A cool, morning breeze slowly sways the curtains as it flows through the open windows. The smell of fresh-cut grass fills my senses. Smiling, I bury my face in the pillow and breathe deeply. It smells like sunshine.
These are the memories of waking up at my family’s home in Appalachia. A cool breeze blew in every morning off of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most of the land behind the series of houses that held my various aunts, uncles, and cousins was given over to pasture, by someone’s backyard got cut every afternoon. After a good washing in the Maytag, everyone’s laundry was hung along clotheslines to dry slowly in the morning sun.
Trash was automatically sorted, with food waste going to the chickens and pigs and burnable refuse going into a pile near the barn. Once a week we would light the pile and pull out marshmallows for an impromptu roast. Whenever anyone was doing any planting, a wheelbarrow of ash would be mixed in with manure from the cows and spread by hand over the garden. We were coached that the method was the same as that for feeding chickens: A broad, sweeping gesture. When the garden was tilled in the autumn the fresh earth would be as black as coal.
Everyone in Appalachia knows what coal looks like. Coal was, and remains, a crucial industry for the region. While the only connection for our family was a cousin who repaired mining equipment and most of us managed to stay out of the mines, it contributes greatly to the economies of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. I sent a family member an email with statistics, articles, and links to a number of sites that oppose mountaintop removal mining and the safety records of some mine operators. His response to me was a single sentence: “Go turn on your lights and then thank a miner.”
To a certain extent, he was right. The weather for the past week has magnified our dependence on power. Powerful storms that were driven by our hot weather swept through most of our state and hundreds of thousands of us were left in the dark. Tree limbs tore through power lines and winds snapped telephone poles like kindling. In addition to losing lights and television, we were left without the internet, cold drinks, and air conditioning. Many of those conveniences were provided by coal-fired power plants.
These plants are often touted as key producers of the emissions targeted by scientists studying climate change. This change of our ecosystem is supposed to raise global temperatures, raise sea levels, and see mass extinctions of a level not seen since the dinosaurs. The popular conversation right now is that what we’re currently seeing weather-wise is a glimpse of what climate change feels like: Massive wildfires, powerful storms, and birds falling from the skies.
There are alternative methods for generating power. Virginia has a number of nuclear plants, and aside from the Fukushima meltdown worries, they generate clean, reliable power. We get some from hydro, and they suck in clean, cold water on one end and spit clean water out the other. There is great debate about the possibility of using wind for generating power, and the Blue Ridge Mountains have no shortage of wind. Solar has been getting a bad rap, but the failure of many new solar ventures is largely the result of changing markets. There are a variety of ways to harvest solar energy, and the costs have fluctuated wildly. Whatever else we do to our environment, there is still, however, a pretty good chance that the sun will peek across the Atlantic Ocean at us tomorrow morning.
Last week, we wrote about the book Silent Spring. It pointed out the hazards of painting our landscape with hazardous chemicals. In that post we pointed out that we can’t, (and don’t really want to) go backwards. We like lights, television, our social media feed, cold drinks, and air conditioning. The thought of shutting down coal-fired power plants is a good one, and would be good for our environment, but we aren’t ready for it yet. Technologies like the automobile and the airplane leapt forward, but took time to develop and time to become everyday-normal in our lives. Some technologies can spring up overnight. Look at the mobile phone.
But maybe we can take steps to reduce our dependence? If it ever cools down, we can pop open the windows and let a cool morning breeze wake us up. Maybe we can all pretend that we’re at the beach or a mountain lake and hang some towels to dry instead of cranking up the dryer. It would give us a chance to smell some sunshine.