Neela Vaswani is the author of the forthcoming memoir, You Have Given Me A Country, and a short story collection Where The Long Grass Bends. Recipient of a 2006 O. Henry Prize and 1999 Italo Calvino Prize, her fiction and nonfiction have been widely anthologized and published in journals such as Epoch, Shenandoah, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a visiting-writer-in-residence at Knox College, the Jimenez-Porter House at the University of Maryland, the Whitney Museum in New York City, IIIT Hyderabad, India, and other institutions. She has a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, lives in New York City, and teaches at Spalding University's brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. An education activist in India and the United States, Vaswani is founder of the Storylines Project with the New York Public Library.
We Have Met the Enemy
A country is made of mountains and street corners. A country is the relationship between the two.
New York City. The woman who lives across the street from me is ninety-two years old. Her huge black mutt, 105 in canine years, hangs out her third story window all day, watching people walk by. When fire trucks scream, when car alarms wail, when subways roar beneath and shake the building, he leans out the window, unfazed, panting, paws crossed.
His owner was born and raised in New York City, like her mother and her mother before her. She pays seventy-five dollars a month on a rent-controlled apartment. The neighborhood has changed around her from Polish to Puerto Rican to Gay. She has never been out of New York. She has never been to the Apollo or Central Park or the Metropolitan or Chinatown. Once she went to the Rockaways but she was glad to get back home. She lives in New York, some would say the greatest and most diverse city in the world, and stays within a twenty-block radius of her apartment. She is a small town, New York City woman, and she is not so different from the rest of us.
Human beings are, by our nature, even in this global world, localized.
June in Eastern Kentucky. Mountains rolling in strong black layers. Big leafy pawpaws. Sweet honeysuckle. A sign on a small white church: “Come pray with us, it’s legal here.” Birdcall. Wind-chimes. A lone trailer, painted sky blue, with a well-groomed lawn and pretty border of begonias. It sits at the edge of a field of leveled timbers. Splayed like murder victims. A yellow dog asleep in the road. Long legged. He stands slowly and ambles to safety when a car drives by. His tail, alert, his ears tipped back, listening to the cool green of woods. Studded with beech, hemlock, oak, dogwood. Swaying and cloaked in fog.
In New York, trees stand like oases in the pavement. At night, they glow under light streaming from windows, the aimed beams of cars. In New York, trees are never in darkness. Trees, the lungs of the city. Brave, stalwart, generous. Wherever there is a tree, the pavement is conquered and subverted. They remember the sky. They fight for space like the rest of us. They are city trees. A beauty more precious because it must withstand. The trees of New York bless us and keep us. In the endless swirl, a tiny sapling in shallow dirt surrounded by pavement: holy.
In Fall, the pagoda trees on the south side of my street change colors first. The north side trees stay green for another two weeks. City buildings and trees create their own seasons, their own timing and environment.
In Spring, I walk past the Limelight, church turned nightclub, and see two dwarf cherry trees, choked with old Christmas lights and tiny stapled fliers, shaking in the wind and pumping bass. They are flowering pink.
There is one tree in the old Jewish Cemetery locked between buildings on 21st Street. In winter, snow blankets the graveyard and stays untouched except for the small trident prints of sparrows. Once, I saw a pair of child-sized footprints leading from a grave to the blank brick wall of a nearby building. The footprints crossed over the shadow of the lone tree laying flat and bright on the snow, more like a reflection, a mirror image, than a shadow.
On 6th Avenue, where beautiful drag queens lean their taut bodies against fences and bet on pick-up basketball games, I see summer tomatoes sprouting in a cement planter. I see zucchini running along red and white bakery strings trained up a thin redbud trunk. Two yellow blooms in the crook of the tree, like a flower behind a woman’s ear.
Here, in the city, we plant tomatoes, we plant zucchini, on the sidewalk. Someone may pick them before we do. But picking and eating is not the point. To grow them, here, is the point. We, too, believe in life.
The wonder of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. That holy trinity. The same stuff of mountains, of rock, earth, water, air, stars, you and me.
At core, in our fibers, in our blood, we are the same. The beauty of difference is that life springs from it, from connection and recombination. The beauty of life is our fundamental sameness.
In the womb, bone and flesh develop simultaneously. There is no order, no hierarchy of one above the other. The city, the country, need each other. Must care for each other. Must rise up in protest for each other. Without each other, we could not define ourselves. Without each other, we could not exist.
City people know the sanctity of a tree, endangered by pavement, by people, by a parade of peeing dogs. That cool, slender shade.
What does it mean to cut down a tree that grows where it will, unlinear? What does it mean to destroy such wild growth? To kill a space, unplanned. The deep space of trees.
What does it mean to kill a mountain?
By three in the afternoon, Lena Sizemore's front porch in West Virginia used to be cast in the cool, rounded shade of Kayford Mountain. But now, when she sits on her front porch on Sunday, the sun strikes Lena in the eye because Kayford Mountain is gone.
A sloped, solid form swaying with trees. A mountain. Some 300 million years old. Giving life to millions. Ants, humans, fox, deer. For generations. A mountain.
It was part of Lena’s perspective, her identity, her history. A part of her being. It is gone. Removed by bulldozers and a coal company seeking the fastest, cheapest way to make money.
300 million years old. Gone. In less than a year.
In New York City, we know the sky in relation to the buildings that occupy it. We see geometrically. Framed slivers of blue. Hexagons of grey. There is no sky without building.
This is our perspective. Our identity.
Standing at the corner of 16th Street and 6th Avenue, I look south and see a gaping blue absence above the jagged hem of skyline. Two twin rectangular shapes: missing.
There is a hole in our profile. A wound of contour. Our mountain, erased.
The Twin Towers were burned and felled by Al Qaeda.
Kayford Mountain’s mighty breathing bulk was removed by Massey Energy.
We are all defined by the space we live in.
We New Yorkers feel strongly about our favorite delis, where our faces and orders—but rarely our names—are known. We New Yorkers care about the corner of 14th and 8th, grieve when hot dog carts move and landmark graffiti is painted over. We chart the changing seasons by mannequins in shop windows: from sundress to wool hat. We are connected to our land, grey and unyielding though it may be. Pavement absorbs our nineteen million footfalls, our gum. Pavement joins us. Blessed sidewalks, blessed slabs.
June in Eastern Kentucky. Winding roads without guardrails. Steep drop-offs. Light filters through branches, bouncing off leaves. Purple pods hang from redbud trees. Thunder, in the distance. The high clean notes of a redbird. Shushing wind in leaves. Here there is great beauty. And a litany of grief sung alongside the joy.
Clouds reflected in slurry ponds. Land scooped like ice cream. Groan of bulldozer. Rumble of coal truck. This is mountain country. And the mountain is gone.
In its place: bright neon grass, the sick joke of "reclaimed land." Thistles. Purple and leggy and stringy. Click of crickets. No bird call. Machine tracks. Stunted trees. Dried leaves and decimated bushes. Honeysuckle covered in dust.
It is a question of identity. From mountain to “site.” From peaked to flat. Mountaintop removal is an attack on identity, on shape, a violence of the deepest kind.
I meet a woman whose thirteen-year-old daughter was killed by an illegally overloaded coal truck. She holds up a photograph of a child with bright, eager eyes and says, “She was a good girl.”
I meet a man with a tiny Cherokee arrowhead dangling from his neck; he closes his gnarled fingers around it and says, “Found it in my family’s graveyard before it was bulldozed.”
I meet a woman whose power flickers in and out, a poison disco in counterpoint to the blasts from the mountaintop removal site above her house. She says, with a bitter, mirthless laugh, “I have just enough time to reset the clocks before the power goes out again.”
It is a global world, but what of the domestic? How are we connected to each other? By what we give? What we take? What we defend?
The Appalachian Mountains run from Maine to Northern Alabama. They connect us.
When there is a disaster in New York, we get noticed as a city. When someone levels our landscape, it makes international news.
Mountaintop Removal is a national disaster. It is terrorism. The lives taken, the thousands of miles of land and stream ravaged. The stolen sense of safety. The irrevocable loss. It is the rape of a place, a people, by an industry that acts with filthy remorseless impunity and politicians snug in their pockets.
Mr. Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, I’m calling you Osama Bin Laden. What you’ve done to the mountains and their people is an attack on the fabric of this country. I stood on the pile of the Twin Towers, sifting for bodies. I stood on that mountain that men like you made and handed out gasmasks and oranges to firemen with burning, stricken eyes. I know what I’m talking about.
New Yorkers are connected to Eastern Kentucky. We use the labor and resources that the Appalachian Mountains yield to run our dishwashers, our twenty-four hour Laundromats, to keep the bulbs of Times Square burning bright. Most of us live in spaces smaller than trailers, fifty times as expensive, surrounded by nothing but brick. The city that never sleeps. Alive, running, lit, available, open. Using, taking, burning, wasting, roaring.
We are not self-sufficient. We go to the supermarket and buy a tomato, not considering where it has come from; the miles traveled, gas used, for us to eat an avocado in January, a papaya in March. What cool patch of dirt, what water, what bent back and picking hands.
A coal miner dies in West Virginia, and in New York, I flick on my computer, my television. We take no responsibility for energy, for where it comes from, for who digs it out of the mountain, the desert, the sea. We take no responsibility for the mountain, the desert, the sea. A little unthinking motion of finger and wrist. The light turns on.
I grew up in the 1980s, in the Cold War, the enemy so far away. There was a simplicity in that kind of danger. But the threat to the world is no longer as simple as a button pushed, a faceless missile. Mutually Assured Destruction has a much sleeker cloak, and we wrap it around ourselves, each of us. Human damage is our aggregate hunger, greed, modernity. We are all accountable for our way of life—our plastic bags, running water, revving engines—that threaten the planet, the ozone, the Arctic and sea levels. We are all responsible for the human force and gnawing hunger that gives this generation, this era, its sense of the world coming to an end. The threat is more than a stranger holding a finger poised over a button. The threat is us.
And we have control over that greatest of threats: ourselves.
Legendary Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, famously said: “All politics is local.” He understood that the concerns of small towns and big cities must simultaneously determine the actions of Washington, D.C. He understood the need for the local here and the local there to unite and rise up, together. Mountaintop removal is something we can control. It is something we can stop. No matter where we live, skyscraper or mountain, it is something we can fight. It is an attack, it is war, it is violence of the deepest kind. The towers fell in on themselves. The mountain is gone. We must reach out to each other. We must save ourselves. There is no other way.
A version of this essay first appeared in We All Live Downstream: Writings About Mountaintop Removal (MotesBooks, 2009).