This piece was written for the September edition of Streetvibes. Larry Gibson is one of a handful of people who I can name who were instrumental in getting me involved with activism, as I’m sure nearly every environmentalist East of the Mississippi can say. When he died in September, nature lost one of its toughest defenders.
I only met Larry Gibson once. It was on his mountain, in his little cabin, huddled close to a wood burning stove. We were visiting coal country, and preparing to bring the knowledge we learned back to school, so we could fight against the coal plant on Miami University’s campus. He explained to us his story, indelibly intertwined with the story of the Appalachian mountains. And gave us an ultimatum, Larry, nicknamed “keeper of the mountains,” didn’t want to talk to us if we weren’t going to do something about the mountains; we had to promise we weren’t wasting his time. We he died in early September, it was a blow to the environmental movement that seems almost impossible to recover from.
Kayford mountain, the homestead of Larry’s family, and where he had a small cabin appropriately named “Larry’s Place,” stood at the center of the mountaintop removal debate. When I visited in 2010 it stood as the tallest mountain in the area, but 20 years before, it was the opposite. The mining executives made good on a promise one of them made to Larry in the early 90s: that if you don’t sell, Kayford will become “like an island” in an ocean.
That’s not a good way to put it. Below the surface of oceans, the waters are teeming with life, with intricate cosmos of organisms well suited to their environment, where a precarious balance of nature is like an intimate ballet. The water in the executive’s metaphor is, today, more like the surface of the moon. Barren and grey, the only indication of life is the human footprint left behind in the form of mining machines and their tracks. Larry didn’t want any of that, not for his mountain, and not for any of the others.
Driving up to Larry’s Place, you wouldn’t know that there was any mining taking place, with the worst offenders hidden behind untouched mountains along the highways and gulch roads. When Larry took us to the “Gates of Hell”, where his property ended and the mines began, we were finally able to appreciate the devastation caused by mountaintop removal coal mining.
The process occurs in three stages. First, the mountain is cleared of all vegetation. Usually trees that would be harvested and sold elsewhere are bulldozed into the valleys. When the brush is all cleared, and all that’s left is a lifeless mound of dirt, and core sample drilling has determined the depth of the coal, the layers of earth are peeled away one by one until a seam of coal is extracted. Once that seam is mined, the process is repeated over and over until the costs (monetarily) are too great. Of course, the environmental costs are huge. When the coal is exhausted the mountain is supposed to be returned to its “approximate original contour.” This means taking the mixture of rocks and dirt and waste generated along the way, and packing down the mountain, if it can still be called that. Entire ecosystems are destroyed, the topsoil is gone, and nothing can live there except for the invasive turf that can also, incidentally, grow on concrete.
But this isn’t happening without a fight, and Larry was a monolith in environmental activism. His motto, “Love Them or Leave Them, Just Don’t Destroy Them,” is a reminder that we’re not just fighting against the horrible practices of the mining companies, but that we’re fighting to preserve a kind of nature that today is commodified and missing from our daily experience, probably for the worse. Larry lived in the middle of the best and worst of all of this. As the steward of Kayford, he lived in a sublime wilderness, and just a half mile or so in any direction was his reminder of just how far capitalism was willing to go to reap enormous profits.
Though he stood just over 5 feet tall, his presence was remarkable. His courageousness in the face of immense pressure has inspired a whole generation of young activists to always stand up for what is right, I know it did it for me. There was no way I could go home and do nothing, and I still haven’t shaken the question “who has to suffer so we can keep the lights on?” We all stand on the shoulders of giants like Larry.
I’ve carried Larry’s ultimatum with me in all of my activism, not just environmentalism. And though the hills of Cincinnati are only shadows of the majesty of the Appalachian Mountains, we should take Larry’s advice with us in whatever fight we’re in. When I hear the stories of people facing any kind of hardship, Larry is whispering in my ear “do something.”