Branch Out Alternative Breaks

Creating a community of active & educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice

Mountains, Coal and Appalachian Music

by Natalie Hurd

I spent Spring Break in Appalachia, Virginia learning about mountain top removal. Before arriving I had watched documentaries, seen presentations and read articles about the destructive effect surface mining has on the environment around it. Once I was there, I learned very quickly that knowing something and understanding it on a human level are very different.

It was eye opening to see where our energy comes from. We live in a world that uses and often wastes natural resources and to some extent, we can’t change that. Despite this, it is important to realize that our energy comes from a real place – a region troubled by social and economic injustice. Appreciating what we have involves both understanding the problems with coal mining and valuing the communities that live through them.

Before I arrived, I knew that deforesting and leveling a mountain could cause mudslides and flashfloods. I did not understand what those facts truly meant until I heard a woman from a nearby Appalachian community recount the story of a three year old boy who was killed by a boulder in his sleep. I knew that mining companies were required to restore the areas after mining, but I did not understand that “restoration” meant spreading grass seed and planting a few non-native trees. Companies state that decommissioned sites are no longer dangerous, but then I witnessed in person the orange and red runoff flowing into a nearby stream, all because a coal company would not take responsibility for old mistakes.

The human cost of these injustices are real. Over the course of the week, we listened to many panels of local activists and community members who were affected by mountain top removal. The community members were not environmental activists. They did not talk about a changing climate or endangered polar bears – they talked about home. The deep connection they had with the region was impressive and heartbreaking.  During a tour of a mining site, one man drew me aside and pointed to the brown, dusty plateau that used to be a mountain. “That’s where I used to hunt as a boy,” he said. “That was my childhood. Now you can barely tell it used to be a forest.”

Mountain top removal is a somber topic, but I learned about it in a honest, life-altering way with lively and wonderful people. I thought I would miss a lot of things during the week in Appalachia. I assumed I would miss my phone, my laptop…but I didn’t. It is now, being back at school, that I miss things. I miss the mountains, the dogs running around the building, the muddy trails. I miss flannel and guitar songs and wearing the same brown boots every day. And I miss the people. I spent my week hiking in beautiful mountains and listening to inspiring speakers. I huddled around a space heater with other William & Mary students in our sleeping area, singing along as they played Lorde and Train on the guitar. I met friends who drove up from Florida and hitchhiked from Boston, some of whom I am lucky enough to still be in contact with. I made memories that make me smile, and saw things that I will never forget.

I wish I could have brought all my friends from home with me. I wish they could have seen the MTR sites, held a piece of coal in their hands and listened to the Appalachian youth speak about growing up near the mines. I wanted my friends there to pet the dogs, take pictures in front of the mountains and get angry that people just like us have to live with poisoned water and tainted air. Because after this trip, Mountain Top Removal is no longer an abstract issue for me. It’s not about graphs, numbers or government regulations. This is about people- people I know, people I’ve listened to, and communities that are struggling. This time, it’s personal – and I want everyone to know about it.


Author: Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership through alternative breaks. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University, and then served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I earned a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I managed a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families, and then served as Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Then, I returned to Emory to serve for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. I believe in the power of mutual connection and service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.

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