From coal to Thoreau: the essays of "Practice Resurrection"

Not long ago I took a trip across the High Plains, and in addition to seeing more pronghorns and prairie dogs than I’ve ever seen, I also witnessed the landscape of Wyoming’s Thunder Basin for the first time. While much of it is drop-dead beautiful, one gets the feeling that something ominous is brewing there — roads are being repaved, railroads are new or well-maintained, and, of course, trucks are many, big, and well-used.

One soon finds out why. Thunder Basin is where about 40 percent of America’s coal is mined, though a traveler gets only an occasional glimpse of the massive dark pits uprooting acre after acre of prairie. It’s kind of the opposite of the mountain top removal mining that's tearing down places in Appalachia.

Serendipitously, upon my return to Lawrence I discovered Kentucky author Erik Reece, who recently published a wonderful new book, "Practice Resurrection." It turns out his previous work, titled "Lost Mountain," is what poet and fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry calls “by far the best accounting of mountaintop removal and its effects.” In it Reece describes a year on a particular promontory, “thinking like a mountain,” in ecologist Aldo Leopold’s words, before said mountain’s head is blown off for the coal beneath.

My unanticipated examination of coal happened even as I launched River City River, the library’s series on Kansas Water and the Kaw. And so it came full circle, as we were reminded that one of the largest water users in the area is the coal-burning power plant just upstream.

Wendell Berry says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” So what I’m really here to tell you is how in addition to discussing rivers, all last month I lived beneath a babbling blue river — of birds. Henry Thoreau noted that “the jay is the bird of October,” and so it proved to be. It’s especially obvious if you live beneath a large pecan tree, which blue jays scream about even more than acorns.

The sight and sound of all those jays took me back to a day I spent years ago on a large rock on the Connecticut River, where raucous rivers of jays also flowed past. When not watching them, I read Annie Dillard’s "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." Surprised by an acrobatic mockingbird, Dillard reminds us “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

When investigating mountaintop removal mining, Erik Reece tries to be there. He takes a "live it and write it" approach. He also likes to read what I like to read, and liberally sprinkles quotes from authors of import in his wanderings. This is evident in "Lost Mountain," and is evident too in his "Practice Resurrection."

Right from the title, there is much to like in this wide-ranging collection of essays. Who can resist “Birding with Wendell Berry”? Not this reader. "Practice Resurrection" is dedicated “To Wendell, in memory of Guy,” and the title itself is from one of Berry’s Mad Farmer poems. Guy is Guy Davenport, a “densely allusive and disarmingly erudite” writer who I’ve been intrigued (and baffled) by for years. Reece considers him his mentor, and I thank him for sending me back into the Davenport thicket.

There are chapters on human aviation, nature’s circulatory system, one that appeared as the introduction to "Remembering Guy Davenport," which Reece edited, a meditation on suicide and Mark Rothko, and much more. My favorite is “A Week on the Kentucky River Reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Which Nobody Reads Anymore (But Should)” -- it’s shades of Edward Abbey’s inimitable “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” but very different and also worth reading.

Reece, like Thoreau, builds his own boat, and names it for Henry’s unrequited love, Ellen Sewall. Down the Kentucky he floats (Henry and his brother John, predictably, went against the current), pondering companionship, ecology, religion, poetry, capitalism, and Henry Thoreau. It’s a lovely journey.

The penultimate chapter in "Practice Resurrection" is called “Speak and Bear Witness” and comes out of Reece’s time researching "Lost Mountain."

Part of what makes any story engaging is a degree of familiarity, a sometimes not-so-subtle reminder to us of things we already know. Mining disrupts social systems. Mining exterminates ecosystems. Mining perpetuates destructive economic systems. These things we know. We might also remember, along with Erik Reece, the words of ecologist Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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