BEHIND THE BOOK
Black Diamonds: A Childhood Colored by Coal
A CONVERSATION WITH CATHERINE YOUNG
We sat down with author Catherine Young to talk about the inspiration for her literary memoir of place, growing up among extractive industry, and sharing stories as a resource to help future generations.
Torrey House Press: Hi Catherine! We're thrilled that Black Diamonds is now available everywhere. Let's jump right in to discussing the book. Black Diamonds is a literary memoir, with reflections of place, art, and extractive industry. What events or people inspired you to write your book?
Catherine Young: When my first child was young, I began telling him stories of where I come from—a place that no longer exists—a place that disappeared within the first ten years of my life. Within the timeframe between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, a way of life vanished, and a city diminished as it burned down and fell into the mines. This was an astonishing time to be a child. I grew up in the 19th century, with people who held onto ways of life no longer existing in Europe and America. As mining ended, and as my elders passed away very quickly in the 1960s, a damaged city, mine waste, and collieries were abandoned. Once I began telling the stories to my first child, they rose thick and fast, and I had to catch them and get them down on paper before they too, vanished.
THP: That's really powerful—to be raising a child, and to meanwhile be reflecting on your childhood. Can you tell us more about how you think landscape and environment shaped you as a child?
Catherine: As a child, I watched my coal mining city burn above and below ground. The air was saturated with smoke, and when it rained, we breathed sulfuric acid. There was a post in the New York Times in about 1964 that documented our reality as having the most poisonous area in the country, that in one fog inversion, paint peeled from cars, and laundry hung out to dry for a few hours came back in with holes as if moth-eaten. Having grown up in the devastated extractive environment of coal mining in the valley where the Industrial Revolution began in North America, I experienced firsthand the stress of economic and educational poverty while witnessing poverty of spirit. Keeping people from meeting their needs creates desperation which pushes them to destructive behaviors for earth and for one another.
As a child in a coal mining valley on the first Earth Day, I knew the environmental movement was where I belonged. I chose my educational path toward sciences, always focusing on ecology and story of place. I have discovered in my long life so far that to inspire, to activate stewardship, my work has to engage with art—that human beings need to express and be heard, and that this is a way forward to reconnecting with earth and spirit and one another. Concern for earth, spirit, and society are infused in all the work that I have achieved over the past forty-five years.
THP: Who were your role models as a child? And who are your role models now?
Catherine: I grew up among many old relatives and neighbors who were immigrants having fled losses in Europe and who sought a better life. I listened to the stories of their struggles and their hopes. I learned to listen to people stories and our histories to understand survival and what we can do better. I learned that stories and storytelling are essential features of being human.
My writing has been greatly influenced by Aldo Leopold, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Robin Wall Kimmerer. I have the great honor of having one of my pieces selected for an anthology among these heroes. I also love the deeply thoughtful science-driven spiritually-shaken writing of Annie Dillard and Loren Eisley. I was mentored by the environmental writer, former NBC producer and author of the memoir The Land Remembers Ben Logan—who had also influenced Aldo Leopold’s writing of A Sand County Almanac. I am grateful for and inspired by the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer whose gratitude permeates everything she does.
THP: We’ve recently started to talk about Torrey House Press's work as “books the world needs.” What are your hopes and dreams for Black Diamonds now that it is published?
Catherine: Black Diamonds is a personal story of the destruction created by the use of fossil fuels, and it is a testament to the need for environmental stewardship through renewable energy. I would like Black Diamonds to be read again and again, gaining attention and accruing notoriety. Like A Sand County Almanac did, I hope this book will inspire a chapter in the Ecology/Environmental Movement—this chapter to eliminate fossil fuel use and hidden valleys of production. I would like Black Diamonds used in school classrooms and places of higher education across North America to initiate discussions of choices we can make to meet needs and the consequences of haste. The story of how industrialism began is an essential piece of our history and can be a tool as we prepare the healing for the next seven generations.
I would like readers to consider that often the histories we are told, or that are put into books or media, are shaped and limited, and that we must seek a broader perspective. The toxicity of my place of origin remains in the soil and in the thinking. We must understand how extractive economies are the epitome of colonization and how these economies pillage land, culture, and just and sustainable livelihood.
I would also like readers to come to the realization that we must consider where we come from and how we have gotten to the difficulties of this point in time. I would want each of us to consider the choices we and our elders have made, along with the ones our country has made, in order to move forward and heal our earth.
"I wish to listen to and collect stories from the Lackawanna Valley as a resource for those in coming generations. I’m inspired to look ahead to the coming generations."
THP: Black Diamonds is perhaps the THP book we can tie most to western art history, via your lens on the George Inness painting The Lackawanna Valley, which currently hangs in the National Gallery of Art. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the title for the book? And for the book design?
Catherine: I knew the title of the book early on because I’ve always been fascinated by landscapes and color. I also knew that it would be a book told in the form of a series of portraits. I’ve used the sensorial memory of my childhood as the basis for the book, and I framed it with my essays about my obsession with the George Inness painting. With help from THP, I created a museum in the form of a book. Just like in a museum, there are artifacts and portraits that become windows into other worlds. In viewing a piece of art or an object, a museum visitor must find the connection between what’s displayed and its larger story. Black Diamonds is an invitation to a journey of images and stories that cycle round and round, and I hope for the readers there is delight in visiting these galleries.
THP: If you could put a copy into the hands of anyone in the world, who would you want to read Black Diamonds?
Catherine: I would want a copy of Black Diamonds to be given to each citizen in my country, but most especially President Joe Biden who is a local to the Lackawanna Valley and who could use this story and history as part of his work in supporting green technologies for America.
THP: Why did you choose to publish this book with Torrey House Press?
Catherine: I sought a literary publisher who would understand Black Diamonds as a work of environmental literature and memoir of place. I also saw that Torrey House Press works for diversity among its writers and stories, promotes social justice, and grows conversations for stewardship of the planet.
THP: Why do you write?
Catherine: As a disabled artist, a human made of water, I recognize that I am a part of everything on this Earth. And I have a responsibility to consider the Earth’s patterns for sustainability. I write to initiate change to reframe destructive, disruptive, paradigms. I wish to work with like and differently-spirited artist-activist-scholars to converse, create, and serve as resource to one another as we broadcast and seed ways to reimagine human culture and resource use.
There are many hidden hands and hearts in many places across our planet. It is time to consider where things come from and how everyone’s needs are served. Learn the place where you are. Learn its geography, Indigenous histories, and colonial histories.
It took us over seven generations from the time of fossil fuel dependency toreach the point where we are now. I believe we can turn it around; we can heal the damage we have done to the Earth and all of its people and creatures, but it’s going to take working together, reevaluating our needs, and taking the time to make decisions that allow many voices and perspectives to be heard.
THP: Do you still live in the Lackawanna Valley? What can you say about Black Diamonds and its ties to the climate crisis?
Catherine: I live in the Midwest, east of the Mississippi River. But worldwide, environmental concerns are the same. We need to have clean air, water. We need to curb or eliminate extractive economies and instead work towards sustainability. We need to stop obtaining and using fossil fuels which are destructive to the people, the living soil, the land, water, the air, and indeed our earth’s climate. In my memoir writing, including Black Diamonds, I present the hard realities of the people who participate in the extraction and use of fossil fuel—particularly coal. Nowhere is the system of this extraction and “production” not abusive.
THP: It’s been years since you lived in Scranton. How would you describe your relationship with your hometown today?
Through conversations about Black Diamonds with people in the Lackawanna Valley, I am rediscovering my home city, and I hope the book opens a window to the stories of those of us still alive who lived when the coal trains still ran in the mine fires burned.
THP: Where do you write? And what's been feeding you these days?
Catherine: I’ve written in many places at home and far away at any time of day or night because I’m a mother and a farmer and writer. I treasure writing outdoors at my home in rural Wisconsin on a balcony or under a canopy or by the spring creek no matter the weather or time of year. I am inspired all the time and honor passing inspirations by making notes—sometimes rising from sleep.
I feel a sense of urgency in the protection of the hills where I live which comprise what I believe is the will of the largest freshwater resource in North America. I am composing music and writing about water. I am also developing a book about raising, preserving and cooking food from the land including traditions from my Appalachian heritage and my Midwestern rural home. And I wish to listen to and collect stories from the Lackawanna Valley as a resource for those in coming generations. I’m inspired to look ahead to the coming generations.