The first time I saw Larry Gibson, I thought, “what a character.” He was short, wearing a lime green baseball cap and t-shirt, and barreling through a school cafeteria. It was during the 2010 Appalachia Rising conference, and I was feeling cynical and overly critical. He had just given a speech, but I had barely grasped a word due to the mix of his unfamiliar Appalachian accent and loud, hurried words. Watching him move through the narrow aisles between lunch tables, I wondered why everyone was treating him with such respect.
By the time Larry Gibson passed away this past Sunday, September 9, I no longer wondered why what he had to say mattered. He spent more than twenty years of his life fighting to stop mountaintop removal coal mining and to save Kayford Mountain, his ancestral home. Recognized by CNN as a “hero,” his website describes him as “an internationally known voice” who has appeared on national television, “before the United Nations, and has spoken to thousands of community, church, and university groups across the country.” You can see Gibson in action here at his home, Kayford Mountain.
Gibson’s home was surrounded by one of the largest MTR sites in Appalachia, and he hosted many walks and events to help showcase the destruction. Many of my friends took part in Appalachia Rising and Keeper of the Mountain events, and they returned to the DC metro area with stories of a place that “looked like Middle Earth.” At the time of his death, his home, once dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, was the highest point of land in the midst of, “more than 7,500 acres of destruction of what was previously a forested mountain range.” Though he was facing near impossible odds, he fought courageously to preserve the land on which his family had lived for over three hundred years.
While I saw him periodically throughout the rest of the next two days at Appalachia rising, always visible because of his lime green t-shirt, I never did get to meet him personally. I regret missing the chance. Gibson was an ordinary man turned hero, the kind of person we all must become if we’re to stop subsequent destruction. He channeled his anger into change and became a force of nature at least equal to those tearing up the mountains around him. He opened up his home.