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In Memory of Larry Gibson: 1946-2012

We present our creation myths to ourselves as though they describe a one time event. But what we are really saying, when we say God, or Raven, or Spider, or Whatever created the Universe, rested, and looked upon the creation well satisfied, was that he, she or it was pleased with re-creation. Out of nothing was born a closed loop process, one that changed, evolved, giving and taking, requiring dying for living, constantly trading a finite supply of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen from one recognizable living plant or animal form to another. Set in motion was a system of shape-shifting, turn taking, a sleight-of-hand magic by which the white rabbit pulled out of the infinite darkness of the black hat becomes a red rose, then a woman, an ostrich, a swarm of bees, becomes a giant redwood, then a swaying mass of kelp in the Sargasso Sea, an Adélie Penguin, a coatimundi, a carrot. The hand opens and closes, each manifestation a new word written on the palm. Each incarnation requires the other to exist, then not to exist. The hand opens and says barred owl. We hear a hoot and the squeak of a meadow vole. It closes, opens, and says gooseneck barnacle. We feel the cold surge of the tide, the wash of nutrients, the clamor of waves.

This hand, opening and closing, resounds as one hand clapping in the Universe. Imagine a trout. Imagine its gills sucking dissolved oxygen out of water, its air bladder regulating its depth, its ventral, dorsal and caudal fins propelling and directing, its sensitive lateral line tuned like an antenna to all aqueous frequencies, its scales slipping it through the water without friction, its accordion mouth, its eye, the marvelous colors of its camouflage. Then imagine it dissatisfied with its condition. The trout has developed a competitive and self-aggrandizing consciousness. Imagine that it desires profit from its environment, has worked out a fishy scheme to exploit profit from water by selling it. As the remaining water darkened, thickened, and shallowed, what would you say to that trout? What advice?

Imagine a bird, perhaps a bluebird, whose economic advisors extolled the marketing of air. The advisors proclaimed that the happiest bluebird would be the one who amassed the greatest fortune from the most efficient diminishment of the atmosphere.

Or imagine a worm whose perceived welfare depended on the selling of topsoil, replacing humus and minerals with chemicals and pesticides.

To imagine such a trout or bluebird or worm is to envision a political or philosophical cartoon. We know such mercenary animals are impossible. They could not and would not indulge in these behaviors, not because they are dumb, less evolved than humans, but because they are inherently, genetically, wise. Their wisdom is comprised of living in harmony with their environment, being in harmony with reality. I would be hard pressed to think of another definition of wisdom other than living in harmony with the reality of nature. We have to base wisdom in the morality and value derived from living in harmony with our ultimate reality. Imagine an oak that attempts to derive its value from selling and consuming its own roots. If the point of a cartoon is to teach, then these animal and plant cartoons teach us that there is only one un-wise, one dumb species on earth.

Last week I traveled to the coal fields of eastern Kentucky. The first warm days of spring were an exultation of blooming – daffodils, magnolias, cherries, redbud. After visiting the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County, which teaches environmental studies to children and adults from all over the state, we drove up onto a “reclaimed” Mountaintop Removal [MTR] site.

Larry Gibson Awtt Portrait
AWTT portrait of environmental activist Larry Gibson

I have written quite a lot about the environmental and cultural ravages of MTR. It was based on reading, interviews, videos and photos – and first hand panoramic observance. Last fall, from up on Larry Gibson‘s Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, I had seen the draglines working, the coal trucks hauling, the valleys being filled, the mountains sliced in cross section exposing 18-inch seams of coal.

But I had never actually walked on a site, particularly a reclaimed site, when all the explosives and machinery are gone, the valley fills are graded, the grass growing on the compacted rubble, the wind blowing, the sun shining, the access roads muddy from heavy spring rains, blue sky and billowy clouds reflected in puddles, the only sounds wind in the grass and blue jays calling from the next mountain (the one with trees), when the crude surgery is over and the traumatized patients have been left alone to “recover” in peace and isolation.

I was unprepared for how strongly I would react to being in the presence of these violently abused mountains. Instead of standing on the ridge of a healthy mountain observing distant devastation, it was reversed. I was walking on remnant, sham mountains who are being presented as proof that no harm has been done. These vast, stunted, grassy nubs have been released back into the company of their brother and sister mountains. Their bulldozed slopes sag and crack as though they have lost all muscle tone, as though they have been de-boned.

They are flaccid, pacific, the way a lobotomized person is pacific – eerily so, because they no longer have any conscious identity or will. They are neutered, gutted. Water runs right through them, polluting and flooding the towns downstream. Never again will they support the most diverse habitat in North America. No white oaks, no tulip poplars, no bears, no white pines, no goldenseal, no woodpeckers, no ginseng. Thousands of plant and animal species gone. Sterile. Heart and brain removed. Evolutionary history removed. Role in future evolutionary history removed.

These Appalachian Mountains, oldest in the world, are being rendered gravel cadavers growing green hair from their dead bodies. They are like lumpy, castrated, drugged semi-beings propped up in church to reassure their relatives and friends that everything is OK. They have the same credibility as mountains as a dishonestly elected man in a suit has as president when he lies to the people about the necessity for war. Just as he betrays democracy, these husks of mountains have been tortured to betray nature.

King Coal tells us that these wastelands are more useful than the original mountains. Prisons can be built here! Malls! Golf courses! Yes, and roses and doves can be tattooed on a dead body.

Here’s an exercise: All you need are a water soluble pen and a damp sponge. Take the pen and write the name of a favorite animal or plant on the other palm. Close and open your hand. Think of your hand as the power of evolution and the secret of creation.

Sponge off the word and write another. Each time you do it, imagine the life cycle of that animal or plant. Keep going till your imagination fails you. Do this alone or with a friend. Write on each other’s palm until tired. Remember, though, that the Earth would not run out of imagination.

Years ago, when I first heard the mysterious Zen koan that asks one to describe the sound of one hand clapping, I had no idea what it might mean, or what idea the question itself might be trying to teach. I think I do now. In every cell of every living species of every healthy ecosystem, Nature’s hand is playing this little game. It loves the sound of its own hand clapping. Opening and closing. It opens and the sound of one hand clapping is the squawk of a raven. It opens and the sound is a bottlenose dolphin clicking. Aspen leaves quaking. A fox barking. Girls singing at jump rope. An acorn dropping. A cricket chirping.

Mountaintop Removal cuts off the hand. To make this claim is not anti-business, nor is it sentimental. It’s simply reality. Nature’s reality.

We live in that hand. We live at the mercy of its ability to clap.

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