A Letter to West Virginia

We spent Friday, and Saturday
morning, at the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) in Mullens, West
Virginia. This is a town of about 2,000 in the heart of coal country. We saw a
few flat-topped mountains on our way in, as well as machinery ticking away, and
coal cars heaped full of the dusty black stuff. Mullens was a “railroad town”
which used to be a hot place in the thirties and forties, or so the rumors go –
if you’d go there on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t be able to walk through the
streets, for so many people were packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder, partying.
Needless to say there are more abandoned buildings than crowds these days; ever
since coal became a mainly mechanized business, the jobs have dwindled. These days
there are only 800 mining jobs in a county of 20,000, where the coal and timber
companies combine to control the use of over 85% of the land. The result of
this corporate control of land is a systematic approach to controlling the
livelihood of the residents of Mullens. In the early mining days, the coal
towns would literally forbid gardening – so that the residents would be
completely reliant on the company store and hence unable to strike. Today’s
methods are less overt but no less effective. As a result of the lack of public
control of their land, Mullens’ freedom has been hidden behind an invisible
veil of corporate non-accountability.

RAIL is working to bring freedom
and hope back to Mullens through various community projects. The projects are
headed up by Jack and Rebekah. Jack arrived two years ago, funded by a grant
“to start a farmers’ market.” He found there were no farmers… (dramatic
pause)…. so instead his work shifted toward local agriculture. We saw the
fruits of his