Voices from the Coal Face

We are excited to announce the publication of our twentieth book, available now from our online shop. This year's special issue is an all colour collection of prose, poetry and stunning artwork that delves into the subject of extractivism. Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing a selection of pieces from its pages. Today, Paul Feather speaks directly from the Thacker Pass lithium protest camp in Nevada and Erika Howsare from the coal and fracking legacy of Pennsylvania. With performance still by Jaime Black.
Paul's writing owes much to the good sense and insight of Terra Currie. They live together with their daughter in the piedmont of southern Appalachia. Erika grew up in Washington County, Pennsylvania, US, and now lives in the Blue Ridge of Virginia. She’s published two books of poetry and is currently at work on a non-fiction book about the relationship between people and deer, to be published in 2024.

Go Down Swinging

You are wise to collect your wits, and there’s no shame in running away. There are not  so many refuges left.

It is good to find refuge in these books of stories: something that makes sense when not much else does. We need these stories to understand why there are machines out there killing just about everything. Digging everything up. And we need these stories to understand how it came to be that we’re part of that killing. Why it is that the words in our minds and the food in our bodies and the  things we touch and the way we spend our time are all so very deadly. It’s hard to know what to do with that; you can’t look at it straight on at first. No, not at first. And yet, we should remember that this refuge of words is a privilege, and that it isn’t bound to last. It’s a luxury to wonder how we got this way and what to do about it. This is nothing to be ashamed of. We are outspent and outgunned. We do well to hide and wonder.

But while we hide among our stories, the killing and the digging goes on. There are other refuges not made of words but of sagebrush or forest or water and rock, and they are falling one after another. And when the stories have all been told and the fortnights drag on, don’t you grow tired of hearing the digging of that great machine? And don’t you know that every bit of Earth that it digs up makes it stronger and makes us weaker?

And don’t you know that we must one day don the armour we have forged in this refuge made of words to stand in a refuge made of place? Stand. Go down swinging if that’s what it takes.

That’s what it takes.

I am standing in one of these places now: the high desert of a mountain pass, a  beleaguered refuge of old-growth sagebrush, eagles, and forgotten tongues.

Words do not stop bulldozers

Have you your wits about you now? Have you caught your breath and summoned the steadfast faith that is our only shield against this onslaught? There’s something a Navajo woman told me, but wait! – do we need another story? Maybe. Maybe some of us do, and so I will tell you what this woman told me, but I’d like to ask you first: how will you know when storytime is over?

These refuges will not hold.

You don’t need to know so very much

The natural world and future generations do not have rights, and corporations do. It’s really that simple. To say that our legal system exists to protect corporations that accumulate wealth by extracting minerals and murdering both land and water is a gross  understatement. The law mandates this destruction. It is a mathematical formula, an a priori, a physical requirement. If you are not breaking the law, normalising the breaking of laws, or enabling others to break the law, you are on the wrong side of the law. The wrong side of life. Enough.

It is still possible to flee – for some of us – but maybe not for long.

Refuges remain.

Protect them.


The woman picks up a handful of dust from the ground beside the fire. This dust has been blowing in my face all day and lies thick over the plastic tables that hold cookware, bottles of water and bags of fruit. We are sitting behind plywood windbreaks, but the heat doesn’t reach far from the fire. She shows me the handful of dust and assures me that it is sacred. Every mote.

Indeed, there are no unsacred places.

‘If someone doesn’t know this,’ she says, ‘that we are here to protect the Earth, that this is the meaning of our existence,’ she says, ‘they are bound to become confused and lost,’ she tells me as we stand here to block the people who will come with machines and guns to murder this mountain for the lithium under our feet.

In this place there is little respite from the wind, but fish once thought extinct still spawn in mountain streams; and birds with nowhere else to go still make their nests; and stories that give ancient people ancient claim to an ancient place can still be told in the place where they happened.

They will come to kill this place with their machines and their guns so they can ship the ore to Reno to make batteries for electric cars and money for billionaires. We will stand here when they come. We’ll stand or go down swinging here at Thacker Pass.

I am standing under a high desert sky where there are no trees and no lights. There are stars.

Many more words will just get in the way

– Paul Feather


The Breaker Boy

My mother’s grandfather was a breaker boy.

Pennsylvania. Bituminous.
You do what you gotta do.
With your beautiful body.
With your eight-year-old body.
Lean over the chute as the raw coal passes.
You sort it.
For the casting of iron objects such as cannon.
With your child’s boots you stop the flow of geology.
Ten hours a day, six days a week.
With your savage body you break it into types.
Rock, slate, sulphur, ash (they called it ‘bone’), clay, soil.
Or seeds, fossils, nests.
Picking out the slate. Darkness from darkness.
With your threatened fingers you divert the conveyor belt.
With your cold lungs.
They wore lamps on their heads to see through the coal dust.
This would have been forty to fifty cents a day, would have been 1890s, maybe.
Maybe seeing amputations by conveyor belt.
With your bloody fingertips from the passing angles. A trick:
Piss on your hands to toughen them up.
You learn what you gotta learn.
With your hearing damaged, with your unforgiving wooden seat above the chute.
With your back deformed from hunching, having come off the farm, dreaming of ‘moving up’ to mine work.
James Campbell, father of Mary and two others.
Maybe seeing a boy get crushed and his body left in the gears until the end of the day.
With your memory you blacken this.
So production would not stop.
Black lung.
Or a body ground into pieces in the coal crusher. Nine-year-old, ten-year-old.
You hit what you gotta hit.
Creating a fracture network.
A trick: As coal people we evolve.
My brother’s friends are fracking men.
Pennsylvania. Marcellus.
Map: A thick clot of wells. A dark brown colour.
A production graph angles up like a coal chute.
Driving to the site.
Class II injection wells store salt water and other fluids produced.
That the land is entered. That the bodies are extracted into trucks.
This is maybe since 2009.
You take what you gotta take.
With your mixture of sand, water, proprietary chemicals.
My mother’s neighbours are fracking women.
With your hand you sign the lease. The hill is soon converted to a well pad.
A friend who decided to apply: Mechanical aptitude, a willingness to work long hours.
Thousands of jobs created directly or indirectly or induced by the hive of wells.
Talking on the phone, planning to fish on the weekend. Happen to live in the densest part of Marcellus. Racking up overtime.
Washington County. 1,146 wells, more than one per square mile,
number one fracking county in PA.
‘Six figures’.
The acquisition, the mixing, the injection, the collection, the management.
To listen to the frack thrum under the hill where you sleep. So production does not stop.
To build plants, high-pressure pumping equipment, helping to make the holes, truck the pipe, truck the three types of water, truck the drilled gas.
A rural place remains in the interstices of a factory. We say coalfield, gasfield.
A trick: Time and a half, that $22 an hour becomes $33.
Having grown up not poor but drained. You feel like you might be doing better.
A well pad out the window and pipeline and water trucks.
A friend who fixes drilling equipment. A friend who moves earth.
Neighbours who accept the offer.
With your insured hands you drive the trucks hauling water.
Just to get outside.
Map: Well sites arcing softly lower left to upper right,
along the ripples of the old formation.
Magic is deep underground.
All you have to do is let them use your land. And drink city water.
Meaning: You gotta know when to fold ’em.
With your injection you reach another level. A graph angling up.
Coal or gas is a way to expand.
Believable. Easier. It’s printed right on your check.
With your drained hands you spend it, with your worn hills you sell it.
Carbon on the lashes, methane in the firmament.
Coal or gas is a way to warm up.

– Erika Howsare


IMAGE: they tried to bury us by Jaime Black
Performance still

Jaime Black is a multidisciplinary artist of mixed Anishinaabe and European descent who lives and works in Winnipeg, Canada. Black’s practice engages in themes of memory, identity, place and
resistance and is grounded in an understanding of the body and the land as sources of cultural and
spiritual knowledge. jaimeblackartist.com


To celebrate Dark Mountain 20’s release, do join us for an online launch on Thursday 21st October starting at 19:00 BST. 

Order Dark Mountain: Issue 20- ABYSS from our website for £19.99 (plus postage) – or take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain and receive Issue 20 for £11.99.


Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.


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