Why I’m an environmentalist:

Peabody Coal Mining

“Where are we going?” One of my kids asks me as we drive across Kansas.

“We’re going to see Big Brutus.”

“Who’s Big Brutus?”

My mind wanders to my own childhood as I recount the experience to my children.

A hole.

I was 18 again, standing on the road that ran along the property line of my childhood home. What lay before me was a hole. That’s all my childhood had become: a hole as large and empty as the feeling inside my chest. I stood and glared at the wound now gaping where everything I had once intimately known used to breathe.

There’d been an old foundation of a poultry house long gone where I rode my big wheel across the smooth concrete, a pillow-case cape safety-pinned around my neck. Gone.

Mom and I had lived in a blue-and-white trailer. My best Christmas ever happened in there. Mom, a single parent, struggled to make ends meet. But she always came through for the holiday. Risking all the financial dangers, she spent a year’s entire December paycheck on me, her only son. Christmas morning, I ran from my bedroom to find two toy benches lovingly wrapped in Christmas bows—bulging with toys—and a child-sized table between. I don’t remember seeing the tears in Mom’s eyes or the smile on her face, but I know they were there. Right there. But the home where this had happened was gone.

Beside the trailer my Grandma and Grandpa had raised me in a two-story house built by my great-grandfather Charley. There’d been this terrific, large picture window through which we watched the sun rising at dawn and snow falling in winter. Downstairs was a studio where Grandpa taught piano lessons. How many times had I heard the door open and I dashed through the house to leap into my his arms? Ha! How many times did I run the opposite direction from Grandma armed with a yardstick to whip me for some childish shenanigan?

The brick front porch looked out over our corn fields from between large, full evergreens that were taller than the house and juniper shrubs grandma trimmed like bonsai trees. One rainy day I dressed in a raincoat and galoshes to stand between them and watch a rainbow stretch across the eastern sky, droplets falling from the boughs above me. On that porch we celebrated my birthday and Easter in close proximity with two cakes: one with birthday candles, the other with an Easter Bunny. My grandfather lifted me to the porch wall for my picture to be taken between them. I have that picture. But where I stood there was now nothing.

It was these things that cut some of the deepest impressions on the texture of my childhood. Somewhere, sometime long ago, this land had been my heaven on earth. Or had all those things been here at all? Was this where the evergreens used to reach to the heavens? Had our home ever been here? Had my life ever really been lived here?

All these thoughts and many more ran through my heavy heart as I stared at the abyss.

“What happened?” My children ask me now at 44.

And then I was 5. Peabody Coal had taken core samples and made offers to purchase the farms along this country road. Grandpa refused. I remember that dark-haired lady who represented the company; in my young mind she looked like Anita Bryant. Each time she returned, the offer was higher, but she was turned away. Ultimately, Peabody appealed to the state, which asserted eminent domain and compelled the farmers to sell. And Peabody withdrew all but the cheapest appraisal.

Grandpa had no choice but to sell, accept their punishment for venerating his land, and move our family from our home place.

My own family’s voices: “But who’s Big Brutus?”

Strip mining for coal was done by creating machines larger than life. A $6-million dragline with feet larger than the entire poultry house foundation, a turntable that could grind our whole house positioning a body that could rise multiple stories above the tree line and a boom that could reach across a corn field, sling a bucket large enough to swallow our trailer into the earth and tear the top off the ore beneath. This monster sat on the horizon of my youth, a threatening silhouette on the horizon, growing ever closer. As we drove through the countryside, we would turn the corner, and my stomach would twist in knots as the machine appeared over the tops of the trees beyond the field.

Now, as I finish explaining this and turn a corner on the Kansas prairie, Big Brutus appears on the horizon just like that monster did in my childhood. And my stomach lurches just like it did then. And now, decades later, a cavity is all that remains of my childhood home, my heaven on earth. An intruder into the tender memories of childhood takes all that was once esteemed pure and leaves a dirty, unbecoming scar.

And all those memories, if they were not mere dreams, remain lost somewhere in that hole before me.

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