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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 11:12 pm

Uncovering the history buried by King Coal

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The Robert and Cora Bell Followell family. Bob Followell is Jeff Biggers’ grandfather, who became a coal miner in his 40s.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF BIGGERS

Coal, to Jeff Biggers, is a symbol of lives lost, land destroyed and the worst of big business with too much political clout. But, to him, the black and dusty rock is also a symbol of his and so many Illinoisans’ heritage – one that in many ways has been all but erased.

Amid the fodder of economy, environment and politics, it’s Biggers’ desperate plea against what he calls “historicide,” an eradication of certain elements from history, that makes his 2010 book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, accessible to the average reader. As he traces his encounters with southern Illinois’ unique characters, he brings the human element – a complex intertwining of passion, sorrow and anger, both for and against coal – out of the shadow of tired and stale economic arguments that in essence have remained unchanged throughout coal’s modern life.

Though Biggers addresses the heavy, number-laden facts of coal as the nation’s main source of energy – and pollution – he first entices readers with tales of his journey to better understand coal’s influence on his own identity. Biggers, a self-described wanderer (he’s quite fond of the word “peripatetic,” not to mention the words “nonagenarian” and “octogenarian”), was transplanted in 1970 from southern Illinois to Arizona at the age of 7. His parents had broken away from coal mining and the family’s 150-year-old Eagle Creek homestead, near Shawneetown. But, as with many of Biggers’ readers who depend on coal-fired electricity, “coal and its enduring legacy in their lives had not lost its temper; it had merely retreated like bark on the trunk of an oak tree that had grown limbs and blossomed in a new era. … They made the choice to move on. Illinois made the choice to hang on to coal.”

As an author, Biggers seeks to “raise the dead,” to honor the lives of miners, backwoods Baptists, salt well slaves and more – all those whose influential pasts in many ways have been removed by the land-altering shovels of strip mining.

Reckoning at Eagle Creek, The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, by Jeff Biggers. Nation Books, New York. 300 pages, $26.95. Widely available in Springfield-area bookstores and online at Amazon.com.
In detailing his own discoveries, Biggers threads together images of faces imbedded with bits of coal, homes buckled by planned mining blasts and historical cemeteries wholly disregarded by the big names in energy – Peabody, Massey and Sinclair. Readers are also treated to meetings with such real-life characters as would-be millionaire Tenney Tarlton, who, bombarded by ever-encroaching strip mining practices, retreats to the most untouchable woods, and Gary DeNeal, a backwoods country publisher with a penchant for the unconventional and “a deep cracker-barrel desire to reconcile his lifelong struggle for a sense of place in one of the most enigmatic but scorned places in our country.”

Like DeNeal, the story of the southern Illinois coalfields is complex, and Biggers uses such characters to reveal the dual natures of the industry, the area and its people. Tales of bootleggers’ success during prohibition and bloody family feuds considered disgraceful to the rest of the state contrast with the lesser-known tales of Baptists vehemently campaigning against slavery and Eagle Creek moonshiners opening fire on the Ku Klux Klan. Necessarily, Biggers’ scope reaches far beyond coal – from the salt mines, the region’s first economic driver, to native American burial grounds and bootlegging gangsters – to provide a better understanding of coal’s impact and development in the region, the nation and the world.

Though obviously anti-coal, Biggers is sympathetic to the coal miner. He reminds readers of mining’s history of disaster, death and war, as miners led the charge for unionization and pleaded for their lives through letter after letter to past governors and regulatory agencies. In translating the cold numbers of miners’ deaths into sorrowful stanzas of family, friends and neighbors lost, Biggers creates an opportunity to sway even those in the middle of coal country against continued exploitation of resources.

Biggers’ descriptions of the strip mining practices that wrecked his family’s historic homestead paint a gross picture of destruction, but one that would seem exaggerated except for the inclusion of his family’s photographs of Eagle Creek as strip mining took over. The addition of folk songs and poetry excerpts further highlight the multi-faceted reality of a coal-centric life in southern Illinois.

Biggers currently lives in western Illinois. Winner of the American Book Award for The United States of Appalachia: How southern mountaineers brought independence, culture and enlightenment to America, Biggers has worked as a writer, radio correspondent and educator in the U.S., Europe, India and Mexico. He regularly blogs for Huffington Post and Grist.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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