We broke bread with our Appalachian brothers and sisters, who fed us like cherished relatives from out of town. We bore witness to their struggle and pain, and they, in turn, shared their palpable sense of relief because of it.
I had two dreams the night after Mike Little, our Faith and Money Network Executive Director, asked me if I’d write an article about our recent trip of perspective to Wise County, Virginia. It was there, in the bottom of the Appalachian coal fields, that we learned about how big coal companies blow the tops off of mountains. This most violent and destructive form of surface mining wreaks havoc on the environment, the eyes that see it, and the lives that are lived there. I considered passing on Mike’s invitation to write, owing to other projects, but when I awoke after those dreams, I knew that my spirit needed me to write.
The first dream took place in a tiny hamlet called “Noah,” and I was there with others to visit a band of families who were fighting for their mountains to be saved. I rode on a tractor with an older farmer to view the destruction. I wept when I saw what was left of the mountain, appearing like a moonscape. The old man, or me, or an ancient voice said, “They’re killing our ancestors.”
In the second dream, I was standing in front of our family’s dining room table in the old NC house where I was raised. One of my mom’s plants in the center of the table caught fire. I blew it out but didn’t remove it, and the ashes rekindled and caught fire again. I then uprooted the smoldering plant, pulling out every root until the pot was empty. Though the action was violent, it had to be done.
I awoke feeling both loss and great reverence, as if I’d seen something holy up close. I’m a pastor and a psychotherapist but not a dream interpreter. I dream often and record the most vivid ones, which normally come after a time of great discernment, worry, or anticipation, all feelings that surfaced after our Virginia trip.
For several years, Mike has been taking friends of the Faith and Money Network to visit those righteous rabble-rousers from Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS). This year was my time to go on the trip, to connect faces to places. I had met some people from SAMS at the Festival Center in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago, but had never been to see what they were doing, what they were trying to protect, and what had been taken from them. I had seen pictures of mountaintop removal in Kentucky and heard the stories from people who had seen it, but felt like there was little that I could do. When I first met people from SAMS, I thought, “It isn’t ‘my’ Appalachia that they are destroying.” If that were the case, I’d have been all over it. But they’re not blowing off the tops of mountains in my home state of North Carolina. Does it matter that it’s not happening to the mountains of my youth? The Appalachian mountain range is not broken up by the dotted lines separating each state like you see on a map. It is one long, ancient daisy chain of mountains. We share it. It is ours to protect.
Most letters and articles about any type of injustice beg us to “do” something, which is always a valid request. That being said, I’m still working on what it is that I need to do. I’ve visited, given some financial support, hugged those whose necks and mountains are on the line, and have prayed and dreamed, all the while asking myself and others who are equally concerned, “How do I hold all of this? How should I act?”
The great poet Rilke said something about sitting and holding the questions long enough that we might live into the answers. I know that sitting with the questions can be maddening. What might keep me sane in the midst of this cloud of anxiety?
On the Virginia trip, I roomed with a man whom I had not previously known very well. Over those four days, we formed a bond of trust, listened to each other’s stories, and asked big life questions. We laughed. And along with our fellow sojourners, we witnessed the beauty and destruction. Each day, we broke bread with our Appalachian brothers and sisters, who fed us like cherished relatives from out of town. We bore witness to their struggle and pain, and they, in turn, shared their palpable sense of relief because of it. In all of this, we found more family. A safe place is required in which to confront the pain within us and without. We offered each other that holy space. The joy of all those folks at SAMS, the dedication to their work and to their sacred land was a great sermon given to me and a witness that is still resounding in my spirit. Thus the dreams, I believe.
“They’re killing our ancestors.” The First Nations people, the original caretakers of these ancient mountains, referred to the stones as “grandfathers and grandmothers” or “ancestors.” At a vista point on the highway, we looked out over a decimated mountain to see something that could only be defined as deeply wrong, like a black eye on a vulnerable child. Everything is sacred. And connected. And alive. And those ancestors, on whose physical shoulders we live, are being killed.
The town in my dream was “Noah.” The people at SAMS are building a great ark of support that can withstand the flood of corporate greed and ecological disaster. They need our prayers, presence, and resources. God bless them.
That burning plant needed to be extinguished and removed, all the way back to the beginning: an empty pot. A cleansing, maybe? What is old and burned that yearns for new growth? What needs to be planted next in that clean vessel? What new roots can creep down and take hold? Being less metaphoric, what new ways of producing energy might emerge from the ashes? These are questions I’m still pondering.
Even though these are my dreams and not yours, what might they say to you?
My power here in D.C. is provided by companies who extract coal using the mountaintop removal method. The same is almost certainly true for you, wherever you live. It was a paralyzing feeling for me to find that out. I’m sitting, waiting, praying, dreaming, collaborating, advocating, and asking questions still. I humbly invite you to do the same.
By Jim Marsh, Jr. | October 31, 2015
Jim Marsh, Jr., is a child and adolescent psychotherapist in the Washington, DC, area and works with inner-city teenage boys in a Rites of Passage program. An ordained United Methodist minister, Jim has a strong calling to help guide and inspire people to find their true voice and true self. Jim is a board member of Faith and Money Network.