Brandon Nida is fighting to save a mountain. In Appalachia where coal is king, underground mining of the past is being phased out in deference to a radical technology known as “mountaintop removal”. Between Nida and victory lies coal rich Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia.
Nida is something of an enigma. A Berkeley archaeology and anthropology student, he is proud of his hillbilly roots. Nida, currently doing his doctoral research in his native West Virginia, is a board member of Friends of Blair Mountain (FBM).
FBM is a grassroots organization opposing mountaintop removal (MTR) which involves the clear cutting of mountain ridges. Hundreds of vertical feet of soil and rock are blasted away to expose coal seams. The removed material – called ‘overburden’ – is then dumped in adjacent valleys strangling waterways and destroying wildlife habitat. MTR, according to Nida, is “absolutely devastating.” “The impact on the landscape, ecology
, human health and traditional life ways in Appalachia…has galvanized a really vibrant movement,” says Nida.
Nida’s own form of political engagement ranges from “shooting the breeze” with locals to “straight out organiz
ing of community meetings and rallies.” Nida was instrumental in organizing a major march on Blair Mountain in June 2011. The march, which garnered attention internationally, retraced the route of miners in 1921 who were marching to get better treatment from the coal mine owners.
Working from a donated structure, a former Baptist Church, Nida is attempting to get the Blair Mountain battleground onto the National Registry of Historic Places. Achieving this designation would protect the site from MTR and recognize the site for its place in labor history. The site was added to the registry in 2009, but was almost immediately de-listed due to the political clout of the West Virginia coal industry.
The Blair Mountain battlefield is fertile ground for Nida. Interested in more than just dry statistics of a battle fought almost one hundred years ago, he feels he’s working to illuminate the social relations that shaped the lives of his grandparents.
“There, up to 10,000 coal miners faced (and were ultimately defeated by) sheriff’s deputies, a private army and aerial bombardment in a five-day armed conflict. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the culmination of the largest labor insurrection in U.S. history,” Nida notes, “…and ended only when three regiments of federal troops interceded on President Harding’s authority.”
The battlefield Nida is working to save stretches for more than 10 miles and includes 15 archaeological sites. Together, trained and amateur archaeologists have found more than a thousand artifacts from the face off including firearms, spent ammunition, carbide lamps, coins and buttons and even a combatant’s lost boot.
Although not a trained battlefield archaeologist, Nida says a careful study of artifacts from the mountain top battle, and the terrain where the artifacts have been buried, speaks to the dynamics and fierceness of the fight.
“Locals are keenly interested not only in archaeological finds,” Nida notes, “but in firearms, thanks to the region’s tradition of subsistence hunting and its history of coalfield violence. A gun or an unusual shell casing is an immediate ice-breaker,” he says.
After graduating from high school, Nida served three years in the airborne infantry and can hold his own when talking about guns and bullets.
“The actual assemblage is really, really interesting,” Nida says of shell casings discovered at the battleground. “In that period of munitions manufacturing, there was lots of variety, interesting calibers.” Poverty-stricken miners, he speculates, got their hands on some of these bullets and guns by stealing them from the company store.
“Uncovering the system of exploitation that’s been in place here for 120 years is a very liberating thing,” Nida says. “It’s very potent and it resonates.”
As a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, Nida, 31, is something of an anomaly in the rural West Virginia coalfields. His philosophy, he says, is “not to forget where I’m from and how I was raised.”
“Appalachia is a knowledge-laden culture,” he says. “There’s so much knowledge among regular people.” So his approach is not “I’m a Berkeley doctoral student and have all the answers,” but that he now has skills — analytical tools, critical thinking and computer skills — of potential use in Appalachia as it struggles to turn the corner on the worst of its past and create a more diversified and sustainable economy.
The general consensus of those fighting to end mountaintop removal and save Blair Mountain is that Nida is uniquely suited to the task.
Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to The Huffington Postand OpEdNews as well as a weekly guest on national radio. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Logan County West Virginia, site of The March on Blair Mountain.
Nelson’s book, OccupyDC: As I See It has been called, “The most thorough photographic documentation of the Occupy Movement in Washington DC”.
CLICK HERE to see more of Nelson’s work or to hire him for a shoot.