All things start, Once Upon A Time...

"Once upon a time there was a girl. She lived in Brooklyn, and worked in Manhattan, but was not satisfied.

She was happiest sitting in her rocking chair on her apartment's stoop, pretending it was a front porch, her over-grown cherry tomato plants and untrimmed hedges, a deep wood. But it wasn't enough..."

That's the simplified version I suppose.
I am in the final stages of planning a trip to Appalachia with the soul purpose of meeting people and listening to them. Particularly about coal mining. For a lot of people in my life, this has seemed to come out of no where, and in some ways it has. It has only been a few months since I decided to take on this project, but as my mentor asked, "Jenn, how do you think God works?" As sudden and compulsive as this all seems (and feels), environmental issues and the role the arts can play has long been on my heart.

I was trained in undergrad as a visual artist and moved to Brooklyn in 2007 to avoid and trick myself out of going to grad school right away. I pursued art since, but over the past 6-8 months came to the realization that I am not interested in making sculpture a career. I entered into a period of exploring alternate ways of doing what I was trying to accomplish with my art, seeking a better fit.

Storytelling emerged from a hobby to a more serious pursuit. I have thrown myself into both telling and listening, assembling as much a piecemeal apprenticeship as I can. Part of my observations has been teaching others to tell their own stories. I have a passion for advocacy, and even more so for supporting self-advocacy. There is no stronger argument than your own story. The arguments of ethos (ethics) and logos (logic) are often very simply put, so as to be more concrete, but to argue pathos (emotion) is messy and complicated, and powerful.

I came to this realization, listening to a story about mountain turkeys. Elizabeth Ellis was the catalyst that brought together the disparate parts of the last 6 years of my life.

During my undergraduate studies in Chicago I became involved in environmental actions. At a conservative Christian campus, along with a writer, musician, and filmmaker (the science department noticeably disinterested), we founded the first environmental group in the college's history, the Creation Care Coalition, or C3. I particularly embraced an Evangelical Christian environmental group called Restoring Eden. The slogan "God's original plan was to live in a garden with naked vegetarians" and the director's assertion that "God made our middle finger longest for a reason" appealed to my senses smothered by the college.

At the time, we were focusing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I joined them to lobby in DC during Spring of 2005. What our group brought the the table that others didn't was an amazing man called The Reverend Trimble Gilbert. He was a respected musician, Episcopal priest, elder of the Gwich'in people who live in the refuge, and one hell of a storyteller. He told about the centuries old dependence of his people on the caribou who future was in question. He taught us to know what it was like to wake up to the sound of a 400lb bull outside your window. Rev. Gilbert's stories taught me that the link between environmental and human injustice is one of the most powerful arguments against environmental destruction. Plus, he was just an amazing storyteller.

The issue of coal mining, mountain top removal specifically, has always moved me as one of the most complicated issues in our country's history. Mountain Top Removal, as opposed to traditional shaft-based mining, is also called surface mining. Explosives are used to blast away layers of earth and rock to small, rich coal deposits. 16 tons of "terrain displacement" yeilds an average of 1 ton of coal. Read more in this article by Smithsonian Magazine.

Certainly mining has shaped the Appalachian region's personality nearly as much as it threatens it. Wendell Berry says in his essay "Harry Caudill in the Cumberlands", "The region is, after all, part of a 'national sacrafice area,' and has been so considered and so treated by governments and corporations for well over half a century... [Caudill's stories] show the influence of cultural inheritance, topography, geography, poor farming, and the oppressions of coal." The best expression of a region's history is it's stories. It's where all the science, stats, pictures, and documents are digested into something human and tangible. A person sitting across from you, telling you what they know and how they feel.

It is hard to look someone in the eye and tell them that they don't, in fact, feel a professed something. You can tell them they don't have a right to feel it, or it comes from the wrong motivations, or they don't understand (not that you're necessarily right either way), but it is very difficult to, for example, look at a crying child and tell them, "You're not upset." A little boy might cry over a little spilled milk, but he doesn't recover by realizing he's not really upset, he does so by getting past it.

So what the heck am I doing?
My intention is to travel and absorb, mostly listening and recording other people's stories to try and gain a better understand of what Appalachia currently looks like. I have a few people along that way that I know will speak to me about coal mining specifically, from both sides of the conflict, but I am mostly just planning on stopping frequently and hoping God brings the people I should talk to into my life. I don't presume to understand the complexity of the fight, and know what I am doing looks a bit idealistic, but am grounded by the belief that people's stories are their truths and there is no amount of editing that can censor that.

I want to attempt this not as a voyeur, but as a partner. I am trying to not bring a bias. There is a significant amount of trust involved in recording someone's story, and I am very wary of being perceived as a tourist, missionary type of figure. One of the biggest difficulties lies in the fact that often the people with the most powerful stories don't want to tell them, and those who do jump to attention may have their own motivations. I think the only way to get past this is to be totally transparent.

If you know of people I can stop and talk with or stay with in the region, please let me know. I have been blessed to be lent a car by a family in my parish, and have a flexible itinerary.
Prayers for artistic guidance and financial means are much appreciated if you are the type.

So, once upon a time there was a girl. She liked to wear her hair in pigtail braids but needed someone else to braid them for her. And she started to stir. And she headed west for a bit.