Godspeed, Mountain Keeper

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .


This is a blog about neighborhoods and sometimes it's about conservation and preservation but almost always about Pittsburgh. There's only one place I love more, my native state of West by God Vee Aye.

This post is about a man who lived four hours south of here on top of one of the highest mountains that remain around him. Today, it does not have him around to defend it. Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain, W.Va., died on Sunday.

I met Larry on his mountain in 2006 when I visited southern West Virginia to write about the clutch of citizens who had the guts to speak out and act out against coal companies that blow up 500 million year old mountains to get the coal that we Americans demand in such abundance. I implore you to watch the YouTube video above. What I saw from Larry's mountain continues to inspire me to turn off and unplug everything I am not using and informed my choice of energy provider.

Larry was all guts and heart, a diminutive man who was too much in love with his homeplace to be afraid of anyone who might try to take it from him.

I'm going to let Dave Cooper of the Mountain Justice Roadshow and the author of this tribute take it from here:

An American hero has passed away.  Larry Gibson, the "Mountain Keeper" from West Virginia who fought to save his family's ancestral land on top of Kayford Mountain for over 25 years died of a heart attack on Sunday on his beloved mountain.  A public memorial service will be announced at a later date on Larry's Keeper of the Mountains Foundation website.  Please visit the site and make a donation in memory of Larry.

When I first met Larry in March, 1998 I wasn't too sure what to think of him.  But we hit it off, and he ended up changing my life.  I visited Larry's mountain shortly after hearing him speak at a Kentucky Sierra Club meeting, and Im still working on the mountaintop removal issue 14 years later.  He changed many other lives, too.     

I wanted to write something to you all because I knew that many people across the country still may have not heard the news about Larry - and I've struggled about what to write.  

Larry was such an inspiring, complex, awesome, dogged and determined person that writing a proper tribute to him is really difficult.  So I've decided to just let Larry's words speak for him.

I called Larry's answering machine today, and it was good to hear his voice one last time:

We are the keepers of the mountains.
Love them or leave them, just dont destroy them.
If you dare to be one, too, call (304) 542-1134 or email
Thank you very much.

Although he never got a lot of formal education, Larry could be almost poetic sometimes.  When we toured together on the Mountaintop Removal Road Show, he would always ask his audience:

"What do you have in your own circle of life that is so precious that you cannot put a price on it?  What would it be?  And if someone tried to come and take it from you, what would you do - how far would you go to stand for it?  For me it was my land. For me, it was my mountain."

In the excellent ABC Nightline episode "Digging Deep: The Cost of Cheap Energy" that aired in 1999, Larry met with ABC's Barry Serafin and took him to the edge of his mountain, and with tears in his eyes, gazed out on the destruction:

"I dont care if its a coal company, oil company or chemical company - I'll go anywhere and talk against the destruction of what's happening here.  I'll go anywhere ... how can you do this to your own back yard?  Where you gonna play?  I used to play here.  Used to..."

Larry could also be charming and funny.  I heard him once tell a pretty West Virginia girl "You're as pretty as a shiny new nickel"  He could make people laugh, and on a good night he could make his audience cry.  Sometimes he came across to his audiences as an angry or bitter man, but he always had something interesting to say, he was just full of energy - and sometimes he could be quite profound.

Larry took Nashville filmmaker Jeff Barrie on a tour of his family cemetary on Kayford for the film "Kilowatt Ours," when suddenly a blast went off on the nearby mine site.  Hurrying to the edge of the mountain, Jeff captured with his camera the huge cloud of dust rising above the moonscape as Larry pondered his situation.

"People, a lot of people ask me if I have a picture of the mountain before it was destroyed.  For one, you can't take a picture of a mountain while you're on it, but for two, Lord have mercy, why should you take a picture of a mountain?  It's gonna be there forever.  At least I thought ..."

You can see the Kilowatt Ours chapter featuring Larry here.

Larry said some things that I never could figure out.  He would say "Golly nez" as an expression of wonderment or surprise - it was a mild curse that he used instead of "Gosh darn."  I've never heard anyone else, anywhere use that expression.  Golly nez, Larry was an original.  

For years, coal companies tried to intimidate Larry and to run him off his land because he had 37 or 38 seams of coal in the mountain below his cabin.  Someone shot up his cabin, and someone tried to hang his dog.  Massey coal thugs would come and try and disrupt his family picnic gatherings on the mountain.  He'd say, "I've had 137 acts of violence on my land" and I would wonder, "Why are you keeping count?"  

Occasionally when he was feeling really tired or frustrated, Larry would let loose and curse, like the time when he saw that a bulldozer operator had driven a dozer through the old Stover Cemetary (on land adjacent to Larry's).  I can't remember who was there when Larry first saw this - I think it was one of the Mountain Justice members touring Kayford with her father and mother.  But she told me that Larry was so angry at the dozer operator for his desecration of a known West Virginia family cemetary that he almost went and got his gun.

One of the most important figures in Larry's life was Ken Hechler, the legendary former Congressman and West Virginia Secretary of State who has been a lifelong crusader against strip mining abuses.  Ken is very well-respected in West Virginia - and he was the only member of Congress who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King while in office.  Ken was Larry's mentor, and Larry once told me that when Ken told him something, "You better believe I listen."  Ken inspired Larry and he taught him lessons from the civil rights struggle about the importance of non-violence in the campaign against mountaintop removal.  And over the years Larry became a much better speaker and community leader.   

He walked across West Virginia with Julian Martin of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in 1999 to bring attention to the MTR issue.  Larry was a constant presence at rallies, meetings and gatherings, from DC's "Appalachia Rising" to the Sierra Club National Board of Directors meeting in San Francisco.  He even went to South America to talk to people about his mountain, and he reached out to people everywhere he went to help build the movement.  He was even invited to New Guinea.

Early in the fight against mountaintop removal, Larry was once criticized because his bumper sticker said "I am the Keeper of the Mountains," like he was a lone warrior in the cause.  Larry changed it to "We are the Keepers of the Mountains" to be more inclusive, and over the long run probably did more than any other one individual to bring people into the anti-MTR movement and make them feel welcome and valued. He would call and chat just to say hello.  I was always glad to talk to him.

Larry fought the good fight.  He fought longer and harder against mountaintop removal than anyone else ever could, and he went down swinging.  Some people said Larry reminded them of "The Lorax" from the Dr. Suess book, and I think they are right - the Lorax spoke for the trees, and Larry spoke for the mountains - and they both had that same little white moustache ...   

Larry was so generous with his time, and he always treated everyone who came to visit his mountain equally, whether it was a group of 10 high school students from a local school, or whether it was Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes.  

Right now, Larry is happily roaming the green, unscarred mountains of West Virginia of his youth - "the mountains with no boundaries, no limits" as he described them in the film "Mountaintop Removal."  Larry is in a better place, and he probably has a baby squirrel in his pocket.  

I'm especially happy that Larry was able to find some peace of mind late in life - he met a gentle and wonderful lady named Carol, and they were happily married for years.  They were so sweet together.  

What do we do now without Larry?  We will keep on fighting to save the land and people of Appalachia "for everyone that comes after me and after you."  

And this is an incredibly important struggle.  When you look at the issue of global warming, some of the predictions are very dire indeed.  Burning coal is at the heart of the climate crisis, and if some experts are right, we are fast approaching a "tipping point" beyond which rising global temperatures cannot be reversed, no matter what we do.  The earth will just keep warming and warming until ...

Who are the people that are trying to stop this madness?  There really aren't very many of them, and there are even fewer that are actually willing to put their own life and safety on the line to help stop the destruction - the destruction of the very life support systems that are keeping us all alive.  

Larry was one of those people.  He was fearless and he was tireless.

I think that if the human race is able to survive runaway global climate change, there will one day be statues and monuments to the heroes of the planet like Larry Gibson, Judy Bonds, Laura Forman, Ken Hechler, Al Gore, James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Harry Caudill, John Cleveland and so many more - who have devoted their lives to stopping the worst ravages of coal.  All of these people will be in the history books, and future students will read about them wonder why more average people didn't try and help stop mountaintop removal and runaway climate change.  They will look at the photos of RAMPS and Mountain Justice activists being arrested for non-violent civil disobedience with the same sense of wonder and disbelief that we feel today when we see the photos of civil rights protestors being attacked by Sheriff Bull Connor's dogs.  They will wonder - how could so many people have stood by and let the mountains be destroyed?  Why didn't more people get involved?

Will you join us?  We need more Mountain Keepers, like Larry - do you dare to be one, too?

Larry photo thanks to Earth Justice

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