The idea to create a fantasy story set in Appalachia, where coal miners encounter fiery monsters underground, came to me while visiting Centralia, PA in the spring of 2017. Centralia is a former coal mining town, which was largely abandoned after a fire started in the coal seams underground. I thought that the piece could present an ‘alternative mythology of coal’ which although fantastical, tells a truer story than many of the narratives put forward about Appalachia and Coal in mainstream political discourse leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
At first my focus was to better understand the history of coal in America. This expanded into a wide ranging study of the industrial revolution, frontier mythology, and the early colonial history of Appalachia. For this I relied on:
- Coal: A Human History - Barbara Freese
- Fossil Capital - Andreas Malm
- What You're Getting Wrong About Appalachia - Elizabeth Catte
- Ramp Hollow - Stephen Stoll
- End of the Myth - Greg Grandin
An unexpected area of interest that also emerged was in the history of Paleontology in the United States. Rail and Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was a major funder of archeologists during the Bone Wars, a period of frenzied interest in extracting and recovering dinosaur bones from places like Utah and Wyoming. Before him, some of America’s founding fathers had a strong interest in the possible presence of still-living mastodons further west into the continent. For these I relied on:
- Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur - Tom Rea
- American Monsters: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity - Paul Semonin
- Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past - Walton Ford and Zoe Lescaze
Important themes that emerged in this research include:
- How rhetoric about fossil fuels throughout history fits into the larger trajectory of colonial ideology, which celebrates resource extraction, dispossession, exploitation, and ecological exterminism as scientific progress, part of god's plan, or else as somehow natural and therefore just.
- The ways in which contradictory stereotypes about miners and white appalachian poverty (inbred, drug addled hillbillies vs heroic sacrifice of gritty american men) fit into white supremacist rhetoric, including the rhetoric of contemporary American politicians.
- How images of white poverty, political struggle and ecological disaster, are appropriated, depoliticized, and reincorporated into national myth.
- The ways in which certain narratives about nature and natural history have been used to explain, justify, legitimate, and naturalize extractive capitalism, anthropocentrism, white supremacy, and more.
After doing some background research, I traveled throughout West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania to see mining operations and historical sites first hand. During this trip, my interests shifted more towards:
- How individuals relate to the history of the place they live in through work, family, and media.
- How historical narratives are reproduced and reinscribed in place with monuments, local museums, kitsch tourist stuff, etc
I also was impressed by the extent to which the landscape has been transformed by coal mining:
- High schools and housing built on top of mountaintop removal sites,
- Surface mining operations conducted directly adjacent to homes
- Highways and railroads cutting through, over, and across mountains everywhere - extensive infrastructure for transporting coal.