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Warren Wilson College Students Raise Funds to Support Mountain Top Removal Activist and Alumni Fern MacDougal

by Karlyn Hunt, staff writer

This August, Warren Wilson graduate Catherine-Ann “Fern” MacDougal ‘10 sat in a tree for 30 days to protect Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. This November students danced to save more mountains in Appalachia.

Activists participating in the tree-sit set up platforms in two trees on a mining site and refused to come down. Surface mining, a form of coal extraction that removes top layers of soil and rock from mountains, in the area was disrupted for almost a month, as continuing to blast off the mountain summit would have endangered protesters’ lives. The action was performed by the Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS) Campaign, a recently established group whose mission statement is to “fight for the survival of the land and people of Appalachia” through non-violent direct action.

Not everyone can sit in a tree for a month, but students have other ways of supporting Appalachian struggles. On Nov. 12, the Warren Wilson community offered its donations to RAMPS at a contra dance benefit called Dancing for Our Mountains. Over 40 people gathered in Bryson Gym, dancing to the tunes of student band Fine as Frog Hair.

Sophomore Eva Westheimer organized the fundraiser. Last spring semester, she went on a trip to Whitesville, West Virginia, with her interdisciplinary class Learning from Coal. It was in Whitesville—a town directly affected by surface mining—that she was introduced to the RAMPS campaign. After hearing a presentation about their work, Westheimer was immediately inspired.

“I saw how the coal industry is blowing up mountains, contaminating drinking water, and triggering floods,” recounts Westheimer. “It infuriates me, and I can’t live my life and know that this is happening without doing something about it.”

In June, Westheimer joined RAMPS and other organizations in the March on Blair Mountain. Protesters marched 50 miles over a five-day period to advocate preservation of Blair Mountain, the site of a historic battle in which coal miners struggled for better working conditions. The battlefield is now threatened by surface mining.

“I saw how the coal industry is blowing up mountains, contaminating drinking water and triggering floods. It infuriates me, and I can’t live my life and know that this is happening without doing something about it.”  -Eva Westheimer

During the school year, Westheimer finds alternative avenues to continue involvement with RAMPS and other Appalachian activist organizations from a distance.

“I can’t be on the ground in West Virginia right now, but it is within my power to organize a fundraiser at school,” she says.

Westheimer grew up in a “contra dance family,” which inspired the idea for Dancing for Our Mountains.

Sophomore Remaya Oboyski has also been a part of the contra community from a young age. Attending the benefit, she appreciated a connection between the dancing and its purpose.

“Folk dancing is a part of mountain culture, so it’s fitting to use an Appalachian tradition to raise awareness about the environmental dangers that are directly affecting this region,” Oboyski said.

Donations collected at Dancing for Our Mountains will help fund a campaign house for RAMPS activists, so the group may continue to combat these dangers. They are presently camping and staying as guests in another organization’s volunteer house.

“Some day maybe we’ll have Internet and phone access to get our work done, heat to keep our hands thawed, a kitchen to keep our bodies fed, and a common space so that everyone who wants to work on the campaign has a place to come, and everyone who is already working on the campaign has a place to be together and collaborate effectively,” MacDougal blogged last week.

Dancing for Our Mountains brought RAMPS $300 closer to purchasing their own headquarters.


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