Almost heaven? For some, it feels more like purgatory.

Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.

Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.

All my memories gather round her, miner’s lady, stranger to blue water.

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky, misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.

I hear her voice in the morning hour she calls me, the radio reminds me of my home far away.

And driving down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads

 John Denver, Taffy Nivert, and Bill Danoff, on his 1971 breakout album, Poems, Prayers, and Promises.

Want a West Virginian, regardless of age, caste or gender, to break into song? Just a hum a bar or two of this iconic John Denver tune. Its provenance is fascinating, as you’ll learn from the link, and its uptake by West Virginians is enthusiastic and virtually total. The University of West Virginia uses it for occasions of every stripe. So does the state legislature[1].

The music and the lyrics strike a responsive chord in the hearts of all Americans, regardless of the state we call home. That’s because the state it calls us to is not just a geospatial location but a rather state of mind. It evokes the Earth as unspoiled environment that stirs our soul as nothing else can: Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze... and maybe suggests we lost a little something when we started constructing the virtual environment most of us live in today.

Then there’s the concatenation miner’s lady, stranger to blue waters. For forty years these lyrics have reminded us that West Virginia is mountain country – mining country – and landlocked to boot, isolated from the ocean coastline that has shaped differently the culture and values and destiny of the states to the east.

But after this past week’s tragic chemical spill, West Virginians – and you and I, for that matter – might be excused for reading a little different meaning into those words.

For a summary, one of many, here’s some of what Ann Moore of Reuters reported on January 10:

Up to 300,000 West Virginia residents were told not to drink tap water on Friday after a chemical spill called its safety into question, and health officials said water in the affected area should only be used for flushing toilets and fighting fires.

“We don’t know that the water’s not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co, told a televised news conference. The company runs the state’s largest water treatment plant.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, and President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration on Friday. The spill forced the closure of schools and businesses in the state capital.

Tests were being done on the water, McIntyre said, but he could not say when it would be declared safe for normal use.

The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia’s capital and largest city, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water. Water carrying this chemical has an odor like licorice or anise, McIntyre said…

…The spill originated at Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said in a statement the company was still determining how much Crude MCHM had been released…

…Emergency workers and American Water distributed water to centers around the affected area. Residents formed long lines at stores and quickly depleted inventories of bottled water…

…The Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health Departments ordered the closure of all restaurants and schools receiving water from the West Virginia American Water company.

Schools also were closed in many counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas and Putnam.

The spill was discovered after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection received a report of a strange odor on Thursday morning and visited the Freedom Industries site, where they found a leaking storage unit, a spokeswoman for Governor Tomblin said.

The story will focus minds in the mining industry, in federal and state government, and across the public for some time. But it’s just the latest chapter in one of the 21st-century’s transcendental lead stories: belatedly emerging, unintended consequences of our quest for resources. The Freedom Industries event will find its place alongside the BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear power plant breakdown following the tsunami, and other tragedies. With each passing day, thousands of such stories are 24 hours closer to making tomorrow’s headlines.

That said, these problems are nothing that the seven billion members of the human race can’t handle, provided…

…provided that we view each such incident as a lesson to learn, and take to heart and act upon those lessons. Frankly, we do a better job with nuclear accidents, chemical catastrophes such as this one, and airplane crashes than we do from so-called natural disasters, where we tend to repeat our mistakes: rebuilding as before, subsidizing repetitive loss through both direct payments and inappropriately-priced insurance, and in many instances, doubling down by putting more property and lives at risk.

These days, thousands of West Virginians who’ve had to put their lives on hold are in our thoughts and prayers. We’re all hoping those country roads will be taking people home again soon.

Oh, and that magical music? You might want to give it a listen. Here’s one version.


[1]Failed to gain status as the state song, but it might as well be.

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