National Journalists Gain Appalachian Awareness

To open the Society of Environmental Journalists eighteenth annual conference in Roanoke on October 17th, co-chairs Bill Kovarick and Ken Ward acted out a fruit-toss visual lesson in local pronunciation: Apple. Atcha.

“That’s how we say it, and welcome to Roanoke in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia.” With that, several hundred journalists and guests from across the nation were welcomed to our beautiful part of the world.

The week’s sessions focused as much on possible solutions as on the problems we face. Many experts in their fields expressed the conclusion that very soon we “need home runs, not base hits” to put in place viable energy alternatives and reduced carbon emissions policies and practice on a global scale.

Speakers educated conference attendees during every meal, on bus rides to field trips, and at back-to-back sessions from Wednesday breakfast until Sunday noon. So while a full account of the time is impossible in this space, I want to share with you some memorable personalities from the conference.

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has offered energy efficient alternative technoogies for years; the market may finally be ready to listen. Lovins work has long been where we must soon go–to lighter cars and more energy efficient buildings. See his description of tomorrow’s Smart Garage.

In 2002, Lyle Estill, co-founder of Piedmont Biofuels, turned a little cooking oil left over from deep-frying turkey at home into a million-gallon-a-year business converting used fats and oils into fuels. See Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia, farms in much the same way his predecessors would have a hundred years ago. In a recently rediscovered farming practice, he fattens 200# pigs to a finish weight of 300# inside temporary fencing that contains them in oak forest.

The acorns give the meat a unique and desirable taste–so much so that the 800-restaurant chain, Chipotle, takes all the Polyface pork it can get.

Salatin encourages environmental writers to use their voices to increase the public’s “educational footprint” toward new understandings of the way we produce and consume products from within local “farmsheds.”

Roanoke was chosen for this year’s Virginia-tech sponsored conference in part because of its proximity to the sites of major environmental concern in our region and the nation: mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

Mining executives among the speakers saw the greatest good in producing as much coal as possible for the lowest possible costs–at least in dollars. Others saw coal’s costs measured in other ways, holding the opinion that post-mining mitigation (making the land like it was before) is nothing more than “lipstick on a corpse”; and that you “cannot regulate an abomination.” The long view and hope of many is towards a “post-carbon economy.”

The personal cost and human impact of current coal-extraction methods was expressed most eloquently by Wendell Berry, cultural and economic critic, prolific author and Kentucky farmer. At the final Sunday morning Author’s Breakfast, Mr. Berry read an essay he had offered months earlier on the Kentucky capitol steps.

He considers MTR the “moral equivalent of genocide” whose end is permanent loss of place and culture. In the light of the failure of lesser measures of “non-violent insistence” to bring about an end to these atrocities, Mr. Berry expressed a reluctant personal willingness to “stand in the way of destruction.” I highly recommend the youtube record of that speech.

As a life-long resident of the Southern Appalachians, I’m gratified that, as these hundreds of journalists and other visitors return home from their brief time in southwest Virginia, they will know much more than how to pronounce the name of our gentle mountains.

They have appreciated our music and our culture; and from their comments, they were impressed by the kindness of the people here and by autumn’s peak of color in the Blue Ridge.

SEJ journalists now have a richer understanding of our deep bonds of connection to place and have experienced in some small way “the infinite private suffering” of those whose mountaintops and creeks have disappeared.

And every time they turn on the lights back home, they will know in new ways why there will never be such a thing as “clean coal.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I am so glad to have discovered your blog! I am almost desperate trying to spread the word about the myth of clean coal! So much of this country has no idea of the devestation! I think Wendell Berry’s comparison is right on the point.
    We nearly moved to Floyd 2 years ago, but settled in Damascus, VA. My husband fell in love with Apple Atcha when he visited Salatin’s farm day! We love it here, and feel at home, even after only a couple of years!
    Good to “meet” you, can’t wait to read more!

  2. Thanks for telling us in detail about the SEJ conference. Those writers will do a lot of good as they educate the public. The education they received in Roanoke was essential for them to do their job. I’m sure seeing the beautiful fall mountains did as much as Wendell Berry’s words to fire them up.