I grew up in rural East Tennessee, where one of our biggest claims to fame was being the place where the movie “October Sky” was filmed. The blue hills and forests of my home painted the backdrop of the 1999 film, and my gym coach even boasted that he’d played an extra in one of the crowd scenes.
Screenshot from the 1999 movie October Sky, the blue hills of East Tennessee in the background.
For those of you who haven’t seen “October Sky,” the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal. His character decides to build rockets rather than become a coal miner like his father. I watched the movie over and over again as a kid, mesmerized by my hills, my trees and my rivers flashing across the screen. It was a strange thing to see my home through the eyes of the rest of the country — beautiful and green, thick-accented and centered around coal.
Though the film took place in West Virginia in the 1950’s, as a kid, I felt uncomfortable with the knowledge that when the rest of the country pictured my home, they saw a place of danger and soot, where coal mining cast a shadow over our valleys. The scenes of dusty coal miners with flashlights on their hardhats crawling through mine shafts or disappearing down creaking elevators into the Earth always sent a shiver up my spine.
This is what I think of when I hear the phrase “coal country.” It’s probably similar to what a lot of us picture: Old coal towns in the rural South, their sweeping hills and valleys over dark, dangerous mines. I was born in a town similar to the one portrayed in the movie, where coal gons roared down the railroad tracks outside my house.
The film was shot in Tennessee, but America’s coal history actually started in Virginia, where miners first worked beneath the Richmond Basin in the 19th century. Since then, “coal country” has expanded to include West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and beyond, painting stories like the one depicted in “October Sky” across rural America.
A map of coal fields in the United States, via the United States Geological Survey. See here for detail.
Like its trailblazing days more than a century ago, Virginia is once again birthing an energy image for the Southeast. But this time, the commonwealth has taken a position in the clean energy vanguard.
On April 11, 2020, Virginia became the seventh state — and the first in the South — to “go 100 percent,” by committing itself to meeting all its energy needs from clean and renewable sources of energy.
Virginia’s announcement is a big step forward for “coal country.” But the state is not alone. Kentucky plans to install its largest solar farm yet in 2022, which, when completed, will be in the top 2 percent of solar plants in the country. Cities like Atlanta, Georgia, Arlington, Virginia, and Louisville, Kentucky, have also made commitments to 100 percent clean energy. Even the Kentucky Coal Museum has solar panels on its roof.
The South has long been defined by its coal fields hidden beneath blue mountains. But like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “October Sky,” the region is now refusing to remain within the confines of others’ expectations, daring to envision something greater. Locals have set their sights on a brighter, better future that doesn’t lie in dark caves beneath the hills, but in the sun shining on our rivers and the wind sweeping through our valleys.
Over the past few weeks, while celebrating Virginia’s work toward a cleaner, safer renewable energy future, I’ve had a similar feeling to one I experienced sitting in front of the TV as a kid, watching movie lights dance on my rivers and hills. Once again, I’m seeing my region through the eyes of the country.
This time, I like what I see.