Fr. Dan Berrigan once wrote a poem, “Some,” that I thought of after hearing of Appalachian hero Larry Gibson’s death two days ago:
Some stood up once
and sat down.
Some walked a mile
and walked away.
Some stood up twice
then sat down.
It’s too much, they cried.
Some walked two miles
then walked away.
I’ve had it, they cried.
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked
They walked the earth
They walked the waters
They walked the air.
Why do you stand? They were asked, and
Why do you walk?
Because of the children, they said, and
Because of the heart, and
Because of the bread.
Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.
I didn’t know Larry well, but I’ve interacted with him in a number of settings over the past several years as I’ve done what I can to act in solidarity with the movement against mountaintop removal (mtr). I spent the most time with him during the week-long March on Blair Mountain in June of 2011. Larry was with us every day of that march, wearing his neon green, Keepers of the Mountain t-shirt and driving his covered truck with its very visible signs against mtr all along the route we walked.
It really felt like Larry was watching over us, letting anyone who might be thinking of disrupting our five-days-long march that if they did so, they’d have to deal with him.
I remember Larry speaking on the evening of the second day. We were back in the Marmet warehouse near Charlestown, WV that had functioned as the organizing center for the march, forced to return there for the second night in a row because of coal company pressure leading to the cancellation of our camping locations. Larry reminded us of what we were doing and why, of the many years of struggle he and other Appalachians had endured, and ended with a call for everyone to make plans to get up very early the next morning so we could make up the next day for time we had lost. He got a rousing ovation, raising our flagging spirits and motivating us for what lay ahead. He did his job.
At another point, Larry spoke about the time many years earlier when he had been forced to the side of the road by coal trucks while riding in his truck. He described how he pulled his gun out, placed it on the dashboard, went outside and proceeded to talk his way out of this dangerous situation. He described how he asked the coal company workers if they thought their kids were going to have decent jobs in Appalachia when they grew up. Larry described how he could tell from the look in their eyes and their body language that he had gotten through, and, this time, he wasn’t hurt. The workers got in their trucks and left and he was able to continue on.
Larry didn’t just model courage. He modeled steadfastness, a kind of humble steadfastness despite his town of Kayford literally being destroyed while Larry and his family refused to sell out or give in to the coal barons destroying Kayford Mountain. I am sure that, in Dan Berrigan’s words, he was “taken for a fool” by too many who didn’t have his courage or his passion for standing and walking for what is right.
I would guess that he wouldn’t want us to get all sentimental and weepy about his passing, though I must admit I’ve cried more than once since getting the news of his death. He would want us to do what the late Judy Bonds called for, that we “fight harder.” He would want us to stand stronger. He would want us to draw strength from his example, this little man with a heart as big as the forests where he lived, worked and died for the land and its people.