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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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October 24, 2012


Dearest friends,
            I was just online checking in with friends on facebook when I noticed a live webcam feed from folks I work with in West Virginia. They were inside the capitol building with banners that said, “Coal is Dying – What’s Your Plan?” and “Stop the Propaganda – the War on Coal is a Dirty Lie.” My heart surged with pride as I watched the folks from RAMPS and Mountain Justice ask Governor Earl Ray Tomlin to engage in dialogue to stop this polarizing and divisive rhetoric that is harming so much of the region. The governor snuck out the back door, and the community activists addressed the media and then left the building, after leaving their calling card for future dialogue.
            Their courage and endurance helped me finally find words to write another letter. I apologize for the long gap in correspondence. It has been hard to give voice to all that I have been experiencing. You see, a bit more than a month ago, a dear friend, and hero to our movement passed away. A weekend back I gave the benediction at his memorial service in Charleston, but it will take a long time before I can really believe he is gone in body.
            September 9th, Larry Gibson died up on his mountain, Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, while working on his land. Larry was in many ways the founder of the current movement for a just and sustainable Appalachia, fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining. His loss was so sudden, and so great, that I have struggled with how to bring my voice to it; and in this I know I am not alone. Those of you not in Appalachia, who have heard me tell stories or seen me give a slideshow, will surely remember Larry Gibson – the man of Kayford Mountain, often seen wearing a neon yellow tee-shirt he printed which said, “I am a Keeper of the Mountains. Love Them, or Leave Them, Just Don’t Destroy Them, If You Dare To Be One Too, Call.” He traveled our country, and even to Ecuador, and was beloved everywhere except in the boardroom halls of the coal industry.
            Larry was many things to many people. He touched the lives of tens of thousands of people through his passionate resistance to the coal industry, and determination that all people, all people, are worthy. He stood up for rural people, for mountain people, with a fierce and loving heart. Before meeting Larry, I did not know anyone who could articulate the veil of invisibility rural people experience. How the miners are assumed to be a silent majority in favor of destroying mountains, and how communities are facing intense pressure to conform with industry needs. Larry understood and spoke to the need for community empowerment on an epic scale. Where better to grasp that than in the Mountain State where the mountains are being blown up and the people whirled around in a frenzy of propaganda by the Friends of Coal and other industry front groups who say there is a ‘war on coal,’ when really, all the people living below sludge dams and under fly rock live in a warlike zone. Larry was the mountain version of powerful civil rights leaders, and he will be so dearly missed.
            Larry moved back home to West Virginia after living a pretty rough life up in Youngstown, Ohio, working for General Motors, and eventually coming back on pension from an injury at work. When he returned in the early 1980’s, he hoped to settle in to a comfortable routine of mountain life – but instead, he woke up to dynamite blasting away at the mountains, and in horror, he began to learn firsthand, that strip mining was not over, but rather worse. At first, no one believed him, and slowly, and surely, what he was saying became unavoidable, and a movement began throughout the region to end mountaintop removal coal mining.
            By the time I met Larry in the summer of 2009, he was already famous. I didn’t know that yet of course, but he had already spoken at the United Nations, starred in books and documentaries, ballads, songs, and many a story. He had stood up to King Coal by turning his land into a family land-trust, and dodged many death-threats and violent attacks by the skin of his neck. Pretty cool for a rural man with not much more than a second grade education. I tell you though – he was one of the smartest, most clever men I have ever known.
            Larry married the love of his life, Carol Gibson, and the two of them quickly became family to me. That day I met him up on Kayford, he asked me if I would be willing to help transcribe some notebooks for him, and come over to meet his wife. (This was before the Keepers of the Mountains Foundation began). Of course I said yes, and drove down Gauley Mountain the next day or so to meet Carol and see the notebooks. Come to find out, what Larry wanted me to transcribe were notebooks full of names and e mails of all the people who had visited Kayford – well over 14,000 each year! I would have done it too, but Carol and I hit it off so well that we talked and talked and talked and didn’t focus on the project. J
            One day up at his cabin on Kayford, my cousin Jen asked Larry if he had any moonshine. Well, Larry didn’t drink, at all actually, but out came a mason jar, followed soon after by a fire-breathing, laughing cousin. All that fall and spring, whenever I was up on the mountain hosting a college tour group, Larry would figure out a way to hand me another jar to take home, knowing that it embarrassed me to no end. He loved to make us all laugh.
            I knew Larry as a leader in this movement, as a friend, as someone who could always tell a joke no matter what, and someone who would cry in a moments’ notice. I will never forget him, or his impact in this world. The last time I saw him was during the mountain mobilization this summer when he brought Mr. Ken Hechler up to the rally point at the Kanawha State Forest in West Virginia. Both men gave rousing speeches to the group, and when we needed to make tactical changes, Larry was right there in the action, part of the whole, pushing us all forward, just like he was in all of the large actions of these past few years. He advocated for direct action even when other community leaders voiced fear, put himself out first in scary situations, and tirelessly pushed for community organizing, and community engagement. He wanted us all to work together, not against one another, and to expand that net to include everyone in the region and more.
            The most important legacy of Larry’s life, in my opinion, was his constant belief in people, and his efforts to build connections, rather than division, in a polarized time. Even in the face of serious adversity, Larry would stay focused on the ultimate goal: the liberation of a whole region, rather than an “us-versus-them” mentality. He stood for all people, even the ones making his life hard. When a man in a group came up to Kayford Mountain on the Fourth of July with his buddies to harass everyone enjoying the Mountain Keepers Festival and Family Reunion, Larry fought back by pressing charges to prove that he would not be bullied. But once the court case was over, and Larry won, Larry also paid his fines since he did not have enough for it. When the different environmental groups in West Virginia fight over strategy and tactics, Larry would try to build a bridge, knowing that it was the only real way to transformation. Now that he is gone, we have to continue the work in his honor.
            Larry always said, “you know buddy, people listen to me here because they think I am somebody, but that is not important, what is important is that I know that I am somebody, and I know that you are somebody too. Do you know that you are somebody?”
            At the benediction to his memorial, I had us make three vows, and I invite you to do this as well. I brought green blessing cords which were passed out, and wrapped around each wrist three times, while saying:
I am a Keeper of the Mountains;
I am Somebody;
For the next year, I will __________ in memory and honor of Larry Gibson.
We all said what we will do out loud. If you would like a green blessing string, just send me an email or a letter with your mailing address and I will send you one too.
You can watch the whole memorial online at: http://mobilebroadcastnews.com/NewsRoom/staff/Mountain-Keeper-Larry-Gibson-Memorial
Or a shorter version at: http://wvgazette.com/News/201210140157
           Contributions in memory of Larry Gibson are welcome at the Larry Gibson Memorial Fund, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, 179 Summers St, Suite 234, Charleston, WV, 25301.
Love to all yall somebodies,
Donations to the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative are greatly appreciated, and can be made online at http://www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate.html and in the mail to PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778.