2008 Northeast Modern Language Association Panels
10-13 April 2008
Buffalo, New York

Leah Bayens
University of Kentucky


"Losing the Mountain and Getting Back to Nature:
Narratives of Loss, Retreat, and Reclamation in Mountaintop Removal Discourse"


Do not cite without permission of the author.

In “Nature Under Fire,” Gary Lease argues, “There is a war over nature in progress and nature itself is in the middle. . . Indeed, it is nothing less than the human struggle for access to reality. . . . Seen against this background, all our narratives—our many stories about nature and ourselves, whether ‘scientific’ or not—are striving for such representation” (4). This paper explores the implications of these social constructions of nature in an effort to think through the processes by which industries that foster activities ultimately harmful to ecosystemic health pitch themselves as environmentalists. In it, I consider how ideologies underpinning and the narratives perpetuated by “traditional” environmental advocacy engender the very conditions against which they work.

I use the debate over coal-fired energy and mountaintop removal (MTR) as a case study. By tracing the use of sustainability- and reclamation-oriented language in coal industry marketing, I delineate terms coal interests have appropriated. In short, pro-MTR discourses employ reclamation language and a balance model of ecology in narrative constructions of coal as a catalyst for a national narrative of progress, tempered by sustainable expansion. Thereafter, I consider how the language of loss and balance in anti-MTR discourses dialectically engender this language of reclamation and sustainability. Ultimately, I suggest that an adaptive, erratic, constantly changing model of ecology might serve as an apt pattern for environmentalist rhetoric. An adaptive model may be less available for corporate cooptation because it anticipates the instability of discursive practices and admits the flux of language.

In sum, I posit that we can think about these discourses as cultural practices, as communications that reveal deep-seated American desires about and constructions of nature. This case reflects an impulse simultaneously to consume and conserve and a desire for a narrative in which America is still “nature’s nation.”