Folks with a way with words and a forum for speaking them frame deep truths that give language for our deep understandings. Thomas Wolfe’s title sentence, “You can’t go home again,” often surfaces in my mind. I’m pretty sure I get what he meant.
“You can’t go home again” eased its way into my thoughts last week as I was reading an article about the death of Larry Gibson, a reluctant activist who took on West Virginia’s dominant industry to preserve 54 acres which had long been his family’s home and where 300 members of his family are buried. After being away from Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County for years, in 1986 Larry returned to find the property still pristine but never again truly “home.” Larry had a heart attack on the property early this month. He was 66.
What Larry found when he “came home again” were 54 acres in a landscape changing so dramatically it was no longer recognizable. By the 1990s, his acres were the only green ones visible near Kayford Mountain. On all sides were desolate stretches of land dynamited to expose coal, with trees, top soil and rocks bulldozed into valleys and covering the streams.
In an interview with EarthJustice, Larry said, “Growing up here was an adventure every day. ….. (Now) just a stone’s throw away, on that mountaintop removal site, you couldn’t find anything alive if you wanted to. It’s bare rock, uninhabitable…..God created these mountains. Only God should be able to take them away.” Larry, son and grandson of coal miners, was philosophically OK with mining except when it meant wholesale defacement, destruction of wildlife and the threat to his beloved state’s health and culture.
I became a reluctant, unlikely activist against Mountain Top Removal mining, or MTR, about this time last year and have referenced it often in this column. I’m frankly amazed I’ve spent so much time, thought and energy to educate folks and inspire personal involvement to accomplish responsible mining legislation in Tennessee whose ancient mountains are now under the advancing threat. If my efforts are worth anything, the credit goes to Larry Gibson.
I saw a DVD about mountaintop removal mining at my church. It was a series of three vignettes which personalized the alarming effects of MTR on communities adjacent to MTR sites. The last one featured Larry Gibson, gentle, soft-spoken, full of emotional pain. He was infectiously and courageously committed, and he changed me. I looked through his eyes, from north, south, east and west of Kayford Mountain and saw West Virginia’s Great Tragedy, West Virginia’s Great Loss, Larry Gibson’s Great Tragedy, Larry Gibson’s Great Loss, our Great Tragedy, our Great Loss.
Larry Gibson, dear, kind, tireless, articulate, compassionate man, made protecting his mountain a lifework and in so doing gave thousands a mountain to stand on. Go well, good friend. We’ll remember that you said, “Use your anger to get over your fear and get up. You are the only one who can.” Others will look out for Kayford Mountain in your stead.