Reviewed by Anna Jane Joyner
Flourish magazine, Summer 2010
Steeped in Appalachian culture, Deep Down is a moving story about the struggles of two coalfield residents in eastern Kentucky. It encapsulates the complex struggle of central Appalachian communities as they grapple with loyalty to the coal industry—which has provided the only economic means for this region in recent history—and a desire to keep their mountains, streams, communities, and way of life.
Traditional forms of mining rarely required coalfield residents to take a side. But the growing pervasiveness of mountaintop removal mining—where coal companies blow off the tops of mountains and fill nearby valleys with the “overburden” of trees, rock, soil, and wildlife—is literally reshaping the central Appalachian landscape. Many coalfield communities now find themselves caught in the middle. Such is the story of Maytown, Kentucky, the community profiled in Deep Down.
Maytown is an Appalachian community where fiddle and banjo music infuses every social gathering and coal companies reign king. When a coal company proposes to mine a mountaintop above this tight-knit community, the residents of Maytown wrestle with tough questions about how this potential new neighbor could impact their lives and whether or not they should fight to stop it from moving in.
Raised on opposite sides of the threatened mountaintop ridge, Beverly May and Terry Ratliff are lifelong friends and neighbors. A fourth-generation Appalachian, Beverly May is an avid lover of the mountains and immediately takes a stand against the proposed project. “Some things just don’t have a price,” she states with quiet, sad conviction.
Nestled in an idyllic mountainside cabin surrounded by chickens and horses, Terry Ratliff is a carpenter struggling to make a living. With the coal company wooing him, Terry is torn between love of his serene, hand-built homestead and the hefty sum of money the coal company is offering in exchange for mining his portion of the ridge. The film follows both Beverly and Terry as they grapple with the grave impacts of the proposed mine on the only home they’ve ever known.
Resolute, Beverly sets out to organize the Maytown community against the proposed mountaintop mine. Working with a local community group, she submits a request to stop the mine based on its projected negative impact on the local watershed. “When a coal company comes in it’s like a thief,” she explains. “They’re looking for the house that’s unprotected; the lights are off, nobody’s home, it looks like it’s an easy target. We want to let the coal company know there’s somebody home and the lights are on. We’re watching.”
Far from oversimplifying this complex issue, Deep Down candidly explores the difficult questions many communities encounter as coal companies propose an ever-increasing number of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia. Some local residents invoke the region’s long history of coal mining to defend the proposed mine. Others rationalize that God made coal for us to extract and use. Still others remind the audience that by virtue of our energy consumption, we’re all complicit in the practice of mountaintop removal mining, and that perhaps rather than fight it, we should be grateful for the cheap energy it provides. Terry Ratliff mulls over love of his peaceful, mountain home verses the need to pay bills.
Conversely, Beverly May openly considers mountaintop removal mining an assault on Appalachia, her home, and culture: “In the language of mine operators, everything that lies above the coal is called “overburden”—waste to be blown out of the way and dumped into the nearest valley as quickly and cheaply as possible to get at what really matters, which is the coal and the money it represents. That means I’m overburden. It means my neighbors are overburden, and the people of Appalachia are overburden. To a coal operator, we are simply in the way. So the quality of our water, the safety of our homes, the peace of our communities doesn’t matter.”
Led by Beverly, the many local citizens who are not convinced the cost of destroying nearby mountains and streams is worth the few jobs and cheap energy it provides set out to educate themselves in the art of citizen activism.
At one point in the film, Beverly and Terry sit around a kitchen table and discuss the community’s conundrum. The coal company has officially applied for the mountaintop removal permit, countered by a community-wide effort to declare the land “unsuitable for mining.” Terry asks Beverly why she thinks their ridge is any less suitable than all of the other mountains around. Beverly contends the key difference is citizen activism to stop the mine.
“Everybody’s got a price,” says Terry.
“Well, that’s not true,” responds Beverly. “You have a price. I don’t have a price. There’s things you can’t put a dollar value on.
“As long as you have plenty of dollars… But when you don’t… When you don’t see the light down the tunnel so clearly,” Terry trails off. Their friendly but tense exchange captures the complicated struggle of many Appalachian neighbors facing tough decisions brought on by the threat of mountaintop removal mining.
This film poignantly tells the story of an ordinary Appalachian town grappling with a remarkable question: to lop of the top of a nearby mountain, or not? A mountain that holds extremely valuable coal reserves. A mountain that God placed there long before Maytown was established. A mountain that has served as a foundational piece of this small community. Whose streams and wildlife provide clean water and air, as well as protection from floods and mudslides. Whose secret hiding places and magnificent vistas offer places to meet with God or to build tree houses.
While Deep Down showcases an individual town’s struggle, the narrative thoughtfully touches on universal themes such as stewardship of God’s creation for the benefit of future generations, the importance of community and connection to place, and the problem of what to do when short-term needs and profit threaten to compromise the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities, and ecosystems.
Calling to mind the Christian ethic of good stewardship, Beverly explains her reason for fighting mountaintop removal: “There’s a document at the courthouse that says I own twenty-one acres… But I don’t think I own it, not in the sense that I can dispose of it… It is mine to take care of and to protect and to enjoy and then to pass on to the next generation, hopefully in better shape than I got it.”
Against all odds, to date the Maytown community has been successful in halting mountaintop removal mining operations on their ridge. After considering the coal company’s offer, Terry has yet to lease his property for mining. While not a comprehensive overview of the issue of mountaintop removal mining, Deep Down is a moving and beautifully told story that demonstrates the struggles, courage, and resourcefulness of a small community in Appalachia. It provides an inspiring example for anyone who seeks to challenge injustice and protect God’s creation and people.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a risk-taker. Shoot man, why would you just seal yourself up, park yourself in front of the tube, and let life go by when you can decide how your life is going to be?” says Terry in the film. Here’s hoping the Christian community demonstrates such creative energy and courage and stands in solidarity with the people of Appalachia to build and enact a new vision of ethical electricity—one that does no harm to God’s creation or our neighbors.
Hailing from the mountains of North Carolina, Anna Jane Joyner leads Restoring Eden’s efforts to End Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia. She earnestly tries to make those mountains—and their Creator—glad. And, at the very least, keep their tops on. For more information or to get involved with Restoring Eden’s efforts to end Mountaintop Removal, please contact Anna Jane at .