Big Hog dug until the land was forsaken

Reckonings column by Della Mallette, May 4 Grand Forks Gazette.

A song can tell a story as well as any book, if penned by a good songwriter. Some songs bring environmental and social issues to light, and can at the very least bring an awareness of an issue to music lovers the world over. Paradise by John Prine is such a song.

Paradise is about Muhlenberg County in the State of Kentucky. Muhlenberg has been a major coal-producing region for the United States for many years; during most of the 1970s, Muhlenberg County annually produced more coal than anywhere else in the world.

Paradise is written by Prine for his father, and recorded for his 1971 debut album. Prine also re-recorded the song for a 1986 album, bringing the issue once again to the public consciousness.

The song is about the devastating impact of strip mining for coal, whereby the top layers of soil are blasted off with dynamite to reach the coal seam below.

Prine sang:

“When I was a child my family would travel

Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born

And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered

So many times that my memories are worn.


“Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel

And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land

Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.


“When I die let my ashes float down the Green River

Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam

I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’

Just five miles away from wherever I am.”


And the melancholy chorus:


“And Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County

Down by the Green River where paradise lay

Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

The shovel was nicknamed Big Hog. “This shovel weighs as much as a Navy cruiser, stands 20 stories high, and can pick up 300 tons of dirt and rocks, deliver it 450 feet away, and be ready for the next cut in 50 seconds,” wrote columnist Joe Creason in the Courier-Journal Sunday Magazine in 1965.

But paradise could be returning to Muhlenberg! Earlier this month, Peabody Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Some would say having a solid employer is more important than the environment, but that kind of thinking can have catastrophic consequences.

Health concerns from coal mining are well-documented: the potential for injury on the job is almost constant, the risk of respiratory damage a very real threat; hearing loss has been attributed to coal mining; low birth weights have been linked to communities that are located near mining facilities—the list goes on.

The environmental impact on the land is harsh. Wildlife and habitat is easily displaced or destroyed.

Sometimes you have to make choices. It’s now time to embrace a new era in Muhlenberg County.

I reckon I’m going to travel down to Western Kentucky one day, to stand by the Green River—where paradise lays.

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