One Step Up

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

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Disbelief

Larry Gibson is gone. I think I am in shock. It doesn’t seem real.

I don’t think I can write about this yet. I’m too disturbed by it and my mind has not yet accepted it. Maybe when I’ve had the time to think about it.

I love you, Larry, and I’m sorry you didn’t get to see the fight through to the finish. You were so wonderful. I will miss your hugs.

Blocking the Haul Road on Kayford Mountain

This is What Justice Looks Like: Blocking the Haul Road on Kayford Mountain

By: Rachel Parsons

Mountain Justice Summer Camp 2012 was held just up the road from my mother’s house this year. It’s been two years since the camp was held here at the Appalachian South Folklife Center. The last time, in 2009, was the first time I was introduced to the people in Appalachia fighting against the destructive practice of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. That week, three years ago now, I heard activist Judy Bonds speak about MTR and she was angry. She was inspiring. After I heard Judy speak, I got involved. I went to a couple of actions, such as the one where my grandfather was arrested. My involvement has been limited, particularly since I’ve been attending East Tennessee State University and chose to focus on my studies for the time being.

This May I graduated from East Tennessee State University, commonly known as ETSU, with a degree in English. To celebrate this small victory in my own life, I went with my brothers to attend one of the two actions planned for Mountain Justice Summer Camp. These actions were planned at camp during the week for Thursday, May 24th. One action involved protestors locking down to a coal barge in Charleston, West Virginia. The second action, the one my brothers and I attended, along with most of the people from camp, was held at Kayford Mountain near Whitesville, West Virginia. A large banner was made that read “Stop Extraction, Invest in a Healthy Future.” This banner was stretched across a haul road traveled by coal trucks to and from the MTR mine site on Kayford.

For an hour and a half, we all blocked that haul road, preventing nine coal trucks from making their deliveries on time. We chanted and sang as we stood there, equipped with a megaphone. My youngest brother, Matthew Parsons, sang “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Paradise,” two songs lamenting the consequences of coal mining in Appalachia. When we chanted, the coal trucks would occasionally honk to drown our voices out. When my brother sang, none of the coal truck drivers honked their horns and I believe that this was out of respect for the songs. Whatever the coal industry might do to create a divide between the people of Appalachia, there are still moments when people realize that we are all the same people with the same songs.

Larry Gibson, who still lives on what little is left of Kayford Mountain, has been fighting Mountaintop Removal through his foundation Keeper of the Mountains. He has been the victim of over 150 acts of violence as a result. His cabin has been shot at, his property has been stolen, and his dogs have been killed. In April, his home was vandalized and thousands of dollars worth of equipment was stolen. Cameras caught a blurry image of one of the men responsible. Police did not investigate the incident. So, on the 24th of May, when police did come to address our group’s blocking the haul road, Larry went over to them to ask why no one had come to investigate the recent act of vandalism and theft on his property. He was told by an officer that his home was “in no man’s land.”

Our intention that day was not to get arrested. We were there to make a statement and we made it, so we moved when the police told us that we had to. We all traveled up to Larry’s place on Kayford, where we had the good fortune of running into DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) officials, who were visiting Kayford “unofficially.” In other words, the DEP, well known for siding with the coal industry or looking the other way, had made an attempt to show EPA officials around Larry’s property without telling Larry. I’m sure they had no idea that we would be there holding our sign, chanting and singing. Had they known, they doubtless would have picked another day. But Larry and those who love him and his cause were able to intersect. Larry insisted on speaking to the EPA officials. He told them his story while they listened in silence. And he told them that if the DEP was doing its job, they would not be there that day.

When the EPA and the DEP took their leave, we all walked to the place Larry calls “Hell’s Gate.” From that spot, a person can see the destruction that has been wreaked upon Kayford. Over 500 acres of Larry’s family’s home, destroyed. We all stood and listened to Larry speak. It was not the first or even the second time I had gone to Hell’s Gate and looked out with Larry. Of course, the site was no less horrific than the last time I had been there. I joked that they’d build a Walmart on the remnants but it wouldn’t do them any good to have a Walmart in No Man’s Land. Hell, anybody could rob that Walmart blind and the law just wouldn’t be able to do anything. Perhaps that joke foreshadowed the event that followed.

After our solemn gathering at Hell’s Gate, we returned to Larry’s shelter to relax for a time. Some people were planning to stay on Kayford a while and help Larry with some upkeep of his property. My brothers and I were planning to return home once everyone had regrouped. However, to everyone’s surprise, three cop cars came up the mountain to Larry’s property. The police got out of their cars and began photographing the license plates of all the cars parked at Larry’s home. When asked why they were photographing our license plates, they informed us that they had a “right to investigate” because there had been a “recent act of vandalism on the property.”

Not long after the police left, a fellow activist drove up the mountain and let us all know that there were police waiting at the bottom of the mountain. No doubt they were hoping to fabricate some reason for arresting some of us. We all decided to wait them out. So we spent another hour or so on Kayford before any of us started leaving, and we left one or two cars at a time. By the time my brothers and I left, there were no police in sight. I’m sure they got bored and went home after a while. After all, there wasn’t much chance they’d even be able to make up a reason to stop any of us.

In truth, it was a relatively small action. The real action happened in Charleston, where activists were arrested for locking down on that coal barge. Still, I believe that it was an important action and that we all stood in solidarity with Larry Gibson that day. Larry told us all that he will likely face more torment as a result of that action, but that he is willing to face that torment because he believes in this movement and he believes that blocking that haul road meant something. I believe it too. It wasn’t the biggest or the grandest action that I have ever been to but it had heart. We stirred things up a little bit. In this fight, every little bit helps.

I don’t attend these sorts of actions because I particularly enjoy them. The truth is that I’m a very reclusive person. If I had my way, I’d be happy to stay home by myself most of the time, interacting with the outside world by way of my computer and little else. However, while there is injustice in the world, I cannot help but join the fight. The truth of the matter is that Mountaintop Removal and other atrocities committed against nature, particularly the Appalachian Mountains, does not just affect the people in my region. Sure, we feel the results sooner. We have higher cancer rates, poisoned drinking water, and piles of rubble to look at where mountains once were. But eventually, the poisoned water will flow into every part of this country. As nature dies, people will die with it. It’s not just my fight, no, it’s everybody’s fight. We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not.

Every mountain leveled is another priceless treasure lost to us. Even so, this is not just about the mountains. It’s about the world as a whole, because the world cannot be whole when we allow it to be dismantled and destroyed, piece by piece. Each part of the puzzle makes up the picture. Don’t we all deserve to live in a beautiful and healthy world? We could have Paradise here, if we’d just stop letting the coal trains haul it away. That’s why Mountain Justice blocked that haul road. For a short period of time, we stopped them. It wasn’t enough, nothing will be enough until MTR is abolished, but it was something.