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Erin Ann Thomas

Larry Gibson and Kayford Mountain (Mountain-top Removal)

We walked along a path in the forest until Larry stopped and pointed down. The earth had begun to gape, opening up to an intricate beehive of tunnels in the ground below. Larry estimated it went down six hundred feet: “It may go one hundred feet that way, forty feet that way, and meanders about.” When he first found it, the mine crack was five inches wide. By the time of our interview, it had pulled apart to a foot and a half across. “Don’t linger there,” Larry cautioned. The opening was still not large enough for a person to fall through, but standing at the edge was both terrifying and mesmerizing. The light that passed through highlighted the curve of a tunnel here, an intersection there. The ground was falling beneath our feet. And no wonder.

Kayford Mountain had been mined by fifteen companies over the past 130 years, and coal waste had been pumped into the abandoned mine shafts. Larry’s friends gathered half a million dollars to install in a windmill at his place, but the ground is too unstable.

At the edge of Larry’s property the ground dropped off. The mountain ended, and a company sign nailed to a tree warned onlookers: private property—a last, desperate attempt to prevent me from seeing. Having grown up in a desert, I am accustomed to emptiness and distance, but not such sudden emptiness, a gouge taken out of greenness. Directly below, a field of reclaimed land sprouted pale, scrubby grass, the only foliage likely to accumulate without trees to develop topsoil. Under the thin spread of dirt, lay only bedrock. Massey had buried all the clear cut forest capable of providing fodder beneath hundreds of feet of rock and debris. Beyond the field stretched a terraced wasteland of tawny colored dirt with dark black stripes running through it. In such great emptiness, the mega-machinery used to excavate this coal appeared like miniature toy trucks in a sandbox, adding a surreal aura to the reality of such irreversible destruction.

Historian and mine enthusiast Richard V. Francaviglia states that open pit mines are topological features that “appeal and repel simultaneously,” and that in their development, we, within our lifetimes, can witness the sort of change of characteristic of geological time. These landscapes contain “powerful and conflicting symbolism” and do “not compare favorably with ideal landscapes because they seem unfinished, crude, imperfect, perhaps too honest a depiction of how we have treated the environment and each other.” He ends by asserting: “It is in the hard places that the dirtiest work occurs to sustain our ever-demanding technology and culture.”

Staring over the edge of the mountaintop removal site, I couldn’t experience this landscape with Francaviglia’s intellectual and historical perspective. My response came from the gut, the sort I experienced in the dark of Big Pit in Wales when I thought of five-year-old Evan. My sensibilities jerked into my chest with an almost passionate violence, and my eyes stung in anger. People don’t do this, I argued. Such should not be done.

In the center of the terraces of brown earth stood an oasis, a platform of green: the Stanley family graveyard. No longer owned by the Stanley family because it was part of the land sold off a century ago, it is the high point now on Kayford Mountain. In years past, it was the low point, from which people would gaze at the mountain above. It is illegal to destroy a cemetery, so the company was mining under it. One tunnel was bored so wide, they could drive a coal truck through it. “They don’ have respect for the dead,” Larry said, almost spitting, “an’ don’ have no respect for the living.”

“They had a sayin’ out here,” Larry explained. “Strong back, weak mind.” In the 1920s and 30s, Massey started trading truckloads of beer for loads of coal. The theory was that if you could control them, people were like machinery. Instead of using the profits from the coal mine to promote education, the company used them to get people drunk. Larry asserts that they still do.

Standing on the edge of his forest, Larry told me his personal story, and I started to cry. It was the only response that I had for him and the gutted landscape stretched out before me. He had a family once, but his wife and daughter finally moved out, tired of the threatening messages left on the answering machine. He believes the coal company shot his dog, and that they’ve shot at him before. He was sure they would get him one day, too: “I’m scared. I can’t tell you that I’m not concerned, but I’m more mad that they think they can intimidate people. You have to stand up in harm’s way. The hardest damn thing you’re going to do is convince people to stand in harm’s way. They’ve been oppressed their whole lives and don’t know what a person is. I’m out of the box. I learned as a young man that my voice counted.”

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