Climbing Kayford Mountain: Finding God & Facing Ecocide in West Virginia



The floodwaters lapped at the wheels of our Ford Escape as we left West Virginia early in the morning on Saturday, March 13. As meaningful as our experiences had been, we were still glad to be leaving the dramatic rivers and mountains and valleys that had been our home for a week.

Most of our time was spent with our crew, an all-ages collection of willing and well-meaning souls from Cookeville, living inside a beautiful old church in the Kanawha River Valley. We ate together each evening and some read books or played cards at night before an early bedtime, but by day, we worked rehabbing trailers for locals in need.

Standing in the back of one holler on a beautiful early March morning, I instantly watched the last 14 years of my life flash by as I visualized the hollers of Tennessee and the rural life I'd recently left to live in a college town full time. For some work groups, understanding the cultural contexts of rural appalachian poverty requires a kind of tolerant patience and careful orientation. For me, the distance between backwoods Tennessee and backwoods West Virginia proved unnervingly immediate.

My job that morning in a strangely familiar place was pulling out rusty staples and nails and rot -- the kind of deliberate deconstruction I'd defiantly denied myself at home for most of the last decade. While I felt a strange guilt for never having fully repaired or renovated a rotting cabin on my old communal property, dealing with this gritty labor prompted even more feelings and thoughts of a more personal nature.

In the depth and dirt of a decaying window frame, I faced some rot inside my mind, shame still contaminating my soul. But thanks to the spiritual work I've been doing for the last ten months, I had the mettle to push on, pulling at pieces of the past with each motion of the hammer or flatbar.

In cleaning that window frame from rust and rot, I faced my internal demons of desire and doubt and turned my labors and loves as well as my lusts and losses over to the God of my understanding. In the communities of recovery from addiction, in taking our own inventories, we do for our spiritual lives what this posse of Presbyterians did for the trailers of strangers who had recently become friends.

My attitude about challenges of this nature has changed in the last year. Today, I see that God graces us with grunt work and grants us gratitude in the grime and grunge. Because I had asked to cook a couple of lavish dinners for the work crew and our local host congregation, my daily work did not include so much of the physical rehab as compared to my friends. But my entire trip to West Virginia felt like a pilgrimage, an adventure of spiritual and social rehab.

On Wednesday of our workweek, some of us took the day off to visit firsthand the evidence of Moutain Top Removal (MTR), what Erik Reece calls "radical strip mining" in the subtitle of his book Lost Mountain. Because I know that my community burns MTR coal as its primary source of power, I participate in MTR even as I write this critique, just as I implicitly endorse other injustices by simply living in this society. On this trip, I desired discovery -- to see with my own eyes the first-hand evidence of what has prompted a response of moral outrage among activists and citizens across the southeast.

In his foreword to Lost Mountain, Wendell Berry writes, "To know about strip mining or mountain top removal is like knowing about the nuclear bomb. It is to know beyond doubt that some human beings have, and are willing to use, the power of absolute destruction. This work is done in violation of all the best things that humans have learned in their long dwelling on the earth: reverance, neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, love."

For much of my late teens, twenties, and thirties (I'm 42 now), I invested considerable time in radical social and political activism. As a pragmatic (as opposed to dogmatic) pacifist with a spiritual inclination, much of my activist work was invested in the anti-war movement and included periods where I was devoted to direct action. Today, I consider myself retired from that movement but still have many contacts from those days, and one of them is now living in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia with the explicit mission of getting arrested to stop MTR. I'm thankful that he invited us to visit.

While I am deeply saddened by what I see as the moral and tactical mistakes of the environmental direct action movement overall, this, for me, does not eliminate the moral necessity for resistance in certain circumstances. At the same time, we see direct action movements being harassed, profiled, targeted, and generally repressed by authorities that appear to want to forever remove the Kingian option of nonviolent resistance from the strategic lexicon of American social movements. I do think some injustices require resistance. Does MTR offend you enough to motivate some kind of social or political action?

Among the Tennessee friends I visited the action camp with, we had interesting discussions about the viability of direct action. Some folks sympathetic to stopping MTR still question the tactics that groups like Mountain Justice Summer choose. While I would not join the direct action faction of such a movement today, I understand and admire it. What bothers me is not the movement's decision to embrace blockades, treesits, and other peaceful disruptions but the spontaneous self-marginalization of anti-MTR activism as an explicitly counterculture endeavor.

As a suddenly more clean-cut recent refugee from the counterculture, this is difficult to acknowledge, much less critique. But at the site of the rough-and-tumble, ragtag collective's locus of operations, the utter lack of a remotely professional public persona could overwhelm the casual sympathetic visitor and would likely offend most everyone else. The project's messy and chaotic vibe fulfills the worst stereotypes of the treehugging alternative and effortlessly risks undermining its mission.

Since the Mountain Justice Summer movement models itself on the freedom summers of the 1960s, it seems the mountains might be worth an ethic of etiquette and sacrifice to save. While my formerly dreadlocked head cannot believe what my fingers are typing, perhaps the West Virginia mountains are worth codes of conduct at ground zero. If you are willing to give up jobs and do jail time, perhaps others' efforts to improve the functioning of basecamp and provide a modest makeover to the public face of the direct action movement in West Virginia might be worth considering.

Before we departed the Coal River Valley, we took a pilgrimage to the top of Kayford Mountain. At this summit, "keeper of the mountains" Larry Gibson maintains a 50-acre camp that has become a destination to see the damage of MTR. On family land that has been with Gibson's people since the 1700s, his ancestors are buried. Today, his land and folk are attacked and harassed by "drive by shootings, thugs threatening people's lives during our family reunion, and other forms of violence."

While it took us a while to get there, climbing Kayford mountain was worth the meandering roads & emotional incline. "Epic" cannot describe the grand contrast that awaited us there. From one summit, we saw saw the beauty & bounty of God's glorious creation unfolding before us in all its dramatic magic.

From the same site, we witnessed the grim gravity of unchecked humangreed in the grotesque mechanical destruction of divinely createdpeaks. I could not claim any moral high ground even as I stood at highground; today, I am using coal to compose this piece & seek anelusive peace in the war raging in Appalachia.

When I returned to church to face a fierce debate with one of my local hosts concerning MTR and the "outsiders" committed to stopping it, I had a hard time imagining an end to MTR before every mountain is destroyed and every ounce of coal is burned. The contrast of local sentiments in the Kanawha Valley and the revelations of my truth-seeking side-trip to Kayford Mountain and the Coal River Valley routed my soul with a rude gust of the rhetorical winds blowing through Appalachia today. The rhetorical and moral and poltical divides are as vast and auspicious as the mountains and valleys.

My moral queasiness with both the raped mountaintop and its unwashed defense committee still haunts me. Today, I cannot engage in the false dilemma of pitting one good cause against another, of being expected to choose between serving the poor and saving the planet, especially because I see a deeply spiritual component to economic justice and environmental justice. The intrinsic moral and majestic value of a mountain cannot be defined by a human economy and neither can the value of human labor and ingenuity be flattened by misty platitudes.

Only a cosmic economy of revolutionary spiritual values could bridge this chasm. Only when the defenders of coal mining and the defenders of mountains can meet at the table of humility does our culture and our country have a chance. Only when we see God in the mountains as well as in the man who mines them will we begin the painful work of peace. Until then, we will fight and pray while the machines of might continue to ruin our moutains as prey.

Resolving the crises of the 21st century -- if they can be resolved at all -- will be like climbing Kayford Mountain: getting lost along the way before the slow going, climbing against steep angles on slippery paths with plenty of mud and music and dirty water. The dirty water of West Virginia cleanses and challenges my muddy spirit as I still insist on singing the songs of hope for an "almost heaven" facing its own forms of a living hell.