Outside a country store in the Allegheny Mountains, she stood behind a table covered in mason jars of home-made apple jelly and pickles. It was one of those glorious fall days in
West Virginia, so I lingered to buy some of Bertie’s homemade apple jelly and a stapled booklet of poems. Seeing my interest, she recited a couple from memory. I recall one was an ode to her home state and the other a tragic-cum-humorous story about a mouse. I was told she memorized over 100 of her poems, most of them end rhymes or couplets that celebrated country life, family, friends and animals over a long and often hard life. I listened to more over the years whenever I visited her mobile home in a quiet hollow (‘holler’) of Webster County.
Eventually, I offered to help her reach a wider audience. I recorded videos in her home and have now compiled her best poems in a published anthology for her 96th birthday in June 2020.
“Remember to remove the I Love Mountains bumper sticker before heading into coal country.” That was advice I gave myself before touring counties where mountaintops are being “removed” by open mining in the heart of Appalachia. I wasn’t a declared environmental activist, and didn’t want to be recognized as someone coming to antagonize the friends of coal.
In youth 500 million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains were lofty and pointy like the Alps, and have slowly eroded into the smooth domes some 3,000 to 5,000 feet high we see today. But forty years of mining has scooped hundreds of feet off the tops of 500 mountains in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee (in that order).
As I drove to West Virginia I knew something about of this kind of mining. I had read about its impact on community health (cancer and birth defects), headwater pollution by mine tailings, and coal trucks dashing around quiet country roads. Topping a mountain exposes coal seams that are otherwise hard to reach, and it avoids the hazards of explosions inside deep mines—memories of the Sago Mine in 2006 and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 are still raw. It is an economical and highly profitable industry that employs fewer miners, and most profits go out of state. No change there.
I was drawn to coal country by the question of what happens to mountains after mining operations cease. If a permit requires the land to be returned to nature or improved for “economic benefit,” how effective are the actions and do companies drag their feet? The claims of the mining industry versus environmental activists (the NRDC and Appalachian Voices, for example) made me wonder if they were describing the same thing. Were the flattened tops being converted into golf courses and happy hunting grounds for local people to enjoy, or was the mining legacy sterile rock and toxic pools of impounded sludge from washed coal? My curiosity demanded satisfaction.
I visited two mines that are no longer active and are therefore ripe for reclamation. I had to imagine their recent history. Before mining could start, the trees were felled and carted away as lumber or burnt. Then the topsoil was pushed aside, perhaps to be returned but maybe discarded and a substitute used later on. Then the blasting began. Mountains up and down the valley would have echoed to explosions, as if in anguish at losing an old neighbor. The rubble of rock and subsoil, called “overburden” (a derisory name for the wonderful complexity of geological history), was pushed aside to expose a coal seam, and after the black gold was scooped out blasting resumed until the deepest seam was exposed. The overburden was dumped in pits from the last operation, or if they were unavailable it was pushed over the side of a ridge into a valley (“holler fill”) where it smothered headwaters and poisoned living things with heavy metals.
I was glad I hadn’t been a witness to that despoliation, and hoped to see mountaintops long past their surgery days and now reaching advanced stages of convalescence. Perhaps they would be beautiful, verdant, and harboring wildlife again. My destination was Nicholas County, WV, where I chose two mines that overlook the tiny hamlets of Hookersville and Muddlety (I kid you not!).
My topographic map didn’t show a route up the mountain at Hookersville, so I hailed an old man sitting on his tractor. A friendly soul, he apologized for forgetting to put his teeth in that morning and pointed to the low mountain across the country road. An ugly cell phone tower now stands on its top, supposedly representing the economic gain left by the departing coal firm. I expected to see the mountainside still scraped down to bare rock, like the face of a miniature El Capitan, but it was completely green.
“Finished takin’ out coal ‘bout twelve yarr ago,” the man told me. “Lots o’ deer, turkey, an’ barr now.” This news exceeded my wildest dreams.
His directions led me to a rutted track winding up the mountainside. I had to climb through a hole in the fence as the gate was barred. During my ascent, I did indeed see a couple of deer and a turkey, as well as goldenrod and asters flowering beside the track, and at least four species of butterflies. I was flummoxed by strong signs of nature rallying, especially when I found vegetation was covering the top.
Had I immediately turned back I might have come home with a different impression, but I stopped awhile to look around. It was then that I realized the growth was unlike any secondary succession you expect when a patch of forest is clear-felled or burned. There was no riot of blackberry bushes, no understory trees like sassafras and American hornbeam sprouting up before the oaks, beech, and other canopy trees take over. And there was only one kind of shrub, and it was crowding out other plants, invading the last grassy space, and shading native plants and saplings as they struggled for light. This mountaintop had nothing like its original biodiversity, and was as uniform as a field of corn. The shrub was autumn olive, an invasive, alien species planted because it is tolerant of poor soil. It is regarded as a pest in other places, and hard to eradicate. It offers berries for birds to eat at this season, but the waxy leaves are unattractive to grazing animals.
My first impression of greenness had duped me into believing that a mountain that had taken millennia to mature was returning to its natural state within a few years. How foolish. How could it recover completely after losing its native soil and pristine drainage? I took a final photograph of the “hollow” below, wondering if its residents were too easily satisfied by the appearance of their mountain, green and silent again.
Seven miles away, Muddlety was a sparsely-populated ribbon of homes along highway 55 in a pretty valley. Mining operations ceased only three years ago, and where the mountain ridge came within a half mile of the road orange bluffs were visible where trees once stood.
As the mine entrance was open, I parked close by to wander up the dusty track, past boards announcing mining permits, blast warnings, and keep-out signs. A few hundred yards inside, I saw a guard house like a pill box with a single window, and as I drew close a guard sauntered over. He looked more surprised than surly, and probably hadn’t seen a visitor all day (or all year).
In settings where visitors might not be welcome I count on an English accent to put people off guard. Didn’t I look like a lost tourist? Doesn’t an “open mine” mean public access? And when a naïve manner fails, I guarantee that faked eccentricity will succeed.
Despite his suspicious eye, he gently told me I couldn’t go any further. Why not? Wasn’t it safe now, because blasting had ceased? I tried to engage a conversation by telling him that former industrial land in England was being reclaimed, and I was wondering how it was done here. When he replied only by lighting a cigarette, I decided not to press any more questions, and resisted the cheeky temptation of asking if he’d read John Grisham’s recent novel, Gray Mountain, about the chicanery of a coal company. I didn’t need his permission, because I knew I could hop over the fence down the road, perhaps with the landowner’s permission.
A middle-aged couple working in their yard directed me to a wee home across the road where I knocked on the door of a very old lady. I must have been too successful in putting her mind at ease because she kept me standing on her doorstep as she regaled me with a long life story before asking why I was there. Can I cross your land for a better view of the mountain, I asked? Of course, she answered, it’s barely a 15 minute walk.
She pointed to a distant ridge where the mining company had started replanting trees. Didn’t it look marvelous? I nodded, but was imagining another monoculture of autumn olive. She told me the company used to come round to check that blasting hadn’t damaged her home, and when her neighbor’s stream was polluted from mine tailings they had dug a well for them. How very kind of them.
I struggled up her path for nearly an hour, all the while wondering what metal 90 year old ladies in the valley were made of. Dense thickets stood in my way of the summit, so I photographed some bluffs through gaps between trees. The hike was, however, worthwhile because I found a stream where I collected samples for testing water quality.
I had hoped to see more on the trip, much more, and wanted to know what local people really thought about the extraction industry banging around their hills, but I had seen enough to realize that claims of mountaintop “reclamation” are fabrications. They may become green again, but are never the same and are biologically impoverished. It’s time to display that bumper sticker again.
Aha! So that’s the house I heard rumors about. Surely my family can’t believe it’s haunted?
After parking on a steep rise above the town center I stared at the rambling brick mansion with Georgian windows and a balcony that overlooked the front porch where pumpkins were lined up like sentries that day. When I peered through a window I saw a huge fireplace and an oak table formally laid out with candlesticks. It was easy to imagine the gracious lives of its nineteenth century owners.
But the house is a brooding presence over a narrow street and harbors unhappy memories. Someone looking out of the window during the Civil War could have witnessed skirmishes and heard cannonballs whizzing overhead. They might even have seen Col. George Crook leading a cavalry charge through the town, and bodies lying in the street.
Those thoughts quickly faded when Aimee and Paul swung the door to welcome me inside with open arms and to savory aromas from their kitchen. But after a hearty meal and chatting about old Lewisburg they gave me a book, saying, “Don’t let spooky stories keep you awake tonight!” I grinned like most scientists would. I was sure they were only tales and there was always an absence of evidence, although that does not necessarily mean evidence of absence.
Afterwards I climbed a steep staircase to my bedroom on the second floor. Apparently, it had not changed much over the years apart from a few modern paintings: a four-poster bed dominated the room with a night stand separating it from a large closet. I padded across the plank floor to pull aside a sheer curtain for cracking open the window. Looking through the darkness towards the sleeping town I remembered our earlier walk through the graveyard and the tourists standing in the unlit street below.
My family was settling down for the night, but I did not feel sleepy yet. After getting ready for bed I dove under the comforter and, pushing the book aside, turned over on my back to fix my eyes on the high ceiling and recall the evening.
Following dinner, Paul had invited me for a stroll around town with his nine-year-old son while the two younger boys were packed off to bed by Aimee. I took Alex by the hand while he carried his Magic Quest wand in the other. At our street corner we noticed a group of people huddled in the gathering dusk. One of the men who was pointing at the house and speaking stopped when they turned to stare at us.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“We are on the town ghost tour,” Paul said. “It’s popular at this time.”
“They looked at us like we are celebrities. I guess they are curious about who lives here.” I was tempted to ask them if they really believed in ghosts, but not wanting to spoil the entertainment for visitors I only waved. It was just a bit of fun, wasn’t it?
We strolled down the hill to the main street a couple of blocks away. It had shut down for the night. Stools were up-ended on tables in the coffee shop and someone was locking a restaurant door. The only signs of life were customers in an Irish pub where a trombone was being played loudly.
We turned down a side street past the glow of floodlights around the Carnegie Hall to reach the gloomier end of Church Street. Paul urged us to take a short cut past Old Stone Presbyterian Church, which is said to be the oldest west of the Alleghenies, and where the Confederate dead were laid out. Alex was reluctant to cross the graveyard at that hour, but he used his wand to zap things I never dreamt of. As we wandered among the gravestones I told him that when I was a cub scout our parents let us walk home alone and we dared each other to cross the town cemetery. We didn’t want to be called “sissy.” No one ever saw anything eerie, of course, although when I grew up I wondered if I was insensible to the occult.
Now, after propping myself up in bed with a pillow, I opened the book to the story about the John North House where I was staying. It told of a young woman who fell in love with a Union soldier garrisoned in her home town in South Carolina during the Civil War. After she tried to run off with him, her mother sent her to stay with relatives at this house until his regiment moved away. She hoped her daughter would forget him, but the lass was broken-hearted, shut herself away at the top of the house and refused to join the family or attend church. On a visit back home for Christmas her parents were so alarmed to see how thin and depressed she had become that they invited the soldier to see her under strict supervision. But when they were distracted for a moment he whispered a plan to elope after she returned to Lewisburg.
When he was free to follow her, the relatives turned him away. He stood at the street corner every day hoping to see her at the window of the bedroom where I was now curled up inside. They never met again before he rejoined his regiment, though he asked local children to deliver fresh flowers to the house every day.
As months passed without news she wondered if he had been killed in battle and sank back into despair. One day when she failed to reply to her uncle’s calling and could not possibly have left the house unnoticed, he came upstairs for her. He found her in the closet hanging by the cord of her robe. The story didn’t quite end there because a Union soldier (some say it was her lover) was shot afterwards in the street below. Passersby then began reporting the sight of a strange young woman on the second story of the house and a man’s apparition in the street, though never on the same day. The gossip continued into modern times.
Unhappy souls unable to rest during heart-rending times are usually the core of ghost stories and prone to exaggeration and invention, so it was time to put this one to rest. Closing the book, I drifted off but never sleep soundly in a strange bed and Paul’s stories kept breaking into my consciousness. Perhaps they disturbed me more because I know him well enough not to dismiss his talk lightly. The nightlight was still burning when I woke up with his stories on my mind….
He had told me that before marrying Aimee she was living in the house on her own. She sometimes heard banging at night as if doors were suddenly flying open for no reason, and a mysterious clip, clip, clip on the stairs sounded like the hard indoor soles women wore in the past. Other family members reported the same things, and a robust young man who helped them move furniture refused to enter the house because of its reputation. On one occasion she thought she heard a relative arriving late and was surprised he was gone by the morning. When she called him he denied ever being there…
As I continued to drift in and out of sleep other stories kept popping into my mind. After Aimee and Paul married, the house was flooded one day with water that seemed to come from nowhere, and a loud bang that sent their dog into a fit of barking was never explained. On another occasion when an old transom broke in the porch where he was working and an upstairs window shattered soon afterwards he thought a boy was throwing rocks at the house, but the street was empty. Paul then decided to visit the previous owner, hoping he could throw light on these strange events.
“Neighbors sometimes saw an unfamiliar woman at the window or balcony,” the man said. “And the young couple living in the house before you smelled fresh flowers when none had been brought in…”
I dozed off again, convinced there are always natural explanations if one only looks hard enough. Scientists are dismissive of the paranormal, just as I had been as a cub scout. But the next time I woke it was with a start, perhaps because the room was cold from a breeze billowing out the curtains. In the comfort of the bed I knew it was nothing, but perhaps one story that stuck in my mind had startled me in a dream.
Paul told me he had actually seen her one day while passing an open door. She was standing where I had sat in front of the fireplace. Barely five feet tall, the woman wore a full skirt of dark cotton gathered tightly around her waist and a light-colored blouse, her hair lifted up in an old-fashioned way. It all happened in the twinkling of an eye, but the shock sent him back to the previous owner.
“I’m not surprised,” he was told. “By the way, was she standing next to the mantel?”
I lay back in bed imagining the star-crossed lovers from long ago and wondered about it all. When Paul described the encounter with the woman’s ghost his expression had seemed to appeal to me: please don’t think I’m flaky! I didn’t know what to think.
But then the nightlight suddenly went out on its own, making my heart race. Was it on a light timer? Now I began to feel spooked.
My original story is published in WV South for Halloween