Photo courtesy of Wendy Johnston
One Step Up: Keeping Larry’s Legacy
By: Rachel Parsons
In loving memory of Larry Gibson, 1946 – 2012
I’ve been involved in the movement to stop mountaintop removal for over three years now, which is a relatively small period of time when I think about the many people who’ve been involved for much longer. Fighting big coal has come to define me to such an extent that it feels like a lifetime since I first heard Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson speak. Judy and Larry were two coalfield residents whose words were more than just genuine; they were passionate and empowering.
Larry Gibson was a spunky little man who talked big, and it was not difficult to believe every word he said. I always believed that he would fight for the mountains until he took his last breath. People like Larry don’t just stop fighting for something when the fight gets too hard. Larry’s fight was always hard. Throwing his lot in with the “tree huggers” and refusing to sell the last remnants of his home on Kayford Mountain to the coal company meant that Larry made a lot of enemies.
People shot at his house, vandalized his property, poisoned and shot his dogs and threatened his life. The police ignored Larry’s problems, claiming that Larry lived in “No Man’s Land” on Kayford Mountain and that there was nothing they could do to help him. Despite this, Larry was not deterred. He never claimed to be a saint or anything of the sort, just a man who owed his life to Kayford Mountain, but there must have been some part of him with divine patience. How many people can claim that all those things, or even of those things, wouldn’t scare them away from their home?
If anyone wonders how bad the harassment of Larry Gibson really was, well, let me tell you a little story. It’s about a nineteen year old girl who went with her family to spend the Fourth of July with Larry and a large group of mountaintop removal protestors on Kayford Mountain for Larry’s annual Fourth of July festival. That nineteen year old girl was me and I was brand new to the movement. I’d met Larry a couple of times before but didn’t know him well. He welcomed my family – my mother, my brothers, my grandparents, and me – with open arms, like he’d known us forever.
Not much for crowds, I retired to my tent early on to write. Larry had warned us all earlier that day that there could be some disturbance from locals who didn’t like what Larry stood for. While I was squirreled away in my tent, some of those locals showed up. I could hear raised voices from inside the tent and, afraid of getting involved in something potentially dangerous, I stayed where I was while our group was verbally assaulted by several locals. One of them was a large man who decided to express his disdain for us by eating several of the hotdogs we’d grilled while a female friend of his poured tomato juice all over our picnic area. They shouted vicious things at our group and at Larry, prompting my grandfather to place himself protectively in front of Larry. My grandfather told me later that he put himself in the line of fire hoping that one of them would hit him, so he’d have a real complaint to take to the police, since they wouldn’t listen to anything else.
When I emerged from my tent, the troublemakers had gone and we all tried to go about our celebration and pretend that nothing had happened. As Larry explained, it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened, which was of little comfort to us when it began to rain. My mother, my brothers and I were huddled together in a tent that leaked, none of us getting much sleep while locals roared their cars and four-wheelers past our camp all night long and shouted expletives and threats at us. After that night, I never doubted any claim Larry made of violence against him and his property and family.
Larry lived on what little remained of Kayford Mountain, which was his family’s ancestral home. He placed his fifty acres in a land trust that prevents it from ever being strip-mined, though underground mining still takes place. That fifty acres is all that’s left of over 500 acres owned by Larry’s family, most of which has been taken and destroyed by a mining company by way of a broad form deed that sold the mineral rights to the property, signed with an “X” by one of Larry’s ancestors. Larry would take all of his visitors to a place called “Hell’s Gate,” a point where you could look out at the destruction of Kayford Mountain.
The first time Larry took my family to Hell’s Gate, I was shell-shocked. There are no words to describe the site. People tried to describe the horror of it to me before I went, but nothing that anyone said could have prepared me for the sight of a mountain that had been nearly leveled. They don’t call it mountaintop removal for nothing. Kayford’s mountaintop is gone. Even worse was when Larry pointed out a patch of green that resembled an island, raised above the rubble and waste. He explained that it was his family’s cemetery, which the company was not allowed to destroy, but was now incredibly difficult to reach. Larry’s ancestors are buried in that “protected” cemetery.
It made me sick to my stomach and I knew I had to find a way to join the fight. Every time I saw Larry, he smiled and hugged me and encouraged me to stay involved. He was very concerned about getting young people to join the movement, because he said that we were the ones who would have to carry on the fight after he was gone. It never really occurred to me that one day we wouldn’t have Larry to lead the charge. He was such a powerful personality that it made me believe Larry would always have my back in this fight.
Now I’m twenty-two and still fighting. A little over a year ago, one of my heroes, Judy Bonds, passed away from cancer. Her death had a huge impact on the movement. I had only just escaped the melancholy that settled on me on the anniversary of her passing. With one powerful person gone, I know the vast majority of people in the movement looked to Larry for inspiration and guidance. I don’t use the word “hero” lightly. Larry fit the word in every sense. If a person grew weary of the fight, they only needed to go to Larry to get that metaphorical fire lit under their ass. Larry didn’t just ask you to fight, he told you flat out that it was your responsibility to fight and to fight hard.
I was not expecting to come home Sunday evening to news of Larry’s passing. In fact, I had no reason to expect that he would leave us any time soon. At sixty-six years old, he was lively and loud, though I was not under the illusion that he was in prime health. My mother and I pulled into the driveway of our home after a trip to the grocery store and we were met by my stepfather, who broke the news to us. My mother broke down in tears. For me, the news was so out of the blue that I wasn’t sure how to react.
The first thing I did was rush to my computer to uncover the facts about the situation. I found out that Larry had indeed passed away. He’d had a heart attack while working on his beloved mountain. I suppose he would have wanted to die up there but I’m sure he wasn’t planning on it happening so soon. He still had work to do, the responsibility for which has now been thrust upon his family and friends.
Activist and photographer Paul Corbit Brown took a video of Larry a few days before his death, in which Larry spoke of his love for Kayford Mountain. Kayford was not quite heaven, he said, but up there, he was one step up – one step closer to heaven. That’s testament to how much he loved that place, considering that most of it was already gone. Larry must have remembered Kayford the way she used to be, wild and rich with life. I can’t say what happens after this life, if we continue to another life or return to the earth, but one way or another, I hope that Larry was reunited with Kayford.
There’s so much to say about him. Physically, he was a small person and had an unassuming appearance. If it wasn’t for the neon green shirt and hat that he wore everywhere, he would have been an easy person to overlook. It was the fighting passion inside him that made him such a memorable person. He wanted to fight for Kayford, for every mountain in Appalachia, and he poured his heart and soul into it. He made sure that no one ignored him, going out on the road to speak all around the country and spread the word of the threat of strip-mining in Appalachia.
People said he looked like a highlighter out in public, clearly visible in his trademark green, which he said he chose because it caught peoples’ attention. The shirt and hat, now owned by many of us in the movement, bear the information for Larry’s foundation, The Keepers of the Mountains. “Love ’em or leave ’em, just don’t destroy ’em,” he said. He wanted to win the fight against big coal and see a stop put to mountaintop removal more than anything. It makes me hurt and angry to know that he won’t get to see the final chapter of the story. He won’t be there when mountaintop removal is finally abolished.
It will feel so strange to celebrate that victory without him or Judy Bonds to get up in front of us all and tell us that we did it; we won against all odds. That’s all the more reason to keep fighting. If I count Larry as a dear friend, which I do, I know that I can’t throw in the towel now. It’s time to step up and carry the torch onwards, to make sure that our voice is not lessened just because Larry’s not here to clear the way in highlighter green.
All that being said, I miss Larry and it hurts so much to know that I’ll never see him again. He’ll never give me another hug, or tell my mother what a pretty daughter she has. Larry was special to me and my family. We counted ourselves as his people, people from Appalachia who were tired of being quiet, and it is like losing a family member now that he is gone. I thought I would get to see him soon in DC and I was looking forward to it. I feel hollow knowing that he won’t be here to lead us anymore.
Larry’s passing only strengthens my resolve. I want the world to hear his story and know the true cost of coal. I want everyone to hear about the suffering of the Appalachian people and our beloved mountains. Larry’s home was destroyed. The forests he explored as a child were demolished, his mountain was leveled, and yet our government thinks that this is okay. Worse than that, this has happened to over five hundred mountains in Appalachia, and more all of the time.
In Larry Gibson’s honor, I refuse to back down and allow the greedy rich to have their way. As Larry would say, it’s my job and it’s your job to see this through. It doesn’t matter if you live here or you don’t, if you’re a transplant or a native, or if you live on the other side of the world. Everyone should care about this, and everyone should want to preserve and protect the Appalachian Mountains.
I know what Larry meant when he said that being on Kayford was “one step up.” There is something divine about these mountains, about the land I have loved since I was a small child, and I have felt that strong connection to it that Larry had. Imagine the most important thing to you in this world, the one thing that you keep in your soul, so deeply ingrained in your being that it defines you. Then you will understand what it is like for me and for Larry, to love this place. Maybe then you’ll want to join us and carry on Larry’s legacy, to move us ever closer to a world where these mountains are protected for future generations.
This is an invitation. If you’re not already involved, stop wondering whether or not this is your fight and jump into the fray. It is not an easy fight. People will try to hold you back every step of the way. They’ll call you a liar and many less pleasant names, they’ll try to label you as an outsider who has no right to speak up, but no matter where you live, you are not an outsider. Larry would have wanted you with us. Join us and help us keep the mountains.
Almost Heaven, Video of Larry Gibson by Paul Corbit Brown