A Slow-Dying Ecosphere: Ann Pancake’s West Virginia (4/25/11)

30 Sep

Ecocriticism, a rather new and exciting school of literary analysis, emerged as a response to the green movement for a better environment. While Pancake deals mainly with toxic consciousness, as Strange as This Weather Has Been highlights apocalyptic themes in criticism of post-industrialism, other texts have ignored nature altogether. In response to this, Ecocriticism seeks to dethrone the power of humans and our culture over nature. In belief that nature is not only beneficial but essential to human life and spiritual advancement, Pancake breaks down West Virginian geography and exposes how the mining industry has not only adversely effected nature physically but spiritually as well.

            Deviating from Pancake’s central family, she showcases two characters extremely conflicted and confused in their relationship to nature. Mogey’s obvious spiritual magnetism to nature is originally very confusing and disheartening to him. “What scared me was the trees that are slow-dying. You don’t really notice, that’s why it’s scariest, until one day it just dawns on you… The scariest is when things are lost before you know you’re losing,” (176). He’s losing his spiritual health as the mining company rips through the landscape, but he also feels this shame in the fact that he feels more faithfully at home in nature than in church. “Although I have been a Christian all my life, I have never felt in church a feeling anyplace near where I get in the woods,” (168). Mogey describes his house as having been damaged throughout the dynamite blasting in the mines, including cracking his foundation and cutting his porch in two. He explains that runoff builds up in the middle of the roads in his hollow and that something deep down in his gut tells him never to go near that “grey foreign junk” (177).

            As these events begin to wear Mogey down, nature itself is being sacrificed for the supposed good of man. In what’s often a means of commodifying the land, humans have destroyed the mountains in these areas in an attempt to attain and sell the coal deposits underneath. In drilling and throwing dynamite or more devastating explosives into these holes, these mining companies destroy ecosystems and devastate the ecosphere. During the explosions, there’s so much water pressure underground that it barrels up from the drilled hole like a geyser and ravages the landscape, raising rivers and streams to help in the destruction. In a sense, we make nature a weapon against itself, and for West Virginians so prideful of their homeland, the humans that did once at least appreciate nature are now harmed by its state of being. Lace’s father dies of the black lung, literally with earth clogging his airways. Mogey has a dream where a deer walks up to him on a grassy plain, and “she shelled her head open. It just fell open in easy halves. As she did it, there spilled out and over me this light a color of green I’d never seen before…I guess you’d call it the peace that passeth understanding,” (180). In this dream, Mogey is approached by a physical representation of nature and overwhelmed by “green,” which I view as representing the “Green movement,” beckoning for him to save the dying geography around him.

            While Mogey is going through a spiritual crisis with nature versus man and organized religion, Pancake decides to give Mrs. Taylor’s son, Avery, a very long chapter of his own where he describes the physical side of the turmoil. In his story of Buffalo Creek flooding the area, Avery’s voice is somewhat similar to Bant’s in that he’s obsessed with the physical oddities around the area. “Avery, near delirious with exhaustion and homesickness, watching how the brush tries to cover the mess. Watches the vegetation, an obscenity or grace, vining over ruined industry and failed farms,” (239). Avery continues after these lines to ramble instances of man’s often metallic and chemical presence against the will of a starving nature. Bant rants very similar to this in her sections, eyes caught on foreign metal protruding from the earth, barns and refineries left destroyed and abandoned, etc. In a very real sense, Pancake seeks to expose the toxic consciousness of the West Virginian landscape. No matter what nature does to grow over or grow through these obstructions, the landscape is skewed much like the characters relationships to that landscape. “This sacrifice of land, what he stands in now, is nothing new, it has been regularly slaughtered for well over a hundred years, Avery learned that, too, the whole region had been killed at least once,” (238). So, as these characters are forced to recognize a type of tree or plant that no longer grows or the ever-darkening color of the streams, the reader is forced to recognize nature as the penultimate victim of development and capitalism.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Scholarly Essays/Responses


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