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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Dearest friends,

I finally made it to Appalachia! I left Boulder on the 4th of July and spent nearly a week and a half traveling across our beautiful country camping out in mountains and prairie, cities and in lightening storms! I decided to take my time moving out here to soak up the fullness of our continent and walk my talk as an eco-chaplain as I attempt to embody that which I hope to inspire: that how we go about our work is just as important as what it accomplishes. In this case – I tried to acknowledge the expense of the fossil fuels it took me to drive by enjoying the process of traveling and using the time to touch in to my heart, prepare for this new vocation and honor the land. It was a delightful journey.

I arrived in Appalachia last week and spent my first night in the region at the home of a man whose full time occupation is to educate people about mountain top removal! His name is Dave Cooper and his web page if you are interested in hosting his roadshow is http://mountainroadshow.com/  Dave took me hiking up a tributary of the Kentucky River and taught me a LOT about mountain top removal and the movement to end it. It was an incredible way to begin this adventure.


From Kentucky I drove east into West Virginia, following an instinct to go toAnsted, the town that made the video about Gauley Mtn. which woke up this calling in me to move here. (http://www.ilovemountains.org/endangered/#). I was received with incredible hospitality by Loretta Schmidt, the sister of Margot Haertel, a friend from Maine. I sent Margot a copy of my initial letter about this calling and she called my Mom the next morning to say that her sister actually lives right here! Loretta greeted me and has introduced me to the members of her church and helped me settle in.


Ansted is beautiful and full of history. It sits on the edge of the New River Gorge which is now a National Park. My first night I stayed at Hawks Nest State Park where one of the largest industrial accidents of US History happened with the drilling of the Hawks Nest Tunnel by Union Carbide back in the day. The tunnel released a bunch of silica right into the lungs and bodies of the workers who were struggling to find employment during the Great Depression and the result was death. The company hid it and the workers all died! Not a unique story around here I hate to say.


My third day in West Virginia I went to Kayford Mountain to witness active Mountain Top Removal in the company of two incredible Episcopal priests – Father Stan and Father Roy as well as Stan’s sister Rebecca and Roy’s wife Jane. Incredible people! I am so rich in experience with the people I have already met! The five of us spent the day driving up to Kayford Mountain and met with Larry Gibson who grew up on Kayford and has fought the good fight to save his home. Larry succeeded in saving about 200 acres of the top of the mountain and the rest of it is gone or being destroyed as we speak.

What I saw was undeniably horrifying. I wanted to puke and hide and deny seeing it at all. There is no way to describe the enormity of the devastation. It is a kind of destruction beyond my imagination – the annihilation of mountains. The tops are dumped into valleys and the hollows are literally filled in! It seems like a kids’ sandbox fantasy gone wrong and played out in real life. This photo of the hollow (Appalachian for small and narrow valley) is literally right below Kayford and stands to be filled in. There are houses down there! Houses and bear and dear, snakes, trees, flowers, birds and life all about to be covered up. The haziness in the photos is from all of the explosives and dust in the air! Mountain top removal is a crisis of epic proportion and as I learn more I wonder if I have enough capacity to keep seeing and feeling all of this. Of course that is why I am here – to help the people who have been seeing and feeling this for so long sustain their work.  I am more moved now than ever to support the folks of this movement and region.


Community tensions out here are getting hotter daily. Larry hosted a gathering on Kayford Mountain on the 4th of July which he has done every year for 23 years and this year it was disrupted by drunk coal miners who came all in uniform and shouted and threatened everyone there. You can watch it on youtube, just look up July 4th – Kayford Mountain.

As you can tell, the internet is making this movement happen. The mainstream press largely ignores the rural happenings in Appalachia but through youtube and facebook and the like word spreads. It was a video that moved me enough to move out here, and I am not the only one I am sure.  I watched another amazing video last night with my new friends in Fayetteville which I recommend. It brilliantly depicts the life of underground miners by Morgan Spurlock from Supersize Me, who grew up in Beckley, WV and worked in the mines for thirty days to try it out. The link is: http://www.hulu.com/watch/22466/30-days-working-in-a-coal-mine


I have considerable concern about the polarization that is going on out here and know how damaging and dividing it can be. The coal companies have a strangle hold on the working people of Appalachia and it is a serious situation to talk about ending a practice which employs people. Mountain top removal actually destroys jobs in the long run, but in the short term it puts food on the table for some. This region needs economic diversity in order to survive when the coal runs out, which it will as it is a finite resource being mined as if it were infinite.


Meanwhile, I have been meeting all sorts of people in this area from across the political spectrum. Everyone who grew up here has some connection with coal and it is interesting to listen to all the stories. I am camping and staying in guest rooms and absorbing all sorts of information. I have made a lot of new friends and am wading through layers of emotions as all of this experience washes through me. On Wednesday I am headed to a regional gathering for the movement in Knoxville, TN while I find my feet and begin the work of eco-chaplaincy out here. It is exciting and overwhelming and definitely the right path for me.


Thank you to each of you who sent me money and encouragement. I have raised $2400 so far! Can you believe it? I am full of gratitude and spend each dollar with intention as this work through me is an act from all of us. I will have to find steady income as this process unfolds of course so if any of you have ideas let me know.


I have a plan to write every two weeks while this adventure in Appalachia unfolds so look back for more updates.



With love and solidarity,

Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.

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