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An Awful but Essential Lesson

Steve Charles—Wabash junior Nathan Rutz gave up his usual summer job at the camp where his family vacations to spend a month in a ramshackle house with a group of other young men and women trying to help the people of West Virginia save a part of their state from being literally blown from the map.

This internship with the Coal River Mountain Watch—part of a program called “Mountain Justice Summer” which seeks to end the practice of “mountaintop removal” coal mining and the damage it’s doing to people, communities, and the environment in the Appalachians—changed Nathan’s life.

It’s my job to chronicle such teachable moments. So when Nathan offered to show me around after his internship was over, I picked him up in Cincinnati and we headed for Whitesville, WV.

The folks he’d worked with greeted him with hugs. One of the researchers noted how Nathan’s “willingness to roll up his sleeves and do what needed to be done” had been a morale booster for the group. And listening to Nathan talk about the people in the Whitesville community he’d gotten to know, to enjoy, and to respect, I understood why he’d become so dedicated to this work.

But it was our trip up Kayford Mountain, to a place they call “the Gates of Hell,” that really opened my eyes to Nathan’s transformation.

He’ll articulate this all better than I in the next issue of Wabash Magazine, but here’s a moment from my own experience on the mountain that I’ll never forget:

Nathan was showing me the graveyard where the family of the mountain’s owner, Larry Gibson, are buried. He recalled Larry teaching him to walk between the headstones, never on a grave itself. This mountain is sacred ground to Gibson, who was born here in the 1950s when the family owned 500 acres. He returned in the 1980s when coal companies had acquired all but 50 acres of that land.

You can see what mining has done with that acquisition in some of the photos I took that day. Kayford Mountain is torn apart and surrounded by devastation, the top of the nearby mountains blown apart, the rumble and clanging of D9 bulldozers and the barks of diesel dump trucks the constant soundscape.

Nathan pointed across a the now desert-like valley to a mountain that looked like it had been given a mohawk.

“That’s another family cemetery,” Nathan said of the narrow band of remaining trees. He said that the mining companies weren’t allowed to surface mine cemeteries, so they had tunneled underneath this one. Some of the graves had fallen in.

A few minutes later I met Larry Gibson, the man they call “the keeper of the mountain,” and I asked him if, after years of protesting, testifying before the state legislature and Congress, and spending time in jail for acts of civil disobedience—after seeing 250 of West Virginia’s mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal mining—he still had hope that he could stop it. What I didn’t know was that only a few days earlier, 12 more grave sites on the mountain had been destroyed by mining.

“I couldn’t keep doing this if I didn’t have hope. You have to have hope.”

An note of anger rose in his voice.

”But they’ll never get this part of the mountain. This is my foothold. They’ll never get that cemetery. They’ll never get my home.”

I’ll never think of coal as “cheap energy” again.

Last summer, Nathan had a front row seat to an American tragedy of our own making, and he took the stage to try to stop it from getting any worse. He has seen mining companies and government let it all happen, seen the economic dilemma in which the people of the region find themselves trapped. He has watched a state disregard its natural and cultural heritage and put it’s own children at risk (read about Marsh Fork Elementary School) so the rest of us can keep the lights on—awful lessons but essential ones if one is to learn to live, as Wabash insists, “to live humanely in a difficult world.”

Nathan’s story will appear in the Fall 2007 issue of Wabash Magazine. Here’s a photo album from my time with him. It was, thanks to Nathan, the most teachable moment I’ve experienced in my time at Wabash.