They say you can see this from outer-space; I believe it. I’m hiking up a trail in the rural mountains of Appalachia. The last five hours have been spent in a van navigating the country roads of West Virginia to get to the Changing of the Leaves Festival on what is left of Kayford Mountain. Larry Gibson’s family land is 50 acres of what once was the lowest point on this mountain. Now I stand on a narrow ridge overlooking what is considered to be the largest mountaintop removal site in all of Appalachia. There is a man in front of me reeling off numbers and citing statistics to prove the moral evils of what I am seeing. Yet no words are needed to do that. What he says becomes muffled as I am engrossed in the scene before me—an entire mountain gone.
Gibson is a kind man who speaks with the colloquial voice of those living in these mountain communities. Yet despite his humble, down-to-earth attributes, he speaks with wisdom concerning this complex issue. Gibson is by no means a young man, but he possesses an exuberant energy, a strong desire to share his story and work.. He’s taken his property and turned it into a remote place where visitors can experience the evils of mountaintop removal through a variety of gatherings and music festivals. Witnessing such destruction first hand is quite the experience.
I’ve come all the way from the panhandle of Maryland, a geographic meeting point of several states where mountain communities face similar issues. I’ve come to play music for the Changing of the Leaves Festival. I have prepared a set of my own songs and a few poems to share with those who have made similar trips to visit this site. I’ve spent the last few hours on the road jamming violin and mandolin with Jon Felton & his Soulmobile as I prepare to fill in for their fiddler. We’ve all come together because we know that this issue is something we can no longer keep quiet about. So we’ve come with guitars, a banjo, a dulcimer, a violin, and a mandolin prepared to make some noise.
This festival is less like a music festival and more like a family reunion. That’s what makes this such a special event. Musicians casually take their instruments and play their songs while visitors eat a potluck lunch beneath a shady pavilion. Some stomp their feet to the music. Some gather in circles and talk to old friends. All of us take our turns walking to the site of destruction and trying to find words to describe what we feel. Yet there aren’t any words put to this; nothing can capture the emotion I feel when I survey a mountain scene lacking a mountain. Gibson once described these feelings in an interview, “The young eyes of the day will never see what I’ve seen. No, the young eyes of the day will never see the mountains with no limits, no boundaries to where you could roam.”
The man who has taken my group of friends up to see this terrible scene points at a few more mountains that are set to be destroyed. I question what it is that prompts humankind to do such a thing. I feel strongly that this is not exclusively an environmental issue. No one that has come here fits a stereotype. The people here come from many walks of life and many geographical regions. What brings them together is the concern for these mountains, these majestic things once described as immovable. Few talk about the evils of coal as a resource; the diverse conversations I overhear primarily center on the idea that this is not just an energy issue or an environmental issue, but a moral issue. It stems from greed—coal corporations that seek only profit, abusing rural communities and taking advantage of their legal rights. As I spend the day in such caring, hospitable company, I realize that this movement is only trying to stop the destruction because these people recognize the right thing they need to do. Here it's not faith that is moving mountains; here the faithful are working to save them.
As the evening draws closer and the sun droops in the sky, we pack our instruments into the back of the van and climb onboard for the long trip home. For the first while everyone keeps quiet. It’s hard to speak about this issue because it seems so overwhelming, so inhuman. Yet what I’ve seen at the Changing of the Leaves Festival is that a large part of the fight is the fight to recognize the powerful voice each of us possess. This is where it starts. Sometimes, like in my case, it might take a few songs at a little music festival to recognize that there’s an important role I need to play in this movement. If I can help save a few mountains with singing, I’ll keep doing it until I lose my voice.
To hear Larry Gibson's story in his own words visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2aIQRoFJvk