked in the mines, that’s all they knew. And they can’t go get a job like down at McDonalds. They don’t want to. And you shouldn’t expect them to do that. And they’ll say, “Well they’ll teach them a new trade.” Well, what is the new trade?
Granted, it’s an especially raggedy winter day, and Peggy has recently been in the hospital. But her grief over the town’s falling off is real. Peggy was always counted on as a doer and helper in town, and I sense her frustration as her body struggles to match her intense will to action.
It’s like we’re waiting for the other shoe to fall. I don’t know what we’re waiting on, but we’re waiting.
By the gray four-lane, pools of warm light collect in the pews of the Old Brick Church, where Lynette Hudnall sits and remembers how her mother swept coal dirt from the porch every day during her childhood along nearby Paint Creek. Lynette works for a group of radiologists, helps take care of the church, and is married to Cedar Grove’s current mayor. When she was growing up, in the 1970s, her father took the children to play in the headwaters of Paint Creek. The water there was relatively safer than in town, below the various mines. Since then, groups of retired miners have organized to heal the waters that flow through home, which is helping. I’ve always tried to imagine, and it’s really hard to even imagine, this area the Beulah Land she said it was, before everything got dirty with coal and chemicals and all that, Lynette tells me. I just see waterfalls and green hills and the creeks and the beautiful river, with no structures around it, because nobody really lived here.
It’s hard for us to imagine a time when this place wasn’t a home.
In spite of the pain in her knees, seventy-year-old Jean Lamb—who doesn’t look a day over fifty—gamely scrambles down the steep side of a weedy gulch between the Old Brick Church and the AutoZone. In the squish of the bottom, fierce mosquitos bite our ankles. Everything this summer is green but the brilliant purple ironweed behind her that makes her freckles glow like they’re under a black light. The prisoners from Mount Olive Correctional Complex, built on a former mountaintop removal site nearby, have recently been down to cut back the Appalachian jungle. Acknowledging the history of this overlooked strip of land next to the churchyard has become Jean’s life obsession. Before her, and all through the gulch, river stones were long ago placed, to mark the graves of the people who built Cedar Grove. When Jean imagines aloud the scene of a slave funeral, she closes her eyes and thinks of the song “Beulah Land.” You can almost hear them humming it, she says, as they carry the coffin down the hill. Far away in an archive, I find a page in William Tompkins’s diary, where he has roughly compiled some of their birthdates and names: Deana Thurmon about 1812, Mary Shelton born 2 March 1834, Eliza Gates born Feb 1817, John Davis born March ’45, Anderson Hunt born 15 Nov. ’40 . . . and on and on.
When 10,000 gallons of Crude MCMH, a coal cleaning chemical that smells like poison licorice, spilled from a shady tank farm called Freedom Industries above the valley’s drinking water intake in January of this year, 300,000 people in nine counties lost their water. Symptoms of exposure included burning rashes, nausea, headaches, and vomiting. After the water ban was lifted—prematurely, most residents would say—the water was declared unsafe for pregnant women to drink. Schools were closed, delayed, opened, shut again; businesses lost money; and it was a huge hassle to haul water for cooking, bathing, and washing, week after week. Especially because no one really knew or believed that the water was safe, given limited data about the chemical’s effects on mice, wax-figure officials mouthing senseless words, the Freedom Industries CEO dazedly slugging bottled water on the local news, the private water utility shrugging, public trust eroding. YouTube videos still document the weird blue fucking paste again in the pipes as people unsuccessfully flushed the water systems of their homes, getting sick in some cases from the fumes that Freedom conjured for days and weeks after that. Water quality issues that plague southern West Virginia suddenly burst into the homes of coal elites in Charleston, and some see an opening for a new conversation about our future. Then our senator, Joe Manchin, tells the New York Times: I don’t know where else you want the chemicals to be produced. Another country? People say, “Not in my back yard.” But here in West Virginia, we’re willing to do the heavy lifting. A man stands up at a citizen meeting and says, I’m tired of being strong. A woman at a public hearing says, I have washed my body with water laced with a substance used to wash coal. My house briefly floods with heroic, spill-obsessed people gathering and distributing donated water to those who cannot, for one reason or another, access or afford it. Talk turns to resiliency, survival knives, and rain catchment. The smart ones leave: you hear it all the time. One of the happiest periods of Booker T. Washington’s life began when he returned to Malden from Hampton Institute to teach school and help the people of my home town to a higher life. He was so successful that Hampton Institute invited him to leave Malden and teach there instead, and so he left his home for the greater opportunity.
In my lifetime, I saw what had been a virgin country decimated by industry. Mary Lee’s words reverberate through the executive corner office of the old New River Company building, and against its enormous windows, brick, wood, and brass. I think I was marked by it. And also I got sick of the legends of history. I think the reality of our history is so much stronger. So much more to be proud of, and ashamed of, than the sort of pacified, cleaned-up legend of our history . . . Before I worked here, I had a studio in a town up the road that welcomed green entrepreneurs for green co-habitation to advance sustainable development in the coal fields. But despite the energy-saving appliances, passive solar, and recycling, the promised green people left, or never arrived. One day I was informed that Mumbai-based Essar Global was looking into renting the entire building for five years in order to continue to ship metallurgical coal from Fayette County to their steelmaking plant in Canada. Theirlocal subsidiary, Frasure Creek Mining, was in bankruptcy restructuring and owed the county money that we would probably never see. As a reporter, I’d been trying to get information from the company about their expansion of surface mining in the area, without much luck, and prior to that I had to leave my own creekside Beulah—lichen-studded boulders, rhododendron thickets, berry patches—because of the mining. The family who owned the house got spooked and sold, so I moved, sheltering on a dead-end street next to federally protected lands along the New River Gorge.
Back before I moved off the creek, Frasure hosted a meeting for locals at the Holiday Lodge, where a pizza buffet was spread. The session consisted of a short presentation assuring residents that the mining was safe, followed by a raffle of power tools, Walmart gift cards, and a flat-screen TV. I was kicked out of the meeting before it started by the two guys named Phillip who ran it, after they declared I didn’t live close enough to the mine (two miles) and I shouldn’t care what happens. Their framing of me as an outside agitator seemed especially misguided given my family’s history in the early local coal industry. As I sat in the lobby and stared at the cooling pizza, I heard the cheers when numbers were drawn by children the Phillips picked from the crowd. When the half-dozen Indian businessmen who had never returned my calls suddenly appeared in the doorway of my bright studio, chatting in Hindi, I knew that space would soon be gone too.
A branch of Alpha Natural Resources, one of the top four coal producers in the country, occupies the first floor of my current office in the New River Company building. The Alpha men sit downstairs, pulling the maps, reading the permits, doing the work. And my friends and I sit up here doing ours—community development, sustainable agriculture, documentary. Late nights at the office, I think of them and wonder, playfully, who’s working harder? A security cam is installed in the stairwell leading to their suite—I guess sometimes they think of me too. But I’m not trying to make any enemies here; I’m just searching for understanding. It’s a curious time all mixed up together in a shifting space, trying to find our peace as the multinational coal company pays rent to the green entrepreneurs, and my friends and I set up work stations in the vacant rooms of a vanishing local empire.
In our bewildered time, when we feel powerless, perhaps we need to recognize through looking at the past that doubt is timeless, change the only norm and accepted “facts” too often passing notions, Settle wrote in an essay, “Recapturing the Past in Fiction.” We can learn to trust to understanding instead of the frozen certainties we yearn for, and for which we might surrender the birthright earned by nameless people through the 300 years of our becoming.
Mary Lee Settle carried within her the blood of a slaveholder and salt baron, and she grew into a self-described radical who lived her life entangled in an intellectual love affair with the possibility of freedom and justice. At the end of its centuries of wandering—its fingers at rest on the pulse point of the present, the way things are, and the way by which they will come to be otherwise—the Beulah Quintet arrives finally at the concept of strength in choice: the choice to choose, to be singular, burn bridges, begin again, whether in a new country or a new way of seeing or a new question, which was as ancient as wandering itself.
Not since the day when brine bubbled up from a well in Malden has this place so clearly had an opening to name itself in its own terms. We can’t call it a wilderness, a pioneer outpost, or a plantation. Coal still means a great deal to the economy here, and to the nation’s sucking power grid, but it’s on an apparent long-term decline, and the chemical industry operates on a skeleton crew these days. So what is it? How does it make sense of itself and name its own place in history? We find ourselves at the threshold of an uncomfortable space of re-identification, becoming and unbecoming, both terrifying and potentially liberating. I am starting to see it as a space of joy, rather than lack. Who knows but that we’ve reached one of those seed points in which Mary Lee Settle set her novels of social transformation. Settle died in 2005 in Ivy, Virginia, and we’ll never know how the next revolution played out in her Beulah. But she authored a framework in which we are now the living characters. Not only that: with her absence we have gained agency inside of the book, and we are writing its next volume.
Some say that “Appalachians,” as a group, are especially bound up in attachment to home, that our hearts are big for it, that we can’t forget it, like a trauma, that we keep coming back. But a heart can swell for different reasons—disease, the exercise of fight, a life rich in beauty. I wonder, are we living or dying in our oversized hearts?
The women in Cedar Grove will tell you what happened to the town. They all lived on this planet together, and it was theirs, and “outside us” seemed very far away. Everyone was a part of everything. Then the mines slowed down, and time sped up. People got to be in a hurry all the time, and stopped looking out for each other. Caretakers outmigrated, the remaining aged, and the family unit fractured. The nature of paid work changed, and an underground drug economy sprang up where coal had run. The supernal “oneness” was gone. Katherine Caves Atwater, the little girl who watched the miners’ march from her porch in 1921, spoke to me the year before she died, at 101: See everybody now is Me, I, and Mine. Then it was Us, Ours, and Yours. I mean, to me, now, I say, how can people be so selfish? Back then people just loved each other, doll baby. We don’t know what love is now.
Beulah is commonly translated into English as married, but that doesn’t entirely catch the sense of it. I consult a friend who knows ancient Aramaic. The word apparently derives from the same root that ba’al, meaning master or foreign god, sprang from.Beulah is a sort of passive participle—one who is mastered over, my friend tells me. In Genesis, Beulah is used in construct with Ba’al, where Be’ulat Ba’al means the wife of a man, literally the possession of the possessor. When God renames the Jews’ restored home Beulah, and says of their land that she shall be made to be married, the idea is that through re-mastery, familial and national identity are resumed. Be’ulat Ba’al is the proper order of things from their perspective, says my friend, just as not letting their captors eat or drink their produce. And so the name Beulah, too, bears the lineage of captivity.
Perhaps there’s not yet a word for the proper order of things in West Virginia.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.