University of Kentucky author captures national attention with 'Lost Mountain'

Erick Reece's year-long look at the destruction of a Kentucky mountain

After spending a year watching Lost Mountain change from a dense, glorious ecosystem to barren land, Erik Reece's soul was stirred to respond to the loss with his first book "Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia." The book was released nation-wide Feb. 2.

Reece, University of Kentucky English lecturer, is known for his powerful essays on political topics such as strip mining and religion. In "Lost Mountain" Reece observes the systematic obliteration of a peak located in the middle of what scientists regard as the North American rainforest because of its remarkable density and diversity of plants, birds, and animals. The mountain was also situated in Eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest places in the country, where coal mining has been virtually the only industry for more than a century.

"To know about strip mining or mountaintop removal is like knowing about the nuclear bomb. It is to know beyond doubt that some human beings have, and are willing to use, the power of absolute destruction," writes Wendell Berry in the foreword. "It is a superb job of reporting, and we have it at the cost of the effort, grief, and risk involved in observing from beginning to end the process of the industrial destruction of a mountain and the ruin of its watersheds. No other reporter has had the perseverance and the guts to do a respectable fraction of what Mr. Reece has done."

Reece, who grew up in Kentucky and whose father worked in the mining industry, makes it clear in "Lost Mountain" that strip-mining is neither a local concern nor a radical contention, but a mainstream crisis that encompasses every hot-button issue – from corporate conflict and poisoned groundwater, to irrevocable species extinction and landscape destruction. "Lost Mountain" aims to shape the national debate about what Reece considers to be one of the most serious and devastating environmental crises facing our nation.

Reece was inspired to write about strip mining and the Appalachian environment after serving as co-director of the Summer Environment Writing Program (SEWP) at the UK-owned, 10,000-acre E.O. Robinson Forest in Southeastern Kentucky.

"Being in Robinson Forest and seeing it surrounded by devastation made me realize I couldn't just write about the beauty of the forest without writing about what is threatening it," Reece said.

Since 2003, Reece has taken a group of 10-15 UK students to Robinson Forest for a four-week experiential writing class. Students write essays, poetry and journal entries while hiking, canoeing and exploring the wilderness. They also have the opportunity to experience activities such as flying squirrel trapping, all while earning six hours of college credit. In order to become immersed in the culture, students also go on field trips to the surrounding Appalachian communities where they see first hand the results of strip mining.

"It's an incredibly diverse, natural environment, yet the fact that it is so threatened makes it a rich environment for learning," Reece said.

Prominent regional writers, such as Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Gurney Norman and David Orr, also visit the forest to take part in the program. The 2006 program runs from June 25 to July 23.

"Going into the forest for a month puts you in a different place where you don't have urban distractions," Reece said. "You leave the forest a different person."

To learn more about SEWP, visit www.uky.edu/AS/English/courses/sewp.

Reece, who has taught writing courses at UK since 1999, recently won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism awarded by Columbia University in New York for his essay "Death of a Mountain." The essay appeared prominently in the April 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, one of the leading literary magazines in the country. His main focus at UK is non-fiction writing including nature, travel and personal essay.

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