Citizens and friends of the West Virginia mountains remembered more than veterans on Memorial Day by paying their respects to the land and people. Standing with long-time mountaintop removal activist Larry Gibson near his home on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, over 60 community members and activists traveled to the top of a mountaintop removal (MTR) site in order to visit the Stover Cemetery forgotten among the ruins of Arch Coal’s Samples Mine. The action followed the annual Heartwood Forest Council gathering and Friends of the Mountains Summit for the Mountains, which focused on mountaintop removal.
Access to the cemetery is within the law, according to West Virginia resident and activist Marie Gunnoe, but last time people tried to visit it, security would not let them through the gates.
“We had to call the state police to enforce the law,” Gunnoe said. However, this time security was ready and asked each person visiting the cemetery to fill out a form, including name and last four digits of their social security number.
When everyone was accounted for, the security guards opened the gates. Lois Armstrong, an elderly lady whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery, and Sister Clara Lill, parishioner in a local church, walked through the gates and up the mountainside with the activists.
“I’m walking because I’m an inspiration to the group,” Sister Lill said. As the extreme sun and heat beat down on folks, they traveled towards the cemetery on the exposed mountainside singing “Amazing Grace.” After short breaks and lots of water, the group found the remains of the cemetery buried deep in the small forest that remains on the mountain.
Gathered in a circle barefoot among day lilies and brambles, people stood silent and listened to Mrs. Armstrong talk about her relations buried underfoot. After a moment of silence, people started sharing testimonies about the importance of the mountains.
“The time to play is over,” Gibson said. “I tell people if they aren’t going to do something, they just need to leave. This is not just my fight, either; it’s Appalachia’s fight. When they move the topsoil from this and other mountains, they move the people of Appalachia because the people are the topsoil here.”
Many tears ran down the cheeks of folks gathered from across North America as more people spoke about the importance of mountain ecosystems and mountain culture. Words of inspiration also echoed as familiar phrases from Mother Jones and Chief Seattle were shared with the group.
“When we finally stop the madness, the forest will come back,” John Johnson, a Tennessee activist, said. “The seeds of change have been planted. We will eventually stop this atrocity!”