Bill King grew up on Lost Mountain, in southwestern Virginia. After graduate school at the University of Georgia, he came to central West Virginia to teach and write because of his love of the natural world, old-time music, and rural communities. He teaches American Literature, American Nature Writing, and Creative Writing at Davis & Elkins College, in Elkins, West Virginia, where he also directs the D&E Writers’ Series. Most recently, he has directed a creative student thesis of found poetry on the effects of mountaintop removal, a project that was also performed as a documentary verse play entitled Coal River.
How to Destroy a Mountain
A Found Poem by Bill King
Note: Textual samplings from Master Teacher Mary McMurtry’s “Cookie Monster’s Delight:
Grades 3-5” (published online by the Educational Broadcasting Corporation and the
National Training Institute, 2006) and Carol Warren’s “This Land Will Never Be for
Sale,” an interview with Larry Gibson, (published in the Ohio Valley Environmental
Coalition’s Like Walking onto another Planet, 2006, a collection of oral history interviews
about mountaintop removal/valley fill activities in Appalachia) create this narrative in two voices.
1. First give each student a hard and a soft chocolate chip cookie on a napkin.
When I was a kid, our place was like a wonderland.
People used to make fun of me
and say I was my father’s retarded son.
They’d call me that, you know?
One of the things they couldn’t understand
was that I was always able to get close to the wild animals.
I’d go out in the woods
and come home with a bobcat or a squirrel or a coon.
2. Tell student that the cookies represent West Virginia’s coal deposits.
We never had toys.
The only toys we had was in the Spiegel catalog
when we went to the bathroom.
But it was a wonderland, you know?
You could walk through the forest. You could hear the animals.
The woods like to talk to you. You could feel a part of Mother Nature.
In other words, everywhere you looked there was life.
Now you put me on the same ground where I walked,
and the only thing you can feel is the vibration of dynamite
or heavy machinery.
No life, just dust.
3. Instruct student to count how many visible chunks of coal are in their state (cookie).
That Massey fellow was on TV the other day
– he’s the one I met with back in ’92.
And he told me my land was worth a million dollars an acre
to the coal company then.
Now recently they tell me that my land is now
– since George Bush got into office - worth $450 million dollars.
And they told me six months ago that by time he gets out of office
it will be escalated up to $650 million.
4. Record data on chalkboard.
And he turns around and offers $140,000 for it.
Have students also record their own in the journals.
You know, it was like we didn’t know the difference.
Even if we wanted to sell, he was talking to us
like they were really gonna do us a favor.
“We’re gonna help y’all out, make a generous offer to you.”
And he’d just told me it was worth over a million dollars.
5. Have each student predict how many coal deposits they think are in their cookie.
I really didn’t start having violence until I surveyed my own land.
The land has been in the family for over 220 years
and had never been surveyed by anybody in the family
except me. So when I did survey the land,
I found that it had always been surveyed in behalf
of the oil company, a utility company, a coal company
but never in behalf of the people.
I started forcing them back on the boundaries
where they was supposed to be
and that’s when the violence started.
Have each student record predictions in journals.
They shot my dog,
they burned my cabin,
they set my pickup in the creek.
I never know when the trouble's coming for me.
6. Give each student a toothpick to mine their deposits.
Hear that quiet?
Have them just mine ONE cookie first.
You know they're about to set off a shot when they shut down the machines.
Make a pile of chocolate chips and one pile of the cookie crumbs.
I used to look up at the mountains.
7. Count coal deposits and record and compare with estimate.
But now I look down on them.
8. Before they mine the last cookie give them instructions that this time they are going to
try to do the least amount of damage to the land as possible.
We lost about 80, well,
close to a hundred headstones in the family cemetery,
because every time the coal company would blast,
they’d blast debris over into the cemetery.
It would bust some of the headstones,
turn some of ‘em over.
Instruct students to work carefully and offer a prize for the land that is the least
Then they’d send a crew of men over to clean them up.
And then the old sandstone headstones that had carving on them,
we caught them actually throwing them away,
destroying them as well. And the simple reason behind that
was to prove that we didn’t have as many graves
there on the ground as we had.
And so if they could reclaim some of the gravesites, well,
the mountain had 39 seams of coal.
There’s a lot of wealth underneath there.
9. Ask which was more difficult to mine, the first or second cookie?”
He was talking to us like they were really gonna do us a favor.
When he said that, I said, “The land’ll never be for sale.
You can have my right arm, but you’ll never get the land.”
The hard or soft cookie?
So he said, “Well, you know, you’re the island and we are the ocean.
You set in the middle of 187,000 acres of coal company land.
You’re the only thing we don’t own
between here and the Virginia border.
I don't give a damn about nobody or nothing up in that holler.
I only care about coal.
You're gonna be one little green island up there.”
Who is going to fix the land after the mining of their cookie is done?
I don’t know what the answer is as far as what’s happening.
Destroying all the environment – all the streams.
When I was a kid, down at the bottom of the mountain,
I could get crawdads, pick them up out of the water with my toes.
Now nothing lives in the water. Nothing lives on the land.
What they’ve done is irreversible. You can’t bring it back.
What kinds of things could the land be used for after the mining is completed (housing developments, parks, golf . . .)?
People say, “Why don’t you just sell?”
They’ve offered me seven times the amount of acreage
as what I’ve got for my place.
But then the land they offered me –
my people never walked on it.
It’s been turned over.
You can’t put anything on it,
can’t grow anything on it.
NOTE TO TEACHER: This lesson should not give the impression that mining is bad and destroys the environment. We all depend on mining each day for the everyday items we use. Rather make sure the students understand that we have laws to protect the environment.