6%

The general humidity level in Brasstown, North Carolina this fall was 6%. We didn’t even know what 6% felt like. This was a rain forest. Books would become water damaged sitting on the kitchen table in the summer. Mold would grow on the leather boots sitting in the closet in June. It rained every day in July and August. My father kept a dehumidified closet in the basement for his instruments. He never managed to get the humidity down to 6%

6%

6% means that the remnants of a charcoal grill chucked out back cause a 200 acre brush-fire the night before Thanksgiving. 6% means families don’t know where they’ll spend Thanksgiving, or if they’ll have a home anymore tomorrow. 6% means boys playing with matches up on the mountain burns half a city and kills at least 9.

6%

When they finally realized it was boys playing with matches on Chimney Top, the comments section of the news articles mock the “stupid inbred hillbillies” for doing this to themselves. We used to burn our land. Every autumn, once the harvest had been gathered in, people would wait until the fall weather brought a rare week with no rain, and would light the fields up. It was God’s fertilizer. Often getting the land to burn at all was a struggle, it was still so wet. Putting it out was never an issue. Finding wood that was dry enough to burn always was. As a child I emptied the charcoal grill out back most days in the summer. We never worried. We never had to.

6%

Asthma rates were always appalling in the valley. To us it was normal. Asthma was something everyone had when they were young, like chicken pox, and that most “grew out of.” I suspect the reality is that most simply stopped running. 6% means the valley spent months choked with smoke. Students passed out sitting in class the air quality was so bad. The students having to be taken to the emergency room because the fires made the air in their classrooms toxic didn’t make the national news. Neither has the asthma epidemic. But as soon as a few sunsets in Atlanta were ruined, suddenly the New York Times was interested. How many babies will be born with damaged lungs in 2017? How many children will never breath right again? How many of them will wind up interviewed by the national media for an expose on the linkage of climate change and health crises in southern Appalachia? How many will be scoffed at by wealthy, educated, northern, suburban liberals as being just a bunch of lazy, fat, inbred, ignorant hillbillies?

6%

Water was everywhere. We’d joke about needing gills in the summer. Sometimes it would rain just because the air got too heavy. The soil was always moist, black, crawling, alive. The leaves dripped. There were lichens growing on the moss. Water ran in seasonal creeks in the ditches, turned our sports fields into marshes, formed vernal pools in almost every depression in the ground. The mountains were named from the thick fogs and mists constantly wreathing them. There were spirits in the hollers, and fairies in the river bottoms. 6% doesn’t believe in fairies. The number of rivlets, springs, and creeks would have been impossible to number. How many are gone forever? Like any rainforest, we abounded in micro ecosystems and biodiversity. 6% means many of those species have been wiped from the planet. This fall I marched in solidarity with hundreds for Standing Rock and wept as I chanted “Water is life with them.” 6% is death.

6%

The big corporations come in, steal land from the people living on it, employ them at criminal “wages” in criminal working conditions, strip them of their traditional land use… 6% started with blasting. 6% started with the strip mining. 6% came with the mountain top removal. They break our bodies to brutalize our mountains, dump their carcasses in the rivers to poison us, poison their sisters, haul their innards up to other poor, forgotten communities, and burn them to power your Lincoln Center and your Las Vegas and your MIT labs and your “city that never sleeps,” and the gas from the plants is carried back to the mountains. Our mountains return home to their sisters in death, as ash, as smoke, as poison. They return as ghosts of their final rage in the flames of a plant in Ohio, of their longing as they are carted on trucks to be burned, as their pain at being wrenched and blasted apart. They return to punish indiscriminately those who inflicted this. But those who caused it, who left us with no choice, never have to face 6%. But they sure love singing along to “Paradise.”

6%

6% means when the rains finally come, they will be deadly. As in any rain forest, the soil was thin. The trees held it in place, created the conditions that allowed everything to thrive. And 6% means they’re gone and there’s nothing to hold the soil. And when the humidity is no longer 6%, when the skies open, when everyone’s hair frizzes up and the air smells like rain, they will all run outside to welcome life from the heavens. Some will be singing hymns, or letting bible verses tumble from their lips, praising God. Some will just be laughing. Undoubtedly some in the tourist economy will still have the foolishness to curse the loss of a “beautiful day.” But 6% means that the rains won’t bring life. The charred, cracked earth will sigh, stretch, and then… slip. 6% will make catastrophic mudslides that can take out an entire trailer park in a night the new normal. How many of us will die, in the coming years, for these crimes? Will anyone care? Or will they go on singing “Paradise” next fall when once again the humidity plummets to

6%

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