Larry Gibson, the Keeper of the Mountains, was struck dead by a heart attack on Sunday at Kayford Mountain, his ancestral home in the heart of coal country West Virginia. He was a leader of the fight against Mountaintop Removal (MTR), one of the most destructive and polluting extraction processes ever invented.
Larry was a small man, a Christian, a self-professed “old timer” who blasted the resolve of Big Coal for decades. He wore neon shirts and hats with artless black slogans emblazoned on them (“We are the keepers of the mountains,” “Love ’em or leave ’em but never destroy ’em!”), never missing an opportunity to stimulate a conversation about MTR and the battle for the mountains.
Over the years, he invited and welcomed thousands of people to his emerald island on Kayford Mountain, the 50-acre trust he created to prevent the coal industry from getting its hands on his family’s land, where 200 years of relatives are buried and where Larry spent what must have been a magical boyhood wandering the ridges and hollows of one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the North American continent.
Larry walked pilgrims like us along a shadowed lane to a ridge out at the property line to face the panorama — 10,000 acres of uninterrupted mountain death, a moonscape of lost majesty, its sky traced by sharp acrid dust, a suddenly punishing sun and unnatural silence. The scale of destruction — hundreds of mountaintops exploded, gone, reduced to ash and grave — is hard to register even when you are looking right at it. So Larry’s voice beside you, behind you, all around you, was just as critical as seeing the brutal reality of MTR. He was absolutely unsentimental and demanding. He put his hand on my arm and said, “What are you going to do for these mountains?”
No chance I could collapse into grief and loss, no time for that. Larry was a working man, and there was work to be done.
On the way back, he pointed out the surveillance system his friends had installed to protect him from death threats, drive by shootings, vandalism and full-time harassment set on him by Big Coal — first in an effort to get him to sell his property and then in the hopes that he would finally shut the hell up. He lived under siege. They killed his dogs.
Through all this, Larry talked about future generations, those yet to come. He reminded us all to work on their behalf. Yes — but let’s work for the living too, for those people and animals who are threatened right now: Larry’s wife Carol, his children Cameron, Larry Jr. and Victoria, the people still living on Kayford Mountain, and the thousands of families still surviving in coal country.
MTR is responsible for cancer clusters and disproportionate asthma rates, over 1,000 miles of streams buried and holding ponds full of chemicals that threaten the water table. Sometimes, a fine selenium aerosol floats through the valleys. Yet the practice of MTR continues — although slowed in part by the natural gas boom (fueled by MTR’s evil twin, fracking) and by the incredible hard work of Larry Gibson and his fellow activists.
Larry had a particularly vivid story to tell, and, bless him, he told it and told it and told it. We hear of his death with immeasurable sadness, but we have to look for the instruction in his death too, the demand — What are you going to do for these mountains?
Larry’s family has requested that persons wishing to express condolences make donations to Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which Larry founded in 2004 to support mountain communities. A public memorial service will be announced.
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