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Eco-Sexuality, Mountaintop Removal and Goodbye, Gauley Mountain

I remember the year that Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle showed up at Mountain Justice Summer, an annual training camp for anti-mountaintop removal activists. They were at camp, in part, to lead an eco-sexuality workshop. I was twenty-one, a resident of a direct action community in southern West Virginia, and surly as hell. Eco-sexuality, or what I presumed it was, annoyed me. Sure, I was queer, but I was queer as in “fuck you,” not queer as in “let’s rub ourselves in dirt and marry things.” I did not attend their workshop, or any of their events in Appalachia.

But now, five-odd years later, Stephens and Sprinkle’s work interests me. I’m curious about how environmental discourse can be queered, and they’re doing this publicly, through collaborative weddings and a documentary film. Because Stephens is from southern West Virginia, their work has a strong focus on that state and on mountaintop removal coal mining. Although I only organized in central Appalachia for three years and lived there full-time for a much briefer period, West Virginia was in many ways where I came of age, and it is viscerally imprinted on my memory. This connection makes Stephens and Sprinkle’s explicitly queer work about mountaintop removal mining particularly poignant to me.

Eco-sexuality is a philosophy that lesbian couple and artistic duo Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle espouse in their lives, performances, and on their website, Sexecology.org. They define eco-sexuality as “shifting the metaphor from earth as mother to earth as lover.” Beth writes that eco-sexuals are “lusty, dirty creatures who are not afraid to get grass on our face while making love to the earth.” Eco-sexual activities are as diverse as skinny dipping, vegetable dildos, campfires and the ever-nebulous “cloud sex.” Stephens and Sprinkle give eco-sex workshops, host a series of eco-sex graphs on their website and have even written an eco-sex manifesto that has been translated in to Spanish and Catalan. Eco-sexuality has a clear environmental ethic: it is rooted in the idea that a mutual relationship between humans and the earth is key to survival.

Perhaps the best known part of their eco-sexual practice is their wedding project. Over the past decade, Sprinkle and Stephens have performed 17 weddings to “natural entities.” The weddings are highly-stylized affairs involving absurd, colorful costumes and performance art. They’re also collaborative and community-centered: everyone is invited to help make the wedding happen and take part in the wedding vows. These weddings didn’t start as an environmental project; they were initially a component of Stephens’ and Sprinkle’s LoveArtLab, created to address “the violence of war, the anti-gay marriage movement, and [the] prevailing culture of greed.” But the project evolved, and they’ve since married the sea, the Earth, the moon, snow, rocks, coal, Finland’s Lake Kallavesi, dirt and the Appalachian mountains. The weddings’ environmental ethics are often reflected in Beth and Annie’s vows. During their Wedding to the Earth they promise to “become better lovers to the earth” and during their Wedding to the Moon, they promise to be “careful about their water consumption.” The wedding to the Appalachians was themed around ending mountaintop removal mining.

Beth Stephens is from Charlton Heights, West Virginia. Charlton Heights is sandwiched between the Kanawha River and the mountains, in a particularly beautiful part of the state marked by mist and old trestle bridges. Stephens’ family owned the Marathon Coal Bit Company, and she grew up both in the wild woods and “playing on conveyer belts and chain hoists [in the shop], [and] watching the machinists at work.” As a child, her knowledge of the natural world was intimately tied up with coal, the lifeblood of her family.

Stephens left West Virginia after high school, eventually settling in California, where she is an artist and professor. In 2007, on a visit home, Stephens had the opportunity to see mountaintop removal from an airplane. While she had known about mountaintop removal for years, she didn’t understand the full scale of its destruction (the coal industry does an excellent job of obscuring mountaintop removal from public view). Shortly after the flyover, Stephens learned that Gauley Mountain, whose ridges rise above her childhood home, was being disassembled for cheap coal. Horrified and angry, she began researching the process and impacts of mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal (or MTR) is a form of mining that removes mountaintops to get at the coal seams below. The loosened earth is dumped in to nearby valleys, and mining byproducts are dumped in to rivers or stored in slurry impoundments. Mountaintop removal is decimating the ecology of central Appalachia, a hot spot for biodiversity. It also causes flooding, home damage, and increased rates of cancer and respiratory diseases in nearby communities. Michael Hendryx and Melissa H. Ahearn, two public health researchers, found that Appalachian mortality rates were highest in areas with the most mining.

Since the early 2000s, mountaintop removal has become a hot-button issue for environmentalists. In 2005, a coalition of Appalachian-based community groups including Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Katuah! Earth First hosted Mountain Justice Summer, several months of trainings, community organizing and actions for burgeoning anti-mountaintop removal activists. This event catalyzed the movement, attracted organizers and college students to Appalachia, and drew media attention to the cause. Today, a diversity of groups work to end mountaintop removal from different angles, utilizing community organizing, direct action, legislative, and economic revitalization tactics.

As the impacts of mountaintop removal have garnered national attention, proponents of the practice have responded. They say that there are few environmental and health costs to mountaintop removal, and that it is a key component of central Appalachia’s economy. Companies who make money off of mountaintop removal laud this mining practice, and craft an image of anti-MTR activists (or “treehuggers”) that plays on the fears of miners and their families. In a video clip of a 2009 Labor Day rally, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship says, “Next in line trying to give your jobs away are the easy to recognize environmental nuts. They’re easy to recognize because they’re the one that are chained to your equipment or hanging from your trees…. These nuts want to eliminate all American jobs so that they can save the planet.” His words make me think of Judy Bonds — the late, great West Virginian anti-mountaintop removal activist — who famously said, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” But ecology aside, opponents of the practice argue that the industry’s jobs argument doesn’t hold up: Strip mining and increased mechanization have actually reduced the number of Appalachians employed as coal miners over the past sixty years — from 125,000 in 1950 to around 16,000 today. The coal industry claims that mining jobs keep West Virginians from leaving home, but while non-mining counties in West Virginia gained an average of 422 people between 1995 and 2000, mining counties lost 639 to out-migration.

But the rhetoric of the coal industry is powerful, and many Appalachians see MTR as one of the only viable ways to make a living. When I lived in southern West Virginia, miners getting off shift in the middle of the night would rev their engines, honk and yell as they drove past my house, a known enclave of anti-MTR activists. Sometimes these moments turned into confrontation, and sometimes that confrontation turned into friendly discourse. Regardless, the question posed to us almost always was, “Where are you from?” It’s a fair question. It’s true that many anti-mountaintop removal activists come from outside of coal-producing Appalachia, and that there’s a long history of outsiders coming in to “help” poor white “hillbillies” and then leaving (see: President Johnson’s War on Poverty). It makes sense that some Appalachians are distrustful of these activists and of a Yankee culture that has derided and stereotyped them. But many of the anti-MTR activists I’ve worked with are Appalachians and West Virginians. Some have worked as miners, many others have family in the coal industry.

Stephens, too, is from West Virginia, and she knows the various sides of the mountaintop removal argument intimately. Members of her family, as well as the husband of her childhood best friend, are pro-mountaintop removal. At the same time, they espouse a deep love for the Appalachian mountains and their ecology. She captures these contradictions in Goodbye Gauley Mountain, her experimental documentary film about mountaintop removal, West Virginia and eco-sexuality. She also adds another face to the anti-MTR movement, one that’s brashly queer and from those selfsame hills.

Stephens says that Goodbye Gauley Mountain is rooted in autoethnography, and it is very much her story, narrated in her voice and weaving together disparate pieces of West Virginia that she holds dear. Yes, she includes the typical slate of interviews with anti-mountaintop removal activists (and explains the process of mountaintop removal through charming, informative animations), but she doesn’t stop there. She talks to her childhood best friend, and her best friend’s husband, who are on different sides of the mountaintop removal debate. She reenacts her conception in front of the house where it occurred, egged on by her older sister. She and Sprinkle frolic in nature: hugging trees, skinny dipping and running their hands through lush moss (Sprinkle makes a hilarious habit out of flashing the camera). There is as much a focus on southern West Virginia’s crumpled green beauty as there is on the destruction that mountaintop removal has wrought.

Stephens’ voice, and Stephens and Sprinkle’s determination to say and do exactly what they feel like, make Goodbye Gauley Mountain unique. I’ve seen other films about mountaintop removal, including Coal Country and Low Coal, directed by Mary Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman respectively. Both films do a great job expressing the devastating impacts of mountaintop removal, but they watch like advocacy pieces, pushing a specific point of view (which is, I believe, their intention). While Stephens certainly has her own perspective — she’s clearly against mountaintop removal — the film is framed as a coming home story. Her position as a West Virginian, her willingness to narrate her own story, and the ease with which she deviates from just talking about mountaintop removal lend it credibility. Goodbye Gauley Mountain feels deeply honest in its partial and singular perspective: I trust Stephens as a narrator, because she is letting me know exactly who is she is.

Threaded through the film is an exuberant, sensual, performed queerness, and it’s clear that Sprinkle and Stephens think that this performativity has great value.

“Sometimes I feel like fighting MTR is a losing battle,” Stephens narrates over a front-window shot of a car cleaving through fog-laden hills. “Then I imagine that some good old queer ACT UP-style activism and eco-sexual performance art may be just what it takes to stop these corporations from destroying the world. That is exactly what we intend to do.” I don’t actually think performance art (or much else, really) can save the world (although I’m not sure that Stephens does either — she does use the word “imagine,” after all). But it doesn’t really matter — I like what she and Sprinkle are doing, because they’re shaking up the discourse. In her director’s statement, Stephens says, “My hope for this film, in addition [to] it being a compelling story, is that it will inspire and raise awareness in groups of people not normally associated with the environmental movement, especially GLBTQ communities…. There are relatively few films about environmental issues that feature out queer people.” But this work is not just making environmentalism more accessible to queers, it’s helping make queerness a visible and public part of the discourse around mountaintop removal.

This visibility comes with certain risks. Stephens notes that “the film is unabashedly queer in its own situated (eco)sexuality, which may be used to discredit those who appear in it. West Virginians like to think of themselves as a friendly, all-American heteronormative people. But many stereotypes of Appalachia portray it as a strange, queer place populated by incestuous primitive people.” While the stereotype of Appalachians as backwards hillbillies falls away as soon as one meets the many articulate, savvy people who live there, the all-American, heteronormative thing has a bit more of a hold. It’s true that West Virginia is a red state with socially conservative mores. When I lived and worked there, there was concern among younger, punker activists about appearing too “out there,” especially in front of older organizers from coal-producing regions. This concern was fueled, in part, by the coal industry’s fear-mongering depictions of anti-MTR activists as wingnut hippies with loose morals. It was also out of respect for organizers who came from different religious and social backgrounds than our own. But the concerns were often ill-founded, and Appalachian anti-MTR organizers have, for the most part, been open to a wide range of sexualities (some are themselves queer). Goodbye Gauley Mountain, which features interviews and scenes with a wide-range of West Virginians of all ages, underscores this. It’s particularly striking during Stephens and Sprinkle’s wedding to the Appalachian mountains, which ends the film.

It’s a classic eco-sex wedding, with a troupe of singing circus animals, space-agey purple costumes, and partial nudity. Members of Stephens’ family are there, as well as a slew of anti-mountaintop removal activists. My friend Sarah Vekasi, a Buddhist eco-chaplain, officiates. Stephens’ cousin spoofs the crowd by pretending to object to the union, saying that mountaintop removal is necessary to keep order in the world and is “worth the cost of some environmental damage,” before telling everyone he is just kidding.

And Larry Gibson gives the homily. Gibson, who passed away in 2012 at sixty-six, is considered a sort of godfather to the anti-mountaintop removal movement. In the 1980s, mountaintop removal began encroaching on Kayford Mountain, his childhood home. Gibson was able to save his home place, which is worth about $650 million to the coal industry, by turning it in to a land trust. He became a major voice in the growing movement against mountaintop removal, touring the country and founding the Keepers of the Mountains Foundation. His speeches were powerful and hard to hear without thinking, “Shit, I really have to do something about this mountaintop removal thing.”

“When I started first experiencing the dynamiting and the blowing up of mountains, the sky was pretty blue, a powder blue,” Gibson sermonizes, “Then I started hearing the thunder, the thunder! But there was not lightning and no rain. Months came and the years came and the thunder came closer and the dust, and the dynamite and the ammonia nitrate and the diesel fuel and the fertilizer it started acting up and I knew then, that there was more just the good Lord lettin’ steam off.”

His speech is soundtracked with blasts from a mountaintop removal site and, in the center aisle, a dancer uses their body to act out his description of mountaintop removal and its effects. The dancer is nearly naked: they’re wearing purple briefs and a tight choker. The image of an older, Appalachian man invoking God as a young, partially clothed queer dances at a wedding of two lesbians is a powerful one.

Why? In the minds of many people I know, Gibson is an icon of the anti-mountaintop removal movement (he’s the sort of person whose public memorial was held in the state capitol of Charleston’s Municipal Auditorium and attended by hundreds of people). Carefully watched by those who admired him and coal companies alike, almost every act Gibson took was a public act. His homily breaks down the idea of a homogenous, heteronormative Appalachia, and the stereotype of older, rural activists who are uniformly uncomfortable with queer expression. Gibson never cared what the coal companies had to say about him and he reminds us that we shouldn’t, either. If some are us are freaks and queers, then let some of us be freaks and queers.

Judith Butler writes in an essay, “Subversive Bodily Acts,” that “What constitutes through division the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds of the subject is a border and boundary tenuously maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control.” In this, Butler gets to the heart of what “queering” is. To queer something is not just to bring LGBTQ perspectives in to the conversation. Queering can also mean breaking down boundaries and questioning normative assumptions and rhetoric. In a quiet way, Goodbye Gauley Mountain engages in this other type of queerness, and the rhetoric it complicates is the rhetoric of the anti-mountaintop removal movement itself.

Most of my time in Appalachia from 2009-2011 was focused on crafting media for and publicizing direct action campaigns. The media my colleagues and I produced was often narrowly focused on the problem at hand and the stark differences between right and wrong, in order to galvanize support. In the innumerable press releases I helped write, we emphasized the scale of the destruction and the threat to human life that MTR posed. I don’t think that the intention was “social regulation and control” (and don’t want to understate the scale of the crisis or the necessity of crafting strong, focused messaging), but it sometimes felt like there was a narrow scope of what was considered appropriate discourse. By contrast, Stephens and Sprinkle leave room for joy in the film — celebrating nature’s beauty and each other — as a way to “play against the horrific subjects matter . . . creating space to briefly cut the feeling of despair MTR evokes.”

Stephens is also honest about finding perverse beauty in extraction: she tells viewers that as a child, she thought the coal plants that light up the valleys at night looked like fairy tale castles. So is photographer and West Virginian Paul Corbit-Brown, who, when Stephens interviews him, talks about the challenges of capturing mountaintop removal sites. “The aerial [photographs] become very abstract, and ironically can be quite beautiful just as an image of textures and colors and shapes,” he tells Stephens, “And so the challenges is, how do you show something so horrendous with a beautiful photograph?”

In admitting that there is aesthetic beauty in extraction processes they hate and fight against, Stephens and Corbit-Brown carve out space for honest conversations that grapple with complicated feelings about extraction while still maintaining explicitly anti-MTR viewpoints. This speaks to me: I’ve spent time giving presentations, crafting media campaigns, documenting toxic spills and, yes, chaining myself to mining equipment. But I’ve never had the desire to protect the Appalachians more than the night I spent stargazing at the edge of an abandoned mountaintop removal site. (Below: a dark pit, with a few pieces of old machinery. Beyond: the hills and headlights bouncing up from the thin road in the valley below. Above: stars, the brightest I’ve ever seen, even the milk way was visible.)

Goodbye Gauley Mountain opens up all sorts of space: for queers, for freaks, for insights that don’t fall within the party lines. This, along with Stephens’ narrative voice, humor and brash lesbian-West Virginia identity, are what makes it such a profound and moving film. I’m curious what conversations will come out of it and what other projects it will inspire.

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