As author/farmer philosopher Wendell Berry settled his 76-year-old lanky frame onto the floor of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's office, he picked up a copy of "The Tempest." But in joining other protesters in this extraordinary sit-in to halt reckless mountaintop removal mining -- including a coal miner and inspector who dedicated 40 years of his life to the industry, a Harlan County activist whose brother was killed in a mine, a nurse who has served black lung-affected coal miners for decades and some of the country's top Appalachian labor and history scholars -- Berry was not taking part in any Shakespeare spectacle.
When Prospero commands in the classic play, "We are such stuff, as dreams are made on," Kentuckians, who have lived among the ravages of strip-mining for a century -- and mountaintop removal operations since 1970 -- were making it clear that they can no longer wait for the elusive dream of coalfield justice and democracy in their own homeland of central Appalachia.
No one understands this better than West Virginians who live in the coalfields.
When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his game-changing letter for the civil rights movement on the need for civil disobedience -- "Why We Can't Wait" from the Birmingham, Ala., jail in 1963 -- the neighbors and families of coalfield residents were already in the throes of a growing movement to stop the devastation from unyielding and increasingly lawless strip-mining operations.
While King sought "to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," besieged strip-mined residents in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia organized their own sit-ins and protests to keep unchecked strip-miners from destroying their historic homelands and hillsides and watersheds. They exclaimed to the world: "We feel we have been forsaken."
As early as 1965, conveys of coalfield residents made the same journey as today's protesters to the governors' offices in Frankfort and Charleston, and called on their elected leaders to enact enforceable laws to keep absentee coal companies from "ruining our farms and fields and streams."
The Feb. 11 meeting between the sit-in activists and Gov. Steve Beshear revealed the state's still astonishing denial of the human, environmental and economic cost of coal placed on the shoulder of its coalfield citizens. Beshear refused to acknowledge any of the impacts from strip-mining, including the widely documented irreversible and pervasive destruction of federally protected waterways from mountaintop removal dumping. He dismissed the Environmental Protection Agency as a meddler in state affairs.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's denial of the human and health impacts of mountaintop removal in West Virginia is no less astonishing.
Later that day, Beshear's administration was symbolically reprimanded by a circuit court judge in his decision to include citizen participation in a stunning case of coal industry fraud and violation over the Clean Water Act. Beshear's administration had attempted to dismiss the citizens groups as "unwarranted burdens."
Are coalfield residents in West Virginia also unwarranted burdens?