Square and smaller than my fist, a photograph of my father and his brother when they were no older than ten, around the year 1960, shows them jumping through slag heaps and scars in the badland that was their backyard. Located a few miles east of Terre Haute, Indiana, the land was owned by the AMAX Coal Company, formerly called the Peabody Coal Company. The landscape it created is one of the last legacies of the flatland strip mining that once shaped the area’s culture, bringing in thousands of European immigrants and an influx of American migrants from Appalachia. I have no idea how the place received its name (the nearest salmon was a thousand miles away and a “chinook wind” is a thing of mountain country), but the strip mine that hacked one of these badlands out of the land was called Chinook.
My great-grandfather, Lee Wyatt, was born in the mountains of Kentucky and came to Indiana about a hundred years before I made these photographs, in 1910, when he six. In the 1920’s and ’30s, he and my great-grandmother, Mayme Bender, lived right on the National Road, now U.S. 40, running a small grocery store along the inter-urban rail line that ran from Terre Haute to Indianapolis, less than a mile north of land that was then being strip-mined. That place was called the Bobolink Mine. Bobolink was just south of Seelyville, Indiana, a young town of German, Czech and Polish Catholics who had come here to dig for coal. In the 1940s, Wyatt worked a series of blue-collar jobs for the Peabody Coal Company at the Bobolink Mine. When the coal ran out, he bought about forty acres of it for virtually nothing.
As recently as the 1950s, my great-grandfather was essentially one of the first white settlers on this land, re-pioneering a patch of it that he had acquired for not much more money than what settlers a hundred years earlier would have paid. At first, the land had been a mixture of forest and tallgrass prairie. The ancient character of the wilderness (it was a wilderness less than a hundred years before my grandparents were born) gave way to some brief-lived farms between the Civil War and the 1920’s, and was then dramatically altered by the coming of the mine. The mine ripped the earth to pieces, destroyed every last seed of the prairie, and denuded the forests to turn up the coal that lay underneath.
On what had been slag heaps torn out of the ground by a towering drag-line (a huge, triangle-shaped machine that swiveled a bucket around and could barely be moved it was so large), Lee Wyatt turned the land from an industrial wasteland into a residential neighborhood. He kept a spacious green yard for ponies and goats in front of the house that he built for his daughter and son-in-law (my grandparents) around 1950.
The steep-bowelled strip-pits left by the mine company gradually filled with rainwater and became lakes. In satellite views today, these lakes are the only unusual topographical features in Vigo County, if viewed from the air. Newspaper accounts from the ’50s and ’60s tell how my great-grandfather (who served on a local rescue squad) pulled the bodies of at least six drowned teenagers from several of these lakes, which sat on the edge of his property. While swimming, their legs had caught on industrial debris or tree limbs left behind in the pits.
On some of the land, already abandoned by the time of the Great Depression, pits that filled with water held other surprises. Model T’s and Dusenbergs turned up, relics of the time when Terre Haute was both an edgy and cultured town, frequented by gangsters from Chicago during Prohibition, a time when it had a thriving prostitution district, a bustling immigrant culture, and more cultural pride than it has today, a time when Sergei Rachmaninov and Pablo Casals were proud to come here and perform for Terre Haute’s educated, sophisticated citizenry. Stories, however, were also told about the bodies of aborted children and unwanted newborns thrown into these lakes on what became my grandfather’s property. It is told that the bodies of women, perhaps prostitutes, were found here before Lee Wyatt bought it. I have slept a few winter nights in the cabin that my grandfather, Ellis Taylor, built on one of these lakes, and experienced odd things there. Sometime around 1960, Lee Wyatt paid a professional diver to explore the bottom of that lake. The diver came back to the surface so shaken, he was not willing to describe what he found there.
When my father, a geologist trained out West, came to own eleven acres of this land in the 1980s, he decorated his garden with a kind of bone yard to honor his more distant pioneer ancestors, letting native tallgrass grow up around rusted-out threshers and spigots from the 1800s, antique scythes and stone wheels and wooden wagons. The grass and the outdated tools of pioneer agriculture were a collected synthesis of trammeled prairie and trammeled human industry. The irony is that the coal company and his own grandfather (Lee Wyatt died only in 1996) were the primary shaping influences on this small patch of land, not the distant pioneers, who had left it mostly untouched.
The Chinook Mine, now closed for about a decade, sits only about a mile from the house I grew up in. Turning off a gravel farm road a few minutes’ drive from my parents’ driveway, an almost breathtaking expanse of low, rolling hills opens up, almost flat, but not quite, dotted with lakes that seem natural but are actually strip pits created just after World War II. My father says that in the spring, it looks like Ireland. I think it looks like Nebraska. Cottonwoods, one of the most talkative species of trees, wildly choreographic even when only a low wind is blowing, grow only near water and flourish here next to the strip pits. Honeysuckle is abundant. Birds are everywhere. The place almost has a feel of high prairie, but that is an illusion. None of it is truly natural. The ability of nature to germinate mostly unaided by humans belies the fact that this is a manufactured landscape, part of the mine company’s agreement to cover up the ugly scars it left on the land. Fifty years ago, it was blasted by the TNT that occasionally cracked our windows into the 1990s. It seems pristine and “natural” today, but this beauty is brief. Already, there is “development” here: a horse farm, some new McMansions, a fitness center, part of a landfill. Fifty years from now, if our culture does not collapse, this place will house Super Walmarts, mega churches, gas stations, and industrial parks. It will be boring and featureless. These photographs were taken in a small, quiet moment of its history.
The drag-line that ripped the land open when my father was a child, when he lived across the yard from his grandfather (the “pioneer” from Kentucky, last of a breed), looked like a huge metal bird or a trigonometric instrument. There were several of them, but the largest was about the size of a small skyscraper. It walked across the earth on stone feet. It had moved off to the south by the time I was born, roughly to the spot where these photographs were taken, near Cory, Indiana. I remember dreaming about it when I was a kid, and thinking I heard it, before I ever really knew what it looked like. It was a dinosaur for me: almost mythic, not exactly frightening, just strange to have in the neighborhood.
The “bird” had spared one spot, a copse of trees shading a pioneer farmers’ cemetery, named for a family whose surname I have never known how to pronounce. The name is of Gaelic origin. It is spelled “Mewhinney.”
During the most intense period of mining, the Mewhinney Cemetery, already full of human bones, became a shelter for burrowing animals. The whole history of this small patch of land, now hidden in woods, is really about digging. Skunks and raccoons, rabbits and opossums, and other “digging” species, came here for refuge from humans who were digging for coal. Yet it was a place where humans had already been digging pits to bury their own dead. The place, abandoned after the 1930’s, resembled a midden. Midden is an archaeological term for a dump containing domestic waste, a place for bones, feces, plant matter, broken shards of things we no longer have a use for but that are a rich cultural record of who we are. The poet Seamus Heaney has written beautiful poetry about Irish middens. A dump is a place for forgotten, unneeded things that may reacquire importance and meaning with time.
As sacred ground, the cemetery was left undisturbed by the mine. But for animals that had to deal with the effects of the mine, the Mewhinney Cemetery became like a sandbox in a schoolyard. It was the only shelter where they could dig and root, wallow, birth and spawn undisturbed, cocooned-in with the fallen dead of Fredericksburg and the skeletons of Irish farmers and pioneer mothers.
It was almost a vengeance, what the animals did. Like a drag-line, they tore the human skulls out of the earth and brought them up early from pioneer graves. It was an odd, almost comic, Judgment Day for the farmers and their families, to be dragged out of the earth not by angels heaven-bound or devils hell-bound, but by groundhogs, by foxes in starlight, by raccoons in daylight. As a drag-line’s scrape and blast burst into his dreams, the moles beat resurrection in a drummer boy’s ribcage at sunset. And the rain fell once again on his shins.