Denise Giardina: Fighting for the Mountains in God’s Country

By Jason Howard and Silas House

Flourish magazine, Spring 2010

Denise Giardina is a radical. Perched on the worn couch in her cozy home in Charleston, West Virginia, Giardina doesn’t shy away from this term, a death knell in modern politics. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype. Her wardrobe doesn’t consist of military fatigues. There are no pictures of Che Guevera on the walls. No Lyndon LaRouche For President fliers lying on the coffee table. That’s just not her style. Instead, Giardina looks to Henry Thoreau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Jones as her guideposts for revolutionary change.

The latter is of particular importance. Nearly one hundred years ago, Mother Jones was called before the United States Senate after organizing thousands of miners in a series of bloody strikes against the coal operators, the most famous in Paint Creek, West Virginia. Senator Nathan Goff, a West Virginia Republican and a long-time supporter of the coal industry, scorned her in front of his colleagues as “the grandmother of all agitators.” Mother Jones smiled. “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators,” she replied defiantly.

Giardina is one of these spiritual grandchildren. She has been building on Mother Jones’ legacy of agitation against the coal industry since the l970s. Two decades later, she became one of the first public figures in Appalachia to publicly oppose mountaintop removal mining, an unpopular and risky stand for a writer with “favorite daughter” status who continues to live in the region. Since then, she has been at the forefront of the issue throughout the region, inspiring other artists to fight back. So groundbreaking were her early protests that she is often referred to as “the godmother of the anti-mountaintop removal movement.”

The forcefulness of her advocacy sometimes catches her admirers by surprise. A self-admitted introvert, Giardina is a writer more in the tradition of Harper Lee than Truman Capote. Shy and reserved, she doesn’t court publicity, doesn’t enjoy being in front of large crowds, doesn’t relish making small talk at receptions. Instead, her passions come alive in more intimate settings.

Her living room invites this level of ease. Hers is a writer’s house, unapologetically lived in and worked in. Books and other objects of importance dominate; a copy of Ian McEwan’s Atonement lies on her end table. Giardina is a West Virginian to the core, and the movie We Are Marshall sets on a bookcase. Phyllis, her beloved and famous-in-her-own-right mutt, rests her black-and-white speckled head on Giardina’s lap.

“Phyllis is just full of love,” Giardina explains, scratching behind her ear. “That’s how she got adopted. I went to the pound and all the puppies were playing, but she came and just looked up at me, like ‘Play with me.’”

Such compassion is surely behind her objections against the coal industry; compassion for her people, compassion for her native land. It’s a Christ-centered identity for Giardina, “to bind up the broken hearts and set at liberty them that are bruised.” But out of this tributary of sympathy also runs a steady stream of righteous indignation more along the lines of Christ cleansing the temple. It’s certainly something she’d like to see happen in West Virginia.

“I will be as blunt as I can be,” she once wrote in The Charleston Gazette. “Mountaintop removal is evil, and those who support it are supporting evil…I puzzle over the modern-day difference between a terrorist and someone who supports mountaintop removal. One destroys with a bomb, the other with a fountain pen, dynamite and a dragline. God help us.”

Such language illustrates that Giardina isn’t your average protestor, chanting cute sing-song phrases at marches or burning someone in effigy. Her rallying cries come from a much deeper place, a cavern of faith that she has found refuge in since childhood.

Advocating out of faith
Reared in the Methodist Church with its Wesleyan creed of service, she eventually gravitated toward the Episcopal denomination. She soon after began discovering the works of theologians such as Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who became involved in the German Resistance movement and a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plot was eventually discovered and Bonhoeffer hanged for his participation. Giardina found Bonhoeffer’s witness so inspiring that she based her fourth novel, Saints and Villains, on his life’s story.

“The church radicalized me,” Giardina admits. She was so taken with her faith that she eventually received her Masters in Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. More recently, she has become an ordained deacon, or as she prefers, “a sort of servant minister.”

“The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

But Giardina’s advocacy has always focused on the spiritual. A large portion of her faith and agitation rests on the concept of environmental stewardship, or the responsibility of Christians to support the “protection of the environment and…the sanctity of creation.” It is also the inspiration behind her choice to agitate through her art, in the many articles and op-eds and novels she has written over the years.

One of those novels, Storming Heaven, was published in 1987 and chronicles the fight for unionization in West Virginia during the early 1900s. After years of enduring low wages, poor working conditions, sickness and even starvation, the striking miners ultimately take up arms against the mine owners and their corrupt state government. The federal government decides to intervene, sending in troops and airplanes with bombs, finally quelling the rebellion.

Known in real life as the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which 10,000 West Virginia miners fought back in the largest armed uprising in American history after the Civil War, this protest is often looked over by historians.

Unionization also became a major part of the follow-up to Storming Heaven. Giardina released The Unquiet Earth to widespread critical acclaim in 1992, winning an American Book Award for Fiction. The novel picks up in the aftermath of its predecessor, documenting union-busting efforts and further abuses of power by the coal industry. One such transgression is a neglected slurry impoundment that is near a community. In a chilling climax, the dam bursts and washes away nearly 150 lives.

Once again, Giardina uses fiction to remind readers of a true event, the Buffalo Creek Disaster, which killed 125 people and left over 4,000 more homeless in Logan County, West Virginia, in February 1972.

The final scene, describing a character’s evacuation by helicopter, remains eerily relevant: “The mountains are falling away below us. They are ripped and torn like a rumpled gray quilt where the cotton batting shows through. The crown of Trace Mountain is gone, a flat rock moon pocked by green ponds of acid water.”

Like the devastation of mountaintop removal, that disaster might have been avoided had more people raised their voices in dissent. Giardina believes that Appalachians have been disenfranchised for so long that we no longer feel empowered to fight back.

“We’re fatalists in the mountains,” she says. “It’s all up to the good Lord. People pray and get saved and wait for the Lord to fix everything. I think that attitude grows out of powerlessness. If we were Vermont or New Hampshire, we’d have town meetings and local political control and own our own land. This wouldn’t be happening. But we’re not, we’re a third world country.”

Off the page and into the public sphere
Such civilizations require visionary and moral political leadership to lift them above their social woes. Like many other states throughout Appalachia, West Virginia has historically been lacking in this department. Traditionally a Democratic state, most of its politicians at both the state and federal levels pledge some sort of allegiance to the coal industry.

Giardina challenged this conventional wisdom when she made the leap from art to politics in her run for governor in 2000. Giardina ran as a third-party candidate in order to get into the general election and force a dialogue on mountaintop removal and other issues at the debates.

“I thought, ‘What if someone runs for office and actually says what they think, without worrying about what the unions say, or what the business community says, or what anyone says and just says what they believe?’ I wanted to run as someone who wouldn’t dilly-dally. Someone who would be honest. ‘I’m for this and that, I’m against mountaintop removal’ and see where the chips fall. And I got the answer.”

As the Mountain Party candidate, she ran on a platform of strict populism, the likes which has rarely been seen in West Virginia since John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey came through campaigning in 1960. Championing such issues as better access to healthcare, smaller schools, and greater regulation and taxation of the coal and timber industries, Giardina barnstormed the state to gain support.

In the end, Giardina received two percent of the popular vote and a decade’s worth of disillusionment with the political process.

She also became pessimistic about the prospects of mountaintop removal being banned any time soon. “I worry because in this country there are a lot of people who are supporting and pushing clean coal technology and all this stuff. When that happens, then you can kiss the mountains goodbye. I hate to think that. That scares me to death. If some of the projections are correct, in 20 or 30 years from now, people are going to be really aware of it and they’re going to be mad when they find out what has been being destroyed here.”

Her job, she believes, is to keep sounding the battle cry. And like her great-grandmother Mother Jones before her, hope that she also can birth a new generation of agitators.

Jason Howard is the coauthor (with Silas House) of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal and the editor of We All Live Downstream: Writings About Mountaintop Removal. His feature articles and creative nonfiction essays have been anthologized and published widely, and he is the nonfiction editor for Still: The Journal. He currently lives in Berea, Kentucky.


Silas House is the author of four novels, Clay’s Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves, The Coal Tattoo, and Eli the Good; two plays, The Hurting Part and Long Time Traveling; and, with coauthor Jason Howard, Something’s Rising. He serves as Writer-in-Residence at Lincoln Memorial University, where he also directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.  He also serves on the fiction faculty at Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He is currently working on his fifth novel, Evona Darling.



This article is excerpted from Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky), 2009.



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