Larry Gibson was perhaps the single most courageous and inspiring person I've ever met. We were lucky enough to spend a few days filming him on his little sliver of mountain in early spring 2008 for our sustainable solutions documentary, YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip. In the grand scheme of things this was not a lot of time to get to know someone, but Larry quickly leaves a lasting impression. So when I heard of his passing Sunday night it wrecked me in a way I didn't expect -- an emotional sucker punch after what has been a pretty tough summer for anyone paying attention to where our planet is headed. Perhaps spending countless hours immersed in footage of someone connects you to them in ways that sneak up on you later.
One of the most fascinating things we found on the trip was the number of people we encountered who said: "No amount of money would change what I do." There was this whole culture of people who simply couldn't be bought -- they were leading lives of incredible integrity and compassion for the planet and their fellow humans, and Larry was at the top of that pile. He was incorruptible and unstoppable -- and it certainly wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the coal companies.
We had just been blown away by the sprawling devastation of mountaintop-removal coal mining from 3,000 feet in the air and thought were ready to see it first hand on the ground. But nothing could have prepared us for the overwhelming hellscape we witnessed from the edge of his land -- just like nothing could have prepared us for the generous spirit, joyful heart, limitless courage, and cast-iron will packed into a person who, though he stood barely 5 feet, was truly a giant among men... a giant who used to look up at the mountains around him but now, had no choice but to look down on the surrounding wreckage.
He canvased the world in his familiar neon green hat and shirt shouting from the figurative and literal mountaintop about the greatest ecological crime in American history. And at home, Larry walked the walk -- how could he not? His bare-bones little cabin ran on two small solar panels that powered a single, naked lightbulb while a tiny fan harvested the convection from his modest wood stove. At the end of our interview, Larry told us what he told everyone who came up onto his mountain: "If you come here and see this and you don't do anything about it, then you've wasted my time. You have to share what you've seen, what you've heard. You have to do something to help." That stuck with us.
Here is a brief tribute to Larry I cobbled together from a few pieces of our feature film.
Screening the YERT film around the country, one of the Q&A questions I consistently hear has been: "Is that guy still up on that mountain fighting to save his land?" It was always a pleasure to be able to say: "Yes, he's still there fighting like hell." Now my reply will be: "No. It's up to the rest of us." So today or tonight or in the coming days, turn off some lights for Larry... somewhere a mountain thanks you. Then pick up his torch and hold it to the feet of our elected representatives like our lives depend on it (for indeed they do) and know that somewhere up there an Appalachian angel is smiling because you're doing something to help.
Anyone wishing to express condolences can visit Keeper of the Mountains Foundation to make a donation in Larry's honor to support mountain communities.
Ben Evans is the director and co-founder of the award-winning documentary YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip which will be released by First Run Features this fall. He lives in Louisville, KY.